Excerpt from Bricks without Straw: A Comprehensive
History of African Americans in Texas, Written and Edited by David A. Williams,
Copyright 1997 by David A. Williams, All Rights Reserved. This document
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African Americans are not newcomers to Texas. A few arrived with the first Europeans. They were actually people of color who were in fact Moors. A Moor is a Moslem of mixed Berber and Arab ancestry, especially one of the Saracen invaders of Spain in the eighth century or a descendant of the Saracens. For centuries before Texas was discovered, the Spaniards and Moors had warred, with captives being enslaved by both sides. The Spanish explorers brought Moorish slaves with them to the area we now know as Texas, and many of them stayed. Some became freedmen and won acceptance in the Spanish outposts. Victor Blanco, a man of color, was second alcalde of San Antonio in 1809.
In 1528 the first man of color in Texas was Estevan, a Moor from North Africa, captured and enslaved by the Spanish. He came as a slave of Captain Dorantes of the Narvaez expedition and was one of the four survivors who, led by Cabeza de Vaca, finally made their way across Texas to Mexico, giving first accounts which led to Spanish exploration. Affectionately called Estabenico (Stevie) by his companions, he was adept at making friends with the Indians and speaking their dialects. Estevan played an important role in the first exploration in Texas.
In 1539 Estevan was the only survivor who returned to Texas. He was chosen by the Spanish viceroy to guide an expedition under Friar Marcos de Niza to seek the Seven Cities of Gold. He outstripped the expedition and, with Indian guides, crossed the southwest corner of Texas into New Mexico, where he discovered the Zuni Pueblos. Miscalculating his influence as a medicine man, he was captured and killed by the Indians.
An expedition in 1540 led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, accompanied by several people of African descent, swept across New Mexico and western Texas. Later Spanish expeditions found people of African ancestry among the Indians at the mouth of the Rio Grande. They apparently had descended either from Moors from North Africa or from survivors of other ill-fated vessels along the Gulf Coast.
According to Alwyn Barr and others, in 1691 a black bugler accompanied Domingo Teran on the second Spanish missionary expedition to the Indians of East Texas.
With the French
Two men of African ancestry accompanied the Frenchman Blancpain and helped him establish an Indian trading post on the Trinity River in East Central Texas in 1751.
Friar Juan Augustin Morfi’s census of San Antonio, recorded in 1777, showed a total of 2,060 persons, including 151 of African ancestry. This included the population of the military post in the area under Spanish control, the adjoining village, and the five missions.
Baron de Bastrop
In 1805, a man known to the Spaniards as Baron de Bastrop came to Texas seeking a land grant so he could bring in colonists. The Baron, whose real name was Philip Henrick Nering Boegel, was Dutch. He brought three men of color as servants with him and established his residence in San Antonio. A few years later he paved the way for the Austin Colony, "the Old Three Hundred." Bastrop and Stephen F. Austin convinced Martinez, the Mexican governor, that the colonization plan was a good idea. Martinez agreed to recommend to the Mexican government that Austin’s plan be approved.
When the United States bought Louisiana in 1803, the Spanish declared any slave who escaped across the Sabine River into Texas automatically free. The border became a sieve. Escaped slaves settled in the forests of East Texas, and many joined friendly Indian tribes.
In 1819 Kian (or Kiamata) Long, a twelve-year-old slave girl, came to Texas as the personal maid of Jane Long, wife of Maj. James Long of Natchez, Mississippi. Major Long tried unsuccessfully to free Texas from Spanish domination. He was defeated by Mexican troops, captured and carried to Mexico City, where he was shot and killed by a guard.
Kian and Jane Long remained alone on Bolivar Peninsula, where Kian helped the widow Long give birth to a baby daughter. Kian discovered Indians nearby, and Mrs. Long fired a cannon to frighten them away. Kian later went with Jane Long and her infant daughter to Richmond and remained closely associated with her until her death. The descendants of Kian Long, now in the seventh generation, live in Houston, Galveston, and other Texas cities. Her grandson, Henry C. Breed, became a veteran policeman on the Houston police force.
Anglo-American settlement in 1820 brought a big influx of people of color. Many were slaves of the Anglo planters. The Texas economy was plantation-based with cotton, sugar cane, and other crops raised by slave labor. At the same time, many free African Americans from the United States flocked to Texas, where there were opportunities to acquire free land.
