February 11, 2020/Media

Black Texans Who Shaped Our State and Changed Our Country

This month and every month, we honor the African Americans who risked everything for equality, fought for justice, and built a more perfect union for all.

From achievements in public service to the sciences, business, and arts to the folks who get up every day to work hard and build a better community and life for their family, African Americans have shaped our country because Black History is American History.

African American women like Juanita Craft, Bessie Coleman, and of course, the Barbara Jordan, made history, in every sense of the word. Men like Mickey Leland, Doris Miller, J. Mason Brewer, and Rube Foster, defied the institutions that sought to hinder their progress and embodied what it means to be a trailblazer.

While we reflect on the leaders and trailblazers of the past, we must work to create a brighter future – that means confronting racism, tearing down barriers to the ballot box, bringing true representation to our government, and making our country a more equal place.

Below are just a few of the African American leaders who shaped Texas history forever, and we applaud them endlessly for their fearless efforts which strengthened our democracy.

Doris Miller

On December 7, 1941, Doris Miller, a mess attendant 2nd class on the USS West Virginia at the time, was collecting laundry below deck when his ship was hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Ordered by his commanding officer to aid the fatally wounded soldiers, Miller rushed to the bridge, and once he arrived at the scene, fired a machine gun at the attacking planes until his ammunition ran out. He then proceeded to transport injured soldiers to safety through oil and water.

Miller, like all African-Americans at the time, had been subjected to cruel treatment in the Navy on account of the color of his skin. However, according to Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, “When the order came to abandon the ship, he stayed and helped. He was one of the last three sailors to leave the USS West Virginia.”

Despite his patriotism, the Navy initially did not want to release his name. The African American press demanded that Miller be acknowledged and awarded, which prompted Congress to pressure the Navy to recognize Miller’s act of bravery. The Texas-native was then awarded the Navy Cross for valor in combat.

Miller’s heroism has been cited as a “springboard” for the modern Civil Rights Movement. His importance served as a catalyst for the widespread demands for civil rights.

Bessie Coleman

When Bessie Coleman was a child, she walked four miles to attend her segregated, one-room school. Through her studies, Bessie succeeded academically and cemented herself as a proficient reader and brilliant at math. While earning her education, Bessie helped her family harvest cotton.

After moving to Chicago and hearing soldiers’ stories of piloting planes during the First World War, Bessie knew she wanted to command an aircraft. Because of the racist and sexist barriers that prevailed in U.S. aviation academies, Bessie saved up enough money to travel to France, where she was able to earn her pilot’s license.

Once Coleman ultimately returned to the U.S. she earned the nickname “Queen Bessie” for her skilled performances at exhibition flying. She conducted daring stunts and exhibited her aviation talent before paying American audiences for years.

Bessie hoped to use her career to combat racism and promote equal opportunity. She would refuse to perform for events that prohibited Black Americans from attending. She also traveled the country speaking about aviation opportunities for African Americans.

Bessie dreamed of opening up an aviation school for pilots of color, however, she died at the age of 34 after her plane suddenly crashed. Despite her premature death, Bessie served as an inspiration for African American pilots for decades.

Lieutenant William J. Powell wrote of Bessie’s legacy and the memorialization of her trailblazing achievements. “Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”

Mickey Leland

Throughout his memorialized career in politics, Mickey Leland exhibited an unparalleled commitment to humanity. The Houston-native championed causes that improved the lives of those who had been often forgotten by politicians at the time.

When Leland was first elected to the Texas House in 1972, he was among the first African-American Representatives elected to the state body since Reconstruction. Leland, who served 6 terms in the U.S. House and 6 years in the Texas Legislature, was devoted to fighting for those who lacked basic human rights — food, shelter, and healthcare.

Although Leland was certainly well-rounded in his focus, Leland’s work in food security was perhaps his guiding issue. As the architect of the House Select Committee on World Hunger, he was an outspoken advocate of devoting resources to combating hunger across the world. Mickey bravely fought for those who struggled to advance socioeconomically, and above all, he saw his role as a public servant as a means to combat injustice.

At the time of his death, Leland was traveling to famine-stricken Ethiopia to deliver supplies and resources. He didn’t narrow his scope to the United States, rather he saw himself as a citizen of the world. He utilized his resources to try and uplift the whole of humanity.

The unwavering devotion to the people that Leland exhibited should forever provide a blueprint for public servants. Leland’s mission was among the noblest ever seen in an elected official.

Juanita Craft

Juanita Craft, whose legacy continues to live in the fabric of Texas history, was one of the boldest, most courageous activists our state has ever produced. Throughout her lifelong mission to advance opportunities for people of color, Craft became a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement in Texas and across the country.

In her work as an NAACP leader in Texas, Craft fought for the desegregation of schools and State Fair of Texas. In her capacity as an NAACP field organizer, she helped organize 182 branches of the NAACP and through her work with the association’s youth council, created an organizing framework that would be later adopted by chapters across the country.

In 1944, Craft became the first African-American woman in Dallas County to vote in a Democratic Party primary. After the Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Craft advocated for the desegregation of the University of Texas Law School, and the Dallas Independent School District. From 1952 to 1975, Craft served as a Democratic precinct chairman, in addition to serving on a handful of influential boards.

The accolades she received throughout her career do not even begin to encapsulate the weight of her legacy. In addition to visiting the White House on invitation from three presidents, Craft received local and national honors from the city of Dallas, the NAACP, the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award, and more. 

When she was 73-years-old, Juanita was elected to serve on the Dallas City Council. In her role as an elected official, she continued to identify and deconstruct the obstacles hindering equal opportunity for African Americans. 

