The 20th Century — 1
Seldom can a people’s history be profoundly changed by a single event on a single day. But Texas’ entrance into the industrial age can be linked directly to the discovery of oil at Spindletop, three miles from Beaumont, on Jan. 10, 1901.
From that day, Texas’ progress from a rural, agricultural state to a modern industrial giant was steady.
One of the greatest natural disasters ever to strike the state occurred on Sept. 8, 1900, when a hurricane devastated Galveston, killing 6,000 people. In rebuilding from that disaster, Galveston’s civic leaders fashioned the commission form of municipal government.
Amarillo later refined the system into the council-manager organization that is widely used today.
The great Galveston storm also reinforced arguments by Houston’s leadership that an inland port should be built for protection against such tragedies and disruptions of trade. The Houston Ship Channel was soon a reality.
The reform spirit in government was not dead after the departure of Jim Hogg. In 1901, the Legislature prohibited the issuing of railroad passes to public officials. More than 270,000 passes were issued to officials that year, and farmers claimed that the free rides increased their freight rates and influenced public policy as well.
In 1903, state Sen. A.W. Terrell got a major election-reform law approved, a measure that was further modified two years later. A primary system was established to replace a hodgepodge of practices for nominating candidates that had led to charges of irregularities after each election.
Also in the reform spirit, the Legislature in 1903 prohibited abuse of child labor and set minimum ages at which children could work in certain industries. The action preceded federal child-labor laws by 13 years.
However, the state, for the first time, imposed the poll tax as a requirement for voting. Historians differ on whether the levy was designed to keep blacks or poor whites — or both — from voting. Certainly the poll tax cut election turnouts. Black voter participation dropped from about 100,000 in the 1890s to an estimated 5,000 in 1906.
The Democratic State Executive Committee also recommended that county committees limit participation in primaries to whites only, and most accepted the suggestion.
The election of Thomas M. Campbell as governor in 1906 marked the start of a progressive period in Texas politics. Interest revived in controlling corporate influence.
Under Campbell, the state’s antitrust laws were strengthened and a pure food and drug bill was passed. Life insurance companies were required to invest in Texas 75 percent of their reserves on policies in the state. Less than one percent of the reserves had been invested prior to the law.
Some companies left Texas. But the law was beneficial in the capital-starved economy. In 1904, voters amended the constitution to allow the state to charter banks for the first time, and this eased some of the farmers’ credit problems. In 1909, the Legislature approved a bank-deposit insurance plan that predated the federal program.
With corporate influence under acceptable control, attention turned to the issue of prohibition of alcohol. Progressives and prohibitionists joined forces against the conservative establishment to exert a major influence in state government for the next two decades.
Prohibitionists had long been active in Texas. They had the local-option clause written into the Constitution of 1876, which allowed counties or their subdivisions to be voted dry. But in 1887, a prohibition amendment to the state constitution had been defeated by a two-to-one margin, and public attention had turned to other problems.
In the early 20th century, the prohibition movement gathered strength. Most of Texas already was dry because of local option. When voters rejected a prohibition amendment by a slim margin in 1911, the state had 167 dry counties and 82 wet or partially wet counties. The heavily populated counties, however, were wet. Prohibition continued to be a major issue.
Problems along the U.S.-Mexico border escalated in 1911 as the decade-long Mexican Revolution broke out. Soon the revolutionaries controlled some northern Mexican states, including Chihuahua. Juarez and El Paso were major contact points. El Paso residents could stand on rooftops to observe the fighting between revolutionaries and government troops. Some Americans were killed.
After pleas to the federal government got no action, Gov. Oscar Colquitt sent state militia and Texas Rangers into the Valley in 1913 to protect Texans after Matamoros fell to the rebels. Unfortunately, the Rangers killed many innocent Mexican-Texans during the operation. In addition to problems caused by the fighting and raids, thousands of Mexican refugees flooded Texas border towns to escape the violence of the revolution.
In 1914, James E. Ferguson entered Texas politics and for the next three decades, “Farmer Jim” was one of the most dominating and colorful figures on the political stage. Ferguson, a banker from Temple, skirted the prohibition issue by pledging to veto any legislation pertaining to alcoholic beverages.
His strength was among farmers, however. Sixty-two percent of Texas’ farmers were tenants, and Ferguson pledged to back legislation to limit tenant rents. Ferguson also was a dynamic orator. He easily won the primary and beat out three opponents in the general election.
Ferguson’s first administration was successful. The Legislature passed the law limiting tenants’ rents, although it was poorly enforced, and aid to rural schools was improved.
In 1915, the border problems heated up. A Mexican national was arrested in the Lower Rio Grande Valley carrying a document outlining plans for Mexican-Americans, Indians, Japanese and blacks in Texas and the Southwest to eliminate all Anglo males over age 16 and create a new republic. The document, whose author was never determined, started a bloodbath in the Valley. Mexican soldiers participated in raids across the Rio Grande, and Gov. Ferguson sent in the Texas Rangers.
