Black History Month–Part IV

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 began searching for more.  I found Rachel’s story in Women in Early Texas, an account written by 41NhJL7XncL._SX270_her granddaughter, Lela Jackson.  In 1852 Jim and Rachel 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.  Then, Rachel, age thirty-eight, and the children were put together on the auction block.  They were purchased by a man named Washington McLaughlin, and they began a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and others times in an oxcart.  They finally 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 time, whipped the slaves.”  At other times he gave them passes, which were required to leave his land.  If they went out without a pass, they could be whipped for being out without permission.

Just before the Civil War soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and then headed south.  One of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom,” but he 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 its 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 fire log 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.

JacketBlack 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) where her husband had been active for several years.  She resigned from teaching after nine years and devoted the rest of her life to bring 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 the strongest advocate in Texas 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.”LuluBelle

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 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.

Minnie Fisher Cunningham Paved the Way for Today

Minnie Fisher Cunningham

Minnie Fisher Cunningham

After Minnie Fisher graduated at the age of nineteen with a degree in pharmacy from the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston, she discovered on her first job that she did not earn half the wages of the less-educated male employees.  She claimed the memory of that experience in 1901 led to her life’s work of championing the status of women.

Minnie Fisher married lawyer and insurance executive Beverly Jean (Bill) Cunningham in 1902, moved to Galveston and began volunteering in local, state, and national women’s suffrage organizations.  She honed her speaking skills by touring the country urging the passage of equal rights for women and universal suffrage.  Cunningham moved to Austin in 1917 and opened the state suffrage headquarters near the capitol.  A vote in January 1919 by the Texas state legislature granting full suffrage to women failed when the referendum went before the voters.  Then, the United States House of Representatives on May 21, and the United States Senate on June 4, passed a joint resolution on the Nineteenth Amendment.  Immediately Cunningham began campaigning to secure ratification by the Texas state legislature.  On June 28, 1919 Texas became the first southern state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution granting women the right to vote.

Cunningham joined a national tour of ratification supporters saying later that she “pursued governors all over the west” urging their states to ratify the amendment.  Finally, on August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state out of the existing forty-eight to bring the total to the required three-fourths of the states necessary to amend the constitutional.

Cunningham helped organize the League of Women Voters (LWV) in 1920 and served as its executive secretary. Twenty years later Eleanor Roosevelt recalled that when she heard Minnie Cunningham speak at the LWV’s second annual convention, the speech made her feel “that you had no right to be a slacker as a citizen, you had no right not to take an active part in what was happening to your country as a whole.”

Cunningham worked for an act in 1921 designed to lower infant mortality rate and for an act in 1922 that allowed women to have citizenship based solely on their own status and not the status of their husbands.  In 1924 Cunningham experienced another eye-opener, this time regarding the need for women to get more involved in partisan politics.  Eleanor Roosevelt invited Cunningham to join the Democratic Women’s Advisory Committee to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) where Cunningham found that despite the DNC authorizing the women’s group, it refused to meet with them.  Cunningham managed to gain access to the platform committee only because of her membership in the LWVs.

In 1928 Minnie Fisher Cunningham became the first woman in Texas to run for the United States Senate.  In an effort to raise the status of women among the electorate, she ignored her colleague’s advice to assume a combative style that had colored past elections, and ran on a platform of issues advocating prohibition, tax reform, farm relief, cooperation with the League of Nations, and opposition to the Ku Klux Klan.  She lost in the state’s primary.

Working in College Station as an editor for the Texas A&M Extension Service, Cunningham became interested in the link between poverty and poor nutrition and advocated alongside the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs to enrich flour with basic vitamin and mineral content.   In 1938 she organized the Women’s Committee for Economic Policy (WCEP), which worked for a fully funded teacher retirement system.  While working in Washington for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, President Roosevelt began calling her “Minnie Fish,” a title she carried for the rest of her life.

Returning to Texas in 1944, Cunningham ran for governor in an out-spoken campaign against Coke Stevenson. To raise money for her filing fee, she sold lumber from the trees on her old family farm in New Waverly and Liz Carpenter served as her press secretary.  Cunningham lost the primary, coming in second in a field of nine.

When the University of Texas Board of Regents began in the 1940s firing professors as suspected Communists and then dismissed the university president for refusing to go along with the charges by claiming he had not disclosed a “nest of homosexuals” among the faculty, Cunningham created the Women’s Committee for Education Freedom to stand up to the regents.  She helped organize groups to support the New Deal policies and worked tirelessly for Democratic candidates such as Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, and Ralph Yarborough.

Cunningham received a guest invitation to the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in appreciation for her work in helping him carry her predominately Republican Walker County.  She financed the campaign in her county through the sale of used clothing.

Despite declining health Cunningham continued working for policies that benefited women and improved the lives of all the citizens of Texas.  She died of congestive heart failure on December 9, 1964.