One of the most hated organizations—and one of the most misunderstood—in the history of Texas is the State Police, created under the administration of the Radical Republican Governor Edmund J. Davis. Often described as "snakes, wolves, and other undesirable things," they were opposed from their 1870 inception by Democratic newspapers and much of the populace. The State Police have been maligned, excoriated, vilified, and discredited by almost everyone. Yet, no extended serious investigation of the agency or its members has ever been undertaken. This adverse characterization began in the nineteenth century and has continued into the twenty-first. Not until 1969 was the prevailing perspective about the State Police challenged. Until now, no full-scale study of the force existed.
The denigration of the state constabulary follows three major themes. Two of the criticisms of the police involve its members. The first is that a majority of the personnel were desperadoes and criminals who had served terms in the state penitentiary and committed crimes of a heinous nature. The second is that due to their background, they attempted to destroy democracy by fraudulent practices, interfering in elections, costing the taxpayers exorbitant sums of money, and supporting a military dictatorship under Governor Davis. They used their official status to legally murder prisoners who attempted to escape from their custody, and oppressed Texans. The third theme is that a significant portion of the force (generally estimated at about 40 percent) was African American. (This, as we will later see, is simply untrue.)
More than four decades ago, Ann Patton Baenziger dissented from this jaundiced view of the State Police, positing that the organization did indeed have some problems but nowhere near what previous writers had suggested. The force was created for a legitimate purpose, namely, to reduce the level of violence within the Lone Star State. And, for all the previous condemnation, they were a necessary element in Texas history. Moreover, violence was so pervasive that local areas needed assistance from a statewide directed mobile unit which could legally enter any jurisdiction. The policemen could move in and out of areas, where necessary and when needed, to reduce upheaval in local communities across the state. In short, they were created to suppress crime.
What aroused the most opposition was the fact that many mistakenly believed the State Police were staffed with a high percentage of African Americans. (Some may have confused them with Special Policemen.) Policemen had the authority of the state behind them, but the idea that blacks could be endowed with police powers angered and simultaneously frightened many. Moreover, they carried weapons. As Matthew Gaines, one of two black state senators during Reconstruction declared, the real hostility was not in the "idea of placing such a great power in the hands of the executive," but by the "idea of gentlemen of my color being armed and riding around after desperadoes." African American State Policemen were often accused of "being the vanguard of a black insurrection," and as outlaws who desired to impose a new order upon the populace through coercion.
In the wake of Reconstruction, African Americans joined city police departments across the South. From Raleigh, North Carolina, to Galveston, Texas, black men saw service, no matter how briefly, in and among urban constabularies. And, not surprisingly, they performed adequately. It will amaze no one that these "colored" members faced daunting obstacles and a storm of censure in carrying out their responsibilities. But only in Texas was a State Police cadre envisioned. As Frederick Nolan, a noted biographer of Billy the Kid, remarked, until that time "there had never been any such force in any American state." One historian has contended that the organization "could well have served as a model for other southern states."
Even after redemption black policemen continued to perform in Texas (Houston, Austin, Galveston, and Bryan) and elsewhere across the South. But in the later period, after the fervor of Reconstruction had waned, according to W. Marvin Dulaney, "racial proscriptions were placed on the police powers of African Americans: black police could not arrest whites and they patrolled only areas and communities inhabited by other African Americans." At the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, blacks had "literally disappeared" from Southern police forces. Only five Southern cities continued to employ African American police officers: Houston, Austin, Galveston, San Antonio, and Knoxville, Tennessee. None served in the "Deep South" states.
Certainly, the State Police had its share of unsavory personnel. Some men were dishonest; others unscrupulous; a few, including officers of color, acted in haste. And they occasionally murdered individuals for seemingly no reason. Yet, there is but one example of a State Policeman being sentenced to the penitentiary. Republicans sometimes used the police for electioneering purposes, but mostly the Special Police performed this task as elections were of short duration. Even opponents of the State Police conceded its success in curtailing crime and apprehending criminals. When Democrats dissolved the organization in 1873, one Southern historian remarked that "brigands and assassins roamed freely once again."
