Feminist/Folk Artist

Alice Dickerson Montemayor
Courtesy Hispanic Life in America

“Are They Real Men?” Alicia Dickerson Montemayor, a Mexican American feminist of the 1930s, actually asked that question in an article in the LULAC News in March 1938. Montemayor was challenging what she viewed as gender discrimination and machismo in LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), the oldest Hispanic civil rights group in the United States.

Alicia Montemayor was born in 1902 in Laredo, long before Mexican-origin women embraced a feminist movement. After she married and had two sons, Montemayor became a social worker during the Depression investigating welfare claims by Mexican Americans in Webb County. At first, she was denied a key to the office and was forced to work under a tree. Some of the Anglo clients refused to see her, and at one point tensions grew so high that she was provided a bodyguard. Although she remained in that job until 1949, perhaps it was her treatment at the beginning of her employ that prompted her to become a charter member of Ladies LULAC Laredo, one of several women’s chapters that worked separately from the men’s groups.

When LULAC organized in 1929 in Corpus Christi, it did not include women, and for a while, women operated auxiliaries. In 1933 the annual convention of LULAC “permitted Latin American women to organize on the same basis as men.” When Ladies LULAC began opening chapters, Montemayor became a charter member of the Laredo chapter and began experiencing the sexism of Mexican American men who had organized LULAC to fight for Hispanic civil rights. The men believed women should remain at home, work in the church, and stay out of politics.

Montemayor began establishing herself in LULAC by writing articles for LULAC News. In her first article titled, “Women’s Opportunity in LULAC,” she said a woman’s place in LULAC was “in that position where she can do the most for the furthering of her fellow women.” In 1937 Montemayor became the first woman elected to the position of second national vice present general, which did not sit well with some of the male leadership and led to two events that prompted Montemayor’s article questioning the manhood of some of the male LULAC members. The first incident occurred after her election when an official wrote a letter in which he said he hoped the president would soon get well because “there are those of us who hate to be under a woman.” The next grievance came when the El Paso Ladies’ LULAC wrote three letters that were ignored by LULAC’s president. In Montemayor’s “Real Men” article she said the sexism of LULAC’s male leaders reflected insecurity, not male superiority; their Latin way of thinking caused them to believe that men are superior to women in civic affairs and administrative fields. She wrote that Real Men were not threatened by sharing power with women.

When plans developed for forming a Junior LULAC she wrote a series of essays supporting the movement and organized a coed group with the belief that youth programs would help boys and girls “abandon the egotism and petty jealousies so common today among our ladies’ and men’s councils.” To further good citizenship and become prepared for future leadership in LULAC, the young people learned debate and acting techniques, took part in public service, and improved their educational skills.

For a number of years, she worked as a registrar for the Laredo Independent School District. After retirement she became a folk artist, using bright primary colors to paint Mexican family scenes, women, portraits, and landscapes. Signing her work “Admonty,” she had solo exhibits at many venues in Mexico, Chicago, Texas, and California. A year before her death in 1989, she was honored by a presentation at the Fifty-ninth Annual LULAC Convention.

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BORDER CRISIS

As this country wrestles with the devastating turmoil that has been created by our confused and cruel immigration policies, I have looked at Texas history in search of past leaders who have made hard choices in the face of serious challenges. This post recounts three leaders who had the courage to step forward when our country needed people with strength and character. As you will see, not all of them got what they worked to achieve. But they tried.

Sam Houston

Sam Houston, the hero of the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto became the first president of the Republic of Texas. He worked tirelessly to get Texas into the Union, and when it happened in 1846, Houston was appointed to the U.S. Senate. (Those were the days before senators were elected. They were appointed by legislators.) Despite being a slave-owner, Houston voted in the U.S. Senate against the expansion of slavery. As secession talk reached fever pitch, his political views brought defeat in his 1857 bid for governor. Two years later, he won the governorship despite traveling the state to warn that a war of secession would bring devastation to the South. Houston was a not an Abolitionist who wanted to end slavery. He was a Unionist, one who was opposed to secession.

After Texas seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America, Houston refused to swear allegiance to the new government. The legislature removed him from the governorship.  He returned to his home in Huntsville and died there in 1863 before the end of the Civil War proved his warnings to be correct.

