Black Texas Women: 150 Years of Trial and Triumph is a history focusing on the prolonged and still continuing struggle of black Texas women who have resisted oppressive institutions, people, and laws and built their families, communities, and careers from the ground up. Their story weaves two strands of history that are only now being told—black history and women's history. Because black women have been so largely left out of both these stories, a special focus is obviously needed.
Brave Texas women have used violence, stealth, the legal system, and political strategies to protect themselves and their loved ones. While the private lives of most women occur within their family settings, those stories remain closed to the public eye. This book concentrates on the bold and creative initiatives women have taken primarily in the public sphere. Here you can read about the "ordinary" women and the headline-makers, the forgotten and the famous. But this is not just a compensatory or remedial history—it is history as viewed from the perspective of black women, in their own words, wherever possible, using their ideas, their writings, and their actions to illuminate their lives.
Black Texas Women actually covers a bit more than 150 years. During the Spanish colonial period, free women of color lived, owned land, and worked in Texas. Their status changed radically when the antislavery Mexican regime gave way to the proslavery Republic of Texas. Some of the first and most poignant documents about black Texas women are their petitions to the Texas Congress and later the legislature for the right to remain and work in Texas under laws that limited their freedom. The signatures of white citizens on their petitions show the importance of the work the women did as nurses, cooks, and laundresses—traditional women's jobs which have been so undervalued, so underpaid, so ignored by history.
Domestic labor is a theme that recurs often in Black Texas Women. When other economic avenues have been closed to them, black women have fallen back on essential skills such as caring for children, washing, and cooking. Such work was parlayed into access to food and goods, into income for a move to town, into an independent small business, into a salary and perhaps benefits at an institution. It could even become the basis of labor organization—as in Galveston in 1877 or Nacogdoches in the 1970s and 1980s. The importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in ending job segregation can be gauged by a startling statistic: three-fourths of black Texas women worked at service jobs before the act; by 1980, that figure had fallen to one-third.
The ways that black women have prepared themselves to break out of the domestic labor ghetto are also very important in this history. From female house slaves who learned to read and taught slave preachers to read the Bible, to the vast numbers of black women who founded and ran schools at all levels from emancipation to the present, to black cultural leaders and artists, black women have shaped a mass movement to lift their own communities by their bootstraps (or apron strings).
The need for blacks to improve conditions for themselves and for their own communities has been very great. With few exceptions, white society not only gave the black citizens of Texas nothing during all this history, but also conspired to take everything from them—their freedom, the profits from their labor, their land, their civil rights, and their dignity and self-respect. At every turn, black women with their men and children have resisted in whatever ways came to hand. Free women of color who were forbidden to stay in Texas remained anyhow. Slave women sometimes ran away, sometimes killed their enslavers, and resisted by keeping as much of their culture and family together as they could. One of the great acts of resistance after emancipation was the refusal of freedwomen to return to work in the fields under an overseer; their insistence on spending time at home with their families led to transformation of the plantation system.
Anyone who thinks government has done too much for black people in the United States need only examine this history to see that the reverse is true. Even during the brief flowering of Reconstruction, the federal agents whose job it was to protect freedpeople and negotiate labor contracts for them were very few and almost powerless. Most of the courts were so biased that a black woman could be sentenced to two years of forced labor for failing to return a nightgown from a load of wash. When white supremacists conducted guerrilla warfare against blacks trying to exercise the franchise, government turned its back for a hundred years.
During this long period of injustice, black women were far from passive. They protested Jim Crow by sitting in "whites only" railroad cars; they demonstrated against lynching; they worked for women's right to vote and against the all-white Democratic primary; they struggled to integrate public schools, colleges, and all public facilities; and they pressed for better jobs. Less dramatic than the wars beloved by male historians, the community-building contributions of women and women's organizations have been seriously underrated. They established institutions like churches, community centers, old folks' homes, nurseries, lodges, mutual insurance companies, mothers' clubs, civic and voters' leagues, and whatever others they recognized were needed. Their club movements paralleled the white women's club movements from which middle-class black women were barred, but with the added focus enshrined in the National Association of Colored Women's motto: "Lifting As We Climb." For black women, with few resources and little political clout, this very persistence toward their major goals has been heroic.
