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How black Austinites forged a political path in Texas in the 19th century

Michael Barnes

Not long ago, reader John G. Browning brought to our attention John N. Johnson, Austin’s first African-American lawyer and, in 1883, the first African-American admitted to practice before the Texas Supreme Court.

One aspect of Johnson’s career prompted questions: “He was active in Republican politics, and by 1884 presided over the Colored Men’s State Convention in Houston. He did not shy away from issues such as sentencing disparities or lynching during this first period of the Ku Klux Klan.”

What were these “colored conventions,” and how did they relate to public life for African-Americans in Austin and elsewhere?

According to the authoritative Handbook of Texas, at least 10 separate black conventions were held between Reconstruction and the 1890s “to express the concerns of blacks in an era before the existence of lasting groups that focused upon the economic, political and civil rights of minorities.”

At least four times, key Austin leaders presided over the conventions. One, Jacob “Jake” Fontaine, deserves much wider attention.

Not unlike the pattern in political parties, these black conventions sent delegates to national meetings that sought the same goals. Their concerns track the often forgotten 19th-century campaigns for civil rights, education and other causes that are far from resolved today, more than 100 years later.

“The Texas State Central Committee of Colored Men met in Austin on March 22, 1866, with Jacob Fontaine, a Baptist minister, presiding,” the handbook states. “It opposed a request for funds, which presumably would benefit former slaves, by Episcopal Bishop Alexander Gregg, who did not have the trust of the committee. Instead, committee members expressed their preference for the work of the Freedmen's Bureau.”

Officially called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, this federal agency was organized to provide immediate assistance to emancipated slaves as well as to international refugees.

To detour slightly, the Rev. Jacob Fontaine must have been a remarkable leader. His name comes up regularly in the history of the St. John Regular Baptist Association, St. John’s Orphan Home, Austin Gold Dollar newspaper, Freedman’s restaurant and the churches that once graced Wooldridge Square next to the current Travis County Courthouse.

Although a slave for much of his life, Fontaine mixed with white and black Austin leaders early and often.

Back to the conventions: In 1873, the delegates met in Brenham with a Republican Party leader as president. “They announced support for friendly race relations, a federal civil rights act, open political meetings, black landholding, internal improvements, immigration to the United States, President U.S. Grant and the Republican party,” the handbook reports. “The delegates criticized the violence faced by blacks and efforts to repudiate state debts.”

For almost 30 years, the independent black conventions in Texas wavered between the Republicans, who had successfully advocated for abolition, and other parties that they hoped would serve their constituents better.

The 1879 convention in Houston “focused upon the causes of the black exodus from Texas and the South to Kansas. The members repeated some earlier concerns and objected to the exclusion of blacks from juries, lack of adequate schools, harsh treatment in prisons, inequitable enforcement of laws against intermarriage, and railroad segregation. To solve these problems the delegates generally urged blacks to move out of the state, although some individuals favored acquisition of land on the Texas frontier.”

The 1880 convention in Dallas picked up that last theme, it “favored an effort to seek land in West Texas as a solution to problems of discrimination. To promote that goal the convention founded the Texas Farmers Association, which proved unsuccessful, perhaps because of white Democrats' fears that it would strengthen the Republicans.”

The convention returned to Austin in 1883 to respond to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. “The delegates took a nonpartisan position on politics and reasserted earlier concerns about various forms of discrimination,” the handbook relays. “The convention called for establishment of a Colored People's Progressive Union to assist in court cases on civil rights, but it did not develop.”

John N. Johnson, Austin’s first black lawyer, presided over the 1884 convention in Houston. It “supported many positions taken in previous meetings, denied any plots to attack whites, urged equal sentences for black and white criminals, opposed lynching, and emphasized moral conduct.”

Another Austin leader, the Rev. D.W. Roberts, led the 1886 convention when it returned to Brenham: “It focused upon the need for education and economic advancement, an emphasis that resulted in an appeal to the Legislature for a black industrial college.”

Roberts also ran the next convention in Waco. “In addition to citing new examples of old problems, they protested lynching and moves toward political disfranchisement of blacks,” the handbook says. “Yet they also emphasized economic progress, offered thanks for educational advances, and endorsed high moral standards.”

Two more conventions are recorded in Houston in 1891 and 1895.

“The convention also honored Frederick Douglass and sought to found a permanent Colored Men's Union,” the handbook wraps up. “Although that effort failed, it foreshadowed the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to which some former convention leaders later belonged.”

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