In 1907, physician Lawrence A. Nixon fled the racial violence of central Texas to settle in the border town of El Paso. There he became a community and civil rights leader. His victories in two Supreme Court decisions paved the way for dismantling all-white political primaries across the South.
Will Guzmán delves into Nixon's lifelong struggle against Jim Crow. Linking Nixon's activism to his independence from the white economy, support from the NAACP, and the man's own indefatigable courage, Guzmán also sheds light on Nixon's presence in symbolic and literal borderlandsas an educated professional in a time when few went to college, as an African American who made waves when most feared violent reprisal, and as someone living on the mythical American frontier as well as an international boundary.
A powerful addition to the literature on African Americans in the Southwest, Civil Rights in the Texas Borderlands explores seldom-studied corners of the Black past and the civil rights movement.
|Publisher:||University of Illinois Press|
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About the Author
Will Guzmán is an assistant professor of history and African American studies at Florida A&M University. He is a coauthor of Landmarks and Legacies: A Guide to Tallahassee's African American Heritage.
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Civil Rights in the Texas Borderlands
Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and Black Activism
By Will Guzmán
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Marshall, Texas, 1883–1909
One of the worst sections in all this round world for any Negro to live in.
William Pickens, ca. 1914–1915
Lawrence Aaron Nixon grew up after the presidential compromise of 1877—a time in U.S. history when violence by whites against Blacks was rampant and when resurgent white power, especially in the South, steadily circumscribed the constitutional rights of African Americans. This era was a period of social unrest and political upheaval, during which race relations deteriorated dramatically. Black people and their interests were placed on the sacrificial altar of political expediency by many whites within the Republican party in exchange for the removal of federal troops from the South, sectional harmony, and the expansion of big business and global imperialism.
Lawrence A. Nixon's Family Genealogy
Nixon was born on February 9, 1883, to Jennie Valerie Engledow and Charles Blanton Nixon in Marshall, Texas. He was the couple's oldest child. He had two sisters—Annie Lucillia Nixon, born in March 1885, and Alfaretta Sally Nixon, born March 1887—and two brothers—Hallie P. Nixon, whose birth date is unknown, and Charles Jeff Nixon, born April 1889, the youngest member of the family. Hallie died at the age of two, and Annie died in March 1944.
Much of the information about Lawrence Nixon's family that follows here was provided by two living relatives: Edna Nixon McIver, Nixon's seventy-five-year-old daughter who currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Lawrence A. Walker, Nixon's eighty-nine-year-old nephew who currently lives in Graham, North Carolina. The information that Walker shared was gathered by his mother, Alfaretta S. Nixon Walker (Nixon's sister), who compiled a large amount of the family's history in the 1950s. Lawrence A. Nixon's genealogy can be traced back to Africa. According to family lore, his paternal grandfather, Charles Neil Nixon, was an African captive who was brought to Georgia directly from the continent. Alfaretta Walker writes that her grandfather talked of being "from the Bush tribe," which could mean a number of things. He may have been a member of the Bushongo of the Kuba Kingdom, who inhabited the Congo basin region. He may have been a San, Bushmen, or more appropriately a Kwe, Nharon, Hai, !Khu, or !Xo, ethnic groups who live across Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, although this is statistically improbable, since more than 90 percent of enslaved Africans taken to the Americas were from the West African coast—Mauritania to Angola. Perhaps Nixon's grandfather simply could have been referring to the fact that he came from the rural "country," a deep forest region, or a forgotten area of the African interior.