In 1820, Moses Austin rode into San Antonio with all of the capital he possessed, including the gray horse he was riding, an African slave astride a mule, and $50 in cash. The male slave was the most valuable capital asset, being worth an estimated $600 on the open market. Austin was seeking a Spanish land grant and permission to bring in colonists.
By May 1821, Austin was informed that the Spanish had approved his request to bring settlers to Spanish Texas. Before Moses Austin could carry out his plan, however, he became critically ill with pneumonia. The long, difficult journey to Texas and his work in preparing for colonization had exhausted him. On June 10, 1821, Moses Austin died at the home of his daughter, Mrs. James Bryan. His dying request was that his son, Stephen, carry out the plans for colonizing Texas.
When Stephen F. Austin carried out his father’s plan to colonize Texas, he allowed the settlers fifty acres of land for each slave. The 1825 census of Austin Colony showed 1,347 Anglo Americans and 443 settlers of African ancestry. Most of the non-Anglo colonists were slaves, but some were free African Americans.
Free African Americans in Colonial Texas
Under Mexican law freedmen had all of the legal and political rights of citizenship. They could own land, accumulate wealth, hold office, and marry whom they pleased. The frontier society of prerevolutionary Texas generally accepted any individual on his personal merit, without relation to race or skin color.
The historical records show there were no strong social bars against intermarriage. This was true even for the Native Americans, who were in this period the low group on the social totem pole.
African Americans in the Texas War of Independence
Free African Americans in the Republic of Texas
The laws under the Republic of Texas mandated that free persons of color who were determined to have one-eighth African or mixed blood could not vote, own property, testify in court against Anglos, or engage in interracial marriages.
The free African-American policy of the Republic of Texas, crystallized in the passage of the definitive act of February 5, 1840, which remained in effect until emancipation, was to prove more effectual in theory than in practice. By the terms of the law, immigration of free African Americans was prohibited, and they were required to remove themselves from Texas within two years on penalty of sale into slavery.
The 1836 constitution mandated an appeal to Congress by freedmen who wished to reside in Texas. In 1837, Congress voted to allow all freedpersons of color in Texas at independence to remain if they continued to abide by the laws of the Republic. Several prewar African-American settlers then entreated Congress for property rights, and postwar immigrants sought approval of residence. Despite Anglo-supporting signatures on many of the petitions, Congress refused to pass any of the requests in 1838 and 1839.
In December 1840, Congress again granted prerevolutionary free persons of African ancestry who were Texas residents the right to remain in Texas along with some relatives who came after the war. In 1843, Congress granted property rights to several African-American petitioners. It refused similar petitions from others. Most seem to have continued in control of their property despite local disputes and harassment.
Freedmen in Jefferson and Orange Counties
Many of the freed persons in the area of Jefferson and Orange counties were members of one large family named Ashworth. The progenitors of the clan in southeast Texas were four men who appear to have been brothers. This family has been mentioned earlier in this chapter as supporters of the Texas Revolution. Within two years of the founding of the Republic of Texas the Ashworths had established themselves a place in the community, for in 1838 William Ashworth obtained from the Jefferson County Board of Roads and Revenues a franchise to operate a ferry across Lake Sabine and up the Neches River to Beaumont. The esteem in which their neighbors held them placed them in good stead a short while later. In 1840, the Texas Congress ordered all free African Americans within the Republic to remove themselves from the national limits within two years, upon pain of being sold into slavery. The Ashworths’ friends immediately came to their rescue.
One prominent man in the county, G. A. Pattillo, wrote to President Mirabeau B. Lamar enclosing and endorsing the memorial of Jesse Ashworth for permission to remain within the Republic until the next meeting of Congress, when, apparently, he proposed to petition for a relief act. In this letter Pattillo confessed having known Ashworth in the United States and Texas for fifteen years, during which time he had always maintained a reputation for good character and for being "a quiet and unassuming good citizen." In addition, Ashworth was described as "a man of some property" and therefore "of some benefit to the government."
At the ensuing session of Congress, three petitions were presented on behalf of Jefferson County free African Americans. Each of the three was signed by virtually all of the prominent office holders and electors of the community. One petition represented that Abner and William Ashworth had lived in Texas for six years and had "contributed generously to the advancement of the Revolution." A second showed that Aaron, David, Joshua, and William Ashworth, who were mistakenly identified as brothers, had resided within the county for two years and were "peaceable and Respectable Citizens." The third described Elisha Thomas in similar language and identified him as having been a resident at the time of the Declaration of Independence. All three petitions requested Congress to pass relief acts permitting the several free African Americans to remain unmolested within Texas.