I first came to appreciate in some detail this heroic quality of many black women's lives more than ten years ago. This book is the result of my growing commitment to including black women in the history of Texas. From 1978 to 1981, I was research director for the Texas Women's History Project. When Ann Richards, now governor of Texas, visited the institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio with her children, she noticed the near-total absence of women in the multimedia show projected on the ceiling. She tapped Mary Beth Rogers to remedy that gap in popular history. The result was Texas Women—A Celebration of History, a 500-running-foot museum exhibit that toured the state for two years, sponsored by the Foundation for Women's Resources, and is now permanently housed at Texas Woman's University's Mary Evelyn Blagg Huey Library. Portable versions of the exhibit are still available from the Institute of Texan Cultures.
One of my primary concerns was to make sure the exhibit reflected the multiculturalism of Texas. I was especially aware of black women's history because of my experience writing an oral history with Mrs. Annie Mae Hunt of Dallas. Mrs. Hunt's recollections encompass not only her own varied life, but her parents' and grandparents' histories, dating back into slavery. Our collaborative work, I Am Annie Mae: The Personal Story of a Black Texas Woman, has taken on a life of its own, selling thousands of copies. Naomi Carrier, a black composer from Houston, and I began working together to fashion a musical from the book in 1984, and that, too, continues to be popular both in Texas and out of state.
The exhibit staff for Texas Women—A Celebration of History had such difficulty finding information about black women that I realized the need for a book and archives, too, and started collecting materials. We not only made a special effort to conserve and preserve information about black women but about Hispanic, Native American, and immigrant women, as well. Part of our organizing strategy included making a timeline of cards, so we could see the sweep and development of women's history as a process. Associate curator Frieda Werden and I began keeping a second set of the timeline cards relating to black history and black women's history, so we could make sense of that strand in the web. By the time the exhibit was completed, we realized we had a unique resourcethe spine for a future publication on the history of black women in Texas. Some of our preliminary findings were included in my next book, Texas Women, a Pictorial History: From Indians to Astronauts (Austin: Eakin Press, 1986; rev. ed. Governor Ann Richards and Other Texas Women: From Indians to Astronauts, 1993). However, we thought there was enough material to begin a major history of black Texas women.
In 1986, as curator for a sesquicentennial exhibit sponsored by the Museum of African-American Life and Culture in Dallas, I next had the opportunity to focus on the lives of black Texas women. That exhibit, They Showed the Way, featured some one hundred women from around the state and continues to travel throughout the area. Research for the exhibit indicated the need and the possibilities.
One of the difficulties in compiling the research for this book has been the scarcity or unavailability of information on which to draw. The fragments are scattered and often difficult to obtain. Here is a challenge for today—to locate those records still hiding in attics, dresser drawers, antique chests, and musty suitcases, to preserve records of churches, clubs, and institutions, and to deposit these materials in accessible libraries. The life stories of many of the most significant women in our state's history cannot usually be found in public archives. It is also important to begin a systematic oral history program to interview the older members of the community before their stories are lost forever.
This has been a labor of love. What black Texas women have wrought in their "150 years of trial and triumph" is truly fascinating, and the job of piecing their story together has been uplifting. Black Texas Women: 150 Years of Trial and Triumph is of necessity an incomplete document. No one book, certainly not the first, can include every significant woman or get everything right. My attempts to get beyond my own cultural framework can only go so far, as well. I hope that what follows may inspire some readers to recognize the richness and importance of black Texas women's history and to go forward with in-depth scholarship, as well as stories for children, biographies, curriculum units, plays, films, television and radio programs, and more.
There is a crying need for full-length scholarly (and popular) biographies of many of the women highlighted here, along with articles, theses, and dissertations about specific topics, such as the black women's club movement. There is enough work to keep dozens of graduate students occupied for decades. The materials I have collected over the past fifteen years are deposited at the Center for American History (formerly the Barker Texas History Center), part of the University of Texas at Austin library system. Major archival searches of black Texas women's records should be made at the headquarters of the National Association of Colored Women, the National Council of Negro Women, and the NAACP in Washington, D.C., and in the papers of Mary Church Terrell at the Library of Congress. All the historically black colleges in Texas have materials which are worth examining. Surveys could be made of records housed in community institutions like YWCAs, churches, and sorority houses.
Black women represent a tremendous resource for this society. To neglect or downplay the significance of their history and the breadth and wealth of their talents is a luxury we can ill afford. They confronted one of the harshest systems the world has ever known and survived with their spirits intact, bringing others along with them and showing the way for still more to follow. They serve as role models for all of us.
