The Alamo is commonly referred to as the “cradle of Texas liberty,” a phrase that erases and disregards the experiences of people of color. This op-ed examines Alamo symbolism and Texas independence from the perspective of people of color.
Race-based Slavery and Texas
No outsider had a better grasp of what was at stake in the revolt than the Quaker abolitionist Benjamin F. Lundy. He declared in 1836 that slave traders and land speculators sought to wrest Texas from Mexico “in order to re-establish the SYSTEM OF SLAVERY; to open a vast and profitable SLAVE-MARKET therein; and, ultimately, to annex it to the United States.” Lundy also foresaw that annexation would lead to succession: “…in fighting for the union of Texas with the United States… they will be fighting for that which, at no distant period, will inevitably DISSOLVE THE UNION… [they] will ere long cut asunder the federal tie which they have long held with ungracious and unfraternal fingers, and confederate a new and distinct slaveholding republic, in opposition to the whole free republic of the North.” Lundy also warned of enormous bloodshed: “…blood will flow in torrents, and the land will be drenched with their crimson gore!”
He was prophetic. After the war of independence (1835-36), which created the slavery-based Republic of Texas, Texas was annexed to the United States in December of 1845 as a slave state without fixed borders, a stratagem that made it easier for the U.S. to provoke the Mexican-American War in 1846. At the end of that war, the U.S. seized Mexican land all the way to the Pacific. Discord over the means by which Texas was annexed and conflict over whether to permit slavery in the other territories seized from Mexico led to the American Civil War. The Civil War was the bloodiest war in U.S. history, and even the Alamo church itself was utilized as a slave market.
Historian Andrew J. Torget calls the Republic of Texas a “dress-rehearsal” for the Confederate States of America. Commencing in 1821, Stephen F. Austin, the “father of Texas,” had constructed an imitation slave state within the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, and the goal became to make it a real slave state.
Austin awarded colonists an extra 50 acres (quickly increased to 80 acres) for each enslaved person they brought with them. Austin’s settlements were predicated on slavery, and his colonists were governed by regulations that safeguarded the institution, based on laws in U.S. slave states. It was illegal to harbor escaped slaves; a white man who discovered an enslaved person away from home without a pass was obligated to whip that person, etc. In a famous letter dated May 30, 1833, Austin declared: “Texas must be a slave country. Circumstances and unavoidable necessity compels it.” Of course that had been Austin’s intention from the start. Cotton was booming, and race-based slavery was the quickest way to create enormous personal wealth on this rich Mexican soil. Cruel physical and psychological coercion compelled enslaved people to labor much harder and longer than any free person would work. Additionally, enslaved people and their children could be leased, or sold like livestock. Efforts were made to ensure that people of African descent would be enslaved for eternity, with essentially no hope of ever winning their freedom.
Mexico’s many efforts to eliminate or limit race-based slavery were thwarted and blunted (usually with the connivance and material aid of the Tejano elite, who also favored slavery), or simply ignored. The Anglo-American colonists’ commitment to slavery was a source of continuous conflict with Mexico. Investors, speculators, and settlers sought independence and annexation, which was necessary to protect the institution of slavery and the investments that had been made in it. Without independence, the deeds they possessed and traded would be valueless. Without the guarantee of continued Anglo-American immigration, purchasers could not take possession of the lands they bought or could buy. Without annexation there was no security that Mexico would not retake Texas. Tellingly, Texian officials worked on legislation to protect slavery and limit the rights of blacks and mixed-race peoples in the Texas republic-to-be even before they declared independence.
President Andrew Jackson and nearly everyone with power in the American South wanted Texas as a slave state, especially since it was so close to New Orleans. Jackson wanted to strengthen the power of slavery interests in what was becoming an increasingly polarized nation. While he was willing to use almost any means to achieve success, he also wanted to conceal his involvement to avoid violating treaties too openly. Jackson also had greater ambitions: he wanted California, too.
The end of the Civil War resulted in the emancipation of an estimated 250,000 enslaved black people in Texas. But slavery-like conditions were sometimes perpetuated in what Douglas A. Blackmon calls “slavery by another name”: the practice of arresting blacks for minor crimes and forcing them to work on plantations, which continued until WWII.
