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University of California Press
Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City / Edition 1

Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City / Edition 1

by Tyina L. Steptoe


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282582
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Series: American Crossroads , #41
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 591,123
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tyina L. Steptoe is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arizona.

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Houston Bound

Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City

By Tyina L. Steptoe


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95853-1


The Bayou City in Black and White

HUDDIE LEDBETTER SPENT VERY LITTLE TIME in Houston during his years in Texas, but when he began his stint at Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land in 1920, he quickly learned about the culture and politics of the Bayou City. The road between Sugar Land and Houston was not a long one. Many of Ledbetter's fellow inmates had made the twenty-mile trek from the city to the rural prison farm to serve their sentences. When prisoners chanted in call-and-response patterns as they toiled in the relentless heat of the Brazos River bottoms, or when they shared folk songs and stories at the end of an arduous day in the fields, the men swapped vernacular expressions and local knowledge from the places they called home. Ledbetter brought performance styles he had cultivated in the clubs along Fannin Street in Shreveport, in the Deep Ellum entertainment district in Dallas, and at country dances in the small towns and rural hamlets that dotted East Texas and western Louisiana. Meanwhile, references to nearby Houston populated the songs and stories shared by other inmates at Sugar Land.

It was through these Houstonians that the man who came to be known as "Leadbelly" heard firsthand accounts of the city located east of the prison, cautionary tales about the run-ins with police officers that had landed so many of them behind bars in the first place. When Ledbetter began singing his own version of the song "Midnight Special," he likely was alluding to the people and places his fellow inmates mentioned in their tales:

    If you ever go to Houston
    Boy, you better walk right
    And you better not squabble
    And you better not fight
    Bason and Brock will just arrest you
    Payton and Boone will carry you down
    And you can bet your bottom dollar
    Oh Lord, you're Sugar Land bound.

Ledbetter's take on "Midnight Special" points to a relationship between urban law enforcement in Houston and rural punishment in the surrounding countryside. He and the men he encountered in Sugar Land drew on a folk tradition that enabled them to impart knowledge about a region and its power structure through their cultural expressions. "Midnight Special" maps the nexus of power that flowed between country and city, revealing a history of place and displacement in eastern Texas. Known ominously as the "Hell-Hole of the Brazos," the prison in Fort Bend County was a site of forced labor that had entrapped African Americans before and after the Civil War. Slaves once cultivated the sugarcane fields that gave the town and prison in Sugar Land their names. Following the war, local plantations leased convicts to work the land. The state of Texas later purchased land in the area and built the penitentiary there in 1908. By the time Ledbetter arrived at the onset of the '20s, the prison was an established part of the white power structure that relied on subjugated black labor. "Midnight Special" may even refer to some of the people who helped maintain that system — specifically, white police officers in the Bayou City. Superintendent Clarence Brock served as Houston's chief of police during World War I, while George Payton and Johnnie Boone worked as detectives in the city's black neighborhoods. Men who ran afoul of these police officers could easily land in the fields of Sugar Land. The violent confrontations that led to the Houston Riot of 1917, the vicious tactics of a reborn Ku Klux Klan that had police support, and continued brutality in the 1920s confirmed that urban law enforcement and rural prisons physically embodied white supremacy in the region.

Before twentieth-century migrations altered local demographics, Houston was a town where Anglos and African Americans made up the majority of the population. Notions of race and power were rooted in the creation of a slave society in Houston and the surrounding countryside in the antebellum era and the establishment of a black/white binary. Black migrants further established a group subjectivity when they flooded into Houston from places like Fort Bend County following the Civil War and established a network of free black communities decades before the Great Migration. In the face of black cultural and economic growth, white supremacists in the early twentieth century worked to maintain their dominance through legal maneuvers and the steady perpetuation of the type of violence Leadbelly describes in "Midnight Special."

The black migrants who poured into Houston over the years worked to build an alternate geography over this landscape of violent white supremacy. Black Houstonians strove to create autonomous neighborhoods in order to forge a spatial — and psychological — distance between themselves and the white power structure. This project began when the first freed people arrived in Houston after the Civil War from places like Sugar Land, but it especially gained momentum during the New Negro era: a nationwide commitment to militant struggle against Jim Crow and racial violence during and after World War I. Writer Alain Locke described New Negroes as black people with "renewed self-respect and self-dependence." Militant Houstonians articulated this identity through their willingness to use armed self-reliance in response to white-led violence, their use of older vernacular traditions to critique authority, and their emphasis on creating black neighborhoods that lay outside of white control. These assertions were often motivated by concerns about race and gender. A history of violence between white men and women of color especially influenced black Houstonians' push to claim space and power.