August 26, 1993
Mary Madison's Galveston neighbors considered her "a very valuable citizen, in a variety of ways: especially in the capacity of a nurse." Eighty-two of them, many of whom had probably "experienced her kindness, her attention and watchfulness," signed a petition in 1850 for her to remain in the state and enjoy the "little property" which she had accumulated. Her request was one of the few granted by the Texas legislature.
Mary Madison's petition is a sample of the rare documents that preserve scraps of information about the lives of free women of color in Texas before the Civil War. She was one of many courageous women who resisted the law and struggled to protect themselves and their families. They used a variety of strategies, including the right of petition and the judicial process, to avoid being sold into slavery or banished from their homes. Many defied the law; when their petitions were denied, they remained anyway. Some women purchased their own freedom; some were purchased by their black husbands. Others married or became the concubines of white men or served so loyally that they were emancipated by their owners. This theme of resistance by black women would resonate through the history of the state.
Although the numbers of free blacks were much more significant in the Old South, Texas had enough to count. At the time of the Texas Declaration of Independence, an estimated 150 free blacks lived in the new republic. (Most antebellum African-Americans were, of course, slaves.) The 1850 census reported 394; ten years later, the figure was 355, including 174 women living in forty counties. Historian Randolph Campbell believes that the actual number of free people of color was probably double that counted by the census.
The rights of free women of color in Texas varied with the flag. Some free people of color were drawn to colonial Texas by the antislavery position of Mexico, the lure of the land, and the greater freedom of the frontier. The women employed their domestic skills as nurses, laundresses, cooks, house servants, seamstresses, boardinghouse keepers, stock farmers, and milk women. Some used their earnings to become prosperous business women, property owners, and even slaveholders. Since children took their legal status from their mothers, the children of free women were also free.
Despite their contributions as pioneers, free people of color were legally unwelcome from the days of the Republic of Texas. Slaveholders were apprehensive because free people of color constituted a threat to some of their most cherished assumptions—that whites were racially superior and that blacks were incapable of self-government. The Marshall Texas Republican editorialized that "free Negroes are certainly a most obnoxious and dangerous population ."4 Whites feared that free people of color might entice slaves to run away or rebel, but scholars have found no evidence of this.
Under Spanish and Mexican Rule
Among the first Africans in Mexico were men who arrived with the Spaniards in the mid-1500, like the famed Esteban, a slave who was the translator for an early expedition which included Cabeza de Vaca. They often married or took as mates Native American and Spanish women. As sovereignty over Texas passed from Spain and Mexico to the Anglos, some slave and free black Spaniards and mulattoes and their descendants lost their identity in the census records and were absorbed into history as persons with Spanish surnames. Among the earliest colonists were free women of color. An official Spanish census of Texas in 1792 counted 167 female mulattoes and nineteen female Negroes, a mixture of slaves and free citizens.
Since Spain recognized free people of color, Mexican Texas became a haven for runaway and freed slaves from the nearby United States South. This kind of immigration was fueled by word of mouth and continued even after Texas independence. Felipe Elua, a Louisiana creole and slave, purchased himself and his wife, Mary Ortero, a mulatto, and their children. In 1807, they settled in San Antonio to become landowners and farmers, educating their children in Spanish and French. Another fifteen male and female Negroes were recorded in Nacogdoches in 1808, where they had fled from North American masters.
Antislavery sentiment and equality for all people surfaced as major issues when the multiracial Mexican populace rebelled against Spain. In 1821, Mexico negotiated a treaty of independence that promised citizenship along with equal rights and opportunities for all Mexican people, even though it also made Catholicism the official and only tolerated religion. For the next fifteen years, Mexico (including the state of Coahuila and Texas) passed a number of ambiguous and contradictory measures relating to the legal status of slaves. Nevertheless, opportunity for free black immigrants from the United States in Texas reached its peak during Mexican sovereignty.