Quintard Taylor writes that for the next century, “Whites killed blacks for celebrating their emancipation, for refusing to remove their hats when whites passed, for refusing to be whipped, for improperly addressing a white man, and ‘just to see them kick.’ The sheriff of De Witt County shot a black man who whistled ‘Yankee Doodle.’” Black lives were so devalued by slavery that the use of deadly force against people of color is one of its enduring legacies. Lynching, oppression by terrorist groups such as the KKK, segregation, and a host of discriminatory practices are also the legacy of slavery and the 1836 battle of the Alamo, which provided the rallying cry for the pro-slavery revolt against Mexico.
Mexicans, the Alamo, and Texas
The 1836 Alamo battle has been memorialized in a manner that seems to call for perpetual vengeance against Mexicans and their descendents, which is why it helped to galvanize a virulently Social Darwinist strain of anti-Mexican sentiment. Texas was the crucible for the rise of a racialized Anglo-Saxonism, one that regarded dominance as its special destiny. The term Manifest Destiny was coined in a discussion of the U.S. annexation of Texas in 1845, the act that precipitated the Mexican-American War. Ulysses S. Grant, who served in that war, judged it “one of the most unjust ever waged.” He viewed the American Civil War as a consequence of — and a punishment for — the Mexican-American War.
Stephen F. Austin’s dim view of Mexicans was revealed in a letter to his brother written on his first trip to Mexico in 1822-23: “…the majority of the people of the whole nation as far as I have seen want nothing but tails to be more brute than apes.” In a May 4, 1836 letter to Senator L. F. Linn of Missouri, Austin declared: “A war of extermination is raging in Texas — a war of barbarism and of despotic principles, waged by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race… Indians, Mexicans, and renegades, all mixed together, and all the natural enemies of white men and civilization.” These prejudices must have influenced Austin’s desire to be free of Mexican rule. In 1834 the New Orleans Bee printed a Texian letter with this description of Mexicans: “…degraded and vile; the unfortunate race of Spaniard, Indian and African, is so blended that the worst qualities of each predominate.” David G. Burnet, president of the interim revolutionary government, cited the “utter dissimilarity” between Anglo-Americans and “a mongrel race of degenerate Spaniards and Indians more depraved than they” as the underlying cause of the Texian Revolt.
Texian propagandists demonized Mexicans, but modern historians have refuted Texian propaganda that rationalized the revolt. Frederick Merk notes: “The explanation… that it was an uprising against Mexican tyranny, is unfounded. …even Texas historians are now agreed that Mexican rule had not been cruel or oppressive.” Paul D. Lack declares: “The people of Texas had received much from the government of Mexico and had not been badly treated… . Seldom has the ruling hand been felt so lightly as in Texas in the period 1821-35.” Josefina Zoraida Vázquez observes: “No group in Mexico received as many privileges as the Texans because the government was determined to make the colonization work.”
John Quincy Adams rhetorically posed this racial question in the House of Representatives on May 25, 1836: “Do not you, an Anglo-Saxon, slave-holding exterminator of Indians, from the bottom of your soul, hate the Mexican-Spaniard-Indian emancipator of slaves and abolisher of slavery?” Even a scholar such as James E. Crisp, who downplays the role of racial conflict in the rebellion against Mexico, recognizes that “the greatest measure of oppression in Texas came not before 1836, but after” and that “the Alamo became a hammer for bashing Mexican Americans in Texas.”
According to Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas, U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s imperial ambitions stretched far beyond Texas: he hatched a plot to take Mexican territory all the way to the San Francisco Bay. The scheme required General Sam Houston to retreat until he could draw Mexican General Santa Anna across the Neches River, onto land the U.S. would falsely claim was U.S. territory. U.S. forces would engage the Mexican army to provide a basis for a declaration of war: the U.S. would claim that American blood had been “spilled upon American ground.” General Houston’s army, however, refused to keep retreating, and when it won at San Jacinto in 1836, Jackson lost the opportunity to start a grander war. Nonetheless, President James K. Polk, Jackson’s protégé, used this script to provoke the Mexican-American War in 1846 and to take the present-day U.S. Southwest as a victory prize.
