Monday, June 19, 2023

Juneteenth, Jim Crow and how the fight of one Black Texas family to make freedom real offers lessons for Texas lawmakers trying to erase history from the classroom

By Jeffrey L. Littlejohn, Sam Houston State University and Zachary Montz, Sam Houston State University

The news was startling.

On June 19, 1865, two months after the U.S. Civil War ended, Union Gen. Gordon Granger walked onto the balcony at Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas, and announced to the people of the state that “all slaves are free.”

As local plantation owners lamented the loss of their most valuable property, Black Texans celebrated Granger’s Juneteenth announcement with singing, dancing and feasting. The 182,566 enslaved African Americans in Texas had finally won their freedom.

One of them was Joshua Houston.

He had long served as the enslaved servant of Gen. Sam Houston, the most well-known military and political leader in Texas.

Joshua Houston lived about 120 miles north of Galveston when he learned of Granger’s proclamation.

It was read aloud at the local Methodist Church in Huntsville, Texas, by Union Gen. Edgar M. Gregory, the assistant commissioner for the Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas.

If Juneteenth meant anything, it meant at least that Joshua Houston and his family were free.

A gray haired black man in the center wearing glasses is sitting down and surrounded by members of his family.
Joshua Houston and his family in October 1898. Courtesy of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum and Republic of Texas Presidential Library, Huntsville, Texas

But there was more too.

The promise of freedom meant that more work needed to be done. Families needed to be reunited. Land needed to be secured. Children needed to be educated.

Indeed, the radical promise of Juneteenth is embodied in the community activism of Joshua Houston and the educational career of his son Samuel Walker Houston.

The violent white reaction to Black political power

Within a year of Granger’s proclamation, Houston had established a blacksmith shop near the Huntsville town square and moved his family into a two-story house on the adjoining lot.

He helped found the Union Church, the first Black-owned institution in the city, as well as a freedmen’s school to begin educating African American children.

In 1878 and 1882, a Republican coalition of Black and white voters opposed to conservative Democratic rule elected Houston as the county’s first Black county commissioner, a powerful position in local governance.

Despite this dramatic turn of events, Houston’s political story was hardly unique.

In the two decades following emancipation, 52 Black men served in the state Legislature or the state’s constitutional conventions.

But that number had fallen to two by 1882.

Opposition to Black freedom had been a powerful force in the state’s political culture since emancipation.

Armstead Barrett, a former slave in Huntsville, recalled in 1937 that an enraged white man had reacted to Granger’s Juneteenth order by riding past a celebrating Black woman and murdering her with his sword.

In 1871, the violence continued when the white citizens of Huntsville stormed the county courthouse and aided the escape of three men who had lynched freedman Sam Jenkins.

Later, in the 1880s, attacks on Black elected officials, their white political allies and Black voters escalated dramatically.

In the early 1900s, changes in state election laws, including the introduction of the poll tax, effectively disenfranchised most Black voters and many poor whites as well. Voter participation dropped from roughly 85% at the high tide of Texas populism in 1896 to roughly 35% when the poll tax became effective in 1904.

As a result, Robert Lloyd Smith was the last Black legislator for nearly 70 years when he finished his term in 1897.

That wall of white supremacy at the state Capitol would not crack again until 1966, when federal voting rights legislation and Supreme Court rulings nullified schemes to deny African Americans the ballot.

These changes enabled the election of Black officials such as Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman to serve in the Texas Senate.

Like father, like son

On an unknown date, a few years after Juneteenth, Joshua Houston’s son Samuel Walker Houston was born free in the bright light of Reconstruction.

Although he spent his adulthood in some of the darkest years of Jim Crow, he continued his father’s work as an educator and community leader. Following a short stint at Atlanta University in Georgia and Howard University in Washington, D.C., Samuel Walker Houston returned to Huntsville and founded a school in the nearby Galilee community.

Houston’s school was named for him and served as one of the first county training schools for African Americans in Texas. It enrolled students at every level, from first grade through high school, and provided a curriculum based on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee model of vocational training.

Young women at Houston’s school received training in homemaking, sewing and cooking, while young men learned carpentry, woodworking and mathematics.

By 1922, enrollment at the school had grown to 400 students, and it was recognized by contemporaries as the leading school of East Texas. In the 1930s, Houston’s school was absorbed into Huntsville’s school district, and he became the director of Black education in the county.

In this black and white image, seven men stand outside a residential-style building with sawhorses and stacked lumber off to the side.
This 1919 photograph shows officials laying the foundation for a new building at the Samuel Walker Houston Training School. Jackson Davis Collection of African American Educational Photographs, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

Houston encouraged a practical education for Black Texans, but he also believed that young Texans of all races needed to learn an account of history that differed from the white supremacist narrative that dominated Southern history.

