Category Archives: Events

Audubon’s 1837 Visit to Houston

Mockingbirds
[Audubon print of Mockingbirds]

The great naturalist John James Audubon visited the Republic of Texas, including Houston, in 1837.  The Texas State Historical Association reports that “important parts of John James Audubon’s journal, including information on his 1837 Texas trip, were lost.”  Some portions of his journal writings on Houston appear to have survived, however, as they have been reproduced in various sources.  In 1875, the Galveston newspaper, excerpting from a piece in the San Marcos newspaper, reproduced Audubon’s account of his visit to Houston as follows:

May 15. We landed at Houston, the capital of Texas, drenched to the skin, and were kindly received on board the steamer Yellow Stone, Captain West, who gave us his state-room to change our clothes, and furnished us refreshments and dinner.  The Buffalo bayou had risen about six feet, and the neighboring prairies were partly covered with water; there was a wild and desolate look cast on the surrounding scenery. We had already passed two little girls encamped on the bank of the bayou, under the cover of a few clapboards, cooking a scanty meal; shanties, cargoes of hogsheads, barrels, etc., were spread about the landing; and Indians drunk and hallooing were stumbling about in the mud in every direction. These poor beings had come here to enter into a treaty proposed by the whites; many of them were young and well looking, and with far less decorations than I have seen before on such occasions. The chief of the tribe is an old and corpulent man.

We walked towards the President’s house, accompanied by the Secretary of the Navy, and as soon as we rose above the bank we saw before us a level of far-extending prairie, destitute of timber and of rather poor soil. Houses, half finished, and most of them without roofs, tents and a liberty pole, with the capitol, were all exhibited to our view at once.  We approached the President’s mansion, however, wading through water above our ankles. This abode of President Houston is a small log house, consisting of two rooms, and a passage through after, the Southern fashion. The moment we stepped over the threshold, on the right hand of the passage we found ourselves ushered into what in other countries would be called the ante-chamber; the ground floor, however, was muddy and filthy, a large fire was burning, a small table covered with paper and writing materials was in the center, camp-beds, trunks and different materials were strewed around the room. We were at once presented to several members of the Cabinet, some of whom bore the stamp of men of intellectual ability, simple though bold, in their general appearance.  Here we were presented to Mr. Crawford, an agent of the British Minister to Mexico, who has come here on some secret mission.

The President was engaged in the opposite room on national business, and we could not see him for some time. Meanwhile we amused ourselves by walking to the capitol, which was yet without a roof, arid the floors, benches, and tables of both houses of Congress were as well saturated with water as our clothes had been in the morning. Being invited by one of the great men of the place to enter a booth to take a drink of grog with whim, we did so; but I was rather surprised that he offered his name, instead of the cash to the bar-keeper.

We first caught sight of President Houston as he walked from one of the grog-shops, where he had been to prevent the sale of ardent spirits. He was on his way to his house, and wore a large coarse gray hat; and the bulk of his figure reminded me of the appearance of Gen. Hopkins, of Virginia, for, like him, he is upward of six feet high, and strong in proportion. But I observed a scowl in the expression of his eyes that was forbidding and disagreeable.  We reached his abode before him, but he soon came, and we were presented to his Excellency. He was dressed in a fancy velvetcoat, and trowsers trimmed with broad gold lace; around his neck was tied a cravat somewhat in the style of seventy-six. He received us kindly, was desirous of retaining us for a while, and offered us every facility within his power. He at once removed us from the ante-room to his private chamber, which, by the way was not much cleaner than the former. We were severally introduced by him to the different members of his cabinet and staff, and at once asked to drink grog with him, which we did, wishing success to his new republic. Our talk was short, but the impression which was made on my mind at the time by himself, his officers, and his place of abode, can never be forgotten.

We returned to our boat through a melee of Indians and blackguards of all sorts. In giving a last glance back we once more noticed a number of horses rambling about the grounds, or tied beneath the few trees that have been spared by the axe. We also saw a liberty pole, erected on the anniversary of the battle of San Jacinto, on the 21st of last April, and were informed that a brave tar, who rigged the Texan flag on that occasion, had been personally rewarded by President Houston with a town lot, a doubloon and the privilege of keeping a ferry across the Buffalo bayou at the town, where the bayou forks diverge in opposite directions.