Upon the many similar petitions presented to it, Congress acted favorably in only a few cases, but these included the free African Americans in Jefferson County. The select committee of the House of Representatives to whom their petitions were submitted reported that free African Americans as a general rule should not be encouraged but these were exceptions, for they had contributed both their substance and their personal service to the achievement of independence and, in addition, had "at all times conducted themselves well" and had proved themselves "men of good Credit wherever they are known [,] having been at all times punctual to their engagements [,] upright in their dealings and peaceable in their disposition." The attached bill, exempting Aaron, Abner, David, and William Ashworth and Elisha Thomas, together with their families, from the operation of the law of February 5, 1840, passed both houses with hardly a dissent and was approved by the president on December 12, 1840. By this act, the Ashworths and Thomas were permitted to remain in Texas, but a short while later they and others were obliged to seek further relief.
In 1842, a traveling land board charged with detecting fraudulent land certificates refused to certify for patents the headrights and bounty certificates which the board of land commissioners of Jefferson County had issued to Aaron, Moses, and William Ashworth, Henry and John Bird, Aaron Nelson, and Elijah and Elisha Thomas, all free Negroes, on the ground that the law did not cover persons of their color. Nevertheless, all three members of the traveling board, as well as three members of the Jefferson board and some seventy-odd citizens, petitioned Congress that these "good and worthy members of the Community" labored "by reason of their being people of colour under great and embarrassing inconvenience" and requested Congress to direct issuance of the patents. Again, with little disagreement, both houses passed, and the president signed the suggested bill, instructing the commissioner of the General Land Office to issue the required patents "in the same manner, as though the same had been recommended by the Board of Commissioners to detect fraudulent Land Claims for patent."
Except for the two decennial censuses of 1850 and 1860, there are no records showing the exact number of free African Americans in Jefferson and Orange counties at any given time. In 1850, there were sixty-three free African Americans in Jefferson County, of whom thirty-eight were named Ashworth. Three of the original Ashworth brothers were then alive, each with a family.
At this time Aaron was a farmer and estimated his real property at $3,764. He had the unique distinction in the county of having in his house a schoolmaster, a white man named John A. Woods, presumably employed to tutor his four children of school age, who certainly attended school during the year.Aaron Ashworth, 47 years, born in South Carolina
Abner was a farmer with real estate valued at $400. His wife, Rosalia, aged thirty-six, a native of Louisiana, was white.Abner Ashworth, 41 years, born in Louisiana
William’s wife, Leide or Delaide, aged forty-six, a native of Louisiana, was white. William described himself as a farmer, with holdings to the value of $7,205, and Clark as a stock raiser.William Ashworth, Sr., 57 years, born in South Carolina
There were also five families of second-generation Ashworths.
Aaron, Jr. was a farmer and Jordan a stock raiser.Aaron Ashworth, Jr., 29 years, born in Louisiana
David was also a stock raiser.David Ashworth, 29 years, born in Louisiana
Henderson’s wife, Letitia, aged seventeen, a native of Texas, was white. Henderson was a stock raiser.Henderson Ashworth, 23 years, born in Louisiana
Joshua was a farmer.Joshua Ashworth, 34 years, born in Louisiana
Luke was a stock raiser with property valued at $800.Luke Ashworth, 26 years, born in Louisiana
There were five other free African-American families in the county with surnames other than Ashworth. Sarah Burwick, aged sixteen, a native of Texas, was the wife of William Burwick, an illiterate white laborer, aged twenty-one, also a native of Texas. They had no children.
Eliza was either a widow or the wife of a slave, freedman or white man who maintained his residence elsewhere.Eliza Bunch, 38 years, born in Louisiana
Elvina was the wife of a white farmer, J. M. Carter, aged thirty-four, a native of Illinois.Elvina Carter, 25 years, born in Louisiana
Robert was a farmer.Robert Nelson, 25 years, born in Louisiana
William’s wife was an illiterate white woman, named Sarah, aged twenty-seven. William was a farmer and Moses a laborer.William Nelson, 36 years, born in Louisiana
Not the least interesting content of these records is the evidence of miscegenation. Three African-American men had white wives, and two African-American women had white husbands. Of the ten adult males listed, one was a laborer, four were stock raisers, and five farmers.
