African American Schools During Jim Crow

African American children in the South attended segregated schools that were dilapidated. They used castoff books from white schools. At times they attended classes in churches and lodge halls because the local school board did not provide buildings for black

Booker T. Washington

students. Two men worked to change all that. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist instituted a program that eventually built 527 schools in Texas and almost 5,000 across the South.

Julius Rosenwald, son of German-Jewish immigrants, became part owner in Sears, Roebuck & Company in 1895, and from 1908 until 1925 he served as president. As he wealth grew he increased his giving, especially to educational and religious institutions. His

Julius Rosenwald

friendship and work with other philanthropists such as Paul J. Sachs of Goldman Sachs led to Rosenwald meeting Booker T. Washington.

Construction Map, July 1, 1932, 5,357 Buildings,
Fisk Univ., John Hope & Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collection, Julius Rosenwald Fund Archives.

In 1911, Rosenwald wrote: “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which we have suffered and still suffer.” After Rosenwald gave Tuskegee Institute $25,000 for a black teacher-training program in 1912, Booker T. Washington convinced Rosenwald to allow part of the money to be used for a pilot program to build six schools in rural Alabama. Impressed with the results, Rosenwald donated $30,000 for construction of 100 rural schools and then he gave additional money for building another 200 schools. By 1920 the Julius Rosenwald Fund began a rural school building program for African American children that continued for the next twelve years in fifteen states, including Texas.

To qualify for the grants, which ranged from $500 for a one-teacher facility to $2,100 for a school large enough for ten teachers, the local African American community had to raise matching money in the form of cash, in-kind donations of materials, and labor. Many of the schools were built in freedmen communities where the residents were eager to offer education for their children. African American men often cut the lumber, hauled the material, and served as carpenters. The land and building had to be deeded to local authorities, and the school district had to maintain the property. The district was required to furnish new desks and blackboards for all classrooms as well as two hygienic privies for each building. Classes had to be held for more than five months of the year.

Floor plans were specific as well. The design included large windows on the east side of the building to allow for maximum natural lighting and small high windows on the west side to ensure cross ventilation while keeping out the hot afternoon sun. Many white schools adopted the Rosenwald designs because they were found to be so efficient.

During the twelve-year program in Texas over 57,000 African American students were served by almost 1,300 teachers. Black citizens contributed $392,000; white citizens gave $60,000; tax funds totaled $1.6 million; and the Rosenwald Fund contributed $420,000.

Julius Rosenwald, who died in 1932, said it was easier to make a million dollars honestly than to give it away wisely. With that in mind and in light of changing social and economic conditions, he directed that all the Rosenwald Fund be spent within twenty-five years of his death. By 1948 when the program ended, Rosenwald and his fund had given over $70 million to schools, colleges, museums, Jewish charities, and African American institutions.

Ten to fifteen Rosenwald schools survive in Texas, and some are being restored as museums and community centers. In keeping with the original fundraising efforts, citizens are raising the money to bring back these historic buildings. Women in the Pleasant Hill area are selling quilts to restore the Rosenwald School. A Baptist Church near Seguin is using the Sweet Home Vocational and Agricultural High School as their fellowship hall and nutritional center. A U-Tube video tells the story of the West Columbia Rosenwald School, which was being used as hay barn before it was restored in 2001 as a museum. The Texas Historical Commission began in the mid-1990s to inventory the Rosenwald School Building Project and to apply for listing as National Register of Historic Places.

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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.

Musical Genius Finally Recognized

By the time he was seven, Scott Joplin was proficient on the banjo and had started experimenting with the piano at the house where his mother worked as a cleaner. Born about 1867 into a musical family—Joplin’s father, a former slave, played the violin for plantation parties and his mother, a freeborn African-American, sang and played the banjo—Joplin grew up amidst music making. The family moved to Texarkana around 1875 where Joplin’s father worked as a laborer on the railroad and his mother cleaned houses.

