Irish Immigrant Henry Sweeney and the Ku Klux Klan in Texas in 1868

0
521
This cartoon by the Ku Klux Klan threatening to hang Northerners who moved to the South was published in Southern newspapers in 1868.

Henry Sweeney had a successful stint as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau at Helena, Arkansas in the first two years of Reconstruction. The Irish-born officer left the Bureau to continue his career as a soldier with the United States Army in occupied Alabama. In the last half of 1868 he was back in the Freedmen’s Bureau again, this time in Texas. His triumphs in Arkansas could not prepare him for what he would face in the Lone Star State.1

Henry Sweeney continued to serve in the army after leaving Freedmen’s Bureau, retiring as the army shrank in 1870. His pride in his service is reflected in this photo taken three decades later.

The Freedmen’s Bureau had been established by Abraham Lincoln and Congress in March of 1865. After Lincoln’s assassination, his successor, President Andrew Johnson made every effort to undercut the Bureau’s actions supporting freed slaves in the South. He had hoped to shut the agency down as soon as possible. In 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act over Johnson’s veto, but even with that new lease on life, most Freedmen’s Bureau activities were to close at the end of 1868. 2

The Bureau had been violently opposed by white plantation owners from the start. Until 1868, Blacks could not vote in Texas and local governments beholden to all-white constituencies tried to return blacks to new forms of involuntary servitude after slavery formally ended, forcing them to work under the sometimes violent discipline of white overseers. The agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau stood between the planters and full white domination of black labor.3

By September of 1868, political conditions in Texas were volatile. Ulysses S. Grant, the head of the Union Army that had conquered the former Confederacy, was the Republican nominee for president and the likely replacement for the pro-white Southern President Andrew Johnson. White Southerners feared that he would insist on full citizenship rights for African Americans. A state constitutional convention had been called at the insistence of the Federal government to draft a color-blind constitution for the reconstructed state. Violent resistance to the enfranchisement of African Americans was on the rise. 4

German immigrant Thomas Nast drew this cartoon to illustrate the alliance of the White League and Ku Klux Klan to keep African Americans in a state “worse than slavery.” It uses the White League slogan that “This is a White man’s country” to illustrate the nature of the opposition to Reconstruction. The Union as it was / The Lost Cause, worse than slavery.”
Harper’s Weekly, v. 18, no. 930 (24 Oct 1874)

Sweeney was thrust into this volatile situation with even fewer resources than he had in Arkansas right after the end of the Civil War. Sweeney also had to deal with the sorts of everyday difficulties that an official in a soon-to-be-closed agency experiences.  For example, on September 14, 1868 he wrote from his desk in Marshall, Texas, that “there is not sufficient stationary now on hand to conduct the business of the office” which he said caused “embarrassment.” On Sept. 28, 1868 he wrote to complain that the office itself was “a small confined room in very bad repair and adjoining a livery stable which is very offensive.” The government was not putting money into rent and supplies for an organization that was four months away from closing.5

If the Freedmen’s Bureau was set up for the admirable purpose of providing legal protections and material support to blacks during their sudden transition from enslavement to freedom, the decision that three hundred years of oppression could be corrected by three-and-a-half years of work by the Bureau was naïve. Compounding the problem, Southern whites knew that Federal protections would be withdrawn soon and they heightened antagonisms with Black workers and voters in anticipation.6

Sweeney was stationed first in Marshall and then in Jefferson, Tx. In October, 1868 there were approximately 6,000 United States troops in Texas, but nearly all of them were deployed along the border with Mexico or on the Western Frontier.
There were Jefferson Texas had 50 Cavalry and 65 Infantry stationed in Jefferson Texas in October 1868 and 50 Infantry in Marshall. Jefferson and Marshall are in the northeastern part of Texas. 
Source of Statistics: Gregory P. Downs, Mapping Occupation Troop Locations Dataset, 2015. Map Source: The Army in Texas During Reconstruction by William Richter.

