Civil Rights, Immigration, Politics and Government, Social Justice

The Legacy of “Juan Crow” Lynching in Texas

A historical marker near the area where vigilantes and Texas Rangers rousted 15 Mexican and Mexican-American men and boys from their beds and lynched them January 28, 1918. Porvenir, then a border town, no longer exists. (Texas Historical Commission photo}

By Énoa Gibson

The time of lynching for Black folks in America was the same for hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans—La Hora de Sangre, the “Time of Blood,” they have come to call it in Spanish. It was a time of racial persecution, injustice and countless mob-infused deaths; and 1918 and 1919 were particularly noteworthy years.

In May alone, White people murdered at least 13 Black people in Brooks County, Georgia, including Mary Turner, one of at least 159 Black women lynched between 1880 and 1930. No one was convicted for killing her.

On January 28, in the border town of Porvenir, Texas Rangers and White vigilantes opened fire on a group of Mexican men and boys that they had rousted from their beds as suspects in a Christmas Day store robbery. Fifteen, aged 15 to 72, were killed. None had been arrested, charged, tried or convicted. No one was arrested, charged, tried or convicted for killing them.

The following year, 1919,  brought what James Weldon Johnson, at the time a field secretary for the NAACP, labeled the “Red Summer”—so bad that in the year after that, the organization began posting outside its New York headquarters an iconic flag reporting a recurrent news headline: “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.”

It also was in 1919 that the Texas state legislature officially closed its investigation off what occurred in Porvenir.  No civilians were charged; a few Rangers retired or resigned following investigations of the incident. Nothing else, no mas.

To some historians that was proof that Jim Crow and its Spanish-language variant—Juan Crow,—truly were proverbial ‘birds of a feather.’

“White supremacist ideologies that condoned anti-black vigilantism helped justify the documented anti-Mexican violence at the hands of state agents,” Brown University history professor Monica Muñoz Martinez wrote in her 2018 book, “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas.”

“Racist assumptions of ‘bad Negros’ [sic] would support the continued racist depictions of the Mexican bandit,” she wrote. “Texas legislators would maintain the racial ideologies of the frontier South that embraced violence as a means for preserving racial hierarchies. They would continue to mark the bodies of racist and ethnic minorities as available for violence at the hands of mobs or law enforcement officers.”

Martinez said there are many “striking parallels” between what happened a century ago and what is happening now.

“What took place, especially in the decade between 1910 and 1920, was that citizenship, American citizenship, class, social influence, and gender—none of those things protected people from anti-Mexican violence by vigilantes or by law enforcement,” she said in an interview.

“We’re similarly living through a period now where immigrants or anybody who’s Latinx is profiled as being perpetually foreign, regardless of whether or not they’re citizens, or being a threat or as being suspicious, especially for people living along he US-Mexico border.

“This sort of rhetoric of crisis on the border and cartel members coming across the border criminalizes people, and leads to not just a rise in Latin hate crimes consistently over the past years, but also draconian immigration policies and calls for brutal policing along the U.S. Mexico border.”

Boston University humanities professor Ibram X. Kendi also saw parallels between past and present. He noted that it was 100 years to the day after the beginning of the Chicago race riots (August 3, of 1919) in which 23 Black people were killed that a young White man armed with an assault rifle and targeting Mexicans and Mexican-Americans opened fire on Saturday morning shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso. He killed 23 and wounded others.

The shooter, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, had declared in a manifesto that his attack was “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”.

“No one in Chicago’s lynch mobs wrote a manifesto to explain an attack in 1919,” Kendi wrote in The Atlantic days after the shootings. “If someone had, then it would have resembled the manifesto linked to Crusius …Swapping out  ‘Hispanic’ for ‘black’ and ‘Texas’ for ‘Chicago,’ the 1919 manifesto would have read: ‘This attack is a response to the black invasion of Chicago. They are the instigators, not me’.”

“The American crisis of white-supremacist terrorism—its deadliest form, mass murder—is as old as it is new,” Kendi wrote. “The death knell sounds. The deliverer of mass death has changed.

“In 1919, the white lynch mob was the deadliest domestic form of white-supremacist terror. Back then a sizable number of armed and coordinated white supremacists were needed to slaughter a sizable number of people of color. Now it takes only one.

“The lynch mob endures in a different form. The assault rifle is the lynch mob of one.”

