Hernandez v. Texas, Sutton-Taylor Feud, and Sharecropping

Location: Edna, Cuero, Hallettsville, and Gonzales, TX
Churches: Trinity, Grace, St. James, and Church of the Messiah

Opening Prayer
God, be with us in every valley, Jesus, be with us on every hill, Holy Spirit, be with us on every stream, every cliff’s edge, every green pasture; every moor and meadow, and in the crest of the waves on the sea. Every time we rest, and every time we wake up; O Father, be with us, and keep us by your Spirit Holy, every step we take, in the good company of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Welcome to Edna, Cuero, Hallettsville, and Gonzales, TX!

Edna has a population of 5,500 and is the gateway to Lake Texana in Jackson County. Edna is located about 25 minutes outside of Victoria, TX, and about two hours from Houston. The area was first settled in the 1820s, and the town of Edna came about in the 1880s when the New York-Texas-Mexico railway came through the area. The town was named for the daughter of Count Joseph Telferner, an Italian nobleman and financier, the contractor and builder of the New York, Texas, and Mexican Railroad. He was co-founder together with Mrs. Lucy M. Flournoy. The count had three daughters, Edna, Louise, and Inez, and named the three stations along the railroad in their honor. Visitors can enjoy Edna’s historic downtown with shops and restaurants and can take in a day at Lake Texana State Park.
Trinity Episcopal Church serves the good people of Edna. They are a part of the Eastern Convocation PIM (Partners in Ministry).

The United States constitution is a document that has been discussed, read, and argued over by countless individuals throughout the history of the nation. One could easily fall down any number of rabbit holes getting into the finer points and minutia of what certain parts of the constitution deal with and address. For many of us during our primary education, we learn about the first 10 amendments of the constitution, the bill of rights and leave the additional amendments for further research at a later date. Located in the eighth amendment is one of the lines of the constitution that stands out, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right of a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed,” which has often been interpreted as a trial by one’s peers. This is a fundamental right that we have come to expect, but for many throughout the nation’s history, this has not always been the case. Throughout the late 19th and much of the 20th century, both African Americans and Hispanics would be put on trial with representatives from either community being purposely excluded from serving on a jury. This lack of representation on a jury would come to a head in the trial of Peter Hernandez which would lead to one of the most pivotal decisions by the US Supreme Court in the fight for equal rights for all.
In the town of Edna Texas in 1951, Peter Hernandez, a local agricultural worker, would murder Joe Espinoza in cold blood following an altercation in a bar. While many did not argue that Hernandez was not guilty of the murder, his legal team did argue that Hernandez had not received a fair trial due to Mexican Americans being excluded from serving on juries throughout much of Texas. When Hernandez’s case was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, his legal team claimed that the rights of Hernandez had been violated in direct contradiction to protections under the 14th amendment. As the trial came to a close the court found that Hernandez’s rights had not been violated as the 14th amendment only protected African American rights and as a Mexican American Hernandez was considered white and therefore the 14th amendment did not apply. Despite this initial setback, Hernadez’s legal team would appeal again to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that while Mexican Americans were classified as white, they were in practice treated as second-class citizens and actively discriminated against throughout much of the state. Over the course of the trial, the defense team would demonstrate that while Mexican Americans were not officially barred from jury duty, in the preceding 25 years in Jackson county no individual of Hispanic origin had served on a jury. At the close of the trial, the Justices in a unanimous decision found in favor of the defendant and ruled that the protections of the 14th amendment extend beyond classifications of black and white to extend protection to nationality groups as well.
One of the cornerstones of our democracy is equal protection before the law, and to have a trial by a jury composed of one’s peers is something many of us take for granted. Since the ruling of Hernandez v. Texas, we have come closer to achieving a greater degree of social justice for all, but our work will never be done. Just as we are called to serve Christ and continue the work of the disciples, so too are we called to continue the work of striving for equality for all we share our world with. It will not always be an easy road, and there will be times that we will falter and even fail, but as we find that Jesus forgives us for sins and are made well so too are we made well to continue the work of Christ.