Scott Joplin

Although several local teachers helped Joplin with piano lessons, his world opened when Julius Weiss, a well-educated German who had immigrated to the United States to teach music, heard the eleven-year-old boy play the piano. Weiss worked as the private tutor for children of a wealthy Texarkana lumberman. He offered Joplin free piano lessons, including sight-reading and skills to enhance his natural instinct for harmony.

Joplin’s father left his mother and six children over what some claim was his father’s belief that the piano playing kept Joplin from working to help with the family income. Whatever the cause, Weiss helped Joplin’s mother purchase a used piano and Joplin continued seriously studying music and practicing after school. Weiss introduced Joplin to folk and classical music, including opera, and instilled in him a desire for education.

After the death of his employer, Weiss left Texarkana in 1884, but Joplin stayed in touch with his mentor. In later years, he sent regular gifts of money, which continued until Weiss died.

For a time after Weiss left Texarkana, Joplin played piano for a vocal quartet and taught guitar and mandolin. Some accounts claim he taught at the local Negro school. In the late 1880s, Joplin became a traveling musician, playing piano where black musicians were accepted such as churches, brothels, and saloons. He returned to Texarkana in July 1891 to perform with the “Texarkana Minstrels” to raise money for a monument for Jefferson Davis, President of the Southern Confederacy. By this time Joplin’s music was called “jig-piano,” a pre-ragtime rhythm popular throughout the mid-South.

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair did not welcome black performers, but the 27 million visitors attending the fair also visited local saloons, cafés, and brothels where they heard ragtime for the first time. Many accounts credit the fair with introducing ragtime and by 1897 the St. Louis Dispatch described ragtime as “a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people.”

Joplin played in black clubs, formed his own six-piece dance orchestra, and published his own compositions, Please Say You Will and A Picture of Her Face.

He was touring Texas in 1895 when the Katy Railroad staged a train crash as a public relations stunt at a site called Crush north of Waco. The following year Joplin published The Great Crush Collision March.

He taught piano to future ragtime notables, Arthur Marshall, Brun Campbell, and Scott Hayden. He also played the violin and cornet, working at times as a cornet player with traveling bands. Financial success eluded him. The contract for Maple Leaf Rag called for him to receive one percent royalty on all sheet music sales with a minimum sale of twenty-five cents. Some versions of the story claim Joplin was the first musician to sell one million copies of a piece of instrumental music; however, later research indicates that the first print run sold 400 copies over a year and garnered $4 for Joplin. Later sales earned a steady income of about $600 a year.

In the early 1900s, while living in St. Louis, Joplin produced some of his best-known pieces, including The Entertainer, March Majestic, and The Ragtime Dance.  After the death of his second wife, for whom he had written The Chrysanthemum, he wrote, Bethena, called by some admirers “among the greatest of ragtime waltzes.”

By 1907 Joplin made New York his base for touring along the East Coast and settled there permanently as he worked on Treemonisha, a black opera that appeared to parallel Joplin’s early life. Although it is now considered one of the most important of his compositions, it failed to be recognized for its worth until Joplin received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for the first grand opera by an African American.

Joplin contracted syphilis that by 1916 caused his health to deteriorate and his playing to become inconsistent. He was forty-nine when he died in a Manhattan mental hospital on April 1, 1917 and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

In 1974, the man whose works included a ballet, two operas, a manual for aspiring ragtime musicians, and forty-four original piano pieces including rags, marches, and waltzes, finally received a grave marker. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. The following year the New York Public Library published his collected works, and his music was featured in The Sting, the 1973 Academy Award-winning movie. The biographical film Scott Joplin was released in 1977; the United States Postal Service issued a Joplin commemorative stamp for its Black Heritage series in 1983; Joplin was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987—quite a record for the son of a former slave who earned the title “King of Ragtime.”

