The Brownsville Affair, Mexican-American War, and a gruesome history with the KKK

Location: Brownsville, Port Isabel, and Kingsville, TX

Churches: Church of the Advent, St. Andrew’s, and Church of the Epiphany

 

Opening Prayer
Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious

favor, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our

works begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify

thy holy Name, and finally, by thy mercy, obtain everlasting

life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-A prayer for Guidance, BCP p. 832

 

Welcome to Brownsville, Port Isabel, and Kingsville!

 

Brownsville

Brownsville was founded in 1848 by American entrepreneur Charles Stillman after he developed a successful riverboat company nearby. The population grew significantly in the early 1900s with the introduction of the steel industry. Today Brownsville’s population is 183,000 and they are most known for their subtropical climate, seaport, and Hispanic culture. 

For nature options, visitors can enjoy the extensive trail systems and World Birding Center, and the Brownsville Zoo. For a more historical tour, one can visit the numerous battle sites of the Texas Revolution, Mexican-American War, and American Civil War. Brownsville is also home to Boca Chica Beach, the commercial launch pad for SpaceX rockets. 

 

Church of the Advent has been holding Episcopal services in Brownsville since 1851. In 1867 a hurricane destroyed their first church building, and a second church, a replica of the first, was completed in 1877. Their current Spanish Colonial-style church building was complete in 1927 and is now listed as a historic landmark. 

Through worship, formation, and service, they certainly live into their mission statement,  “That Church of the Advent is a cup of strength to our neighbors in need and that every true need brought to Church of the Advent is met with Christ’s loving-kindness.” They hold three services a Sunday, two in English and one in Spanish. They host a variety of formation programs for all ages and have a 2k-6th grade day school that opened in 1948. They host a food pantry once a month, and pre-covid they offered a free hot meal to anyone in the community who needed one. Church of the Advent, and the Diocese of West Texas, are also involved in supporting Team Brownsville, a nonprofit aimed at providing humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers. You may recall that St. Luke’s participated in a food and PPE kit drive for asylum seekers and refugees traveling through San Antonio. Many of these kits, put together by churches all over the diocese, were also sent to Brownsville to aid the people there. Church of the Advent is currently served by The Rev. Laurie McKim, Rector. 

 

The story of the Buffalo Soldiers is one of bravery and service that has been told countless times in movies, books, and by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Buffalo Soldiers living history program.  From their initial founding in 1866 until the end of segregation in the army during the Korean War, all four units of the Buffalo Soldiers (9th & 10th cavalry/24th & 25th infantry) would at some point call Texas their home.  However, these brave soldiers would not always find a welcoming home and despite their service to the nation, they would find deeply ingrained racism in many of their postings from both commanding officers and civilians alike.  One of the worst incidents of outright racism encountered by the Buffalo Soldiers would occur in the town of Brownsville in what has become known as the Brownsville Affair of 1906.

In July 1906 the 25th infantry would find itself posted to Fort Brown which was nearby the town of Brownsville.  From their first day at the fort, the soldiers received a frosty reception, being informed by their commanding officers that they would need to adhere to the Jim Crow laws of Texas and always show deferment to white townsfolk to avoid trouble.  Many of the town’s citizens hated the notion of having African American soldiers stationed in their town, and many civic leaders were looking for an incident that could help them get rid of the 25th.  This incident would occur on August 12th when a local white woman reported being attacked during the night.  The Mayor, Frederick Combe, declared a curfew for the soldiers, and the officers at the base confined the men to their barracks.  The following night of August 13th a local bartender would be killed in a shooting and a police officer wounded, and the townspeople of Brownsville immediately began to point the finger of blame at the soldiers of the 25th.  Despite the protests of the officers (who were all white), an investigation would be launched by the Texas Rangers, with spent rifle casings from the rifles used by the US army at the time being presented as evidence.  While the soldiers of the 25th would plead their innocence, President Theodore Roosevelt would step in and order all 167 African American soldiers of the 25th dishonorably discharged for a “conspiracy of silence”.  This dishonorable discharge had a profound impact on the soldiers of the 25th who now found themselves not only kicked out of the army but banned from ever re-enlisting or serving in any future federal employment.  Among some of those discharged included many soldiers who had been a part of the regiment since the 1880s and would now lose their pensions.

After the discharge of the soldiers, a wave of condemnation from many political and civic leaders would be leveled at Roosevelt, with Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute personally appealing against the President’s orders, to no avail.  It would not be until an Army investigation and Presidential pardon in 1972 by Richard Nixon that the truth of the events in 1906 would come to light.  The investigation found that the soldiers had been denied their due right under the Constitution and that much of the evidence presented against them had been planted by the Texas authorities.  With Nixon’s issuance of a pardon, the men of the 25th would be awarded honorable discharges, but for the majority of the regiment, it would be too late.  Of the 167 men discharged in 1906, only one Dorsie Willis, was still alive in 1972 and it would take the work of Senator Hubert Humphry for Willis to be awarded his pension.