In a September 30, 1868 report, Sweeney wrote: “I have found a spirit of antagonism existing between the white and colored races exceeding anything I ever before experienced either in Arkansas or in Alabama. It is [a] very common thing to hear the freedpeople cussed and every advantage is taken of them by low white men to perpetrate petty acts of tyranny and abuse.”7

In 1868 a rash of killing of Blacks to intimidate them into not voting prompted Thomas Nast to draw this cartoon of a victim of racial violence.

The Federal government expected that after January 1, 1869 the state would take over the education of African American children and the protection of black workers. Sweeney knew that the plan would not work. On September 30 he wrote to his superiors warning that “in the country places of this county (Harrison) it is utterly impossible for a colored person to obtain justice and it is worse than useless for them to apply to any magistrate.” In the report Sweeney found that “The school houses are very miserable and in winter are calculated to keep children away in consequence of not affording shelter sufficient.” Local and state government could not be trusted with the futures of young African Americans in his part of Texas.8

The following month found Sweeney running the Bureau’s Jefferson Tx. Office. He soon reported that a band of fifty men believed to be from Arkansas had ridden into a plantation near Jefferson and killed seven “colored men.” On Oct. 27, 1868 he wrote to the Bureau’s headquarters in Austin about “a terrible tragedy occurring on the Whitaker Plantation in Davis County.” Sweeney wrote that he had leased the plantation to “twenty or thirty freedmen” including one of the leaders of the black community named Peter Hill. Hill was hated by the whites because “he was influencing” the black community to vote in the coming elections. A group of whites went to Hill’s blacksmith shop and “shamefully abused him,” according to Sweeney. Hill broke free of them, grabbed a gun, and chased the whites out of his shop. Hill went to seek the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, but “as far as I Know” no actions were taken against the perpetrator. This confrontation led to the attack from Arkansas.9

Sweeney worried that local law enforcement was not taking action and he commanded the Deputy Sheriff to account for the steps he was taking to bring the perpetrators to justice.10

A Ku Klux Klan lynching party with a Northern-born terror target. The Ku Klux was first recorded as operating in Texas in March 1868. It operated in a loose and poorly coordinated terror network from Houston to the Arkansas and Louisiana borders. The city of Jefferson, just twenty miles from Louisiana, became a center of violent attacks by the Klan in the fall of 1868.

Far from thinking that the area of Texas under his jurisdiction was ready to return to local rule, Sweeney wrote in a report that “there is a terrible spirit of animosity existing against the freedpeople by the whites”. In three counties “the unfortunate colored man does not say his life is his own in some places. Murder and robbery reign.” He wrote that he was “working hard to establish a good school in Jefferson” but that the opposition of local whites was hindering progress.11

Sweeney complained to his superiors that because the Freedmen’s Bureau had no cavalry available to protect the freedpeople, outside of the two small cities, “the Bureau is powerless.” He wrote that: “Whipping the freedmen robbing them of their arms, driving them off plantations, and murdering whole families are of daily, and nightly occurrence. All done by disguised parties whom no one can testify to. The civil authorities never budge an inch to try and discover these midnight marauders and apparently a perfect apathy exists throughout the whole community regarding the General State of Society-nothing but Martial Law can save this section as it is at present.”12

1868 photo of Klansman in his outfit.

In his Nov. 1868 report Sweeney discounted any pretense that the white-run local and county governments offered African Americans any protection. He said that the local civil authorities were “a farce” and he advised that a continued army presence was all that stood between the city and anarchy. He warned that conditions were even worse beyond the city because the few soldiers he had available did not have horses to travel to the rural areas.  “The bureau is powerless in cases of outrage outside of the city in consequence of not having Cavalry,” he wrote in despair.13

Sweeney must have entertained at least some hope, because the records indicate that even as late as December 11, 1868, Sweeney was trying to raise money to fund a school started by “a young colored man.” Sweeney strongly supported the hiring of Black teachers and had tried to use them whenever they were available. On the negative side, a few days later, on Dec. 14, 1868, Sweeney reported that he had sent out a detachment of cavalry to arrest “four white men for perpetrating a Ku Klux outrage…”14

If Sweeney’s time in Arkansas gave him a glimpse of the changes Reconstruction promised, Texas taught him that determined resistance by whites willing to engage in terrorism could thwart the weak forces of the Bureau.15