Another politician who stood up to power––Daniel James Moody, Jr.––was a twenty-nine-year-old district attorney in Williamson County when the Ku Klux Klan made its resurgence across the country. Preaching white supremacy and hatred

Dan Moody

of blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, gamblers, and people who broke the law, the Klan at its peak reached a membership in Texas in the tens of thousands. Klansmen became very powerful by winning the election of a U.S. Senator from Texas, legislators, sheriffs, and judges. It also gained control of city governments in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Wichita Falls.

Lulu Belle Madison White

In 1923, the Klan sent a letter to a traveling salesman warning him to stop staying at the home of a young widow when he came through Williamson County. When he ignored their demand, Klansmen waylaid his car, wrapped a trace chain around his neck, tied him naked to a tree and flogged him fifty lashes with a leather strap. After dark, they hooked his chain to a tree on the Taylor City Hall lawn, poured tar or creosote over his head and body and left him. Since the Klan had been getting away with floggings all over the country, it was assumed that they would continue to exert their power. At the trial, the constable testified that it was the worst beating he had ever seen––“raw as a piece of beef from the small of his back to the knees; and in many places, the skin had been split and the flesh was gaping open.”

Klans across the state collected funds to retain the best legal team, including a Texas state senator and his brother. Reporters and spectators filled the Williamson County Courthouse. When the trial ended, five men had been sentenced to prison and District Attorney Dan Moody became the first prosecuting attorney in the United States to win a legal battle against the Ku Klux Klan.

Lulu Belle Madison White was not a politician, but she influenced them. She graduated in 1928 from Prairie View College (present Prairie View A &M University) with a degree in English. As a member of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), she taught school for nine years and then quit to devote her life to bringing justice to the black community. She organized chapters of NAACP all over Texas and even before 1944 when the Supreme Court found that the white primary was unconstitutional, White had started organizing a “Pay your poll tax and get out to vote” campaign. She was a strong advocate for using the black vote to force social change. She argued, “We cannot sit idly by and expect things to come to us. We must go out and get them.”

She led voter registration seminars, urged black churches to speak up about public issues without endorsing specific candidates. She pressed white businesses to hire blacks, using boycotts, protest demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns to influence change.

In 1946, the University of Texas was segregated. Prairie View A&M was the only state-support black college in Texas, and it did not offer training for professional degrees. White not only persuaded Herman Marion Sweatt, a black mail carrier, to act as the plaintiff against the University of Texas to demand integration, she raised money to pay his legal expenses. Years later Sweatt claimed that it was White’s encouragement that helped him maintain his resolve.

The victory of Sweatt v. Painter before the Supreme Court in June 1951 opened the door for Brown v. Board of Education and the march toward dissolving the color line in education.

Texas and the United States have had bold leaders. It is time once again to remember that we are a decent people who care for our young––all our young. And we are going to stand up to power when it tries to change who we are.

Even though he was not a Texan, John Denver’s song says it well:

“There’s a man who is my brother,
I just don’t know his name,
But I know his home and family,
Because I know we feel the same,
And it hurts me when he’s hungry,
Or when his children cry,
I too am a father,
That little one is mine

It’s about time we begin it,
To turn the world around,
It’s about time we start to make it,
The dream we’ve always known,
It’s about time we start to live it,
The family of man,
It’s about time,
It’s about changes,
And it’s about time,

It’s about you and me together,
And it’s about time”

Yes, it’s about time. Let’s stand tall and demand that our elected officials do the same.

Power of Black Women

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I found Rachel’s story in Women in Early Texas, an account written by her granddaughter, Lela Jackson.

In 1852, Rachel and Jim Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri. Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again. Rachel, age thirty-eight, and the children were put together on the auction block and purchased by Washington McLaughlin. He took them on a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and other times in an oxcart. They eventually settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting. Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and, at times, whipped the slaves.” At other times he gave them passes, which the law required for a slave to leave an owners’ land. If they were caught without a pass, they could be whipped for being away from their owner’s property.

Just before the Civil War soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and before they headed south, one of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom.” McLaughlin waited for several days until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people. You are free as I am. You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you.  I can do without you.”

They stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant. Finally, the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family. After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the river, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise. Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek. They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts, and got permission to milk a stray cow in exchange for raising its calf for the owner. The milk, butter, and cream stayed fresh in a bucket they lowered into a well. They moved about as the seasons changed, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners. They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums.

They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons that they heated on a log fire in the yard. Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached and used to line her quilts.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services. People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They also enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances. When someone died, Rachel and her daughter, Demmie, prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.  Rachel, who lived to ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

Black Women in Texas History chronicles the lives of amazing black females from the days when they first arrived in Texas as both free and slave—during the Spanish Colonial Period—up to their present influence on Texas’ politics and education. One of those women was Lulu Belle Madison White who graduated in 1928 from Prairie View College (present Prairie View A&M University) with a degree in English. Before beginning a ten-year teaching career in Houston, White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in which her husband had been active for several years. She resigned from teaching after nine years and devoted the rest of her life to bringing justice to the black community. She was an amazing fund-raiser and organized new chapters of the NAACP throughout Texas. Even before the Supreme Court in 1944 found that the white primary was unconstitutional, White had started organizing a “pay your poll tax and go out to vote” campaign. She was a strong advocate for using the black vote to force social change. She argued: “we cannot sit idly by and expect things to come to us. We must go out and get them.”

She sought to educate the black community by leading voter registration seminars, and she urged black churches to speak up about public issues without endorsing specific candidates. She pressed white businesses to hire blacks, using boycotts, protest demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns to influence the change.

In 1946 when the NAACP began its push for integrating the University of Texas, there was only one state-supported black college in Texas—Prairie View A&M—and it did not offer training for professional degrees. White not only persuaded Herman Marion Sweatt, a black

Herman Sweatt in line to register at the University of Texas
The Daily Texan

mail carrier, to act as the plaintiff against the university, she raised money to pay his legal expenses. Years later Sweatt claimed that it was White’s encouragement that helped him maintain his resolve. When the state offered to open a separate black university with its own law school in Houston instead of integrating the University of Texas, White supported Sweatt’s rejection of the proposal on the basis that separate was not equal and only continued the status of Jim Crow.

The victory of Sweatt v. Painter before the Supreme Court in June 1951 opened the door for Brown v. Board of Education and the march toward dissolving the color line in education. A week before Lulu White’s unexpected death in 1957, the national NAACP established the Lulu White Freedom Fund in her honor.

NORRIS WRIGHT CUNEY RISES TO POWER AFTER THE CIVIL WAR

Born into slavery in 1846, Norris Wright Cuney did not lead an ordinary slave’s life. His education and other opportunities led the way to his becoming one of Texas’ most powerful black political leaders of the nineteenth century. Cuney’s father, Colonel Philip Cuney, one of the largest landholders in Texas, owned 105 slaves and operated the 2,000-acre Sunnyside Plantation near Hempstead. Cuney’s mulatto mother Adeline Stuart was one of the colonel’s slaves, but she worked as the colonel’s chief housekeeper and bore eight of his children. Cuney’s mother made sure that he and his siblings never lived in the slave quarters or worked as plantation field hands. In fact, Cuney learned to play the bass violin and carried it with him when he traveled with his father on trading trips.

Norris Wright Cuney

During the time Cuney was growing up, his father also had a white family. About the time his father married his second wife in 1843, he also embarked on a political career as a member of the House of Representative of the Republic of Texas. He became a delegate to the Convention of 1845 that voted for Texas annexation to the United States, and he served as a brigadier general in the Texas Militia. After Texas joined the Union he became a member of the Texas State Legislature and the State Senate.

In 1853, not long after Colonel Cuney married his third wife, he left his plantation in the hands of an overseer and moved all his family to Houston, including Adeline Stuart and her children. That same year he began freeing his black children, starting with Cuney’s older brother Joseph went to the Wylie Street School for blacks in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Over the years Colonel Cuney continued freeing his children and their mother Adeline Stuart.

In 1859 Cuney and his sister Jennie were freed. Cuney went to school in Pittsburgh and Jennie sailed to Europe for her education. Jennie later passed as a member of the white community.

