Oath of Office, April 26, 1870

Richard Allen, one of Texas’s first African American legislators

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by Tom Wancho, Exhibit Planner

Richard Allen (1830–1909) was born enslaved in Richmond, Virginia, and arrived in Harris County with slave owner J. J. Cain in 1837. As a young man, Allen gained a solid reputation for construction and engineering work, and designed and helped to build the impressive Houston mansion of Joseph R. Morris, a shipping investor who was elected as the city’s mayor in 1868. Allen was also credited with building the first bridge over the Buffalo Bayou waterway, and may have had Morris's support in securing the bridge contract because of his prior work on the mansion.

The undeniable news of emancipation reached Texas on June 19, 1865. Soon after, Allen married his wife Nancy, and together they raised a son and four daughters. Allen’s entry into politics began early in his life as a freedman when he worked as a federal voting registrar in 1867 at the age of 37. The following year, he served as an agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau and helped found the Harris County Republican Party. He became a leader in the nomination of Texas gubernatorial candidate Edmund J. Davis, a former Union officer who supported the education and civil rights of African Americans, helping Davis successfully win the 1869 election. With this growing political experience, Allen ran for and won his first term in Texas's Twelfth Legislature from 1870 to 1871. Allen represented the predominantly white Fourteenth District, a population that spanned both Harris and Montgomery counties.

Representative Allen pushed for improvements in education, law enforcement, and civil rights for African Americans. He sponsored the Free School Bill promoting equal access to education for all students, and the Texas Independent Veteran Bill, which granted Texas veterans pension funds for their service. Because of his engineering experience, he headed the Roads and Bridges Committee. Although he won reelection to the Thirteenth Legislature in 1873, opposition House members placed Allen’s Democratic opponent, Gustave Cook — who had challenged the election results — in his seat instead.

The setback did not deter him from politics. In 1878, the Republican Party nominated him for Lt. Governor, making Richard Allen the first African American to seek statewide office in Texas. He led the Colored Men's State Convention in 1879, and served as a delegate at national Republican Conventions through 1896. He once supported a controversial plan for the exodus of black Texans to Kansas and proposed for land to be set aside exclusively for black settlers as part of a northwest Texas "reservation."

Throughout his life, Allen remained involved in politics, business, education, and cultural affairs. He fought against the lack of adequate schools and the inequitable application of racially imposed laws, and led annual Juneteenth celebrations, which commemorated the day enslaved Texas men, women, and children learned they were free. 

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Oath of Office, April 26, 1870 Artifact from Houston
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