Cultural expressions buttressed New Negroes' efforts to achieve those goals. The food they ate, the stories they told, the music that inspired them to dance, and the beauty products they sold became the basis for a consumer economy that supported the sociopolitical project of black autonomy. Musicians like Huddie Ledbetter, along with writers and urban entrepreneurs, did not just offer cultural responses to that agenda. Culture products often provided the foundation for their claims to space. In the process, black migrants articulated a racialized subjectivity that was informed not only by their legal status in a segregated society, but also by cultural practices that served as the building blocks for the establishment of black communities.


When newcomers moved to Houston in the late 1910s and 1920s, they entered a place shaped by nearly a century of black history and settlement. That history shaped the meanings of blackness and whiteness that later groups of migrants would encounter and negotiate.

The connection between Houston and the nearby plantation belt developed in the nineteenth century, and the continued movement of black bodies between those places reinforced that link. Before moving to Houston and marrying Arthur Berry, the woman once called Leanna Edwards came of age in Wharton County, which was adjacent to Fort Bend County, where Huddie Ledbetter served his prison sentence. The Edwards family worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation in Wharton, and their enslaved ancestors had likely toiled in that area as well. Wharton and Fort Bend were part of a sugar- and cotton-producing region, dubbed the "Texas Sugar Bowl," that also included Brazoria and Matagorda counties. (See map 2.) Located along the lower Brazos and Colorado rivers southwest of Houston, the region historically boasted a substantial black population. English-speaking white settlers realized they could grow cotton and sugarcane in the fertile river bottoms, and they rushed to amass land and slaves. The Sugar Bowl had a dense concentration of large-scale slave plantations between the 1830s and the Civil War, and in 1850, each Sugar Bowl county had a slave majority. By i860, slaves made up 72 percent of Brazoria County's population, and over 80 percent of Wharton County. Although confined to the eastern part of the state, the slaveholding area of Texas was as large as Alabama and Mississippi combined at the onset of the Civil War.

Houston's proximity to some of the most profitable plantations in Texas made the city the connective tissue that linked the countryside to the port on Galveston Island. City founders Augustus and John Allen saw the potential of a city located "in the heart of a very rich country" of pine and swamp. In 1836, they used black slaves and Mexican prisoners of war from the Battle of San Jacinto to clear the "marshy, mosquito-infested" bayou land that originally formed Houston, named for the commanding general who led the attack on the Mexican army that year. Human chattel and crops traveled between the city and the farms and plantations of the Sugar Bowl via the San Felipe Trail, a path that allowed the city to prosper on the productivity of the slave-filled countryside. Houston subsequently became central to Anglo economic interests in southeastern Texas. When he visited the city that locals called "Hewston" in the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted found a city full of churches, saloons, magnolia blossoms, and a thriving slave market. "There is a prominent slave-mart in town, which held a large lot of likely-looking negroes, waiting purchasers. In the windows of shops, and on the doors and columns of the hotel, were many written advertisements headed, 'A likely negro girl for sale.' 'Two negroes for sale.' 'Twenty negro boys for sale,' etc." Most of those slaves wound up in the fields of places like the Sugar Bowl.

The notions of blackness and whiteness in this area were an outgrowth of the social-spatial construction of eastern Texas as a slave society with a plantation-based power structure in the antebellum era. When they moved west to Texas, slaveholders and slaves brought notions of race and power shaped by two centuries of plantation ideology forged in the Southeast. The white and black people found in antebellum eastern Texas were typically English-speaking southerners who hailed from other slave states. Forty-three percent of the Anglos living in Texas in i860 migrated there from one of the other ten states that would form the Confederate States of America one year later. The number of Anglos there who were born in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi nearly equaled the number of people born in the Lone Star State. The elite slaveholding class used their economic power in an agricultural, plantation-based society to impose their values and shore up power. The creation of this slave society in eastern Texas demanded the imposition of the white-over-black racial hierarchy and the implementation of a plantation regime.

Black East Texans' conception of racial blackness developed from the shared circumstances of enslavement and the act of rebuilding a society and culture in a new place. In slave cabins, cotton fields, plantation kitchens, and brush harbors — secluded arbors where slaves practiced Christianity — they formed a group subjectivity. African Americans forced west strove to recreate the cultural practices that had sustained slave communities for centuries. Ripped from family and the land they had once called home, slaves brought cultural practices cultivated in the Southeast to the counties of eastern Texas. The work songs heard for nearly two hundred years in Virginia's tobacco fields slaves now used to keep time while chopping cotton along the Brazos River. In places like Brazoria County, slaves built conjurers' cabins with bakongo cosmograms inside to help ward off evil spirits, and praised Jesus in their ring shouts at the end of the day. They emerged from the Civil War with a sense of racial community based on their shared experiences in eastern Texas and the necessity of re-forming social networks and cultural practices in a new place.

