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.

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Former Texas Slaves Serve in the Union Army

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 who purchased his sons from Spearman and moved them to Travis

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform, c. 1863 or '64 Wikipedia.

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform, c. 1863 or ’64
Wikipedia.

County. Little is known of their early life except that Bird Holland freed his three sons in the 1850s and enrolled them in Albany Manual Labor Academy, a private school in Ohio that maintained the very unusual policy of admitting both black and female students.

Bird Holland, who had served as Texas Secretary of State, joined the Confederate Army in November 1861. Meantime, sixteen-year-old Milton 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 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, receive less pay than white soldiers, and be commanded by white officers. And they were not allowed to rise above the rank of non-commissioned officer.

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

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon c. 1865

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon
c. 1865

service he 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. He was promoted to captain in the field, but 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.

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

Milton Holland 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.

Milton’s brother William attended Oberlin College, returned to Texas, 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.