Overall, the number of African Americans and the number of Mexicans and Mexican Americans lynched in the 19thand 20th centuries were not equal, but there were striking similarities.

In the years between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the Mexican Revolution in 1920, for instance, “more Mexican Americans were lynched in the Southwest than African Americans,” Philip Perlmutter wrote in “Legacy of Hate: A Short History of Ethnic, Religious and Racial Prejudice in America.”

And in 1919, “when the NAACP released a list of the top ten states with the highest rates of lynching since 1889, Texas came in third with 335 victims, behind Georgia and Mississippi,” Brown University’s Martinez wrote.

Black people in the South and Brown people in Texas and other parts of the Southwest were lynched for similar reasons and in similar manners.

“Some Mexicans were lynched without being arrested, tried or convicted, and the reasons given as justification for killing them included what many would not consider transgressions worthy of capital punishment, such as cheating at cards, filing law suits against Whites, or practicing witchcraft,” the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has reported.

Ida B. Wells’s investigative reporting exposed a big lie of her time—that most lynching of Black men was based on assaults on White women—and showed instead that economic competition and land grabs and power grabs were more often the real causes. The same was true in the case of Mexicans, EJI asserted:

“Scholars have argued that these lynchings in border states served to establish economic, political and social dominance in the border areas acquired by the United States following the war in Mexico. Violence forced Mexican residents of territory newly claimed by the United States to flee their homes, allowing whites to seize the land and natural resources.”

“Lynching in Texas and elsewhere in the West was ‘one of the mechanisms by which Anglos consolidated their colonial control of the American West’,” Matthew Wills wrote for the academic research site JSTOR, quoting historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, authors of “Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928.”

“The ‘primacy of racial prejudice’ as motivation was underlined by the ritualized torture of victims, who were shot, burned, and mutilated before and after hanging,” Wills wrote. “Anglos were also victims of lynch mobs, of course, but without the ceremony and public spectacle. The violence done to bodies of Mexican ancestry victims was ‘a symbolic message contained in the mob’s assertion of Anglo sovereignty’.”

Geography was also a tie binding what happened to Black folks and Brown folks.

The easternmost section of Texas is adjacent to the western borders of Arkansas and Louisiana, whose own eastern borders abut Mississippi. Historically and culturally and economically, there is a good bit the Old South deep in this part of Texas.

Much what is now the Lone Star state used to be part of Mexico, where there was slavery until 1829, when the Mexican government made it illegal. Less than a decade later, Texas won its independence from Mexico, declared itself a republic, and promptly decreed in its constitution that any person who had been a servant for life under Mexican law would be considered chattel property under Texas law.

Texas joined the United States of America in 1845, but left 16 years later to join the Confederate States of America at the onset of the U.S. Civil War in 1861. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed all enslaved people in Confederate states that had been part of the Union. The war ended in 1865 and five years later, Texas ratified the 14thand 15th Amendments granting equal rights to those previously enslaved, and was allowed to rejoin the United States of America.

Stephen F. Austin, variously considered a founding father of Texas and its independence, was not a native son. He was born in Virginia and raised in Missouri. But he recognized the potential for cotton farming in Texas and settled there in 1823. Many more Anglo Whites moved to the area as well, bringing with them the African Americans they held in bondage and later importing and enslaving even more.

Austin hired a small band of men to help in the battle against an indigenous local population, the Karankawa tribe, which opposed the invasion and occupation of their native land, John Phillip Santos wrote in The Texas Monthly. The band’s purpose was to carry out what has been described as a punitive campaign against the Native Americans, with whom the settlers believed they could not coexist.

“There was no way of subduing them but extermination,” Doug J. Swanson, a former editor and investigative reporter at The Dallas Morning News, wrote in describing the settlers’ attitude toward the Karankawa.

Austin had dubbed his men “rangers,” and when Texas became a republic in 1835, the Texas Rangers became the official state police force. By the end of  the next decade, they had made their mark.

They “owned  a deeply rooted reputation as arrant killers,” and among Mexicans, “came to be known as Los Diablos Tejanos (The Texas Devils),” Santos wrote. “The Mexicans raised it as a cry of alarm or they spat it as a curse. The Rangers wore it as a crown,” Swanson wrote in “Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers.”

Brown University historian Martinez estimated that Rangers and other state law enforcement agencies killed “anywhere from 300 to several thousand ethnic Mexicans between 1910 and 1920.”