Toward this end, he joined with Joseph Clark and Ramsey Woods, two white professors who pioneered race relations courses at Sam Houston State Teachers College. Together, the group led the Texas Commission on Interracial Cooperation’s effort to evaluate Texas public school textbooks during the 1930s.

In an analysis of racial attitudes in state-endorsed textbooks, they found that 74% of books presented a racist view of the past and of Black Americans. Most excluded the scientific, literary and civic contributions of Black people, while mentioning their economic contributions only in the period of slavery before the Civil War.

Instead, the group argued, books designed for both Black and white Texans needed to take the “opportunity … to do simple justice” by including Black history and the “struggle for the exercise” of equal civil, political and legal rights.

White Texans refused to adopt a textbook in the 1930s that taught the fundamental equality of the races, or portrayed Reconstruction, as it is now widely understood, as a missed opportunity to establish a more just and egalitarian Texas.

But Houston and his white counterparts were motivated by the conviction that progress, both for African Americans and for Texas, required a more honest and progressive account of the state and its history.

In this black and white image, Black men and women are seen marching along a main street while others are watching.
The Juneteenth Parade in Huntsville, Texas, circa 1900. Sam Houston Memorial Museum and Republic of Texas Presidential Library, Huntsville, Texas.

An ongoing battle for equality

Today’s legislative efforts in Texas and elsewhere to restrict the teaching of systemic racism in public schools ignore the lessons and realities represented by Joshua and Samuel Walker Houston’s lives.

The argument used for supporting such restrictions is that “divisive concepts” like the history of racism may make some students feel uncomfortable or guilty.

That sort of thinking echoes the same justification provided by Texas lawmakers in 1873, when many argued that the state’s schools must be segregated to ensure “the peace, harmony and success of the schools and the good of the whole.”

But the opposite is true.

In reality, the prohibition on teaching the darker chapters of our past creates a segregated history.

Instead, as Samuel Walker Houston recognized, young Texans must have a more honest account of the past and of one another to progress into a unified and egalitarian society.

Texas history is both the story of people who dedicated their lives to the work of advancing freedom and the story of powerful people and forces that stood against it.

One cannot be understood without the other.

Americans cannot appreciate the accomplishments of Joshua and Samuel Walker Houston without examining the vicious realities of Jim Crow society.

The lesson of their lives, and of the Juneteenth holiday, is that freedom is a precious thing that requires constant work to make real.The Conversation

Jeffrey L. Littlejohn, Professor of History, Sam Houston State University and Zachary Montz, Lecturer, History Department, Sam Houston State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article

Monday, June 12, 2023

Southern Discomfort: Attacks on Freedom Need Condemnation

, June 8, 2023

Two recent cases in the South have raised fears that journalists and activists who use their constitutional rights against police power will be targeted by the state. Worse, establishment media don’t seem terribly troubled by this.

In North Carolina, Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, two reporters from the progressive Asheville Blade, were convicted of “misdemeanor trespassing after being arrested while covering the clearing of a homeless encampment in a public park in 2021.” The judge in the case “said there was no evidence presented to the court that Bliss and Coit were journalists, and that he saw this as a ‘plain and simple trespassing case’” (VoA4/19/23).

They’re appealing the conviction (Carolina Public Press5/17/23; NC Newsline, 6/2/23), and they have a good bit of support. In April, Eileen O’Reilly, president of the National Press Club, and Gil Klein, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, denounced the reporters’ conviction, saying that they “were engaged in routine newsgathering, reporting on the clearing by local police of a homeless encampment” (PRNewswire4/20/23). Available evidence, they said, “shows Bliss and Coit did not endanger anyone or obstruct any police activity,” adding that they “were arrested while reporting on a matter of public importance in their community.”

Dozens of other press advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (5/3/23), PEN America (4/25/23) and the Coalition for Women in Journalism (4/19/23), have blasted the convictions.

‘Anti-establishment views’

AP: 3 activists arrested after their fund bailed out protestors of Atlanta’s ‘Cop City’

The house of two of the Atlanta defendants is “emblazoned with anti-police graffiti in an otherwise gentrified neighborhood” (AP5/31/23).

In Atlanta, the assault on protesters against “Cop City”—a planned project that would devastate scores of acres of forest land on the city’s south side for a massive military-style security training complex—amped up when Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Atlanta police “arrested three leaders of the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which has bailed out [anti-Cop City] protesters and helped them find lawyers” (AP5/31/23).

The three were charged with money laundering and charity fraud. The “money laundering” consisted of transferring $48,000 from their group, the Network for Strong Communities, to the California-based Siskiyou Mutual Aid—and back again. The “fraud” amounted to the defendants reimbursing themselves for expenses like building materials, yard signs and gasoline. Deputy Attorney General John Fowler seemed to get closer to the actual reason for the prosecution when he said the defendants “harbor extremist anti-government and anti-establishment views” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution6/2/23).

