The NAACP State Conference in Texas: Intermediary and Catalyst for Change, 1937-1957

By Houston, Ramona | The Journal of African American History, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The NAACP State Conference in Texas: Intermediary and Catalyst for Change, 1937-1957


Houston, Ramona, The Journal of African American History


The Texas State Conference of NAACP branches was the most active, aggressive, and effective organization within the African American community in challenging racial discrimination and segregation in Texas from the late 1920s through the 1950s. The Texas NAACP attacked racial segregation and discrimination on all levels, but focused on desegregating the public school systems throughout the state. The organization sponsored lawsuits, organized formal protests, and submitted letters and petitions to state and local officials demanding equal rights and treatment for African Americans. In addition, the NAACP-initiated lawsuits from Texas successfully challenged racial segregation in public and private institutions in various parts of the Lone Star State. Over several decades the Texas NAACP addressed issues of discrimination in public housing, transportation, health care, and recreation. Thus the NAACP State Conference in Texas played a crucial role in desegregating public institutions and facilities throughout Texas. (1)

As in other southern states, whites in Texas developed a legalized system of racial hierarchy and separation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and following the Supreme Court's sanctioning of that legislation in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, the "separate but equal" doctrine masked a southern social reality in which racial discrimination and segregation was normative. The social system was designed to maintain white southerners' economic, political, and social control over African Americans following their emancipation from physical bondage. Under this racial hierarchy, African Americans in Texas were locked out of housing, employment, public schools, and recreational areas reserved "for whites only." Jim Crow segregation was imposed upon African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans; however, despite the legal restrictions, many people of color organized individually and collectively to challenge racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. (2)

One of the most important organizations founded for the purpose of ending racial inequality, the NAACP followed in the pathways laid out by W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter in the Niagara Movement launched in 1905, but the movement was severely challenged internally and externally by 1909. Following the lynching of a black man in Springfield, Illinois, in August 1908, the NAACP was formed at a conference in New York City in 1909 called by Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villard, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other social scientists and activists to begin a national effort to fight for the first-class citizenship rights of "colored people," especially U.S. African Americans. The conference attracted the attention of major social and political activists, including social welfare advocate Jane Addams, novelist William Dean Howells, antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, philosopher John Dewey, and clubwoman Mary Church Terrell. The participants laid out plans for a permanent organization that would expose mob violence and lynching, challenge racial discrimination in various areas of public life, and demand the enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution's guarantees of "equal protection under the law." Within a few years, the NAACP achieved some victories in the courts, and state and local chapters or branches, and even regional divisions, were formed. (3)

The first NAACP chapter to be established in Texas was in El Paso in 1915. According to some estimates, by 1919 Texas had more NAACP members and branches than any other state in the nation. This occurred because of the defense led by NAACP lawyers of the black soldiers indicted in the so-called Houston Race Riot in 1917, in which seventeen whites and two black soldiers were killed in the racial violence. Though twenty-nine black soldiers were eventually executed, the remaining thirty-four received legal assistance from the NAACP and were released or received reduced sentences. …

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