However, all hope was not lost for formerly enslaved blacks when the Bureau shut down. With Andrew Johnson finally gone from the presidency, the Federal government imposed a color-blind constitution on Texas and Black men got the vote. While it looked like education for freed children would decline with the closing of most Freedmen’s Bureau operations, another immigrant would play an important role in creating the first locally supported schools admitting blacks in Texas history.16

Jacob Carl DeGress was born on April 23, 1842, in Cologne, Prussia. His family moved to Missouri in 1852 because of political problems in Germany. He served as a Union cavalry officer during the Civil War and was wounded twice. After the war he joined the Freedmen’s Bureau as a Sub-Assistant Commissioner in Texas and later as Inspector General working in Houston and Galveston during his time with the Bureau. He married a Texas widow of a Confederate officer. After his time as school superintendent, DeGress was elected mayor of Austin. In 1880 his wife and two daughters died. In 1882 he married a cousin of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston.

Jacob DeGress was an immigrant colleague of Henry Sweeney in the Freedmen’s Bureau. He was also one of the most hated Bureau Sub-Assistant Commissioners in Texas. DeGress was a German immigrant who had settled in Missouri before the Civil War. After rising in the Union Army to the rank of brevet colonel, DeGress aggressively used his position to protect former slaves. In two cases he sheltered blacks who had escaped from racially motivated prosecutions. In one of the two incidents, he openly defied orders from the governor of Texas to turn over the man he was protecting. In a third case, DeGress fined a white man $500 ($12,000 in today’s money) for using a pistol to threaten a black woman who would not work for him. The white employer claimed that he had the right to compel her labor. After his time with the Freedmen’s Bureau he served as an officer in a black army regiment in Texas. He retired from the army because he still suffered from a wound received during the war.17

In 1870, the first African American-supported government in Texas history enacted legislation to create a statewide school system. Gov. Edmund Davis appointed DeGress the first state superintendent of education. In a state that had afforded almost no public education to white children before the Civil War, and absolutely no public education to blacks or Latinos, DeGress hoped to work an educational revolution. In his first statement of his goals he wrote that “In the Southern States especially is there both room and necessity for advancement, and to the schools and institutes must we look for those influences that shall impress themselves upon the rising generation and prepare them to enter upon the arena of the battle of life with confidence, ability, energy, and knowledge.” DeGress saw education as the key to the future for Texas. Many whites violently disagreed.18

DeGress started work on May 5, 1870 in a state with no educational system and no plan for creating one. By August he had researched public education programs around the country and come up with an organizational program of his own. He quickly named 35 school supervisors for every settled part of the state, and local district superintendents.19

DeGress rejected the Texas practice of political appointment to teaching positions which often left children being instructed by incompetents. He established clear professional standards and created a travelling board of examiners to review applicants’ qualifications and fitness prior to their being hired. The immigrant also lengthened the school day. Before DeGress, the few public schools in Texas often offered only a few hours of instruction per day for four or five months of the year. DeGress required schools to be open 10 months each year for six hours per day.20

In place of the one-room schoolhouse in which children of all different ages were intermixed in one class, DeGress broke the students up into different grades through which they progressed to graduation. The German immigrant set a statewide curriculum. DeGress said that because Texans moved so often, it was important for a child to be studying the same materials as he moved about the state. He purchased textbooks for instruction at state expense. Because he bought so many books, the state received a 30% discount on texts.21

In his first year, DeGress superintended 1,324 schools. By 1872, that number had grown to 2,067. Unfortunately, state law prevented the integration of classrooms, but DeGress paid special attention to the education of African American children. However, white leaders began a tax revolt that led to a decline in the schools after 1872. Although white leaders did all they could to curtail public education, Texas’s modern school system is a survival of DeGress’s 19th Century struggle.22

Video: Historian Elaine Parsons talks about Klan costuming

Horns, Masks, and Women’s Dress: How the First Klan Used Costume to Build Domestic Terrorism by Elaine Frantz Parsons from VA Museum of History & Culture on Vimeo.

