For free people of color, the Republic of Texas was a rock and a hard place.
"No free person of African descent, either in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the Republic of Texas without the consent of Congress."
- 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas
Most historians believe that African American history in Texas begins with Estevanico, a North African Muslim who came to Texas with the Spanish expeditions in the 1520s. By 1792, free blacks and mulattos made up 15% of the population of Spanish Texas. Free peoples of color prospered as Mexican citizens. They owned land, built successful businesses, and married whomever they loved, regardless of skin color. However, when Mexico lost Texas, people of color lost their rights and their place.
I belong to myself now. Harriet, freed woman, 1865
Slavery In Texas
In the early 1830s, there were approximately 5,000 enslaved people living in Texas, even though the Mexican government had legally abolished it in 1829. Many people had been brought in as "indentured servants" or "contract laborers" by earlier waves of migrating Anglo American settlers clutching their new Texas land grants..
By the time Texas became a republic in 1836, slavery was an established and thriving institution that subjugated approximately 13,000 African Americans. An enslaved person’s existence in Texas was entirely dependent on the owner. On the small farms or large plantations, enslaved men, women, and children worked from "can see to can't see" plowing fields, picking cotton, sewing, and laundering and whatever other tasks they were told to do. Sometimes skilled men worked in towns as carpenters or blacksmiths while women served as cooks or housekeepers.
In 19th century Texas, an enslaved person’s place in society was clearly defined: he or she had no personal rights or freedoms. Not every African American in the Republic of Texas at that time was enslaved. However, the few hundred free blacks weren't considered equal citizens as they had been in Mexican Texas, either. Their status became even murkier and more precarious in 1840.
Citizen or Slave?
On February 5, 1840, President Mirabeau B. Lamar signed An Act Concerning Free Persons of Color which expanded the expulsion terms of the 1836 Constitution. The act reiterated that, unless Congress ruled that a petitioner could stay, all free persons of color were required to leave the state by January 1, 1842, or be sold into slavery. Further, any free person of color caught entering Texas would be arrested, jailed, and put up for public auction if a $1,000 bail wasn't paid.
Section 5. Be it further enacted, It shall be the duty of the sheriff, upon the return of any such free person of color, upon giving six weeks' notice in some public journal, and at least four public places in his county, to expose the free person of color so returned, at public sale, to the highest bidder; and such free person of color so sold shall remain a slave for life…
Section 6. Be it further enacted, All monies arising from the sale of such free person of color, shall be paid into the country treasury, subject to appropriation by the District Court for public purposes.
This act caused an uproar among some white Texas residents who soon petitioned Congress on behalf of free black friends and neighbors. Although the Ashworth Act passed that same year allowed two free blacks to remain as citizens, the intent of the Republic's stance was clear: prove your worth or leave the state. It took a literal act of Congress for a free person of color to stay in the Republic of Texas. It didn't matter if that person was the first casualty of the Texas Revolution or one of the wealthiest real estate mavens in Houston.
Sam McCulloch, Jr.
As the saying goes, Sam McCulloch, Jr., wasn't born in Texas, but he got here as fast as he could. With his three sisters and white father, Sam Jr. settled on land along the Lavaca River in present-day Jackson County in 1835, just before the start of the Texas Revolution. Five months into his life as a free black man in Mexican Texas, Sam Jr. joined the Matagorda Volunteer Company and headed out for Goliad. On October 9, the company stormed the Mexican officers' quarters and Sam Jr. was slammed by a musket ball that permanently crippled his right shoulder. He was the only Texan wounded in the battle. That injury earned Sam McCulloch, Jr., a place in history as the first casualty of the Texas Revolution.
His place in history may have been clear, but his status as a free African American disabled war veteran made him a complex issue for the Texas government. Since Sam Jr. arrived in Texas months before it became an independent republic in 1835, he was considered a free Mexican citizen and therefore entitled to land. As of 1837, as an honored and disabled military veteran of the Republic of Texas, he was entitled to land, regardless of his race. However, as a free person of color in the Republic of Texas in 1840, Sam Jr. had until January of 1842 to leave the state, petition Congress for an exemption, or be sold into slavery.
This excerpt from McCulloch's June 1837 petition to the Texas Congress demonstrates his rock-and-a-hard place situation:
"Sam McCulloch unhappily finds that the Laws of the Country for the Independence of which he has fought and bled…he is deprived of the privileges of citizenship by reason of an unfortunate admixture of African blood…nor can he, without the beneficent action of Congress, receive the lands to which he was entitled under the Mexican government. Your petitioner [Samuel McCulloch] further asks…that he and his children be allowed to enjoy the privileges of citizenship in this Republic."
Two years later, on December 15, 1840, the leaders of Texas signed an exemption to An Act Concerning Free Persons of Color and allowed Sam Jr. and his family to remain in the Republic.
Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the Republic of Texas…That Samuel McCulloch, jr., and his three sisters…Jane, Harriet and Mahaly, and their descendants, better known as the free children of Samuel McCulloch, senr., now in the Republic of Texas… be…exempted from all provisions of "an act concerning free persons of color," approved [February 5th, 1840].
Section 2. Be it further enacted, that the [previously mentioned] free persons…are permitted and allowed to continue their residence within the bounds of the Republic of Texas.
(signed) David S. Kaufman, Speaker of the House; Anson Jones, Senate President Pro Tem; David G. Burnet, Acting President
Fanny McFarland's life story as a free black woman in the Republic of Texas exists primarily in the legal document she filed in Houston on October 20, 1840.
