Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Early Texans couldn't get enough slave patrols, but didn't want to pay for them.

A bit more on slave patrols, which county commissioners courts were authorized to enact in the 1st Texas Legislature in 1846, the year after Texas became a state. We've discussed these antebellum slave-catcher patrol operations briefly: Created by county commissioners courts, comprised of local districts, sometimes many of them, with 4-6 officers in each. But I wanted to know more about them. Here are some related anecdotes from early Texas newspapers in the 1840s and '50s, found online at the University of North Texas' excellent "Portal to Texas History" site.

In 1858, during a legislative debate, state Representative Powell from Montgomery County implied some Texans felt the slave patrollers weren't doing much on the job. He attributed this to slave catchers for whom the work was just a paycheck but who had no connection to slave-owner culture and values: "Heretofore patrols have been appointed by the County Courts, and they have frequently been men who felt no responsibility resting on them, who rode when it suited their convenience and who, when it did not, did not know their duties or if they ever knew, did not perform them." He thought volunteers from slave owning families would be better connected to the slave systems and thus more effective at their duties. (State Gazette, May 1, 1858)

At the same time, and somewhat contradictory to his earlier holding, Mr. Powell argued against giving slave patrollers minimum work requirements: "[W]hen there is no occasion, why force a man to serve 12 hours in the week? Why compel a man who lives in the beat on which he serves, and who knows every plantation and negro in it, to take an oath to perform certain duties when he is satisfied that there is no necessity in it?" Why shouldn't the cop hang out all morning in the donut shop? He knows his beat best! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The concern that layabouts and loafers might draw a paycheck was a whitewashed version of the bigger fear over staffing slave patrols: their brutality and cruelty. One of the main arguments against them in the first place had been the caliber of men drawn to the profession.
Mr. Jones of Galveston hoped the bill would not pass. He had lived in slave-holding country, and had seen the evil of such a law. he said that persons who made application to act as patrols under the law, who availed themselves of the powers granted to them to maraud about the country and commit such outrages as would make him blush to name in the House. He said that owners of negroes could take care of themselves and if they were required to be answerable for the damages committed by them, there would be little need of patrols under such a law as this. (Austin Daily Bulletin, January 17, 1842)
Debates over creating slave patrols sometimes mirrored modern crime debates: in particular, the issues of runaway slaves and crime were openly conflated when there was no logical link, using fear of crime to gin up fear of black people and vice versa. For instance, on April 9, 1856, the Houston Weekly Telegraph editorialized on behalf of local patrols, blaming a supposed rise in burglaries on unsupervised black people:

It has become a notorious and patent fact that burglaries are becoming more and more frequent  in our city, and as it is almost next to impossible to detect the guilty parties after the commission of the offence, we propose to call attention to such portions of our statute law as seem best calculated to serve as preventives.

The first thing that strikes an attentive observer on his arrival in Houston is the immense latitude allowed to the negroes. No matter what time of night you pass through the streets, you are sure to meet parties of negroes who go where they please, unquestioned and irresponsible. Such a thing as a "pass" is unheard of and we doubt if they are even furnished. In certain quarters of the city there are large congregations of negroes, who hire their own time, and who live entirely free from the supervision of any white man. Speaking candidly and impartially, there is more insolence among the negroes of Houston and more careless conduct than in any other city or town South of Mason and Dixon's line.

Of course, this state of affairs, this immunity from all question, affords the negroes great opportunities for theft, and in many instances, familiar to our citizens,they have not been backward in taking advantage of it. If the negroes are made sure of, if we are certain that it is not our slaves who are engaged in these burglarious practices, it then greatly reduces the number of persons liable to suspicion, and affords greater opportunity for detecting the robber.

We have laws enough on this subject but they have become a dead letter. It is a mockery of legislation to enact and re-enact but to do nothing towards enforcing. The law is sufficiently stringent and efficient - the 2653 article of Hartley's Digest, under the 'act to provide for the appointment of patrol,' says 'that whenever a detachment, or part of one, may find any slave or slaves off the plantation or other premises of his, her, or their master, mistress, or employer, strolling about without written permission from some person authorized to give the same, said detachment or part thereof may give to every slave so offending any number of lashes not exceeding twenty five.' The first section of the act provides for the appointment of the patrol by the County Court 'upon application.'