Story of the Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldier Memorial of El Paso, Fort Bliss. Wikipedia

Buffalo Soldier Memorial of El Paso, Fort Bliss.
Wikipedia

During the Civil War, more than 180,000 black soldiers served in segregated Union Army regiments, and many of those units achieved outstanding combat records. After the war, the U.S. Congress reorganized the peacetime army to include black enlisted men in the Ninth and the Tenth United States Cavalry. By 1869 Congress added the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth United States Infantry—all under the leadership of white officers. As these soldiers moved to posts in Texas and across the Southwest and the Great Plains, the Indians began calling them “Buffalo Soldiers.” Most accounts claim they earned Indian respect––and the moniker––for their fierce fighting ability. Others say the title came from the Indians’ regard for the black soldiers’ tightly curled hair that resembled the hair on the bison’s face. Accepting the respect of their adversaries, the Buffalo Soldiers adopted the image of the bison on their regiment crest.th

The army paid the black recruits $13 a month plus food, clothing, and shelter—more than most freedmen could earn after the Civil War. The five-year enlistment meant that they took part in most of the major Indian campaigns in Texas. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at almost every fort on the frontier from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle—helping to build and repair the outposts. They escorted mail teams, stagecoaches, cattle herds, and survey crews. They built roads, strung miles of telegraph lines, and performed ordinary garrison duties in the isolated western outposts. They recovered thousands of head of stolen livestock and spent months on the trail of horse thieves and Indian raiders.

Thirteen enlisted men and four regiments earned the Medal of Honor by the end of the Indian Wars in the 1890s. Many went on to serve in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico against Pancho Villa.

Participated in the Spanish-American War Wikipedia

Participated in the Spanish-American War
Wikipedia

By the turn of the 19th century, the Buffalo Soldiers faced increasing racial prejudice. Resentment and anger that developed during Reconstruction in the South drove a wedge between citizens and anyone in a Federal uniform, especially a black man transformed from slave to person of authority. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed outside segregated communities and were subjected to increasing harassment by local police, beatings, and occasional sniper attacks. One example of the increasing tensions between white citizens occurred in Brownsville in 1906 when the newly arrived Twenty-fifth regiment was falsely accused of a murder. When members of the unit could not name the culprits, President Theodore Roosevelt followed recommendations to dishonorably discharge 167 men because of their “conspiracy of silence.” It was 1972 before an inquiry found them innocent, and President Nixon granted the two surviving soldiers honorable discharges––without backpay. When Congress finally passed a tax-free pension the following year, only one Buffalo Soldier survived. He received $25,000 and was honored in ceremonies in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.

Buffalo Soldier regiments were not called to duty during WWI, however, many of the experienced personnel served in other black units. After the Ninth and Tenth cavalries were disbanded, their men served in other WWII units. The Twenty-fifth saw combat in the Pacific before being deactivated in 1949. The Twenty-fourth, the last Buffalo Soldier regiment to see combat, served in the Pacific during WWII and in the opening days of the Korean War, before being deactivated in 1951.

In 1948 President Truman issued an executive order abolishing racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces, but it was another fifteen years before Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued a directive obligating military commanders to stop discrimination based on sex or race in facilities used by soldiers or their family.

Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston Wikipedia

Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston
Wikipedia

Bessie Coleman, Aviator

When flight schools in the United States refused to accept African Americans, Elizabeth Coleman sought aviation training in France. She became the first black female to earn a pilot’s license and the first black person in the world to earn an international pilot’s license.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman

One of thirteen children born to sharecroppers in 1892, Bessie grew up in Waxahachie south of Dallas vowing to “amount to something.” That dream was a long time in coming. She attended a one-room segregated school where she excelled in reading and math. Her father who was part Cherokee left the family when Bessie was eight and moved to Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) where he believed he would find fewer personal barriers. Bessie and the other children helped their mother with the washing and ironing that she took in and they picked cotton to add to the family income.

After graduating high school, Bessie took her savings to Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (present Langston University) but she ran out of money at the end of the first semester. While living with a brother in Chicago during World War I and working as a manicurist, she heard the returning pilots talk about flying during the war. The publisher of the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, was so impressed by Bessie’s potential that he and a local banker provided financial backing for Bessie to go to France for pilot training. She took a French language course and left for Paris on November 20, 1920.