Cuero has a population of 7,000 and is located 30 minutes northwest of Victoria, along Hwys 87 and 183. Cuero is named after Cuero Creek, which the Spanish had called Arroyo del Cuero, or Creek of the Rawhide, in reference to the Indians’ practice of killing wild cattle that got stuck in the mud of the creekbed. By the mid-1890s Cuero also had one of the state’s largest cottonseed oil mills, capable of producing eighty tons a day; there were also three large cotton gins, an ice factory, two bottling plants, a cigar factory, a tannery, a private electric company, and the first of three hospitals. Until the 1930s Cuero had a large industry of turkey farming, remnants of which can still be seen today. The Cuero Turkey Trot began in 1912 and is still a local tradition and festival. Ruby Begonia, Cuero’s yearly prized turkey, races a turkey from Worthington, Minnesota each year (Worthington and Cuero both claim to be the turkey capitals of the world). The festival also includes carnival rides, concerts, and delicious food and craft booths. To highlight this tradition the Cuero Highschool mascot is the Gobbler. The Cuero Gobblers won state in football in 2018. Visitors can enjoy historic downtown, a monthly farmer’s market, Turkeyfest, and a yearly Christmas in Downtown festival.
Grace Church has served Cuero since 1873. Their current carpenter gothic building was constructed in 1889. They hold a service every Sunday at 10:30 am, with events and programs throughout the year. Many of Grace’s parishioners are descendants of founding families. They recently finished construction on an outdoor kitchen for fellowship and outreach opportunities, and have just recently called their newest Rector, The Rev. Peter Thaddeus.
As we continue the mark each step we make on our journey as pilgrims we also grow as students of history. The stories of those who went before us can hold a special place in many of our hearts, especially when those stories serve as cornerstones of how we remember events and individuals of the past. These stories may be ones passed down by family lines or ones we hear repeated on town markers and tours. However, as students of history, we must also strive to ensure that we are hearing the entire story and that the voices of those whose history was not always given the same reverence are listened to. Sometimes we will come across primary source information from the past that directly contradicts what we have been told about a certain event, and it is up to us as both students and pilgrims to digest this new information. The stories from the era we call the wild west, in particular, resonate with many across the nation, and it is in the story of the Sutton Taylor feud of DeWitt county and Cuero a particular long-held narrative from these days does not quite align with the historical evidence.
Much of what has been written about the Sutton Taylor feud and its representation in media has been linked to its most famous participant the gunman John Wesley Hardin, with little information written regarding why the event started. Reasons that have been given for the feud starting include everything from cattle rustling to slights by one side to another and claims of offended honor. In some of the newspaper accounts of the time, it was written that the two families involved the Sutton’s and the Taylor’s had long-standing animosities going back generations in a story similar to the Hatfields and McCoy’s. However, when we look at the historical evidence we find that there was no long-standing animosity and that it was less about two families fighting one another as there was only one Sutton involved.
Instead, the Sutton Taylor feud can be better understood as part of the larger picture that was reconstruction in Texas and that a great deal of the violence of the conflict was directed at individuals who have not always been included in the stories, recently freed African Americans. With the end of the Civil War came not only an end to a failed rebellion but the end to America’s original sin of slavery. Millions of formerly enslaved individuals who prior to the war were considered nothing but the property now found themselves free, but that original sin would not be overcome so easily. Many formerly enslaved would begin the arduous task of finding family members who had been sold and trying to reunite families, but with the majority of money still being controlled by the former planter class, many found themselves trapped into the new system of sharecropping. In an attempt to help this new group of Americans the government began a program known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau which looked at providing both material aid and education. Another of the primary roles of the Freedmen’s Bureau was to report and investigate incidents of violence perpetrated against both African Americans and individuals who had been Unionists during the war. For the Freedmen’s Bureau members located in DeWitt county, one of the most prominent issues they faced was dealing with armed groups using terror tactics against recently-freed African Americans with one of the most prominent known as the Taylor gang.
Among the many former soldiers of the confederacy returning home from the war were several members of the Taylor family, a family with a long history in Texas with members on both sides of the law. Immediately following the end of the war reports began to emerge in dispatches sent by the Bureau of some of these attacks, including a report submitted September 18th, 1866 by Albert Hetzner the sub-assistant commissioner for the Bureau in Texas. In this report to the adjutant general’s office Hetzner lists several of the atrocities including the murder of several soldiers and the beatings of African American women in broad daylight with the head of the Taylor family, Buck Taylor being directly mentioned as the leader of the gang. As the Bureau had limitations in its ability to enforce the law, the individuals who would have to arrest those who perpetrated these crimes would be the State police which included the deputy sheriff for DeWitt, William Sutton. In many of the writings regarding the initial shootout that started the event in an attempt to arrest members of the Taylor gang, the reason stated for Sutton attempting to make the arrests was due to cattle theft, despite historical records existing showing the murder of federal troops was one of the main factors in seeking the arrests. The feud would continue in a tit-for-tat cycle of violence until 1876 when units of the Texas Rangers were sent in to restore peace. In addition to the Texas Rangers being sent in, this time also marks the end of Reconstruction in Texas and a re-establishment of control by many ex-Confederates over local offices.
Stories and oral histories are incredibly important when it comes to understanding how events in the past occurred. But it is paramount that to truly gain the full picture we must be willing to listen to all stories, including many of those that may not align with the stories that we hold close. While there has been some examination of the Sutton Taylor feud in the larger context of Reconstruction in Texas, the popular image portrayed is still one rooted in the tales of the wild west past with certain voices still unheard. As we continue on our pilgrimage we will hear stories that will challenge us, and that at times will make us uncomfortable. But just as the disciples had to face being called to be uncomfortable so should we be ready as followers of Christ.