The Civil War disrupted Cuney’s studies, and he spent the wars years working on steamboats between Cincinnati and New Orleans where he met and became influenced by black leaders such as P.B.S. Pinchback, who became Louisiana’s first black governor after the Civil War.

After the war, Norris Wright Cuney settled in Galveston near the homes of his mother and brothers. He began studying law and took advantage of being a literate, educated mulatto son of a wealthy white man. He worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Union League during the Reconstruction-era to push former slaves to the voting booth, which resulted in more than 100,000 blacks voting annually into the 1890s. When the Reconstruction Legislature established a public school system, Cuney worked to ensure that tax money also went to black students within the segregated system.

Cuney married Adelina Dowdie, a schoolteacher, and daughter of a mulatto slave mother and a white planter father. The Cuney’s had two children, and since both parents were musical—Cuney played the violin and Adelina was a singer— art and music filled their home, and they emphasized education. Their son Lloyd Garrison Cuney, named for the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, became an official in the Congregation Church. Their daughter Maud Cuney Hare studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and became an accomplished pianist, folklorist, writer, and community organizer in Boston. She wrote Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People.

Maud Cuney-Hare

 

Over the years of Cuney negotiating with white elites and despite serious strikes, unionized blacks finally gained access as workers on Galveston’s docks.

After being elected the Texas national committeeman in the Republican Party in 1886, Cuney became Texas party chairman, the most powerful position of any African American in the South at that time. However, his position did not sit well with some Republicans in Texas and throughout the country, which led to some in the party trying to have black leaders expelled. Cuney coined the term “Lily-White Movement” to describe the Republican effort.

In 1889 Cuney was appointed U.S. Collector of Custom in Galveston, the highest-ranking position of any black man in the South in the late nineteenth century. However, Cuney’s death that year coincided with efforts across the South to disfranchise black and poor white voters. Legislatures passed laws that made voter registration difficult and Texas instituted the Poll Tax and White Primaries (only whites could vote in the primaries) that greatly reduced the number of black voters from the high of 100,000 in the 1890s to less than 5,000 by 1906. During the Great Depression, racial strife within the unions dissolved much of the labor cooperation that had been established between blacks and whites.

Despite Cuney’s legacy of inspiring other black leaders, and the designation by some historians of the period between 1884 and 1896 as the “Cuney Era,” it would take the passage in the 1960s of the Civil Rights laws before blacks across the South regained the right to vote.

Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People

The Train to Crystal City

A book written by Jan Jarboe Russell and published in 2015 by Scribner relates a chapter in Texas history that I have just discovered. I believe it deserves special attention at this time when our country is again roiling in fear of immigrants. The arrest and internment of Japanese

The Train to Crystal City, Jan Jarboe Russell

The Train to Crystal City, Jan Jarboe Russell

Ten-foot tall barbed-wire fence with guardhouse and horse patrols.

Ten-foot tall barbed-wire fence with guardhouse and horse patrols.

Americans during World War II has been well-documented, but nothing until now has been published about the program to arrest and repatriate to their country of origin German, Japanese, and Italian families.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the arrest and incarceration of Japanese, Germans, and Italians who were declared “enemy aliens.” Our country also orchestrated and financed the removal of thousands of these same families from thirteen Latin American countries. They were brought to the internment camp in Texas.

In her book, The Train To Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, Jan Russell documents the lives, the fierce patriotism, and the resilience of some of the 6,000 civilians held in the Crystal City Enemy Detention Facility. The vast majority were loyal to America. They were forced out of their homes, lost their businesses, and were never charged with any crime. The men were allowed to have their families join them in prison if they agreed to take part in a repatriation program with Germany and Japan. Although their children were born in this country, they were exchanged for other Americans––soldiers, diplomats, businessmen, missionaries, and physicians––who were being detained behind enemy lines in Germany and Japan.

The wives and children, wearing family ID tags around their necks, were shipped on trains with the curtains drawn to Crystal City, to rejoin their husbands and fathers in the dusty South Texas town that boasted the friendly moniker, “Spinach

Spinach Capital of the World

Spinach Capital of the World

Capital of the World.”