The main attraction of Texas—cheap and good land—convinced many Anglo colonists to brave a few legal problems with regard to slaves. The new colonists were skillful in negotiating the everchanging legal system. In 1823, Stephen F. Austin received approval from the newly independent Mexican government to bring settlers and their slaves from the United States. The "Old 300" colonists included slaveholders and slaves, but also a few free people of color: Lewis B. and Sarah Jones, Samuel H. Hardin, and Greenbury Logan. Lewis and Sarah Jones emigrated to Texas in 1826 from Mississippi, along with their two daughters. The barber Samuel H. Hardin married Tamar Morgan in 1838. She came to Texas as a slave in 1832, but purchased her own freedom with the proceeds of her labor. By 1840, this industrious Brazoria County woman had accumulated four town lots, one hundred acres, and four slaves. Greenbury and Carolyn Logan were another Brazoria County couple. He came to Texas in 1831 and purchased Carolyn's freedom with earnings from his blacksmith shop. He was granted legal title to land in Brazoria County. After he was wounded fighting for Texas independence, the couple operated a tavern, boardinghouse, and retail store in Columbia, the first capital of the Republic.
Some free women of color were married to whites. In 1828, David Towns moved from Louisiana to Nacogdoches with his wife, Sophia, and his family, who were also his slaves. He manumitted them, and they lived together in harmony, alongside their Mexican neighbors. Other white husbands manumitted their slave wives (or concubines) in their wills.
Celia Allen sought the legal assistance of William B. Travis, later a hero of the Alamo, to help protect her status as a free woman in 1833. Her owner had emancipated her along with her four children, but a prominent pioneer, William H. Jack, claimed her as a slave. With Travis's help, she won the case and lived free until her death in 1841. Her estate at that time was valued at $214.65 and included two horses, seven head of cattle, several pigs, two feather beds, and kitchen utensils.
Some single women came to Texas already free. The most famous, Emily D. West, is better known as Emily Morgan, "The Yellow Rose of Texas." A native of New York, she came to Texas with Mrs. Lorenzo de Zavala in 1835. When General Santa Anna was on his way to fight Sam Houston's forces in 1836, Emily took refuge with the de Zavalas at James Morgan's home. There the general captured her. Texas myth credits her with ensuring Houston's victory during the Battle of San Jacinto by sending word of Santa Anna's whereabouts and "distracting" him while his enemies approached. Her passport application to return home stated that she had lost her freedom papers on the San Jacinto battlefield. She is said to have returned to New York in 1837. Few academic historians credit the myth, although there was an Emily D. West who applied for a passport back to New York.
Under the Republic of Texas
Free men of color fought in the Texas wars for independence, including the first Texan to shed blood, Samuel McCullough, Jr. In gratitude to those men, the Provisional Government recognized as citizens all free Negroes living in Texas in January 1836. But by March, a change of heart among the revolutionary leaders had taken place. Under the new constitution, they forbade free people of color from residing permanently in the Republic "without the consent of Congress." Those who could not obtain congressional consent were supposed to leave Texas. Those who remained lived in constant fear of banishment. In June 1837, President Sam Houston signed a joint congressional resolution permitting free blacks who had been in Texas on March 1, 1836, the day before the signing of the Declaration of independence, the privilege of remaining "as long as they choose." An estimated 150 free people of color qualified.
Free people of color did not have full rights of citizenship. They could not vote, serve on juries, hold office, or be witnesses in criminal cases against whites. When Ann Tucker, a free woman of color in Houston, was stabbed by a white man, the case against him was dismissed because all the witnesses were Negroes. Free blacks were also barred by law from stealing slaves, enticing them away from their owners, or harboring runaways. In fact, some women of color, like Tamar Morgan and a woman named Rhoda, owned slaves. In 1837, Rhoda petitioned the Austin County sheriff to seize John F. Sapp, whom she accused of stealing her slave George.
In some instances, slaveholders granted freedom to a favorite slave through deed or will. Many of these were white men wishing to free their slave concubines and children. But even these wills were often challenged. In 1837, Sylvia Routh received freedom through the will of James Routh, who left her and her six children 320 acres of land and money for the children's education, perhaps because he was their father. In 1838, the executor of the estate, Colonel James Morgan, had Sylvia jailed, claiming she had become unruly and refused to submit to his authority. The length of her stay in jail is not known; but in 1843, she petitioned the probate court, which granted her formal guardianship of her six children and title to the land.
Aside from the laws, racist attitudes could be very punitive, as in the case of Puss and John Webber. Around 1839, Puss Webber lived near Austin in the area that became known as Webberville. Puss had a child by Dr. John Webber, a neighbor of her owner, so Webber bought her and the child, took them home, and acknowledged them before the world. They may not have married, but they lived as man and wife and apparently had more children. Puss befriended the sick and orphaned, neighbors and strangers alike, including local Tonkawa Indians.