Historians differ on the number of people who were killed, but a safe assessment would be hundreds. Gov. Ferguson and Mexican President Venustiano Carranza met at Nuevo Laredo in November 1915 in an attempt to improve relations. The raids continued.
Pancho Villa raided Columbus, N.M., in early 1916; two small Texas villages in the Big Bend, Glenn Springs and Boquillas, also were attacked. In July, President Woodrow Wilson determined that the hostilities were critical and activated the National Guard. Soon 100,000 U.S. troops were stationed along the border. Fort Bliss in El Paso housed 60,000 men, and Fort Duncan near Eagle Pass was home to 16,000.
With the exception of Gen. John J. Pershing’s pursuit of Villa into Northern Mexico, few U.S. troops crossed into Mexico. But the service along the border gave soldiers basic training that was put to use when the United States entered World War I in 1917.
Ferguson was easily re-elected in 1916, and he worked well with the Legislature the following year. But after the Legislature adjourned, the governor got into a dispute with the board of regents of the University of Texas. The disagreement culminated in the governor’s vetoing all appropriations for the school. As the controversy swirled, the Travis County grand jury indicted Ferguson for misappropriation of funds and for embezzlement. In July 1917, Speaker of the Texas House F.O. Fuller called a special session of the Legislature to consider impeachment of the governor.
The Texas House voted 21 articles of impeachment, and the Senate in August 1917 convicted Ferguson on 10 of the charges. The Senate’s judgment not only removed Ferguson from office, but also barred him from seeking office again. Ferguson resigned the day before the Senate rendered the decision in an attempt to avoid the prohibition against seeking further office.
Texas participated actively in World War I. Almost 200,000 young Texans, including 31,000 blacks, volunteered for military service, and 450 Texas women served in the nurses’ corps. Five thousand lost their lives overseas, either fighting or in the influenza pandemic that swept the globe.
Texas also was a major training ground during the conflict, with 250,000 soldiers getting basic training in the state. On the negative side, the war frenzy opened a period of intolerance and nativism in the state. German-Texans were suspect because of their ancestry. A law was passed to prohibit speaking against the war effort. Persons who failed to participate in patriotic activities often were punished. Gov. William P. Hobby even vetoed the appropriation for the German department at the University of Texas.
Ferguson’s removal from office was a devastating blow to the anti-prohibitionists. Word that the former governor had received a $156,000 loan from members of the brewers’ association while in office provided ammunition for the progressives. In February 1918, a special session of the Legislature prohibited saloons within a 10-mile radius of military posts and ratified the national prohibition amendment, which had been introduced in Congress by Texas Sen. Morris Sheppard.
Women also were given the right to vote in state primaries at the same session.
Although national prohibition was to become effective in early 1920, the Legislature presented a prohibition amendment to voters in May 1919, and it was approved, bringing prohibition to Texas earlier than to the rest of the nation. At the same time, a woman suffrage amendment, which would have granted women the right to vote in all elections, was defeated.
Although World War I ended in November 1918, it brought many changes to Texas. Rising prices during the war had increased the militancy of labor unions.
Blacks also became more militant after the war. Discrimination against black soldiers led in 1917 to a riot in Houston in which several people were killed.
With the election of Mexican President Alvaro Obregón in 1920, the fighting along the border subsided. In 1919, state Rep. J.T. Canales of Brownsville initiated an investigation of the Texas Rangers’ role in the border problems. As a result of the study, the Rangers’ manpower was reduced from 1,000 members to 76, and stringent limitations were placed on the agency’s activities. Standards for members of the force also were upgraded.
By 1920, although still a rural state, the face of Texas was changing. Nearly one-third of the population was in the cities. Pat M. Neff won the gubernatorial election of 1920, beating Sen. Joseph W. Bailey in the primary. As a former prosecuting attorney in McLennan County, Neff made law and order the major thrust of his administration. During his tenure the state took full responsibility for developing a highway system, a gasoline tax was imposed, and a state park board was established.
In 1921, a group of West Texans threathened to form a new state because Neff vetoed the creation of a new college in their area. Two years later, Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) was authorized in Lubbock and opened its doors in 1925.
Although still predominantly a rural state, Texas cities were growing. In 1900, only 17 percent of the population lived in urban areas; by 1920, that figure had almost doubled to 32 percent. A discontent developed with the growth of the cities. Rural Texans had long seen cities as hotbeds of vice and immorality. Simple rural values were cherished, and it seemed that those values were threatened in a changing world. After World War I, this transition accelerated.
KKK and Minorities
In addition, “foreigners” in the state became suspect; nativism reasserted itself. German-Texans were associated with the enemy in the war, and Mexican-Texans were mostly Roman Catholics and likened to the troublemakers along the border. Texas was a fertile ground for the new Ku Klux Klan that entered the state in late 1920. The Klan’s philosophy was a mixture of patriotism, law-and-order, nativism, white supremacy and Victorian morals. Its influence spread quickly across the state, and reports of Klan violence and murder were rampant.