When news broke about the arrests, Atlanta activist and journalist circles were abuzz with fears and questions (Atlanta Community Press Collective5/31/23). There must be more to the story, right? These people couldn’t simply be arrested for providing bail and legal support—that would be absurd. What next: arresting defense attorneys?

The judge in the case has shared such skepticism, freeing the three on bond despite pressure from the state attorney general not to, and expressing “concerns about their free speech rights and saying he did not find the prosecution’s case, at least for now, ‘real impressive’” (AP6/2/23).

Tensions around Cop City are already high. Its projected cost has doubled (Creative Loafing5/29/23), dozens of protesters have been hit with domestic terrorism charges (WAGA3/5/23) and an autopsy for an activist killed by police “shows their hands were raised when they were killed” (NPR3/11/23).

The recent arrests have only raised the temperature. Not long after the three activists were granted bail, the Atlanta City Council “voted 11–4 after a roughly 15-hour long meeting” to approve the project, “sparking cries of ‘Cop City will never be built!’ from the activists who packed City Hall to oppose the measure” (Axios6/6/23Twitter6/6/23).

‘Is she real press?’

Slate: The Details of the Atlanta Bail Fund Arrest Are More Horrific Than First Described

Slate (6/1/23): “The state’s intention to criminalize dissent could not have been clearer.”

The Atlanta arrests have received considerable press attention. Slate (6/1/23) and the Intercept (5/31/23) wrote pieces highlighting the severity of the charges. The Asheville case, despite considerable outcry from press advocates, hasn’t had much attention outside left-wing and local press, with the surprising exception of a report on Voice of America (4/19/23), a US government–owned network.

What neither of these cases has received is an outcry from major newspaper editorial boards or network news shows, calling attention to their violation of constitutional rights—although the Atlanta arrests did get a news story in the New York Times (6/2/23) that included condemnations from civil liberties groups. (MSNBC published an op-ed denouncing the arrests on its website—6/3/23.) At FAIR, I have rung the alarm that journalists for both mainstream and small outlets have faced arrests (3/16/21) and extreme police violence (9/3/21). These incidents are part of that trend.

In the Asheville instance, Judge James Calvin Hill was already hostile toward the reporters’ First Amendment claims, as he questioned whether they were actually journalists (Truthout6/1/23). “She says she’s press,” a police officer said in court of Coit, to which Hill responded: “Is she real press?”

The Asheville Blade is a small, scruffy left-wing outlet; are we to assume that courts will determine what constitutes a journalistic outlet based on budget, size of distribution, popularity and political orientation?

In the case of the Atlanta arrests, coverage often carried photos of the activists’ Eastside house, painted purple with anti-police signage and graffiti. This hippie vibe might not be the image Atlanta’s powerful business class wants to project as the commercial center of the South; the Atlanta Police Foundation includes support from some of the city’s top corporations  (New Yorker8/3/23), including Coca-Cola, Delta, Home Depot—and Cox, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s parent company.

The Journal-Constitution, the major local paper, has run pieces (5/8/211/25/233/8/23) in favor of Cop City and other aggressive anti-crime tactics. Its editorial board (8/21/21) declared, “There’s no time to waste in moving to replace the city’s current, dilapidated training grounds,” because “criminals will continue to ply their trade, exacting a cost in property, public fears and even lives.”

Needless to say, this is not the way the Asheville Blade writes about police issues. But that shouldn’t matter, because constitutional rights, by their definition, are not supposed to discriminate.

Concern for freedom—elsewhere

NYT: In Rare Victory for Media, Hong Kong Court Overturns Conviction of Journalist

The New York Times‘ concern (6/5/23) for a persecuted journalist is not so rare—at least when the persecutors are official enemies.

We live in a media environment (FAIR.org10/23/2011/17/213/25/22) where we must constantly endure think piece after think piece about whether conservative college students are safe from ridicule if they come out against nonbinary pronouns, or if a comedian has suffered a dip in popularity because their schtick is considered “unwoke.” Governments actually trying to imprison people for exercising their constitutional rights somehow don’t generate the same sense of alarm in establishment media.

Unless, of course, those governments are abroad, in official enemy nations. The New York Times (6/5/23) prominently reported a “rare victory for journalism amid a crackdown on the news media in Hong Kong” after a court “overturned the conviction of a prominent reporter who had produced a documentary that was critical of the police.” When Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia, this was naturally covered, not just by his own paper (3/31/23) but its rivals as well (New York Times5/23/23Washington Post5/31/23).

If our media really cared about the future of free discourse in contemporary America, and the state of freedom of speech and association, Atlanta and Asheville would be the focus of the same sort of media attention.

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