Noah Smithwick, an observer of the period, recalled that "the [white] ladies visited Puss sometimes, not as an equal, but because they appreciated her kindness.... she flew around and set out the best meal which her larder afforded; but neither herself or her children offered to sit down and eat with her guests, and when she returned the visit she was set down in the kitchen to eat alone." Since the Webber children were not allowed to attend school with the Anglo children, Dr. Webber hired an English tutor. The neighbors complained about the effect such an elite education would have on local slaves and threatened to mob the tutor. They also coveted Webber's prosperous land and improvements. They finally became so belligerent he was forced to sell out in 1851 and move his family to Mexico, "where there was no distinction of color."
Occupations of Free Women of Color
Most free women of color for whom records can be found worked respectably and gainfully in the cities and small towns of Texas. Charity Bird, the wife of John Bird of Jefferson County, supported herself "by baking cakes and vending them," competing successfully with another baker in 1839. Her business was so profitable that she treated herself to a vacation back to the United States. Fanny McFarland, a laundress, became wealthy through real estate transactions. Other women kept boardinghouses—for example, Margaret, the free concubine of a white man, Adam Smith.
Several free women of color who were emancipated managed their new estates. June inherited the entire estate of her late master, William Smallwood of Harris County, in 1844. In nearby Galveston, Betsy became an heiress following her emancipation and the inheritance provided in the last will of her Galveston owner, David Webster, in 1856. Other prosperous landowners included two widows—Harriet McCullough Reynolds of Jackson County and the Widow Ashworth of Jefferson County. The 1860 census valued Reynolds's herd of 6,000 cattle at $3,300 and Ashworth's land at $11,444.
More Laws and Ordinances
In December 1838, Sam Houston was succeeded by a new president of the Republic, Mirabeau B. Lamar, and Houston's moderate attitude was replaced by Lamar's racist antagonism toward Indians, Mexicans, and free blacks. In February 1840, the Texas Congress set a deadline to accompany the constitutional exclusion of free people of color: all "free persons of color" were to leave Texas by January 1, 1842, or be sold into slavery. This restrictive law was designed to "rid Texas of free Negroes forever."
In May 1840, President Lamar instructed county sheriffs and constables to enforce the laws against people of color. Yet free Negroes continued coming to Texas, and many filed their emancipation papers with their county clerks. Most already in residence disregarded the law and remained undisturbed. There was a scarcity of women in nineteenth-century Texas, and those with skills like laundering and nursing were highly valued. Free people of color may have been legally condemned as a group, but they were welcomed as individuals by their neighbors and customers, who knew them best.
One of Sam Houston's first acts when he became president again in December 1841 was to provide a breathing spell for free people of color. He postponed the effective date at which they had to leave, first to 1843, and then to 1845. During this period, they could request a postponement from the chief justice of their county. In 1843, Ann Tucker took advantage of this brief window of opportunity, obtained permission from the Harris County chief justice, and remained until her death in 1846.
The Texas Congress usually ignored or rejected petitions for the right to remain in Texas, but these filings give interesting glimpses of the petitioners' lives. The earliest legislative petition by a free woman of color was probably filed in 1839. Citizens of Brazoria County signed a request that Tamar Morgan and her husband, Samuel H. Hardin, an original settler from Austin's colony, be exempt from the law and be allowed to remain in the Republic. Morgan had bought her own freedom in 1832, and the couple had married in 1838. The petitioners vouched for their industry and noted their property investments. That petition was granted .
In 1840, five citizens of Rutersville, "well acquainted with the old Free Black Wooman Patsey," petitioned the Congress on her behalf, because "she is honest, and mindes hur own bisaisn [sic] ... and we believe She will do no harm by being purmitted to remain in the Republic." The petition was ambiguously endorsed "inexpedient and unnecessary." If she came to Texas prior to the Declaration of Independence, the petition was unnecessary. If she came subsequently, Congress might have deemed any action inexpedient. In any case, these kinds of situations were confusing and kept free people of color in legal limbo.
Three Houston washerwomen filed petitions in 1840, too, but all were unsuccessful. Congress refused to act on Diana Leonard's petition. Fanny McFarland claimed her right to stay because she had been living free in Texas during the exempt period. She had been freed by her master in 1835, but her four children were still slaves. Although Congress refused her petition, she remained in Houston anyway until her death in 1866.