The men who served as Buffalo Soldiers showed great devotion to the nation in their service, while also dealing with the aspects of our society that we least like to acknowledge.  Ingrained racism both from within the army and the larger society of the time resulted in many of the stories of the Buffalo Soldiers being forgotten or consigned to the back pages of history books.  As we bring the stories of these soldiers to light, we come to better understand what it meant for these men to serve and the role they played in the history of the Nation and the State.

 

Port Isabel

Port Isabel is a beautiful coastal town with a population of 5,000. It was established after the Mexican War of Independence and was important to cotton export before the Civil War. The harbor, town, and iconic lighthouse were all fought over during the Civil War. The town has survived and rebuilt after extensive damage caused by two hurricanes, one in 1967 and Hurricane Dolly was in 2008. Many visitors come to enjoy the beautiful beaches, fishing opportunities, and to tour their historic lighthouse. 

 

St. Andrew’s by the Sea began as a group of seven Episcopalians meeting in the home of Thelma Gambrell for Evening Prayer in October of 1955. They held their first larger public worship service in the American Legion later that year. Clergy from Brownsville and San Benito began traveling to Port Isabel to hold services, and they were granted mission status by the diocese in March of 1956 and the bishop commissioned their first Vicar, The Rev. Branch. The first church building was created from renovated army barracks. The Hurricane of 1967 destroyed this building. Their current church building was completed in 1969. 

They hold services at 8 and 10 am every Sunday and have a myriad of ministries to plug into during the week. They began hosting ESL classes in 2014, with many parishioners helping teach or with hospitality. They host a regular book club, needlepoint ministry, and have a vibrant lay-led pastoral care team. They are currently served by The Rev. Dr. Claudia Nalven, Rector. 

 

One of the most prominent draws for many visitors to Port Isabel Texas is the lighthouse known as Point Isabel and listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.  First constructed in 1852, the lighthouse would guide countless ships into the port throughout its history and see everything from being fought over during the Civil War and hurricanes.  The grounds of the lighthouse have an even longer history and have a connection to one of the most pivotal wars in US history that now is mostly forgotten, the Mexican American War.  

While often overshadowed by the following Civil War, the Mexican American War is important in understanding both Southern US history and Texas State history and the relationship between the US and Mexico.  By the war’s end in 1848, the US would expand by one-third with the new territories and the nation would reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.  Many of the future generals of the Civil War would experience their first combat in Mexico including Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman, and many more.  However, the war would also leave a bitter taste in many American mouths, with Grant later stating that “I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”.  Jumping back to the beginning of the war in 1846, we can see how the designs of President James K. Polk on California and Mexican territory influenced his push towards embroiling the US in a war with our Southern neighbor.

At the close of the Texas revolution, the new Republic of Texas and Mexico were in disagreement over the placement of the border.  For Texas, the border was the Rio Grande River while for Mexico the border was the Nueces River.  This area in between the rivers became known as the Nueces strip and would be a source of contention and occasional fighting between Texas and Mexico right up until Texas was admitted into the Union in 1845.  Polk seized upon this political problem by sending US troops into the disputed territory and as many historians now agree, was an attempt by the President to coax Mexico into a fight.  After the beginning of the war, a fort named for Polk would be constructed at Port Isabel at the future site of the lighthouse, and this Fort Polk would serve as both an arms depot and the largest hospital during the war.  The loss of the Territory for Mexico would be devastating, and as we have seen in our pilgrimage the new border cut right through the lands that many residents had called home for generations.  

As students of history, we will encounter many stories during our pilgrimage.  Some will be wonderful stories that show the best in people, while others will challenge us to discover the darker sides of human nature.  But to truly understand the history of Texas and our own history, we must understand all the stories and be willing to confront what may be difficult for us to hear.

 

Kingsville

Heading inland we find ourselves in Kingsville, located on Hwy 77 between Harlingen and Corpus Christi with a population of 25,000. Kingsville is named for the famed Richard King and was established to provide infrastructure to the adjacent King Ranch. A railroad was laid in 1904 and the city was incorporated in 1911. The main sources for the economy today are agriculture, oil, and natural gas production. Visitors can enjoy the King Ranch Museum, a myriad of shops, a local brewery, and the Naval Air Space Visitors Center. Kingsville is one of three locations in the US where naval jet training takes place. 

