From slavery to police brutality, chronicling Texas’ history of racial oppression

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Over the past week, protests and calls for racial justice have swept the nation. While the proximate cause of this nationwide unrest is the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police officers last week, pleading “I can’t breathe,” while an officer’s knee pressed over his neck for nearly nine minutes,  a long history of institutionalized racism has given rise to this moment in time. 

In an effort to better understand and explicate the history of racial oppression in Texas, we have cataloged a non-exhaustive list of some events in our state’s history that led up to this moment of anger and frustration. You may not have learned of many of these events in your history classes — in fact, you probably didn’t — which is why it’s all the more important to recognize them and how they landed us here. 

November 1528: The first non-native slave, named Estevanico, arrives in Texas. Estevanico was a North African Moor and had been sold into slavery to a Spanish nobleman. He was brought on an expedition to the U.S and landed in Texas. 

1690: Texas is established as a Spanish colony. Civil and religious authorities encourage releasing slaves, and the importation of enslaved Africans is not widespread during Spanish rule, which continues through the 18th century.  

1808: The U.S outlaws the import of slaves, though domestic slave trade continues to flourish. 

Sept. 1821: Mexico gains independence from Spain, and Texas is a part of the new nation. Mexico offers full citizenship to free black people and eventually outlaws slavery.  

March 2, 1836: Texas formally declared independence from Mexico and signed the Texas Constitution, which made slavery legal again in Texas. General Provision Section 9 states, among other things, that “No free person of African descent, either in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the republic without the consent of congress; and the importation or admission of Africans or negroes into this republic, excepting from the United States of America, is forever prohibited, and declared to be piracy.”

Oct. 13, 1845: Texas is on its way to being annexed into the United States as a slave state; on this day, a majority of voters in Texas approved a proposed constitution that specifically endorsed slavery and the slave trade. 

May 13, 1846: The United States declares war on Mexico, launching the Mexican-American war. The war ultimately transferred significant amounts of land from Mexico to the U.S., raising the question of how to balance the number of slave and free states. This was a key event leading to the Civil War.  

Summer of 1860: Up to hundreds of slaves died in a slave-insurrection panic known as the Texas Troubles. Some historians argue that these events may have precipitated the Civil War. 

Feb. 2, 1861: Texas secedes from the United States and joins the Confederate States of America in order to protect slavery during the Civil War, which remains the bloodiest war in American history. 

Oct. 1862: Forty-one suspected unionists in north Texas were hung in what is now known as The Great Hanging. The conflict stemmed from a disagreement over slavery; none of those who were hung owned slaves. 

Feb 1, 1893: A black laborer in Paris, Texas named Henry Smith was brutally lynched after being accused of raping and murdering a four-year-old girl. Smith was implicated based on zero evidence. He was tortured with hot irons for nearly an hour before he was soaked with kerosene and set ablaze in front of thousands of spectators. This horrific lynching gained national media attention and shocked the nation. 

July 29, 1910: In what became known as the Slocum Massacre, white vigilantes attacked black communities surrounding Slocum, a rural East Texas community. Newspapers from that time reported that white mobs murdered as many as 50 black people during the massacre and that the victims were dumped into communal pits. 

July 10-12, 1920: Following World War I, race riots took hold across the country, including in Texas. During the Longview Race Riot, whites attacked black areas of town, killing one black man and burning down their properties. The Texas National Guard and Texas Rangers were sent to quell the violence. No one was prosecuted for these events. 

Dec. 6, 1921: Fred Rouse, 53, a butcher, was beaten, stomped and stabbed, then shot and hanged in downtown Fort Worth. Fred was one of 335 African Americans who were lynched in the post-Civil War era, between 1877 and 1950, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative. 

Dec. 11, 1922: 25-year-old George Gay, a black man in the town of Streetman, was hung from a tree and shot hundreds of times after he was accused of attacking a young white woman. The woman did not identify Gay as her assailant, yet he was arrested on circumstantial evidence. That same day, the only black-owned hotel in Streetman was set ablaze. 

May 9, 1930: In the north Texas town of Sherman, a rioting mob burned down the Grayson County courthouse and lynched a black farmhand, George Hughes, accused of raping a white woman. The black business section of Sherman was also burned down, and Governor Moody sent National Guard troops to occupy the city and declared martial law. No one was held accountable for the murder of George Hughes or for the destruction of the entire black part of town. 

1960: Texas passes a miscegenation law strictly prohibiting marriage or cohabitation between racially mixed persons, punishable by one to ten years imprisonment. This was one of 29 Jim Crow laws passed in Texas. 

June 7, 1998: Three white supremacists murdered James Byrd Jr., an African-American man in Jasper, Texas. The three men dragged Byrd for three miles behind a pickup truck and then dumped Byrd’s body in front of a black cemetery. The perpetrators were sentenced to death, marking the first time in Texas’ history that white men were sentenced to death for killing a black person. 

March 2010: A burglary suspect, Brandon Holley, was brutally beaten by Houston Police Department officers. A video of the incident was leaked the following year, and police watchdog group Injustice Everywhere named it “the fifth-worst police misconduct video of 2011.” Not the list you want to make. 

 July 13, 2015: Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, three days after she was arrested during a traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide. A video of the traffic stop surfaced, and State Trooper Brian Encinia, who had initiated the arrest, was placed on administrative leave for failure to follow proper traffic stop procedures. The video of the arrest shows him pointing a gun in Bland’s face, while she is unarmed, and telling her “I will light you up. Get out now.” In Sept. 2016, Bland’s mother settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the county jail and police department for $1.9 million. 

Feb. 8, 2016: Austin Police Officer Geoffrey Freeman fatally shot David Joseph, a black teenager. Joseph was naked at the time. Freeman was found to have used unjustified lethal force. 

April 29, 2017: Police officer Roy Oliver fatally shot 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in the back of the head. Edwards was unarmed and in the passenger seat of a vehicle driving away from officers attempting to stop it. This incident marks one of the few incidents of police brutality where an officer is charged with murder. Oliver was found guilty in August 2018 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

Sept. 6, 2018: Off-duty Dallas Police Department officer Amber Guyger fatally shot and killed 26-year-old black man Botham Jean. Guyger testified that she had entered Botham’s apartment thinking it was her own (Jean’s apartment was located directly below Guyger’s) and that she thought Jean thinking he was a burglar. Initially, Guyger was only charged with manslaughter, leading to protests. A year later, Guyger was found guilty of murder and received a sentence of 10 years in prison. 

Oct. 12, 2019: In Fort Worth, a police officer named Aaron Dean shot through the window of 28-year-old Atiatana Jefferson, killing her. Dean was fired and charged with murder.

Photo: MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images

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