Sources:

    1. The Army in Texas During Reconstruction: 1865-1870 by William L. Richter published by Texas A&M Press (1987); . Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction by Carl H. Moneyhon published by Texas A&M Press (2004); Too Great a Burden to Bear: The Struggle and Failure of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas by Christopher B. Bean published by Fordham University Press (2016); Reconstruction in Texas by Charles W. Ramsdell, Published by Columbia University (1910); Freedom After Slavery: The Black Experience and the Freedmen’s Bureau in Reconstruction Texas by Lavonne Jackson Lesley (self-published) (2012); The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Texans by Barry A. Crouch published by University of Texas Press (1992); Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas by Carl H. Moneyhon published by Texas A&M University Press (2001); Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era edited by Carole Emberton and Bruce Baker published by LSU Press (2017); Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner; After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War by Gregory P. Downs (2015); A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn (2005); The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction Edited by Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller published by Fordham University Press (1997); The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Arkansas by Carl Moneyhon published by University of Arkansas Press (2002); The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era by Douglas R. Egerton published by Bloomsbury Press (2014); The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction by Mark Wahlgren Summers published by the University of North Carolina Press (2014); Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom by Heather Andrea Williams  (2005); Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams (2012). Archives of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the Pension Files of Sweeney.
    2. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction Edited by Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller published by Fordham University Press (1997).
    3. The Army in Texas During Reconstruction: 1865-1870 by William L. Richter published by Texas A&M Press (1987); . Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction by Carl H. Moneyhon published by Texas A&M Press (2004); Too Great a Burden to Bear: The Struggle and Failure of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas by Christopher B. Bean published by Fordham University Press (2016); Reconstruction in Texas by Charles W. Ramsdell, Published by Columbia University (1910); Freedom After Slavery: The Black Experience and the Freedmen’s Bureau in Reconstruction Texas by Lavonne Jackson Lesley (self-published) (2012); The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Texans by Barry A. Crouch published by University of Texas Press (1992); Republicanism in Reconstruction Texas by Carl H. Moneyhon published by Texas A&M University Press (2001).
    4. Handbook of Texas
    5. Sweeney Freedmen’s Bureau Records letters of September 14, 1868 and September 28, 1868
    6. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction Edited by Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller published by Fordham University Press (1997)
    7. Sweeney Freedmen’s Bureau Records September 30, 1868 report
    8. Sweeney Freedmen’s Bureau Records September 30, 1868 report
    9. Sweeney Freedmen’s Bureau Records Oct. 27, 1868
    10. Sweeney Freedmen’s Bureau Records Oct. 27, 1868, Oct. 26 1868 letter
    11. These are cited as Roll 23, Letters sent, vol (116), Oct-Dec 1868
    12. Sweeney Nov. 1868 Report
    13. Sweeney Nov. 1868 Report
    14. Sweeney Freedmen’s Bureau Records Dec. 11, 1868 and Dec. 14, 1868; Freedom After Slavery: The Black Experience and the Freedmen’s Bureau in Reconstruction Texas by Lavonne Jackson Lesley (self-published) (2012) Kindle Location 1146.
    15. The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction by Mark Wahlgren Summers published by the University of North Carolina Press (2014).
    16. The Army in Texas During Reconstruction: 1865-1870 by William L. Richter published by Texas A&M Press (1987) p. 83, War Department Investigation Report Adjutant General January 23, 1867
    17. The Army in Texas During Reconstruction: 1865-1870 by William L. Richter published by Texas A&M Press (1987) p. 83, War Department Investigation Report Adjutant General January 23, 1867; Handbook of Texas.
    18. Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction Carl H. Moneyhon published by Texas A&M Southwestern Studies Kindle Locations 2085-2086
    19. Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction Carl H. Moneyhon published by Texas A&M Southwestern Studies Kindle Locations 2085-2200
    20. Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction Carl H. Moneyhon published by Texas A&M Southwestern Studies Kindle Locations 2085-2200
    21. Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction Carl H. Moneyhon published by Texas A&M Southwestern Studies Kindle Locations 2085-2200
    22. Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction Carl H. Moneyhon published by Texas A&M Southwestern Studies Kindle Locations 2085-2200

LEAVE A REPLY