Zelia (Zylpha) Husk, a Houston laundress, whom historian George Woolfolk called "one of a number of extraordinary Negro women who found both freedom and opportunity in Texas," petitioned twice. Her first petition in 1840 alleged that she had arrived before the Declaration of Independence, but it turned out that she had not. The second petition, in 1841, said that the Georgia native "emigrated to this country about five years hence.... [and] that the law requiring all of her condition to leave the country on or before the first of January  next would bear heavily upon herself and her daughter Emily Husk about thirteen years of age, inasmuch as she would not know where to go if driven hence, having always been obedient and respectful of the laws for evidence of which she refers to the annexed certificate of the citizens of Houston." Her fifty endorsers declared that they had known her for two or three years and that she "conducts herself well and earns her living by honest Industry in the capacity of Washerwoman." Husk's petition was denied, but she, too, stayed.
Another law made it illegal for owners to free their slaves without Congress's permission. During the years of the Republic (1836-1845), slaveholders submitted fifty requests for the manumission of thirty-eight slaves. Congress refused all but two. However, many owners emancipated their slaves without regard to the law, apparently in the belief that free blacks who gave no trouble would be left alone to live in an ambiguous zone between slavery and freedom.
The first of these petitions was presented in 1838 on behalf of Moriah and her two children. Slaveholder Joseph Walling petitioned to emancipate them because of "conscientious scruples" and also because "said woman has long since made to me full and ample satisfaction for her freedom." In 1841, a Montgomery County woman in her eighties, Peggy Rankin, petitioned the Congress to manumit her slave Sinez and her three children because of Sinez's lifetime of kindness to Rankin. Both of these petitions were refused, along with almost all subsequent ones. Sinclair D. Gervais, however, successfully emancipated his slave Peggy in 1838 "on account of her faithful behavior."
Under the State of Texas
After Texas became a state in 1845, the new Constitution granted the legislature the power to pass laws allowing owners to emancipate their slaves, a power which it never exercised. Nevertheless, slaves were still being freed. Colonel Philip Cuney manumitted his slave Adeline and moved her and their children from their Austin County plantation to Houston.
A few free women continued to run afoul of the restrictions passed during the Republic, which remained in force after statehood. In 1846, Lovinia Mansell and her three children petitioned the legislature for the right to remain. She claimed that she was ignorant of the law when she immigrated to Texas in 1843 and that she could not now leave "without great expense and inconvenience." The bill covering her case was defeated, but she "continued her residence unmolested."
in some cases, the existing law was used as a legal subterfuge. In several strange cases, slave women were sold to white men who acted as their trustees and protectors, allowing them to live freely. For example, in 1847, Cynthia Annie Meriwether Ewing sold a woman named Lyle to Thomas Bagby, a Houston cotton broker, and two other men, for four hundred dollars. The men permitted Lyle to go free while they tried without success to get legislative permission to emancipate her.
Many free people of color lived in the towns and cities. Local lawmakers, most of whom owned slaves, passed local ordinances to prevent the growth of a free black population. Galveston passed a law in 1846 requiring a five-hundred-dollar bond from free persons of color, supposedly to ensure that they would not break the peace or become vagrants. They were also required to live "under the protection of a respectable white man" or pay seventy-five dollars a month for the privilege of renting their own homes. In 1855, the Houston City Council passed an ordinance requiring free blacks to obtain permission from the board of aldermen to rent a house. Also required were a $1,000 bond and a $2.50 monthly permit fee. The laws were not always observed, and most were eventually repealed.
A few free women of color won striking and unusual legal victories, both during the period of the Republic and during early statehood. In the fall of 1838, Sally Vince filed suit against Allen Vince in Harris County, charging him with holding her in slavery. Her owner, William Vince, Allen's brother, had executed a deed in 1834, granting her freedom at his death. Upon William's death, Allen claimed Sally, saying that William had owned only a one-third interest in her. The court ruled that Allen Vince had no right to Sally and ordered "that she go hence free and liberated from all custody or control by the said Allen Vince and recover of him all costs."