Prohibition had brought a widespread disrespect for law. Peace officers and other officials often ignored speakeasies and gambling. The Klan seemed to many Texans to be an appropriate instrument for restoring law and order and for maintaining morality in towns and cities. By 1922, many of the state’s large communities were under direct Klan influence, and a Klan-backed candidate, Earle Mayfield, was elected to the U.S. Senate, giving Texas the reputation as the most powerful Klan bastion in the Union. Hiram Wesley Evans of Dallas also was elected imperial wizard of the national Klan in that year.
The Klan became more directly involved in politics and planned to elect the next governor in 1924. Judge Felix Robertson of Dallas got the organization’s backing in the Democratic primary. Former governor Jim Ferguson filed to run for the office, but the Texas Supreme Court ruled that he could not because of his impeachment conviction. So Ferguson placed his wife, Miriam A. Ferguson, on the ballot. Several other prominent Democrats also entered the race.
The Fergusons made no secret that Jim would have a big influence on his wife’s administration. One campaign slogan was, “Two governors for the price of one.” Mrs. Ferguson easily won the runoff against Robertson when many Texans decided that “Fergusonism” was preferable to the Klan in the governor’s office.
Minorities began organizing in Texas to seek their civil rights. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) opened a Texas chapter in 1912, and by 1919, there were chapters in 31 Texas communities. Similarly, Mexican-Texans formed Orden Hijos de America in 1921, and in 1929, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was organized in Corpus Christi.
The Klan dominated the Legislature in 1923, passing a law barring blacks from participation in the Democratic primary. Although blacks had in fact been barred from voting in primaries for years, this law gave Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon, a black dentist from El Paso, the opportunity to go to court to fight the all-white primary. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the statute, but that was only the beginning of several court battles, which were not resolved until 1944.
Disgruntled Democrats and Klansmen tried to beat Mrs. Ferguson in the general election in 1924, but she was too strong. Voters also sent 91 new members to the Texas House, purging it of many of the Klan-backed representatives. After that election, the Klan’s power ebbed rapidly in Texas.
Mrs. Ferguson named Emma Grigsby Meharg as Texas’ first woman secretary of state in 1925. The governors Ferguson administration was stormy. Jim was accused of cronyism in awarding highway contracts and in other matters. And “Ma” returned to her husband’s practice of liberal clemency for prisoners. In two years, Mrs. Ferguson extended clemency to 3,595 inmates.
Although Jim Ferguson was at his bombastic best in the 1926 Democratic primary, young Attorney General Dan Moody had little trouble winning the nomination and the general election.
At age 33, Moody was the youngest person ever to become governor of Texas. Like many governors during this period, he was more progressive than the Legislature, and much of his program did not pass. Moody was successful in some government reorganization. He also cleaned up the highway department, which had been criticized under the Fergusons, and abandoned the liberal clemency policy for prisoners. And Moody worked at changing Texas’ image as an anti-business state. “The day of the political trust-buster is gone,” he told one Eastern journalist.
Progressives and prohibitionists still had a major influence on the Democratic Party, and 1928 was a watershed year for them. Moody easily won renomination and re-election. But the state party was drifting away from the direction of national Democrats. When Al Smith, a wet and a Roman Catholic, won the presidential nomination at the national Democratic convention in Houston, Texans were hard-pressed to remain faithful to the “party of the fathers.” Moody, who had been considered a potential national figure, ruined his political career trying to straddle the fence, angering both wets and drys, Catholics and Protestants. Former governor O.B. Colquitt led an exodus of so-called “Hoovercrats” from the state Democratic convention in 1928, and for the first time in its history, Texas gave its electoral votes to a Republican, Herbert Hoover, in the general election.
Through the 1920s, oil continued to increase in importance in Texas’ economy. New discoveries were made at Mexia in 1920, Luling in 1922, Big Lake in Reagan Conty in 1923, in the Wortham Field in 1924 and in Borger in 1926. But oil still did not dominate the state’s economic life.
As late as 1929, meat packing, cottonseed processing and various milling operations exceeded the added value of petroleum refining. And as the 1920s ended, lumbering and food processing shared major economic roles with the petroleum industry. During the decade, Texas grew between 35 and 42 percent of U.S. cotton and 20-30 percent of the world crop. Irrigation and mechanization opened the South Plains to cotton growing. Eight years later, more than 1.1 million bales were grown in the region, mostly around Lubbock.
But Texas, with the rest of the nation, was on the threshold of a major economic disaster that would have irreversible consequences. The Great Depression was at hand.
— This multi-part narrative of Texas' past, from prehistoric times to 1980, is based on "A Concise History of Texas" by former Texas Almanac editor Mike Kingston. Mr. Kingston's history was published in the 1986–1987 edition of the Texas Almanac, which marked Texas' sesquicentennial. Robert Plocheck, associate editor of the Texas Almanac, edited and expanded Mr. Kingston's history.