Etta Barnett

Throughout her career on Broadway and in Hollywood, Etta Barnett catapulted herself to center stage. Her immeasurable talent earned her high praise from industry mavens, however, in order to become one of the principal African American women capturing the spotlight at the time, she had to defy overwhelming odds. 

In 1933, Barnett gave an uncredited performance of “Remember my Forgotten Man” in the film Gold Diggers of 1933, during which she sings from an elevated window, high above her white costars. Eleanor Roosevelt invited Barnett to sing the show tune at FDR’s birthday in 1934, thus becoming one of the first African-American women to sing at the White House.

“She gave Black people an opportunity to look at themselves on a big screen as something beautiful when all that was there before spoke to our degradation,” Harry Belafonte said of Barnett. “In her, we found another dimension to being black in our time. She is a true shining star.”

Buffalo Soldiers

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Black soldiers who were stationed across the Western frontier came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The African American men, many of whom enlisted in the military as a way to fight for their own freedom, helped rebuild the nation after the Civil War.

The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantry Regiments served on the western frontier in the peace-time Army. The Ninth Cavalry came to Texas in 1867. Not only did they construct forts, telegraph lines, and roads, they mapped out much of West Texas, all the while facing cruel treatment and racial discrimination from some of the people they were striving to protect.

In later years, the Buffalo Soldiers fought in the Spanish-American War and in both World Wars. The Buffalo Soldiers also frequently outperformedtheir white counterparts — maintaining the lowest desertion rates in the Army.

After World War II, President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of our armed forces. Today, men and women of all races serve in the historic regiments.

>Despite their honorable service, Buffalo Soldiers rarely received the recognition and acknowledgment they deserved. In fact, to this day the patriotism and acts of bravery exhibited by these men on the frontlines are an overlooked piece of Texas history.

J. Mason Brewer

Mason Brewer was a widely celebrated folklorist and the first African American member of the Texas Folklore Society and the Texas Institute of Letters. Throughout his decades-long career, Brewer preserved the stories of African Americans across Texas.

In addition to being one of the twentieth century’s principal Black folklorists, Brewer was an essayist, a poet, a historian, and a teacher, who taught at both the high school and college levels. After earning his graduate degree from Indiana University, Brewer published dozens of folklore collections. 

Throughout his career as an educator, Brewer taught at a number of universities including Huston-Tillotson in Austin, Texas and East Texas State University in Commerce, Texas. His work continues to be celebrated to this day, and the perspectives and stories he was able to immortalize continue to highlight a crucial narrative in our country’s history.

Rube Foster

Rube Foster was a pioneering figure in major league baseball. Foster, who combatted the racial segregation of the game by founding a league solely dedicated to Black players, earned the moniker the “Father of Black Baseball.”

Foster paved his own path in a sport that barred him from entry on account of his skin color. Despite the racial discrimination he endured, Foster went on to join an all-Black club in Waco, before joining the Chicago Union Giants and later down the line, the Philadelphia Giants. Throughout his playing career, he was regarded as one of the greatest pitchers baseball had ever seen.

As his pitching career started to wane, Foster began exploring opportunities in baseball management. After a brief stint with the Leland Giants, Foster formed his own team and received praise from industry leaders who applauded his brilliant coaching methods, while still maintaining the racist barriers that hindered Foster from receiving the recognition he deserved.

After the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, Foster organized a meeting between all the coaches in the Black baseball circuit and suggested that they form a league, organized similar to the MLB. The “Negro National League” was formed shortly thereafter and by matching up their teams with white teams, he hoped to prove that his players were at the very least as equally talented as their white counterparts, if not superior, and thus deserved equal respect.

Foster’s trailblazing efforts laid the groundwork for the desegregation of baseball decades later. According to Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of Hall of Famer John Gibson and Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, Rube’s investments in baseball had a crucial impact. “Jackie Robinson is a true hero and an icon, but without the efforts of ‘Rube’ Foster in establishing the Negro Leagues and raising the black ballplayers to gain the respect of white players and owners, we may have had to wait much longer to see baseball fully integrated.”

Barbara Jordan

When Barbara Jordan took the stage as a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 1976, it took a few minutes before the roaring crowds fell silent. As the first African-American woman to ever deliver a keynote address to the Democratic Party’s convention, Barbara Jordan never overlooked her own historical significance. Her eloquence and unmatched brilliance radiated through every room she addressed. With each powerful, momentous speech she delivered, Jordan wasn’t just making history, she was cementing herself as one of the greatest orators to ever live.

Only Jordan’s own words will ever properly encapsulate the weight of her legacy. “There is something special about tonight. What is different? I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker,” she told the convention. “I feel that, notwithstanding the past, that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dreamneed not forever be deferred.”

Jordan’s keynote address, in all its genius and resonance, was just one of her many trailblazing achievements. Perhaps the most memorialized moment in Jordan’s career arrived when she addressed the prestigious House Judiciary Committee, of which she was a member, during the Richard Nixon impeachment in 1974. In a 15-minute speech, Barbara Jordan delivered what elocution experts have cited as one of the >greatest speeches in American history. She didn’t regurgitate political arguments Democrats had circulated at the time. Rather, she heralded the U.S. Constitution and reminded her colleagues on both sides of the aisle that the founders intended reason to anchor the process of impeachment.

As the only African-American woman, not to mention a freshman legislator, addressing the House Judiciary Committee, Jordan used logic, not political posturing, to steer her synthesized argument. “Today I am an inquisitor,” she told the committee. “A hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.”

To read our full blog on Barbara Jordan’s brilliant legacy, click here.