Ten years later there were only two free African Americans in Jefferson County and but twenty-nine in Orange. The principal cause of this decrease will be hereinafter discussed. The elder Aaron and his wife were listed in 1860 with six children, four of whom —Sublett, William, Mary, and Aaron had been listed the previous decade and two of whom had been born subsequent to the 1850 census: Harriet, aged ten, and Abner, aged six, both natives of Texas. The whereabouts of Samuel and Mary, listed in 1850, was not made evident. Five of the children had attended school within the year. Aaron was still listed as a farmer, with real and personal property valued at $4,870, and Sublett as a stock raiser.
Abner apparently had died during the decade, but his widow and three children — Sidney, Lidda A., and Phillipa, aged five, a native of Texas — were listed. Rozella’s property was valued at $11,444. William and his wife had survived, and they were listed together with their children: Melissa, Jane, Louisa, David, and a second Louisa, aged two, a native of Texas. William was described as a laborer, with property valued at $4,000.
Luke and Lucinda had seven children. In addition to the three listed in 1850 were Delilah, aged eight; Sarah, six; Melissa, five; and Clark, three, all born in Texas. Luke was also a laborer, with property valued at $1,160.
Eliza Bunch had disappeared, but three of her sons Hiram, Elijah, and Washington — were all listed as laborers.
These data are not sufficiently numerous to serve as the basis for any generalizations, but it is interesting to note that during the decade 1850-1859 William’s occupation changed from farmer to laborer and Luke’s from stock raiser to laborer. During the same period, the value of William’s real estate dropped from $7,205 to $4,000 and Luke’s from $800 to $160. These reductions, however, were probably the result of sales rather than of depreciation.
That the free African Americans in the area were no worse off than the bulk of their white neighbors and indeed better off than most is evident from their real estate holdings. Thirteen members of the family acquired land within Jefferson and Orange counties, which they used principally for grazing large herds of cattle. In 1850, six of them were listed in the agricultural census. One of the two Aaron Ashworths there listed, probably the younger, was the largest cattle raiser in the entire county, with 2,570 head, 220 head more than the runner-up.
Not only did the free African Americans own land and cattle, but they also owned slaves. This was more unusual in Texas than in Louisiana, where many free African Americans had large slaveholdings. In 1839, William Ashworth sold Lucy, aged about twenty, and her child, Sarah, about two, for $1,200, probably Texas money, and a short while later he purchased for $1,150 an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old slave, Thornton, whom he sold three years later for $1,000. In 1846, Abner Ashworth bought Moses, aged twenty-two, and in 1863, Mary Ashworth bequeathed a slave, Peter, to one of her sons. At least one slave held by the Ashworths interpreted his ownership by a freedman to be loss of caste, as reported by a Northern traveler:
At another house where we stopped. . . we heard some conversation upon a slave of the neighborhood, who had been sold to a free African American who refused to live with him, saying he wouldn’t be a servant to a nigger. All agreed that he was right, although the man was well known to be kind to his slaves, and would always sell any of them who wished it. The slave had been sold because he wouldn’t mind.Despite this attitude on the part of some slaves, in 1850, Aaron owned six slaves, Abner three, Joshua one, and William two. Ten years later Aaron, the white widow of Abner, and the white wife of William each owned four.
Free African Americans in southeastern Texas, we have seen, acquired both land and slaves. Their equality was not, however, merely economic. As hereinbefore mentioned, some of them intermarried, at least by common law, with whites, and their social equality is nowhere better demonstrated than in the titles of respect given to both their men and women. As early as 1844 and as late as 1861, Ashworth men and the women, both white and black, they married were given the titles of Mr. and Miss by county clerks when filling out marriage licenses.
Finally, we can say that several hundred African Americans lived in Texas from 1836 to 1863. Several had made Texas their home prior to the Revolution. Men of African ancestry served with Texas armies during the Revolution and a few were granted land for their services. Some African-American women such as Emily Morgan also found ways to be part of the war at the Alamo and at San Jacinto.
A few free African Americans lived in the towns; however, most were farmers in rural areas. In 1840, the Congress of the Republic passed a law allowing free African Americans to petition for the right to remain in Texas. Most petitions were denied, but free people stayed, and for the most part were unmolested.