Although primary documents have been difficult to uncover, there is a strong likelihood that Nixon's grandfather was indeed a native African. Scholars have estimated that "between 1790 and 1810, about 194,000" Africans were captured and forcefully brought to the United States. Of this number, "more than 90,000 were newly transported African captives," who were traded through Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Approximately "63,000 stayed near the port of entry, 15,000 in South Carolina and 48,000 in Georgia." The United States Congress outlawed the importation of African captives in 1787, and the law went into effect on 1 January 1808. Despite the ban on importing Africans, "illegal slaving vessels" continued to bring in "perhaps 7,000 more Africans ... during the next decade," of which "Georgia took about 2,000." Decades after the ban, in the 1880 census, Nixon's grandfather gave his age as fifty-four, meaning he was born in 1826. From this information we can deduce that he obviously was not within the group of two thousand Africans that arrived in Georgia between 1808 and 1820, nor the group of forty-eight thousand African captives who arrived prior to 1808. However, according to family memoirs, he did live in Georgia during slavery, and so it is possible traders in African captives illegally smuggled the elder Nixon into the United States sometime after the 1830s, decades after the official ban. Southerners would brazenly violate this federal law by continuing to import African captives well into the late 1850s and early 1860s.
Charles N. Nixon had four wives. Alfaretta, Nixon's granddaughter, describes her grandfather as being "dark," with "busy [bushy] hair, prominent nose, and thin lips." While held in bondage, Charles N. Nixon had large families with his first two wives, about whom little is known. Nixon's descendants say that he was eventually sold off by plantation owners and that he never saw his families again. This was a traumatic and frequent occurrence among African captives in the Americas, particularly in the southern United States. Logic would seem to have dictated that it was in the best interest of plantation owners to secure loyalty, maintain cohesion, and create a sense of normalcy and stability by not splitting up Black families by selling off valued loved ones. Yet the fact is most plantation owners wanted to "maximize labor productivity and slave-trading profits," and so African captives and their families were "sold, moved, and relocated ... in reaction to economic pressures," not in accordance with emotional sensibilities, moral righteousness, or an ethical worldview based on reciprocity, respect, or dignity.
Charles N. Nixon's third wife, Marguerite Macfarland, a Virginian, was an African captive who was "said to be a Lee," according to family records, meaning she was owned by the infamous Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederate Army. Between 1857 and 1862, Lee owned more than two hundred African captives, nearly all of whom he freed on 29 December 1862. Many Black families, particularly in Virginia, took the surname Lee after General Richard Henry Lee, the American Revolutionary war hero and an ancestor of Robert E. Lee. Family documents indicate that Marguerite Macfarland boasted of a Lee connection, but she obviously did not adopt the Lee name upon freedom. In the family records, Macfarland is described as having been "short of stature," with "white skin" and "long brown hair and blue eyes." She bore three children with Charles N. Nixon: Charlie (Lawrence Nixon's father), Adeline, and Caroline. Although Marguerite Macfarland was dead at the time of the 1880 U.S. census, her European features were pronounced enough for the enumerator to classify her and Charles N. Nixon's three children as "mulatto." Their son Charlie would go on to have five children of his own, including Lawrence A. Nixon.
Charles N. Nixon had an additional five children with his fourth wife, Ann Nixon. She is described in the 1880 census as a thirty-two-year-old mulatto who is "keeping house." Their children are listed in the census as Andrew (thirteen), Sarah (ten), Savannah (seven), Edward (four), and Lawrence (eight months). Interestingly, Charles N. Nixon and his parents are said to have been born in Virginia according to this 1880 census, which would contradict Alfaretta S. Walker's account in her family history. There are many possible explanations for this. For one, the census enumerator could have been mistaken in documenting the information. For another, it may be that the elder Nixon did not find out about his African roots until years later or was ashamed of his direct African lineage. It's also possible he felt the enumerator would not believe him if he said he was born in Africa, since it was against the law for Africans to be imported into the United States after 1807. Although unlikely, another possibility is that Nixon fabricated the story for the amusement of his grandchildren, who then unwittingly passed it on to future generations as fact. Charles N. Nixon died of heart disease sometime in the 1890s; he would have been in his mid- to late sixties or early seventies.
In a 1952 letter to Walter White, NAACP executive secretary at the time, Lawrence A. Nixon wrote, "My father [Charles B. Nixon] was ten years of age at the end of slavery," making his father's birth year approximately 1855. However, if one subtracts his stated age at the time of the 1880 census, he would have been born in 1858. His mother, Jennie Valerie Engledow, was born in March 1865 ("the 'year of surrender' as she used to say"), making her only a few weeks old when the Civil War ended. On 19 January 1881, in Marshal, Texas, the Reverend Elder Luke officiated over the wedding of Nixon's parents. His father was twenty-two (according to the census method of determining his year of birth) and his mother was fifteen. In 1883, their first son, Lawrence Aaron Nixon, was born.