Amy S. Greenberg notes that many of the U.S. soldiers in the Mexican-American War had “thrilled to tales of Texas heroism and Alamo martyrs.” Their enmity towards Mexicans was so great that Southern volunteers in particular committed numerous atrocities against civilians, including rape, murder, and robbery.
Texas itself often resembled a war zone, with former Mexican nationals treated as internal enemies. Many were murdered, or dispossessed and driven into exile in Mexico, including Juan Seguín, who had rendered exemplary service to the Texians and to the cause of slavery. He had even hunted down escaped slaves after the battle of San Jacinto.As David Montejano notes, “Remember the Alamo” became “the essence of Texas celebrations” wherein Mexicans were viewed as “subjugated enemies,” a situation that rendered the prospect of equity “absurd.” Its legacy in Texas includes a high incidence of lynching and other extra-judicial killings, segregation, discrimination, and denial of civil rights. As Suzanne Gamboa notes, “The struggles of Texans of Mexican descent have been so many they have made the state the birthplace of several Latino civil rights groups.” Rebecca Onion points out that whereas lynch mobs tended to accuse their black victims of “sexual violence” (or, one might add, a mere interest in white women), their stated rationale for attacking Mexican Americans was usually “murder or a crime against property… sometimes called ‘banditry.’”
Native Americans and Texas
The city of San Antonio originated as part of a Spanish mission system, commencing with Misión San Antonio de Valero (now popularly known as the Alamo), founded in 1718. The system, designed to convert and colonize the indigenous peoples, was unsuccessful, and it was being terminated in the late 1700s.
In order to meet the U.S. cotton industry’s enormous demand for horses, Native American tribes, who had traded for rifles, led increasingly violent raids in Northern Mexico. In an 1836 speech Stephen F. Austin said “Texas was a wilderness, the home of the uncivilized and wandering Comanche” and the rationale for Anglo-American colonization was to “restrain these savages and bring them into subjection.” Austin oversaw the eradication of several tribes in order to colonize the lands they had possessed.
While Sam Houston, the Texas republic’s first president, had a conciliatory policy towards Native Americans, the antithetical views of Mirabeau B. Lamar (the republic’s second president) prevailed. Lamar blocked passage of the treaties Houston had crafted. In 1839 Lamar called for the “absolute expulsion” of the “barbarian race” from Texas. He insisted: “The white man and the red man cannot dwell in harmony together. Nature forbids it.” Lamar’s presidency was essentially an anti-Indian crusade, aimed at killing or driving out all Native Americans. He expanded the Texas Rangers and spent $2.5 million on Indian wars, which is far more than it had cost to achieve independence from Mexico. Militia groups were also formed to drive Native Americans out of Texas. John Quincy Adams had exclaimed in an anti-annexation speech in 1836: “Have you not Indians enough to expel from the land of their fathers’ sepulchres, and to exterminate?”
Prior to the Civil War, immigration surged, bringing diseases that killed perhaps half of the Comanches in Texas. The U.S. Federal government’s attempts at peace treaties were blocked by Texas’ refusal to yield public land for reservations. After the Civil War, the U.S. Army completed the subjugation of the South Plains Indians. This was achieved by long-term, scorched-earth military campaigns, which included eliminating the buffalo, killing captured horses, and burning Native American villages. As George Klos notes, though hundreds of indigenous groups have been identified in Texas, today the state has but three reservations, “populated, ironically, by Indians who migrated to Texas after European colonization.”
Roger G. Kennedy defines cotton imperialism as cotton produced for international markets by enslaved blacks, often on land where Native Americans were eradicated or displaced — and in the Texas context one can add on land taken from Mexico. Kennedy concludes: “In 1865 cotton imperialism came to its zenith in history and its terminus — in Texas.”
Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and curator. This op-ed summarizes some of the arguments in the exhibition catalogue The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth (San Antonio: Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, 2018), which was funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The illustrations are also from this exhibition.