Over time, the efforts of the Rangers were not limited to Native Americans nor to the United 
States of America (Mexico’s official name is Estados Unidos Mexicanos, literally the United Mexican States in English, or the United States of Mexico).

 “[T]he Rangers engaged in bounty hunting for escaped slaves in Texas and Mexico, largely turned a blind eye to the lynching of black people, and, later, were deployed to break a United Farm Workers strike,” Santos wrote.

“Though the Rangers did  investigate racial tensions in Texas following a riot in Longview in 1919, Swanson reports, they did not, as has been widely reported, engage in an official campaign against the Ku Klux Klan; they devoted more of their efforts to probing civil rights groups, which they regarded as creating the racial tension in the first place. ‘It was an open secret that an untold number of Rangers held Klan sympathies, if not memberships,’ Swanson writes.”

In 2020, a longstanding iconic statue of a Texas Ranger at Dallas Love Field Airport was removed because of depictions in Swanson’s book of episodes of police brutality and racism in the Rangers’ past.

The incidents included the law enforcement agency blocking integration of a high school in 1957, and leaving a courthouse in 1930 during the trial of a Black man subsequently abducted and lynched.

The killings of Mexicans in Porvenir, like those of thousands of Black men and women in the South, fit textbook definitions of lynching and terrorism—the execution in any manner of persons for real or alleged crimes without appropriate legal process with the goal of instilling fear in a particular group of people.

Texas officials said at the time that the Rangers were fired upon in the dark when they arrived at the village to get information about the robbery, and fired back in self-defense. A Mexican official said, however, that those killed were not robbers but workers “taken from their homes and shot by men claiming to be state rangers,” The El Paso Heraldreported at the time.

“He also said [that] the fact that the laborers wore clothing from the…ranch store was not proof that they had participated in the…ranch raid December 25, as all of the people in that section bought their clothing and supplies from [that] store.” Archaeological findings years later also indicated that the only gunfire likely came from the Rangers and the vigilantes.

Women and children who survived the killings went back to Mexico. The village of Porvenir, “the future” in Spanish, no longer exists

On January 28, 1934 —16 years to the day after the massacre in Porvenir—Tampa police arrested Robert Johnson, a 40-year-old Black man alleged to have been involved in an assault on a White women.

The allegations were wrong, it was quickly learned, but Johnson was kept in jail on a warrant accusing him of stealing chickens and turkeys. Two days later, a mob of White men abducted him from custody, and took him to a wooded part of town where a crowd of several dozen had gathered.

“Though he had been cleared of the assault allegations and not even tried for the minor charge of theft, the mob had determined he should face death. The mob killed Mr. Johnson with four shots to the head and one to the body…No one was ever prosecuted for the lynching of Robert Johnson,” the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) said in a posting on its website.

In late 2021, soil was gathered from the area where Johnson was lynched to be placed in a marker at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the National Lynching Memorial, that EJI has established in Montgomery, Ala.  He was one of five persons lynched in Hillsborough County, Fla. between 1890 and 1940.

“It’s been said that history doesn’t always travel in a straight line,” one of the soil gatherers said on a YouTube video of the occasion. “This is an opportunity for us to reflect and prayerfully not allow history to continue to repeat itself.”

“The people who hurt [Johnson and others] thought they’d be forgotten,” another of the soil diggers said. “But you know what? That’s not gonna happen.”

The sentiment had been similar more than a thousand miles away two years before and 101 years after the Porvenir Massacre, at a historical marker as near as possible to what is now a ghost town finally had been erected, and visited by some descendants of those who had survived, and those who had not.

“The most important words on this historical marker are the names of the fifteen men and boys that were murdered that night in 1918,” declares an unsigned explanation on a website commemorating the event. “Many have written to me asking if their ancestors are on the marker because they haven’t been able to see it. So here is the image of those who have not had the privilege of seeing the marker for yourself.”

Below that is an excerpt from the marker’s text:

“Though initial accounts denied any wrongdoing, later testimony confirmed that these 15 victims  were shot and killed. Family members crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico to bury Antonio Castañeda, Longino Flores, Pedro Herrera, Vivian Herrera, Severiano Herrera, Manuel Moralez, Eutemio González, Ambrosio Hernández, Alberto García, Tiburico Jáquez, Róman Nieves, Serapio Jiménez, Pedro Jiménez, Juan Jiménez and Macedonia Huertas.”

January 24, 2022

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Milton Coleman