Texas is known for its spirit of fierce independence, and the Island of Galveston is no different. First settled by the Spanish, Galveston later became an economic center for Texas. After the civil war, Galveston’s importance as one of the few deep-water ports in the Gulf of Mexico, drew freedmen to the island with promises of economic success and education. The island’s past of trading with the Spanish and French along with the close relation to New Orleans bred a degree of racial tolerance, in comparison to other parts of the South. Galveston experienced an early civil rights movement because of the island’s long history of diverse religions and trade patterns, progressive thinkers, and the early efforts towards education. Prior to the hurricane of 1900 that threw the whole city into turmoil, Galveston could have been considered a perfect collision of W.E.D DuBois’ idea of the classical trained “Talented Tenth” and Booker T. Washington’s idea that success came through cooperating with capitalism to prove worth through economic achievements.
Galveston was previously occupied by the Spanish and the Republic of Texas before becoming a part of the United States of America shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. Under each flag, Galveston was utilized as an important port. Trade with the neighboring port of New Orleans exposed Galvestonians to a diverse collection of people with mixed racial backgrounds. The bombing economy on the island made it a landing point for Irish, Mexican, and Italian immigrants who brought various religions and traditions with them, in addition to the freedmen.
The unique advantage of economic prosperity outside of agriculture fostered the growth of an African American middle class. One case is Reverend Ralph Albert Scull. In his record of Galveston’s history, he shares that his father, Horace Scull, was born into slavery and made Galveston his home. Horace was a carpenter and played an instrumental part in building homes for African Americans. Horace was able to own his own store Galveston before his retirement. Just like Horace, other freedmen and their children were able to utilize Galveston’s economic strengths to secure a better life. In Scull’s writing he also made note of other black businesses around town including, carpenters, saloons, barbers, furniture stores and eateries. The city quickly established black owned businesses to serve their own growing community.
Galveston, collectively, was highly spiritual, but also very religiously diverse. Black churches were not hidden away far parts of the city. Many were erected near the main part of town only a short distance from the entrance to Galveston Bay and the business center of The Strand. The church was instrumental in organizing and educating the recently freed people in Galveston. While still enslaved the Colored Baptist Church of Galveston emerged and would later make their permeant home in the First Regular Missionary Baptist Church on Avenue L. By 1900 the Morrison & Fourmy’s General Directory of the City of Galveston listed 14 African American congregations with representation from the Baptists, Catholics, Episcopal, and Methodists. And in 1914 the Wesley Tabernacle Church became the home to the south’s first anti-lynching society.
Sunday schools were created for children of all races at their different places of worship. There was a collective campaign to get every child on the island an early religious education and to create fond memories in a spiritual setting. Black women became the primary teachers at their church’s Sunday schools, preparing them to later take that role in public schools. In addition to the religious classes, kindergartens, social clubs, literacy programs and other private organizations spurred from the church.
Norris Wright Cuney is widely considered to be one of the strongest single influences in the early civil rights movement in Galveston. He was born to his mother, Adeline, while enslaved in Hempstead, Texas. His father, Philip Cuney a planter, manumitted Wright at the age of thirteen and sent him to school in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Schools for African Americans were publicly funded in Pittsburg, and his two other brothers were already established in the city. Upon the conclusion of the civil war, he returned to Texas and took up home on the island.
The progressive movement was embraced early on in Galveston, and Cuney took advantage. He became heavily involved and respected in the Republican Party, earning the appointment of secretary of the Republican State Executive Committee. Cuney was an elected member of the Galveston city board of aldermen. The local elections prior to the hurricane of 1900 relied on a democratic vote to represent the various wards of the city. Since multiple people were elected alderman, the African American votes made an impact. Following his time serving the city, he was appointed the Collector of Customs for the Port of Galveston, a highly respected and well-paying federal job. He was an advocate to the black dockworker. He supported them through personal donations and spearheaded the creation of the Screwmen’s Benevolent Association.
The spirit of Black Galvestonians was made present through public celebrations and adopting and adapting American holidays, even when white Galvestonians did not celebrate. Fourth of July was used to celebrate the life of Crispus Attucks, an African American who was the first person to die in the Boston Massacre. Labor Day was celebrated to recognize the endurance of enslaved people. Juneteenth is a celebration native to Galveston. Juneteenth is the celebration of when Gordon Granger delivered Order No. 3, making it publicly known that slavery had ended. Juneteenth was celebrated on the island through parades, public speeches, reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and community barbeques. People traveled on train from all over Texas to participate in the celebration of Juneteenth. Mardi Gras was adopted by Galveston. The Catholic celebration has its roots in the Wester hemisphere in Biloxi and being made popular by New Orleans. The holiday is celebrated through extravagance, parades, and balls. Mardi Gras was a biracial celebration, as it had been in New Orleans.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century Galveston showcased its possibilities of what the south could have been if the reconstruction era policies were not counteracted by the individual states. The cities unique history separates it from other parts of the South. The ability to secure meaningful, decent paying work allowed the African American community to have a fast-growing middle able to invest more time and effort in religious and educational endeavors.