Pullman Porter: Life on the Railroad
The 1880 census has Charles B. Nixon's occupation as "servant," and though it does not indicate an employer, we know he was employed by the Texas and Pacific Railway Company. Steady employment with the railroad must have given Charles B. Nixon some confidence in his financial ability to support a family. According to Lawrence Nixon,
When my father married my mother, he owned his own home [in Marshall, Texas], the house where my older sister and I were born. All the years of his adult life he worked for the same corporation, the Texas and Pacific Railroad Co.—as a laborer when the road was building and later, up to the time of his death, on the General Manager's private car.
Railroad employment provided income to thousands of Black men (and to a lesser extent Black women), allowing them to make a vital contribution to the economic health of African American communities in both the North and the South. George Pullman started the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1862. Soon after, the company became the largest employer in the nation of African American men, primarily the South's formerly enslaved.
The security, stability, and mobility that railway employment offered its workers cannot be overstated during this time period, particularly for most Black men who were prevented from traveling during the antebellum days. Traveling symbolized freedom. However, it was because they had been enslaved that George Pullman hired African American men to serve the mostly white customers on his cars. This helped to perpetuate the notion that Black men were nonthreatening, jovial, and submissive servants who relished serving whites and fulfilling their every request. In 1916, fifty-one years after slavery's demise, Louis S. Hungerford, Pullman Company president, stated that their "training" in the South made former African captives a good fit for service in the train cars.
However, southern Blacks were not acquiescent because they loved the life of servility or enjoyed bowing to white customers. Prior to the Civil War, and even after, many whites failed to recognize that the Black men who did behave docilely were actually engaging in a form of resistance and survival. They clearly were "wearing the mask" and "putting on Mr. Charlie" so as to extract a small slice of pleasures such as food or favors and amusement, or simply to go another day having avoided the whip or lash. Pullman porters perpetuated this same behavior in order to survive in their work environments and win additional tips from whites. Additionally, many African American porters "embraced the role of courtesy in their work, carefully drawing the distinction between politeness and servility." Politeness marked them as gentlemen, "the aristocracy of Negro labor," while servility "undermined their struggle for fair treatment from employers and passengers." The Pullman Porters' Review, a Pullman Company publication, portrayed porters as courteous gentlemen, not servants: "By courtesy is not meant obeisance, bowing, etc., ... [but] politeness which comes from the Latin verb, 'polite' to polish, to be finished, to be well bred, a smooth, refined, sober and polished gentility." Although there was a fine line between adopting the mannerism of the genteel Victorian age and slavish behavior so as to extract tips, the line was there, and unfortunately, it was blurred in the minds of some Blacks and whites.
By working on the trains, Black men hoped to secure middle-class status within their respective communities. During the first half of the twentieth century, the Black middle class mostly sprang from blue-collar occupations, and most of those who held white-collar jobs knew the "stitching on those collars was noticeably weak." The idea of the middle class for most African American families during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was less about "wealth" than about "values, lifestyle, and aspiration. They believed in the sanctity of home, family, and church; placed a premium on self-discipline, and education; had a penchant for thrift, savings, and acquiring real estate. They were strivers and joiners." And although "economic racism blunted their financial ambitions, they had faith in the promise of upward mobility for themselves and their children." This is what being employed in the railroad industry afforded the Nixon family and so many other African Americans during this time.