Hallettsville has a population of 2,500 and is the county seat of Lavaca County. One of the first settlers in the area was John Hallett, who received a land grant from Stephen F. Austin in 1831. After Hallett’s death in 1836 his wife, Margaret L. Hallett, donated land for the townsite. The Alma Male and Female Institute, one of the county’s first private schools, opened in Hallettsville in 1852 but was forced to close at the outbreak of the Civil War. Sacred Heart Academy was founded in 1881, and a public school system was in place by the late 1880s. In 1887 the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway was built through the town, and Hallettsville became the principal trading center and shipping point for area farmers and ranchers. By 1892 the town-owned an electricity plant and had established waterworks supplied by artesian wells. Visitors can take a historical tour of the courthouse and old jail, shop in boutiques downtown, and enjoy monthly Market Days.
St. James’ Episcopal Church serves the Hallettsville area. They hold services every Sunday at 9 am and are a part of the Eastern Convocation PIM (Partners in Ministry).
Gonzales has a population of 7,200 and is the seat of Gonzales County. It was established in 1825 and named for Rafael Gonzales, governor of Coahuila and Texas. Gonzales was the center of much of the Texas revolutionary activity. As the story goes, in 1835, Texans resisted the Mexican Army sent to retrieve the town cannon. Challenging the Mexicans to “come and take it,” the Texans rallied around the gun and fought the battle of Gonzales, the first skirmish of the Texas Revolution. Today, visitors can view this cannon, along with other artifacts of the Texas Revolution at the Old Jail Museum. Palmetto State Park is located right outside of city limits and provides walking and biking trails, camping, and fishing. Gonzales has a myriad of antique shops and other boutiques to enjoy.