More information:

TSHA, Handbook of Texas Online, “Audubon, John James”

Whitney v. State

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[1883 Harris County Courthouse]

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[1883 Harris County Courthouse]

In 1900, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in the decision Whitney v. State, 59 S.W. 895 (Tex. Crim. App. 1900), reversed a black defendant’s rape conviction on the grounds that black residents of Harris County were excluded from the grand jury that indicted him. Testimony introduced in connection with the defendant’s motion to quash the indictment revealed that black residents had been routinely excluded from all juries in Harris County. The court summarized the somewhat contradictory testimony as follows:

The court heard evidence on the motion, which was substantially as follows: B. R. Latham testified that he was one of the commissioners that selected the grand jury that found the bill of indictment against appellant. Said grand jurors so selected were all white men. The population of Harris County is over 50,000, two-thirds or three-fourths of which are white persons, and the rest blacks or negroes. In selecting the names for the grand jury, witness stated that they put no negroes on the jury; that there were many negroes in the county capable of performing jury service, but that he would not put them on; that he never knew of negroes being impaneled on the grand jury in Harris County, and was not accustomed to putting them on; that they did as other commissioners had done before; that, if the names of competent negroes had been given to the commissioners, he would not have been in favor of putting them on the grand jury unless the court had so instructed; that he had no prejudice or ill feeling against negroes, nor did he have any prejudice or ill feeling against defendant, but that he did not consider negroes competent and qualified for jury service. [Another party familiar with the formation of Harris County juries] testified that he had observed the practice in Harris County of organizing juries for years, and that he knew of no negroes being put on any of the juries; that there were hundreds of educated negroes and property owners in Harris County, if not thousands; that the sentiment of the people is against putting negroes on juries; that there were 25,000 negroes in Harris County, and many negro schools and benevolent associations of all kinds; and that he knew many negroes that would make good jurors.

The trial court had upheld the indictment on the grounds that “the evidence failed to show that negroes were excluded from juries because of prejudice or ill feeling against them, or because of prejudice or ill feeling against defendant.” The Court of Criminal Appeals responded:

We do not understand that this would afford sufficient ground for refusing to sustain the motion. It is not a question of prejudice or ill feeling, but the fourteenth amendment, as construed by the Supreme Court of the United States, holds that if there are qualified negro jurors in the county, and in the formation of juries, grand or petit, where a negro is on trial, negroes are intentionally excluded from such juries, then he is denied the equal protection of the laws, and the case should be reversed.

Sam Houston Hall & 1928 Democratic National Convention

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[sloanegallery.com]

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[U.T. Center for American History]

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[sloanegallery.com]

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[sloanegallery.com]

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[sloanegallery.com]

Before there was a Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, and before there was a Sam Houston Coliseum or Music Hall, there was Sam Houston Hall. Sam Houston Hall stood on the same ground later occupied by the Coliseum, Music Hall, and (now) Hobby Center, but stood for less than a decade. The 20,000-person hall was built in a hurry for the 1928 Democratic National Convention – it took only 64 days to complete. (The Democratic presidential candidate in 1928 was Alfred Smith, who lost to Herbert Hoover.) The “official photograph” of the 1928 Democratic National Convention shows thousands of attendees. At the time, the plot of land on which Sam Houston Hall was built was directly adjacent to Houston’s Fire Station Number 2, as shown in some of the photos above. The hall was razed in 1936.

A marker outside the Hobby Center commemorates the building that once stood there.

Sadly, a lynching occurred in Houston during the convention – an event that TIME Magazine referred to as “Houston’s Shame”.

More information:

TIME Magazine, “To Houston”, Jan. 23, 1928
TIME Magazine, “The Democracy”, July 2, 1928
TIME Magazine, “Conventionale”, July 9, 1928

Juneteenth

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[Juneteenth celebration in Eastwoods Park, Austin, 1900 (Austin History Center)]

While there are now Juneteenth celebrations nationwide, the event originated in Texas and has been celebrated in Houston since the 1860’s. It commemorates a Union officer’s official announcement – in Galveston, on June 19, 1865 – that the Civil War was over and all slaves were free. The declaration was made two months after the war ended, and two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. There were approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas at the time. State Representative Al Edwards, from Houston, sponsored the bill in 1979 that made Juneteenth an official state holiday.