Despite the rigors and drudgery of the jobs themselves, it would be this middle-class and higher social status—relatively speaking—that would give some members of the African American community the disposable time and income to take part in the uplifting of the race and to "assume important leadership positions within" their communities. Ultimately, these railroad employees would become "the civil rights leaders of their era. They themselves seldom used the term middle class, which had not become an everyday term in America. Instead they spoke of themselves as the 'better class of Negroes,' or as 'the educated class,' or 'the right sort.'" Working on the railroad put Nixon in the company of those civil rights leaders who were employed within the railroad industry at what has been described by historian Eric Arnesen as "a temporary occupational stage in a life of social advancement." Such leaders include Malcolm X, Harry Haywood, Benjamin Mays, Roy Wilkins, and Thurgood Marshall. Other luminaries were singer Taylor Gordon, writers Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, adventurer Matthew Henson, and Blues legend "Big Bill" Broonzy.
The Nixons in New Orleans
Charles B. Nixon's status as a train employee, particularly as chief steward for the private car of the general manager of the Texas and Pacific Railway, not only afforded him a semblance of status in his own community but also allowed him to travel, see the country, meet new people from other regions, become more cosmopolitan in his worldview, and offer his family opportunities he otherwise might not have been able to. In 1886 or 1887, for example, they temporarily relocated to New Orleans, where Nixon enrolled his children in a private school within the city. In describing his upbringing, Lawrence Nixon explains, "My early childhood was spent in New Orleans, Louisiana. I went to a private school for colored children and lived in a neighborhood composed of colored people and descendants of German and Italian immigrants. It was a clean, thrifty neighborhood and we were all good neighbors." Nixon further elaborates, saying, "I can't imagine a more happy childhood than my two sisters, my brother and I lived. We came up knowing how to work. A great deal of the joy of my boyhood came out of the work I did. My father disliked people who were ashamed to work with their hands." In New Orleans, during these early years of his education, Nixon was influenced by an English woman whose British accent affected his speech pattern and syntax. This "remained with him all his life, for he never spoke with a typical southern accent, but a softly clipped manner of speech" causing people to believe he might be a native of the English-speaking Caribbean. The time in New Orleans was beneficial in other ways: the family expanded by two with the addition of Lawrence Nixon's sister Alfaretta and brother Charlie. After approximately five years, in 1891 or 1892, the Texas and Pacific Railway reassigned Charles B. Nixon back to Marshall.
In 1883, the year of Lawrence Nixon's birth, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two major decisions that would impact African Americans. In the first, United States v. Harris, the court ruled that local and state governments rather than the federal government had the right to punish individuals for violent crimes such as assault and murder. This ruling also declared that the enforcement of the Equal Protection Clause—found within the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1871—applied only to state action and not state inaction. This would have serious implications, since violence by terrorist groups such as lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan was rampant during the Reconstruction era. In the second, the Civil Rights Cases, the high court deemed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. This act outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations, but the court felt that while states were obligated to respect the rights of Black Americans, individual business owners could discriminate. The court's decision also nullified the two Enforcement Acts that were passed by Congress on 31 May 1870 and 20 April 1871. This was the national context in which Nixon was born, and it marked the official end of Reconstruction, at which point southern communities were in the process of being "redeemed."
Life and Political Climate in Marshall, Texas
Marshall was incorporated in 1844 and became the county seat of Harrison County just prior to the Civil War. The 1870 census indicates that the city had a population of 1,920, 44 percent (851) of whom were African American. By 1880, just three years before Lawrence Nixon's birth, the Black population had more than tripled to 2,787, representing nearly 50 percent of the city's population. The number of whites in Marshall increased to 2,837, bringing the total population in 1880 to 5,624. In the 1890 census, African Americans were over 50 percent of the population, comprising 3,673 of the total. Additionally in 1890, the census lists 336 foreign-born individuals and 2 Chinese persons along with the 3,532 whites.
Excerpted from Civil Rights in the Texas Borderlands by Will Guzmán. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations vii
Notes on Usage ix
List of Abbreviations xi
Chronology Lawrence A. Nixon xiii
Introduction. Tale of a Doctor, History of a Land 1
1 Marshall, Texas, 1883-1909 11
2 The Lure of El Paso, 1910-1919 30
3 Bullets and Ropes: Wading in Bloody Waters, 1919-1924
4 Nixon, the NAACP, and the Courts, 1924-1934 67
5 Optimism and Rejection, 1925-1962 87