According to Doris Rich in Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, Bessie learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet.” She went on to improve her skills with lessons from an ace French pilot before returning to New York in September 1921. She soon realized that to earn a living as a pilot, she would have to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, which required additional training. Still unable to find anyone willing to teach her, she again sailed to Europe for advanced study in France and training in Germany from one of the chief pilots at an aircraft design corporation.

For five years she wowed crowds, both black and white, that called her “Queen Bess” for her daring exhibition flying. She flew a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane, a surplus army aircraft leftover from the war. Her first appearance on September 3, 1922, on Long Island was to honor veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Later in Chicago (at present Midway Airport), she performed daredevil figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips.

Continuing with her goal of “amounting to something,” she accepted a roll in Shadow and Sunshine, a film she hoped would offer the income to finance her own flying school. However, when she realized the film opened with her wearing tattered clothing, using a walking stick, and carrying a pack on her back, Doris Duke wrote that Bessie “walked off the movie set as a statement of principle. . . She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks.”

As she traveled the country performing, she often spoke at schools and churches encouraging young blacks to consider careers in aviation. On one of her trips to Waxahachie, she refused to give an exhibition on the school grounds unless blacks were allowed to use the same entrance as whites. Her request was honored, but once inside, blacks and whites remained segregated.

Bessie Coleman and her plane, c.1922

Bessie Coleman and her plane, c.1922

became known as “Brave Bessie” for her daring stunts and was celebrated as one of the most popular fliers in the country. On April 30, 1926, she was scheduled to perform in a show sponsored by the Negro Welfare League in Jacksonville, Florida. Ignoring the concern of family and friends who did not think her Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” was safe, she took off on a test flight with her mechanic and her publicity agent piloting the plane. She did not buckle her seatbelt because she intended to make a parachute jump during the performance the following day and she wanted to be able to look over the cockpit sill to check out the landing site below. Just minutes into the flight, the plane failed to pull out of a dive, went into a spin and threw Bessie out of the plane at a height of 2,000 feet. The pilot died on impact and the plane burst into flames. An investigation revealed that a loose wrench, probably used for service, had jammed the plane’s controls.

Her death at age thirty-four came before she fulfilled her dream of establishing flying schools for black students, but she was not forgotten. Bessie Coleman Aero groups organized and on Labor Day in 1931, 15,000 spectators saw the first all-black air show in America sponsored by the Aeros. Black female student pilots in 1977 organized the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club. A street in Chicago in 1990 was renamed Bessie Coleman Drive, and Chicago declared May 2, 1992, as Bessie Coleman Day. Finally, in 1995 the U.S. Postal Service issued a thirty-two-cent commemorative stamp in honor of Bessie Coleman.

Black Heritage Stamp,1995

Black Heritage Stamp,1995

From Slave to Powerful Politician

Despite being born into slavery in 1846, Norris Wright Cuney did not live 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

Norris Wright Cuney

Norris Wright Cuney

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.

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, a delegate to the Convention of 1845 that voted for Texas annexation to the United States, and brigadier general in the Texas Militia. He also served in 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, including Adeline Stuart and her children with him to Houston. That same year he began freeing his black children, starting with Cuney’s older brother Joseph who was sent 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 with Cuney going to school in Pittsburgh and Jennie going 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 was influenced by black leaders such as P.B.S. Pinchback, who served for thirty-five days as Louisiana’s first black governor.

After the Civil 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, who was the 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—their home was filled with art and music and they emphasized education. Their son Lloyd Garrison Cuney, named for the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, became an official in the Congregational Church. Their daughter Maud Cuney Hare studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and became an

Maud Cuney Hare

Maud Cuney Hare

accomplished pianist, folklorist, writer, and community organizer in Boston. She wrote Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People (1913), a biography of her father.