As they can be the cause of some confusion, an explanation of the different statuses of State and Special Policemen is in order. At the urging of Governor Davis, the State Police were established as a state-sponsored permanent organization in mid-1870. As violence continued to plague the Lone Star State, in 1871 Davis convinced the legislature to create a subsidiary group of policemen. These Special Policemen (a maximum of twenty for each county) served at the behest of the state and were only paid when summoned in an emergency. Many historians of Texas have confused these two groups. In this case terminology is significant. Neither force performed in a manner described by previous writers, but the State Police are the major focus herein.
Another myth associated with Governor Davis, the State Police, and Reconstruction, is the number of times the chief executive declared martial law during his tenure. Discussing the problems in Lampasas County, not long before the demise of the police, Frederick Nolan contends that the Chief of Police contemplated imposing martial law in the county. This was not an option, he continues, because it had already been tried without success in Bastrop, Brown, Nacogdoches, and Smith counties. Pauline Buck Hohes wrote that Davis prescribed the same sanction for Palestine, in Anderson County, and dispatched an armed force to the area. None of this is true. Martial law was declared only in Hill, Walker, and Limestone/Freestone counties.
Violence in the antebellum years, throughout the Civil War, and during Reconstruction led state authorities to rely upon the militia, or some other citizen organization, to reduce the mayhem. Until the advent of Republican control in 1870, the majority of these efforts focused upon the Mexican border or the Indian frontier. Internal upheaval was ignored, with various administrations believing that county law enforcement officials could contain those who committed illegal actions. The establishment of the State Police was the first attempt in Texas history to decrease this non-border and non-frontier eruption. Within the state itself, although often dismissed as inconsequential, is where the vast number of confrontations occurred.
The State Police was indeed a unique organization. For the first time in American history, perhaps whether local, county, district, or state, police officers employed were black, white, and brown. The agency has been caught between old and new interpretations of Reconstruction history, but there has never been a full-scale history of this constabulary based upon the massive archival records in the Texas State Archives. With the exception of one historian, the manuscripts have remained relatively untouched. Numerous writers have condemned the policemen based on nothing more than hearsay or vile diatribes in opposition newspapers. What the sources do reveal is an entirely different story than previously presented.
The State Police have often been compared to the Texas Rangers in accounts of Texas history. Of course, the police come off as second best in these accounts. What most historians have failed to realize is that the police under Davis and the Rangers under Richard Coke discharged many of the same duties. Indeed, the charges leveled at the "governor's hounds" were similar to those aimed at the Rangers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They murdered prisoners who attempted to escape their custody, violated personal and private rights, and had no concern for individual civil liberties. (The major difference between the two organizations is that the State Police employed African Americans. The Texas Rangers did not do so until late in the twentieth century). And yet, until the past two decades, few, if any, historians condemned the Rangers for their course of action; the State Police have always been castigated.
Myths, memory, and false newspaper stories have damned the State Police of Governor Davis to a rung below that of the unspeakable, somewhat similar to the Freedmen's Bureau, the United States Army, and carpetbaggers in the Reconstruction South. Most of the history of the police has been invented from pro-Southern attitudes and repugnance to what happened in the aftermath of war, when Republican administrations attempted to integrate blacks into the body politic. Later, this was not an issue when the Texas Rangers became the official force of Democratic governors and the populace supported their efforts, even if they violated personal rights at every turn. The Rangers captured criminals and attempted to excise crime, as did the State Police during their tenure.
Because the Reconstruction era is still such a controversial period in Texas history, the State Police have been tarnished with a negative brush. Amateur and professional historians alike have been guilty of this depiction. With little research and an overreliance on newspapers that were neither reliable nor factually correct, they proceeded to paint a picture of the postwar years as a time of betrayal, lost cause apostasy, and a violation of the rights of the common citizens, when, in fact, most of the stories and reminiscences were highly exaggerated. Reliance on memory and oral accounts has not served Texas history very well.
This book is a comprehensive history of the State Police during its three-year existence. It examines the reasons why Governor Davis proposed such an organization and why he selected his original Chief of Police, James Davidson. It gives extensive treatment to the selection of policemen and how they performed their myriad duties, discussing and interpreting their conduct in every area where they were actively involved. This is a venture at an even-handed history, neither ignoring the faults, peccadilloes, or even murderous ways of individuals on the force, nor failing to point out those policemen who served honorably and carefully discharged their obligations. This is a necessary correction of past accounts.