 

Church of the Epiphany was organized as a mission in 1908 and has been worshipping in its current building since 1963. They opened a day school in 1950, which has recently converted to the Epiphany Montessori School that serves children ages PreK-5th grade. They hold one service each Sunday, with the first Sunday of the month being Rite I and the other Sundays being Rite II. They host many ministry opportunities and are currently served by The Rev. Jan Dantone. 

 

As we have walked together on this pilgrimage through the diocese we have come across many instances of nighttime terror violence being used to intimidate and marginalize various communities.  The innate fear of the dark we as humans have makes the thought of these nightly attacks deeply horrific, but we must not forget that as these communities endured terror by night, a soul-crushing system disenfranchised them by day.  The era of Jim Crow and racial segregation continues to impact the daily lives of many throughout the state, with the scars of the practices of “separate but equal” still shown in the layouts of cities.  In the town of Kingsville throughout the early and mid 20th century, both forms of racial prejudice reared their heads in the form of segregation and attacks by one of the most well-known hate groups, the Klu Klux Klan.

During the first years of the 1900s as Kingsville was taking shape, three distinct sections of the town began to emerge due to limits on where individuals could own property or find housing based on their ethnic identity.  Tejano and Mexican American citizens would primarily find work in agriculture in the North of town, especially with ranching.  To the South, the African American population of the town would mostly find work on the railroad, with the Anglo population centered in the downtown area.  This de facto segregation came about as schools and businesses were opened that by the laws of Texas were only allowed to cater or serve certain groups.  These Jim Crow laws were strictly enforced by both State and local police, with harsh punishments often dealt out to those who were seen as breaking the law or threatening to break them.  In 1916 the Tejano residents of Kingsville petitioned both President Woodrow Wilson and the Texas Governor to intervene on their behalf due to a great deal of fear they felt in extrajudicial actions being taken by the local police force.  One resident wrote in their petition, “One or more of us may have incurred the displeasure of someone, and it seems only necessary for that some one whisper our names to an officer, to have us imprisoned and killed without an opportunity to prove in a fair trial the falsity of the charges against us”.  When news of this petition reached the local Texas Ranger force, one of the attorneys who helped draft the petition found himself confronted in the courthouse by a Ranger who proceeded to pistol-whip him.  By the 1920s there were attempts by members of both the Tejano and African American communities to form groups that would advocate for the civil rights of these marginalized groups.  In 1929 many of the railroad workers in Kingsville formed the Colored Trainmen Organization (CTA) and began a general strike that saw an increase in pay and better, safer working conditions for railroad employees.  These small victories allowed a glimmer of a better life to shine through for these workers, which was an outrage for some members of the Kingsville community and resulted in violent attacks by the KKK.  Throughout the rest of the year, the Klan would commit several murders and lynchings along with physical attacks on African American homes.  While the wave of violence following the strike was particularly violent it was not the first time either the Hispanic or African American community had encountered this group.  Earlier in the decade in 1923 an African American physician who had been passing through town would be lynched, with his identity now lost to history aside from a few newspaper accounts detailing the event.

While the scars of the past and events such as these continue to impact local communities to this day, one can also see and find the healing that has occurred since the end of Jim Crow and the nighttime terrors.  Many of these stories that were once hidden from history have been researched and preserved by the work of dedicated faculty and students at Texas A&M Kingsville.  In 2018 after an incident of a racist tirade being directed at a student of color in Kingsville, the Mayor wrote to all students at the University his feelings of disgust regarding the event and his support for the student and for anyone who encounters such acts.  It is indeed hard and painful when we are confronted by stories such as these from the past, but to truly understand the road that others have had to travel it is necessary to discover the past.  By understanding these stories we come to better understand not only our neighbors but ourselves and how we can truly love one another as Christ loves us. 

 

Closing Prayer

Almighty God, Source of all that is, Giver of every good gift: You create all people in your image and call us to love one another as you love us. We confess that we have failed to honor you in the great diversity of the human family. We have desired to live in freedom while building walls between ourselves and others. We have longed to be known and accepted for who we are, while making judgments of others based on the color of skin, or the shape of features, or the varieties of human experience. We have tried to love our neighbors individually while yet benefitting from systems that hold those same neighbors in oppression. Forgive us, Holy God. Give us eyes to see you as you are revealed in all people. Strengthen us for the work of reconciliation rooted in love. Restore us in your image, to be a beloved community, united in our diversity, even as you are one with Christ and the Spirit, Holy and undivided Trinity, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Next stop Tuesday, July 20th

Alice, Corpus Christi, and Portland, TX

Distance to travel: 164,000 steps

Churches: Church of the Advent, All Saints, Good Shepherd, St. Mark’s, St. Bartholomew’s, and St. Christopher’s by the Sea