Fanny McFarland was brought to Texas in 1827 by slave owner William McFarland. Fanny was emancipated by her owner in 1835, but her four children remained enslaved. During the Texas Revolution, Fanny fled from San Felipe de Austin and settled in Houston where she worked as a laundress. She also bought some property. Like other free people of color, Fanny had three choices when the 1840 act was passed. She chose to petition Congress for the right to remain a citizen of the Republic. Many other citizens wanted that for her, too.
"She would further represent that she has four children held as slaves in the Republic so that all her hopes and prospects in this life lie here. And your petition would beg leave to urge upon your Honors the hardship of being obliged in her old age to leave her children, to sacrifice her hard earned property, to be obliged to part from friends of years standing, to be obliged to leave her only home and be turned loose upon the wide world…We the undersigned citizens of Houston and the Republic of Texas would respectfully second the petition of Fanny McFarland, a free woman of Colour, to remain as a citizen of this Republic. And hereby recommend her as a good and useful citizen."
-excerpt from Fanny McFarland's petition to Congress
Over 70 signatures followed. Congress denied her request.
Despite the ruling, Fanny apparently stayed in Houston and was never expelled from the Republic or sold into slavery. She left laundry behind and made a profit buying and selling property as one of Houston's first and most successful real estate developers. Her children were freed by the 13th Amendment in 1865, and Fanny died in 1866. The historical record doesn't show whether she and her children were ever reunited.
Two years and six months after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, General Gordon Grainger arrived in Galveston and publicly announced that all those enslaved in Texas were free. With that news, Texans began a new journey to understand and implement the concepts of freedom and equality for all peoples. Throughout our experiences of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the Black Codes, the Civil Rights movement, and issues of color today, Texas has had some spectacular successes and some equally spectacular failures. And there's still plenty of journey left.
The majority of the American people still believe that every single individual in this country is entitled to just as much respect, just as much dignity, as every other individual. Barbara Jordan, U.S. Representative 1990
African Americans on the Bullock Terrazzo
African Americans Timeline
In 1823, Stephen F. Austin received permission from Mexican authorities to bring settlers from the United States to Texas. Of the first families, known as the "Old Three Hundred," sixty-nine brought enslaved people. By 1825, Austin's colony had grown to 1,790, which included a few free people of color and 443 enslaved people-- almost 25% of the population.
Facts about slave rebellions are hard to come by, but in 1835, about 100 enslaved people planned to seize land along the Brazos River. The leaders were arrested and whipped, and several were hanged. In 1836, vigilantes in Colorado County claimed that 200 enslaved people were plotting with local Mexican Texans. Many historians believe the story was an excuse to expel the Mexicans.
One of the many African Americans who participated in the Texas Revolution, Samuel McCulloch, Jr., was a free man who had settled his family along the Lavaca River in present-day Jackson County. In October 1835, McCulloch sustained a serious shoulder wound in the Battle of Goliad. A farmer and cattleman, McCulloch retained a lifelong fighting spirit. He later took up arms again to fight both the Mexicans and the Comanche.
The Constitution of the Republic of Texas severely restricted the rights of free African Americans. Anyone with one-eighth or more African heritage had to obtain permission from Congress to remain in Texas. Free blacks were prohibited from voting or owning property, and interracial marriage was banned. Records show that whites petitioned frequently for exemptions to these rules on behalf of free black neighbors, but the tough rules remained in place.
At its beginning, Texas had a population of 38,470. Of these, 5,000 were enslaved. As more settlers arrived from the American South, the enslaved population grew rapidly. By 1845, when Texas was annexed to the United States, there were at least 30,000 enslaved people, mostly working on plantations in East Texas. The African slave trade had been outlawed by this time, but Galveston and Houston both still had slave dealers.
Despite the restrictions on free people of color, many found a way to prosper. Documents show that Charity Bird of Jefferson County ran a successful bakery around 1839, earning enough to vacation in the U.S. Some emancipated women owned land. In 1860, the "Widow Ashworth" of Jefferson County had an estate worth $11,444—almost $300,000 at today's prices.
The enslaved African Americans of Texas were quick to establish churches as the bedrock of community. In 1840, Reverend James Huckins, a slave owner, organized the Colored Baptist Church of Galveston. After the Civil War, the church was deeded to the members and still serves as the Avenue L Missionary Baptist Church.
Trinity United Methodist Church in Houston began as a mission outreach to the enslaved community. Organized in 1848 to serve both Baptists and Methodists, the church became a driving force in African American life. Its legacy includes Texas Southern University, Wiley College in Marshall, and Emancipation Park, the oldest public park in the state.
Estevanico, who helped explore Texas in 1528 as part of the Narvaez expedition, was the first person of African descent to visit Texas. Many of the enslaved people brought from Louisiana were followers of the Catholic faith. The first black Catholic church in Texas was a mission founded at Washington-on-the-Brazos in 1849 to serve the surrounding plantations.
The Seminole of Florida included escaped slaves in their communities. Eventually, Black Seminoles emerged as a distinct ethnic group. After losing the Second Seminole War, some Black Seminoles moved to Mexico and patrolled the border against the Comanche and Apache. In the 1870s, many worked as Army scouts at Fort Clark near Brackettville.
In 1855, James Hughes Callahan led an unauthorized invasion of 111 men into Northern Mexico. The announced purpose of the raid was retribution against the Lipan Apache, but most of the activity centered around recovering escaped slaves. Over 4,000 African Americans had escaped Texas and set up communities around San Fernando, Coahuila. The Texans were driven back across the border but not before causing a costly international incident.
On June 19, 1865, federal authority was established in Texas when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston. Granger proclaimed the end of slavery for 250,000 African Americans as well as the end of the Confederacy. "Juneteenth," celebrating that declaration of emancipation, was declared an official holiday in the state of Texas in 1980.
From People Across Texas