The 290-acre camp was enclosed by a ten-foot high barbed-wire fence, anchored by six towers manned by guards with long rifles. Men on horseback patrolled the perimeter, and the night searchlights were visible thirty miles away across the border in Mexico.

Fear of the foreigners, many of whom were in the process of becoming American citizens, resulted in mob attacks on businesses of Japanese on the West Coast and Germans on the East Coast. Newspaper columnists argued for American’s safety over civil rights. Politicians and military officials pressured FDR to act against these civilians. Finally, in 1944 the Supreme Court in a six to three ruling legalized the detention. Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority that the need to protect against espionage outweighed individual rights.

Russell conducted interviews with over fifty survivors, used private diaries and journals, obtained access to FBI files and camp administration records to paint a picture of a place where most of the internees did not understand why they were

School with barbed-wire fence in foreground

School with barbed-wire fence in foreground

being held but continued to maintain hope for their release. The camp was organized into ethnic communities with two-family cottages. They could choose to send their children to Japanese, German, or the federal (American) school where the students would learn English. The inmates were allowed to run their own communities, organize churches, a library, a hospital, barber shops and beauty parlors. In the summer of 1943 German internees dredged an existing reservoir to build a combination swimming pool and reservoir for irrigating the camp’s vegetable gardens. Despite the semblance of freedom, each morning they had to line up for roll call and their mail was censored. Even though they were not charged with a crime, the length of their internment was indefinite.

Large swimming pool and reservoir for camp vegetable gardens

Large swimming pool and reservoir for camp vegetable gardens

Russell chronicles the story of two teenage girls––a German and a Japanese––whose families were finally exchanged, sent back to the devastation of Germany right after the Battle of the Bulge and to Japan after the bombing of Hiroshima. She relates the story of their determination to survive and to eventually return to the United States.

Today, all five hundred buildings are gone. The site belongs to the local school district and is noted by a memorial on the foundation of one of the cottages and a nearby Texas Historical Marker.

Texas Historical Marker at the former site of the Internment Camp

Texas Historical Marker at the former site of the Internment Camp

Jim Crow in Texas

This week Austin hosted the Civil Rights Summit celebrating President Lyndon Johnson’s amazing efforts to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, legislation that changed the course of American history. The Felix Longoria Affair reveals only one painful account of life in the Jim Crow South before LBJ stood up to the practices that stained this country’s heritage.

In 1948 the remains of Private Felix Longoria were recovered from the Philippines where he had been killed while serving on a volunteer mission

Private Felix Longoria

Private Felix Longoria

near the end of World War II. His body was shipped to his home in Three Rivers, where a barbed wire fence cordoned off the Mexican section of the cemetery. When Longoria’s widow tried to arrange for his wake in the local funeral home, the director refused to allow the family to use the chapel. He claimed that at previous Mexican-American services there had been disturbances and also that “the whites would not like it.” The funeral director offered to hold the wake in the family’s home on the Mexican side of town, which was the custom in Three Rivers.

Private Longoria’s widow and her sister turned to Dr. Hector Garcia who had recently founded the American G.I. Forum, a group of Texans that worked to secure equal rights for Hispanic veterans. After Dr. Garcia received the same negative response from the funeral director that Mrs. Longoria had received, he sent telegrams to Texas congressmen asking for their support. Immediately Senator Lyndon Johnson responded, offering to arrange for the burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Word spread of the discrimination with an article in the New York Times, and Walter Winchell commented on his radio program, “The big state of Texas looks mighty small tonight.”

On February 16, 1949, the funeral service took place with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in the presence of Private Felix Longoria’s family, Senator Johnson, and a representative of President Harry Truman.

The Texas House of Representatives authorized a five-member committee to investigate the Felix Longoria affair. After open hearings at the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce, the committee decided that although the funeral director acted in anger, he had apologized, and he had not discriminated against the Longoria family. The report was never filed as committee members began to back peddle with comments such as the director’s words “appear to be discriminatory” and the director’s actions were on “the fine line of discrimination.”

The Civil Rights legislation that LBJ pushed through Congress in the 1960s began the long road toward reversal of discrimination in this country. The Civil Rights Summit of 2014 highlights and encourages the continuation of that march toward equality for all our citizens.