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

After being elected Texas national committeeman in the Republican Party in 1886, Cuney became Texas party chairman, which was 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. Laws were passed to make voter registration difficult and Texas instituted poll taxes and white primaries that greatly reduced the number of black voters from the high of 100,000 in the 1890s to less than 5,000 in 1906. During the Great Depression racial strife in the unions dissolved much of the labor cooperation that had been established between blacks and whites.

Despite Cuney’s legacy, which inspired 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 the right to vote was restored to blacks across the South.

An account of Norris Wright Cuney’s life is portrayed in Douglas Hale’s A Southern Family in White & Black: The Cuneys of Texas.

Former Texas Slaves Serve in Civil War

Three Holland brothers—Milton, William, and James—were slaves born in the 1840s on Spearman Holland’s plantation near Carthage.  Apparently their father was Spearman’s half brother, Capt. Bird Holland.  Capt. Holland purchased his sons from Spearman and moved them to Travis County. Little is known of their early life except that Bird Holland served as a captain in the Mexican War (1846-48) until illness, probably cholera, forced him to resign and return home.  He became chief clerk and assistant secretary in the state department and in the 1850s he took his three sons to Ohio where they were enrolled in Albany Manual Labor Academy, a private school that maintained the very unusual policy of admitting both black and female students.

After Texas joined the Confederacy, Bird Holland was appointed secretary of state until he joined the Confederate Army in November 1861. Meantime, sixteen-year-old Milton was in Ohio and eagerly volunteered for the U.S. Army, only to be turned down because of his race.

Milton and his older brother, William, may have joined a group of blacks that formed the Attucks’ Guard, which was named for Crispus Attucks, the first man (who was also black) killed in the Revolutionary War.  The Attucks Guard marched to the governor’s mansion in Albany to offer their service, but they were turned down.  It was not until June 1862 that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton allowed black Americans to enlist and even then they had to serve in separate units commanded by white officers with less pay than white soldiers.  And, they were not allowed to rise above the rank of the non-commissioned officer.

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform

While Milton waited for his opportunity to join the military, he used the skills he learned at the Albany Manual Labor University to work as a shoemaker for the quartermaster department.  In June 1863 he joined the Fifth United States Colored Troops, and his older brother, William, joined the Sixteenth United States Colored Troops.

Although both brothers fought in several battles, it was Milton who rose to the rank of sergeant major.  In late September 1864 while engaged in hand to hand combat at Chaffin’s Farm and then at New Market Heights, Virginia, all the white officers were either killed or wounded. Milton and three other black soldiers led the troops in routing the enemy and securing a victory that opened the door to nearby Richmond.  Despite being wounded in the charge, Milton Holland continued to lead his men.  For his extraordinary service Milton Holland was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865, one of sixteen black soldiers in the Civil War to receive this country’s highest honor.  Although he had been promoted to captain

Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor

Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor

in the field, the U.S. War Department refused to honor the commission because of his race.  Ohio’s Governor David Tod offered to commission Holland as a captain if he would agree to be reassigned to another regiment as a white man.  Holland refused the offer, declining to deny his racial identity.

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor.  Courtesy of Rob Lyon

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon

During the war Milton’s father and former owner, Bird Holland, had risen to the rank of major in the Confederacy.  While serving during the Red River Campaign as head of his regiment in the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, Bird Holland was killed.

Milton mustered out of the army and settled in Washington D.C. where he worked as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department and studied law at Howard University, graduating in 1872.  He established a law practice, remained active in Republican politics, held offices in two black-owned banking businesses, and founded the Alpha Insurance Company, one of the first black-owned insurance companies in the country. After his death from a heart attack in 1910, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

William Holland

William Holland

Milton’s brother William attended Oberlin College, returned to Texas and taught in several Texas schools, and held a position at the Austin post office.  After moving to Waller County, he was elected to the fifteenth legislature where he sponsored bills establishing Prairie View Normal College (now Prairie View A&M University) and The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth, where he was superintendent for eleven years.

Born into slavery, both brothers served the United States with honor as freedmen.