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.

Son Muy Hombres (?)

“Are They Real Men?” Alice 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

Alice Dickerson Montemayor

Alice Dickerson Montemayor

(League of United Latin American Citizens), the oldest Hispanic civil rights group in the United States.

Alice Montemayor, who preferred being called Alicia, was born in 1902 in Laredo, long before Mexican-origin women embraced a feminist movement. After she married and had two sons, Montemayor began in 1934 as a social worker with the task of 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 in 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. Her first article titled, “Women’s Opportunity in LULAC,” 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.

It’s not clear why Montemayor withdrew from LULAC about 1940. For a while, she operated a dress shop, and from 1956 until her retirement in 1972, 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 “Mom” and later “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.

Buffalo Soldiers in Texas

During the Civil War more than 180,000 black soldiers served in segregated Union Army regiments.  Realizing that many of the black units had achieved outstanding combat records, the U.S. Congress reorganized the peacetime army to include black enlisted men in the Ninth and the Tenth United States Cavalry and by 1869 the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth United States Infantry—all under the

Buffalo Soldier National Museum

Buffalo Soldier National Museum

leadership of white officers. As these soldiers moved to posts in Texas and across the Southwest and the Great Plains, several explanations surround the Indians’ calling them “Buffalo Soldiers.”  Most accounts claim they earned Indian respect for their fierce fighting ability.  Others say the title came from a combination of the Indians’ regard for the buffalo and the black soldiers’ tightly curled hair that resembled the hair on the bison’s face. Accepting the respect of their adversaries, the Buffalo Soldiers

Crest of the Buffalo Soldier

Crest of the Buffalo Soldier

adopted the image of the bison on their regiment crest.

The army paid the black recruits $13 a month plus food, clothing, and shelter—more than most black men could earn after the Civil War.  Their enlistment was for five years and when they reached Texas they took part in most of the major Indian campaigns.  They 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.

Although thirteen enlisted men and four regiments earned the Medal of Honor by the end of the Indian wars in the 1890s, and many went on to serve in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico against Pancho Villa, by the turn of the last century the Buffalo Soldiers faced increasing racial prejudice.  Resentment and anger that developed during

Texas forts served by Buffalo Soldiers

Texas forts served by Buffalo Soldiers

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, and he received $25,000 and was honored in ceremonies in Washington, DC 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 units during WWII.  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 fifteen years later 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.

The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum was founded in 2000 as “the only museum dedicated primarily to preserving the legacy and honor of the African-American soldier.”  It is located in Houston and will honor military heroes at the 14th Annual Gala on February 28, 2014.