Church of the Messiah serves Gonzales and holds services every Sunday at 10:30 am. They are currently served by The Rev. Shanna Neff.The American Civil War is truly one of the most pivotal events in the country’s history. In many ways, we are still living with many of the ramifications from the conflict to this day, and at the time the war touched nearly every family who lived within the borders of the US and even beyond. While countless volumes have been written about the war, and many school children can name at least one battle from the conflict, the immediate aftermath of the war that has been termed Reconstruction has not always been given the attention it deserves. To truly understand both Civil War history and the history of the nation as students of history must view these two time periods not separately but directly connected and part of one continuous event. As the author Ron Chernow has stated “The Civil War and Reconstruction are two halves of the same play, and to only read about the Civil War is like walking out of the play at intermission”. With the close of the war in 1865 many residents of Texas were forced to deal with the economic hardships of the conflict. But as we will find out today, the newest group of citizens to the nation would suffer unduly under a system that in essence perpetuated America’s original sin of slavery in everything but name.
Juneteenth is now celebrated nationally as marking the official end to the practice of slavery in the United States, and it was in Texas where the proclamation was made in 1865. As millions of African Americans now found themselves free from the bondage of slavery, many in the naiton realized that major changes to the social structure of the south would be required to prevent these newly freed citizens from becoming disenfranchised. As the era of Reconstruction began in full swing the idea of providing freed African Americans with their own land which would come from the former estates of those who had rebelled against the nation. However, then President Andrew Johnson who did not wish to prevent the disenfranchisement of African Americans ordered all land held by federal authorities returned to their original owners. This action had the immediate effect of destroying any type of economic independence for African Americans, who with no source of income were forced into the system now known as sharecropping. Sharecropping is the practice by which a landowner will allow a tenant farmer to cultivate their land for a share of all crops produced. In the initial years following the war the Freedmen’s Bureau oversaw and arranged many of the yearly contracts ensuring that the recently freed were not saddled with exorbitant debt or taken advantage of. However, with the disbandment of the Bureau in 1872, many of the large landowners drastically increased the rates at which interest was charged for the land and any equipment used. These actions resulted in many being trapped in a cycle of debt with nearly all crops produced going towards paying off existing debt while new debt continued to build. Many of the landowners forced sharecroppers to plant only one of the major cash crops which when subject to market fluctuations could prove ruinous and further push the farmer into a debt that was inescapable aside from leaving agriculture altogether. In Gonzales County, cotton production soon overtook all other forms of agriculture, with cotton accounting for over half of all cropland harvested in 1900 and five cotton gin mills being established. As the rates of cotton production increased so too did sharecropping among all members of the population including African Americans and Anglos with the number of sharecroppers rising from 51% of all farmers in 1900 to 64% by 1920. While sharecropping adversely impacted large sections of the population, in the era of Jim Crow a greater percentage of African American farmers found themselves indebted to large landowners who through the use of foreclosures on small farmers were able to lock more and more individuals into sharecropping. With the general decline of agriculture during the height of the Depression many in the African American community would face starvation, eviction, and further economic ruin forcing thousands to seek out new work in what has become known as the Great Migration, with over 1.75 million African Americans leaving their homes and communities in the South for possible opportunities in the North. With the advent of further mechanization in agriculture, the practice of sharecropping began to die out by the 1940s. However, the scars from this practice remain in many communities both in the North and the South.
As we have seen throughout the pandemic the curse of debt has a tremendous impact on our most disenfranchised communities. With many individuals throughout our communities continuing to deal with the fallout of unemployment from the pandemic we must remember that there exist many practices akin to what sharecropping did throughout the 19th and 20th centuries that will further exacerbate the problems faced by those already caught in the whirlwind. For us who follow in the footsteps of the disciples, we must reach out to those who are struggling in all forms and open our doors to break bread with all members of our community.

Closing Prayer
God of justice, in your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception. Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty, and worth of every human being. Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters in the same human family. Open our hearts to repent of racist attitudes, behaviors, and speech which demean others. Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history. And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Next Stop coming Tuesday, August 5th

Location: Luling, Lockhart, Buda, and Dripping Springs, TX
Distance to travel: 216,000 steps
Churches: Church of the Annunciation, Emmanuel, St. Elizabeth’s, and Church of the Holy Spirit