While the political climate for free people of color was not much improved by statehood, a few women successfully defended their freedom during this period as well. In 1846, the legislature passed a law providing punishment for those who sold free persons into slavery. A woman named Emeline hired a Houston law firm in 1847 to file a petition, saying she was a "free Negress" who had been restrained and held as a slave, along with her two children. She and her children were freed by a jury composed mainly of slaveholders, who awarded her damages of one dollar.
An Act to Establish "Voluntary" Slavery
As the Civil War drew near, the Texas legislature came up with a novel approach to the anomaly of free people of color. In 1858, it passed an "Act to Permit Free Persons of African Descent to Select Their Own Masters and Become Slaves." The enslaved person would thus be legally allowed to remain in the state and would become free of debt and all liens or judgments made prior to the enslavement. Some chose this route—or had it forced upon them. In November 1858, two free women of color in Fort Belknap, Rachael and Anarcha, petitioned the district court of Young County, saying "they wish to be made slaves for life" and choosing as their master Major George H. Thomas, "a man of good character and a humane Master." The petition was granted, and Thomas was directed to pay court expenses of thirty dollars. Toward the end of 1860, the Bastrop Advertiser noted the voluntary enslavement of a free Negro woman and her family of six children in San Augustine, who preferred slavery to being banished to a free state. "The whole... case was fully explained to her. She was told that she was liable to be sold for debt. She said she understood the case fully and her mind was settled."
In Travis County, Rachel Grumbles also voluntarily enslaved herself. The story was recalled by her son, James Grumbles, in the 1930s in a narrative transcribed in dialect. He said that when the new law was passed, his mother was put in jail at Austin in 1858 "until she would choose a guardeen [guardian]." She chose Aaron Burleson, a local owner of about twenty-five slaves. "He wouldn't allow no patrols on his place and dey had better not whoop any of his slaves." Rachel worked for Burleson primarily as a nurse, caring for his daughter Maggie. James stayed with his mother, but his "uncle Henry Perry didn't choose nobody and he was allowed to leave the state, jus' got up and left."
The Civil War
According to the 1860 census, Texas had only 355 free people of color, of whom 174 were women and 181 were men. The free women lived in forty different counties. The slave population was 182,566. Cameron County (Brownsville) on the Texas-Mexican border reported the largest number of free women in the census—thirty-eight. Some of these may have been Mexicans or Native Americans who were mistakenly counted as blacks. The 1860 census for Harris County listed eight free people of color, six of them women—and none of the same names that appeared in the 1850 census when seven women were counted.
Although the Texas law kept much of the language brought by slaveholders from the Old South, Texas was not strictly a southern state. Advantages enjoyed by free people of color included not being required to carry identification or work badges (for the most part) and paying no occupation taxes. Free blacks in the state benefited from residence in a region with certain characteristics of the frontier West. The frontier atmosphere, coupled with the Latin-Catholic-Indian social tradition of egalitarianism and free association from Texas's Spanish and Mexican heritage, created a somewhat more benign atmosphere.
In 1861, Texas joined the Confederacy, and the state's Constitution was amended to prohibit emancipation. After the Civil War, formerly free blacks fared somewhat better than former slaves. Some had acquired property, the ability to read and write (an estimated 65 to 70 percent of free Texas blacks were literate), an understanding of the law, and familial and friendly contacts in the white community.
Texas had fewer free people of color than other slave states, yet a mythical idea of freedom attached itself to the region. This came in part from the rights people of color had held under Spain and Mexico and in part from a laissez-faire frontier citizenry who failed to enforce new laws and ordinances taking away those rights. While free women of color were a tiny minority, in some way they represent the spirit of Texas—strong individuals who carved out an independent life for themselves, despite the legal swords hanging over their heads.
To maintain their free status, these women had to be assets to their community. They rendered valued services in towns where women's traditional skills were in short supply. Seamstresses, washerwomen, and cooks had an abundance of customers, and the wise could invest their earnings or inheritances in assets like boardinghouses or real estate. A few were literate, and when necessary they demonstrated that they could skillfully use the right of petition or present cases in court.
When troubles threatened, the women's importance was shown by the allies they could martial. These included business customers and personal friends, white spouses and relatives, conscience-stricken or admiring former masters and mistresses, and their own lawyers.
The documents that have survived speak clearly of the indomitable spirits of the free women of color themselves, fighting to keep and enjoy freedom at a time when the horrible alternative of slavery was being suffered by hundreds of thousands of their cohorts in Texas and millions throughout the South. Many of their enslaved sisters would resist in their own way.