John Mitchell's Oath of Office, 1870

African Americans in the Texas House of Representatives

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by Tom Wancho, Exhibit Planner

African Americans in Texas experienced the right to vote for the first time between February 10–14, 1868. After the 11th Texas Legislature met in 1866 and refused to pass the amendments abolishing slavery and granting citizenship to African Americans, the federal government stepped in to ensure that the rights of freedmen were upheld.

Congressional Reconstruction officers carried out an election in all Texas counties to determine whether or not a constitutional convention should be held to write the new constitution required for re-entry into the United States. Nearly 40,000 African American voters cast their ballots in favor of holding a convention in June 1868. Ten elected freedmen were among the 90 delegates who convened to write the constitution.

Texas’s new constitution, which granted suffrage to African American males over the age of 21, was passed by voters in November 1869. During that same election, members of the 12th Texas Legislature were selected. Elected among them were 14 Black representatives.

One of those representatives was John Mitchell, an emancipated farmer, husband, and father of five, who was born in Tennessee in 1837 and arrived in Texas in 1846. It is unclear when he obtained his freedom, but with property holdings of $3,750, he was the wealthiest Black legislator in the 12th Legislative session. He represented Burleson, Milam, and Brazos counties in the 12th Legislature (1870–71) and Burleson and Washington counties in the 14th Legislature (1874–1875), where he promoted African American education bills.

Beginning in 1873, Democrats regained control of the Texas legislature and attempted to remove Reconstruction policies that aided African Americans. Democrats held a constitutional convention in 1875 with the goal of amending the 1869 Constitution. Mitchell and five other Black delegates were elected to the convention and successfully fought to keep their voting rights. Ratified in 1876, the Texas Constitution stated that the right to vote could not be restricted by race. In 1878, Mitchell ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives but was not elected. He returned to life on his Burleson County farm where he remained until his death in 1921. 

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John Mitchell's Oath of Office, 1870 Artifact from Austin, Texas
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