Juneteenth became so significant in black communities in Texas that it inspired many to purchase and reserve a plot of land as a public park and celebration grounds. Often such parks were named Emancipation Park. In Houston, in 1872, Rev. Jack Yates organized a group that raised $1000 to purchase a ten-acre site in the city’s Third Ward. Houston’s Emancipation Park survives to this day. Historically, Juneteenth festivals have featured barbecue and strawberry soda.

More information:
Handbook of Texas Online, “Juneteenth
AFRO-American Alamanac, “The History of Juneteenth

Texas City Disaster

One of the worst disasters in United States history occurred at the docks in Texas City on April 16 and 17, 1947. The Texas City Disaster was caused by two explosions. The first occurred the morning of April 16, when a French ship loaded with ammonium nitrate exploded. The second occurred not long after midnight, when a second ship – also loaded wih ammonium nitrate – exploded as a result of the fire from the first explosion. Over 600 people died, and over 1,000 buildings were destroyed.

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A 1.5-ton anchor was torn from from the French ship when it exploded. It landed landed 2 miles from the explosion site. [Moore Memorial Public Library, Texas City]

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This five-story building next to the Texas City docks was destroyed. [Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries]

More information:
The Texas City Disaster – April 16, 1947
Wikipedia, “Texas City Disaster
Archives of Moore Memorial Public Library
TIME Magazine, “Pluperfect Hell”, Apr. 28, 1947

No-Tsu-Oh

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[Copyright © 2000, University of Houston Libraries]

From 1899 to 1915, Houstonians hosted an annual carnival called No-Tsu-Oh. Black Houstonians held the De-Ro-Loc carnival. King Nottoc presided over the No-Tsu-Oh parade until replaced by King Retaw (in honor of the completion of the Houston Ship Channel in 1914). Notable kings included John Henry Kirby, Jesse H. Jones, and William T. Carter; a notable queen was Frankie Carter.

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[bayoucityhistory.blogspot.com]

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[Alvin Romansky Papers, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries]

No-Tsu-Oh replaced the annual Fruit, Flower, and Vegetable Festival that Houstonians attended in the mid-1880’s. The annual week-long No-Tsu-Oh carnival seems to have generally been held in November, to coincide with the footbal game between the University of Texas and Texas A&M (then the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas). But it may have been held in December in 1899. In 1907, the carnival featured a large electric light display on the Benz Building. In 1910, King Nottoc XII was honored at a No-Tsu-Oh Carnival Ball at the Houston Auditorium. The carnival’s demise was likely connected to the beginning of World War I, but may have been hastened by a November 18, 1915 editorial in the Houston Chronicle denouncing the annual event.

More information:
bayoucityhistory.blogspot.com, “Tek Ram Calls You!
The Handbook of Texas Online, “No-Tsu-Oh
Charles Orson Cook, ed., “John Milsaps’s Houston: 1910,” Houston Review 1 (Spring 1979).

1917 Riot

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The 1917 Riot was a mutiny by 150 black soldiers from the Third Battalion of the Twenty-Fourth United States Infantry. It lasted one afternoon, and resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and 15 civilians. The rioters were tried at three courts-martial. Ninteen were executed, and 51 were given life sentences.

A September 17, 1923 TIME Magazine article noted that part of the NAACP’s “Message to the People of the United States” at its 14th annual convention read: “We ask that the American people demand the release of the 54 members of the 24th Infantry now incarcerated at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for their connection with the Houston, Texas [race] riots of 1917.”

The battalion of black soldiers was stationed in Houston to guard the construction of Camp Logan.

More information:
Wikipedia, “Houston Riot (1917)“.
Tyer, B. “Their First 100 Years”, Houston Press, Aug. 30, 2001.
Chapter One of Robert V. Haynes’ A Night of Violence – The Houston Riot of 1917 (1976).
1917 riot documentary (“Mutiny on the Bayou“) website.