Something must be done in this matter. Our property is not safe and it naturally suggests itself: are not our persons in danger? We trust the matter of allowing negroes to be about the streets without permission will receive the serious attention of our citizens.

While I'm loving the use of the word "burglarious," Grits cannot endorse the totalitarian calculus being performed here. The assumption is that "We suspect all black people and some white people of being thieves. If we suppress all black people and keep them off the streets, then if thefts continue, we'll know it's white people doing it and our list of suspects will get smaller." Such thinking cannot survive any thoughtful moral assessment, much less cost-benefit analysis, but the logic seemed inescapable to the writer, and no doubt many of his readers.

Slave patrols were designed to enforce apartheid and thwart the Underground Railroad to Mexico, not for general crime prevention. Using tools created for the one problem to apply to the other lies at the root of many 21st century criminal-justice conundrums

For most white Texans, patrols were controversial not because of their brutality but because they were expensive. In 1851, Bexar County employed 108 people covering 18 districts across the county. Grits has yet to find records of slave patrol districts from other counties, so I have no idea to estimate a statewide count, much less how much they were paid. But if Bexar County's numbers are indicative, these were easily the largest local law enforcement outfits in the state during the 1840s and '50s. No Sheriff or Constable had that many staff.

Sometimes people wanted cities to create their own patrols, expanding capacity beyond the county system. However, paying so many people became a political barrier to patrol deployment. Many thought the work should be left to professionals. Others considered the expense an excuse for not doing it and called for volunteer-driven patrols, though these seemed to have often been short-term projects, for a month or two. The May 1, 1856 edition of The San Antonio Texan described a meeting debating creation of a volunteer city patrol in addition to the county patrol

The ordinance concerning the organization of a city patrol was passed near a month ago and thus far it has had a charming effect; for since its passages, but two thefts, during the night, have come to our knowledge, and in both instances the malefactors were apprehended and the property recovered. 

Some are opposed to the system and express a desire for the city to tax the citizens and hire a patrol; but most of these persons have little or no taxable property. 

The intention of the city council was, to try this plan for a month, and if it seemed not to answer the purpose intended, or if there should be need for it no longer, to stop it for the present. 

We believe at the end of the month it will not be needed longer, for the present - such has already been its effect in removing rowdies and quieting our city.

Some jurisdictions gave the City Marshal's office the slave patrol job. But they don't appear to have staffed them as liberally, relying instead on volunteers and the cooperation of the public. The Indianola City Council in 1859 created a 9 o'clock curfew for any negro or slave, requiring a written permit from a master, owner or employer to be off their premises, reported the August 13, 1859 Indianola Courier. Instead of patrol officers, though, the City Marshal was charged with apprehending and jailing "any negro or slave offending against" this ordinance, although "it shall also be lawful for any free white person so take up or apprehend any such negro or slave so offending, and to deliver any such negro or slave into the custody of the marshal."

Black folks caught by the patrol in Indianola received between 10 and 39 lashes, for which the master had to pay the City Marshal a fee of $2. The same 39-lash/$2 punishment would be applied to "each and every negro and slave caught playing cards or any gambling game" in Indianola.

It would be too strong to say Texas law enforcement originated with slave patrols. County Sheriffs were around during the Republic and mandated in the new 1845 state constitution one year before patrols were authorized. Plus, both Sheriffs and early City Marshals had broader duties (often related to fee collection) than patrol officers, which was generally a part-time job.

But I think it's fair to say that 1) slave patrols were the largest law enforcement systems in antebellum Texas, bigger than Sheriffs or any local police force, 2) prior to the Civil War, slave patrols were the only law-enforcement officers reported to perform patrol functions in any jurisdiction, and 3) antebellum law enforcement was deeply intertwined with the slave-patrol apparatus, with contemporary media commonly conflating crime prevention and suppression of black people.

This post is part of an ongoing series, see related Grits coverage:


Gadfly said...

Sounds like wingnut Texans today ... wanting all sorts of stuff but not wanting to pay for it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post!

Anonymous said...

Sheriffs in small counties in Texas may also fulfill the role of tax collector/assessor, reinforcing your comment about their collection responsibilities.