Letter to Governor Edmund Davis, 1873
Comanche County freedmen demand their civil rights
by Kathryn Siefker, Associate Curator of Exhibition Content
Reconstruction in Texas and the rest of the United States was a volatile time of change in which Americans debated who was an American and what rights all citizens should possess.
Because citizenship in the 1860s was defined and protected by state laws, the question of African American citizenship was ultimately in the hands of each state. In Texas, Reconstruction-era legislators balked at granting African Americans the rights of full citizenship dictated by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the Constitution. Instead, they instituted a series of Black Codes in 1866 designed to severely limit the rights of freedmen. The codes were outlawed in 1867 by what was essentially a military takeover of the state government by the federal government. Texas finally accepted the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments in 1870, bringing Reconstruction in the state to a close.
While African Americans emerged from Reconstruction with the protections granted them by the Constitution, white Texans devised many ways to block freedmen from full citizenship. This 1873 letter to Governor Edmund Davis from D. A. Sen Clair on behalf of freedmen in Comanche County seeks help for several freedmen who were being kept from exercising their right to own land. As Sen Clair explains in the letter, five families of African Americans settled on some vacant land and filed the proper paperwork to legally claim the land. They did not have a survey of the land, though, because the surveyor said the freedmen could not afford it. They went ahead and built cabins on the property and began making improvements on the land. The letter states that the freedmen lived on the land for about 18 months when a group of citizens opposed to black settlement had the land surveyed and a claim filed for themselves. That certificate was apparently approved "between office hours." The freedmen were ordered to leave the property, but were advised by their lawyer, Sen Clair, to stay put while he sorted out the land claims.
A few months later, four men attacked the African American cabins and terrorized the families living there. Sen Clair states that he does not know if the land claims and attack are related, but he appeals to Governor Davis for help with the land claim. On the night of the attack, a wanted murderer was among the attackers and was killed by the freedmen. Sen Clair asks if a monetary reward is available for killing the murderer. Since the African Americans were now essentially homeless and facing a potentially lengthy legal battle over the land, they could use the help and money. Sen Clair concludes, "no white man of any principle would try to swindle them out of their land. They are as honest and industrious as any citizen of Texas."
The outcome of the freedmen's case is unclear. Based on county records, it does not appear that they were successful in legally claiming the land in Comanche County. Their names, at least, do not appear in any records that would indicate ownership. Edmund Davis's term as governor ended in 1873 and control of the Texas government returned to Confederate-minded white leaders. African Americans were technically citizens, but in Texas, a long uphill battle was ahead.
Courtesy of Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Austin
Time Period: 1866 - 1936
This artifact is not on view.