There are many notable black historic figures from Texas. Each of them made significant contributions to black history of not only Texas, but the nation at large. Black Texans have made major contributions in politics, military events, music, and sports. The accomplishments of those Texans continue being discussed in history classes and homes throughout the nation.
After surviving the 1900 Galveston storm, Arthur ‘Jack’ Johnson went on to make a name for himself in the world of boxing. At that time, boxing for money was considered a criminal activity, even though it was popular. In Texas, heavyweight boxing matches were illegal. Some of the governors of that period sent Texas Rangers out to shut down boxing matches.
Johnson became known as “Papa Jack” or the “Galveston Giant”, Johnson won the heavyweight boxing title in 1908, a time filled with racial tensions. He defeated Tommy Burns for the title in Sydney, Australia. Since many whites disliked him winning the title, a follow up match was arranged with James Jeffries, who was brought out of retirement for the special fight. Jeffries was known as “The Great White Hope” in the publicity leading up to the fighting match. When Johnson defeated Jeffries, race riots broke out in many cities in the aftermath. The State of Texas went so far as to pass laws forbidding the showing of films in Texas documenting what occurred based on fears that it would incite race riots. Johnson later claimed further fame as an inventor for inventing a new type of wrench.
Another ground breaking Texan was Bessie Coleman. As a young woman, Bessie was fascinated with airplanes and flight. In the aftermath of World War I, Bessie traveled to France in order to obtainer pilot’s license, since women were not allowed licensure as pilots at that time. She broke ground for being one of the first woman aviators along with being the first black aviator. After obtaining her license, she traveled the nation teaching other black women to fly at her exhibitions.
The Texan, Scott Joplin also established new frontiers in music. Joplin grew up in Texarkana, Texas where a teacher saw his potential musical talent and worked to develop it. Joplin went on to develop a musical style known as ragtime. Joplin referred to himself as the “King of Ragtime”. His music gained popularity through ‘piano rolls’. The rolls enabled the player pianos to reproduce the sounds. Joplin’s distinctive sounds became foundational in the later development of a musical genre known as ‘jazz’. He also produced a grand opera, entitled Treemonisha, which received a Pulitzer Prize after his death.
When the world went to war, one of those who served was Doris Miller. This young man from Texas served as a mess attendant on the battleship, USS West Virginia, stationed at Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese attacked the American naval forces on December 7, 1941, Miller took action. When a nearby machine gun crew could no longer operate their weapon, he stepped up and proceeded to take position and continue using the weapon. What was amazing was that he had received no training on the use of the weapon. Miller received a Navy Cross for his brave actions at Pearl Harbor. Doris Miller later died in action, when the ship he was serving on was sunk.
The earliest recorded accomplishments by a black in Texas was by Estavanico. Estavanico was a slave who survived the Narvarez expedition shipwreck. He explored Texas with Cabeza de Vaca. The accounts of their journey and encounters with local Indian tribes inspired other conquistadors to explore the southwest. Their stories included episodes of early surgery, tribal practices and rumors of cities of gold. The Indians liked Estavanico and his presence was often seen as a favorable omen that allowed the Spanish to proceed without being attacked. Normally, the Indians attacked the Spanish without hesitation. Estavanico’s presence allowed Cabeza de Vaca to survive many of those early encounters. Estavanico later returned to Texas to lead a second expedition, known as the de Niza expedition.
A modern trailblazer for black women in Texas was Barbara Jordan. As a young student at Harvard, Barbara Jordan was very involved in politics. She gained notoriety as a champion debater, and worked for the Kennedy campaign when she lived in the Boston area, where she attended school. This woman from Texas made significant headway by winning election to the Texas Senate. She was the first black female elected State Senator in Texas in 1966. After distinguishing herself in the Senate, she was elected to serve as a US Representative. While serving in the House of Representatives, she played a prominent role in the Watergate hearing and was known for her referring to the Constitution/Bill of Rights that she carried with her along with her superb speaking skills. After retiring from politics, she served as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
A man whose life was surrounded by rumors and controversy was Colonel James Kemp Holland. James was half-black and half-white. James Holland went on to become the highest ranking black serving in the Confederate Army. He also served as an aide to Governor Pendlenton Murrah of Texas during the war. His gaining such a position was a notable achievement for his time being the first black to serve in a Texas Governor’s administration. Since one of his parents was white, his race is often hotly debated both then and now. His accomplishment in achieving officer status at a time when the United States military remained segregated is notable.
Another early black military hero in Texas was Hendrick Arnold. Hendrick was a free black man who led one of the three forces of armed Texians when they attacked San Antonio in the early days of the Texas War for Independence. The force succeeded in capturing the city and the Alamo. Hendrick was a key figure in what became known as the Battle of Bejar, which helped gained Texas it’s freedom.
A modern freedom fighter was James Farmer. Throughout his life, James Farmer worked toward eliminating racial segregation. His efforts led to him taking stands advocating non-violent resistance included refusing to serve in segregated military units during World War II. Taking the stand of refusing to serve was controversial at that time. Later, he served as the head of the organization he founded known as the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). He led several boycotts in the State of Texas, including one at Prairie View A&M in his efforts to end racial segregation. For his efforts, he was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
James Farmer was also featured in the recent move, “The Great Debaters”, produced by Oprah and directed by Denzel Washington. Although the film portrays some historic incidents in Farmer’s life, it remains highly fictionalized. The real 1935 debate team from Wiley College travelled west, not north where they faced the University of Southern California’s debate team. They never debated Harvard as portrayed in the film. The team did come across a lynching shortly after it had occurred, which was traumatizing.
There were many other notable Texas blacks. Among them were Congressman Mickey Leland, the Buffalo soldiers of the 41st and 24th Infantry along with the 9th Cavalry stationed in Texas. The buffalo soldiers also charged up San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War. It was the black color sergeant, George Barry of the 10th cavalry who planted the US flag on San Juan Hill. The Buffalo Soldier National Museum is located in Houston, Texas. It contains historic artifacts and memorabilia of these brave soldiers.
There were also some notable early black ranchers in Texas such as Bill Pickett. These men established their own ranches rather than working for others. Their early efforts gained respect from the other ranchers and cattlemen in the area during a time when the cattle business was rough.
There were also many notable musicians from Texas. Leadbelly, Barry White, Lightnin Hopkins, and Sly Stone were all from Texas. Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins eventually performed for the Queen of England and in Carnegie Hall. Each of these men earned a place in the hall of fame for their various styles of music.
There were also notable black accomplishments in the field of education. Lawrence Williams has been a role model in establishing himself as a world-class mathematician from Texas. Former slave Matthew Gaines eventually became a State Senator and was instrumental in pioneering free public education in Texas and the founding of Texas’ first University, Texas A&M. William Goyens was a free black in the early Republic of Texas who was known for his business sense and creativity. He established his own business and was well read. Many of the early leaders in the Republic often consulted with William Goyens, since they valued his counsel and experience.