Former slaves from the Sugar Bowl and other parts of East Texas were some of the first free black people to settle in Houston after the Civil War. The first influx of freedpeople arrived soon after June 19, 1865, the day remembered as "Juneteenth," when word of Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox in April finally reached enslaved Texans. Labor motivated some freedpeople to make the transition from rural to urban. Using labor contracts, Anglo landowners compelled former slaves in the county to pick cotton, chop sugarcane, or conduct other forms of agricultural labor that reminded them of the years they had spent in bondage. Freedpeople frequently signed labor contracts that bound them to white-owned land for a set amount of time. These sharecroppers earned a percentage of the crop they grew, but white landowners typically found ways to pay them little to nothing for their labor. Thousands of freedpeople decided to abandon the country in favor of cities. Freedpeople from the Sugar Bowl trekked to Houston using the San Felipe Trail, which connected the city to the countryside. Only around one thousand African Americans were living in Houston in i860, but that number tripled over the next decade. After the Civil War, generations of African Americans from the Sugar Bowl continued moving to Houston.

When they first arrived in Houston from the country in the summer of 1865, the penniless former slaves moved into Fourth Ward, near downtown. Homeless migrants found shelter at a dilapidated warehouse that locals dubbed "Hotel d'Afrique." The sight of newly freed people searching for labor and housing became common in those years following the war. Some Anglo Houstonians lamented the "crowds of idle negroes" in the downtown area: "We cannot help but pity the poor freedmen and women that have left comfortable and happy homes in the country and come to this city in search of what they call freedom," wrote one Houstonian in the local Tri-Weekly Telegraph. But black Houston quickly took root. By 1870 the city was just under 40 percent black. Former slaves created a neighborhood called Freedman's Town in 1865 at the place where the San Felipe Trail ended in Fourth Ward. A concentration of families, businesses, and institutions made the area south of the Buffalo Bayou and west of downtown a noticeable black neighborhood by 1870. Freedpeople handcrafted bricks to line the community's streets, and they used cypress trees that grew nearby to construct houses in the fledgling neighborhood.

Freedman's Town emerged as an early center of black political and cultural life. With the support of former abolitionists, a black school called the Gregory Institute opened in 1870 on San Felipe Street. That thoroughfare became the hub of Freedman's Town. The neighborhood was home to politicians, pastors, draymen, domestic workers, and a diverse range of former slaves — and some white families — seeking to rebuild after the war. In 1870, a white Radical Republican named William H. Parsons — who supported the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote — lived in an area where most of his neighbors were former slaves. Antioch Baptist Church, which opened in 1872, aided freedpeople who wished to buy land and purchase homes, and served as the site of the city's first black college. Antioch, under the leadership of a freedman named Jack Yates, also served as the meeting place for the biracial Harris County Republican Club, which solidified the church as a political and religious space.

The name "Freedman's Town" spoke to the emergence of a racialized group subjectivity developed by diverse people from different states who forged social space. Because of the history of slavery and forced black migration to eastern Texas, Freedman's Town looked like a map of the antebellum South, since residents hailed from every state of the former Confederacy. The majority of residents were most likely survivors of the "Second Middle Passage," people sold to Texas via the interstate slave trade that had thrived before the Civil War. In 1870, 58 percent of black Houstonians had been born outside of Texas. For most families, only children under the age of eighteen were born in Texas. The Yates family offers a typical story. The Yateses had been born into bondage in Gloucester County, Virginia. The enslaved married couple lived on different farms, but when Harriet's owner decided to move to Matagorda County, in the Texas Sugar Bowl, in 1863, Jack convinced his owner to sell him so that he could move west with his wife and children. The Civil War ended when Jack was thirty-seven years old and Harriet was around twenty. Rather than remain in the Texas countryside, the Yates family relocated to Houston that year. In their Fourth Ward community, 12 percent of their black neighbors also hailed from Virginia. Most of the other adults in Freedman's Town were born in Louisiana, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi. The Yates family lived next door to the Smith family from Mississippi, while another neighbor, Abram Chambers, was born in North Carolina. These demographics distinguished Houston from cities in the Southeast. While 90 percent of black Atlanta was born in Georgia, only around 40 percent of black Houstonians were Texas natives during Reconstruction. The majority of adults in Freedman's Town likely shared a history of forced migration to Texas as enslaved people and the more recent experience of relocating from the country to the city. Those commonalities gave the black community a collective sense of a shared history. They further acknowledged those ties by making claims to urban space. Their cultural institutions such as churches, and the communal land they purchased for parks, marked the neighborhood as their own.


Excerpted from Houston Bound by Tyina L. Steptoe. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: When Worlds Collide 
Part One 
1 • The Bayou City in Black and White 
2 • Old Wards, New Neighbors 
Part Two 
3 • Jim Crow–ing Culture
4 • “We Were Too White to Be Black and Too Black to Be White” 
Part Three 
5 • “All America Dances to It” 
6 • “Blaxicans” and Black Creoles 
Conclusion: Race in the Modern City 


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