Monday, July 17, 2023

Congressman headlining Grits' zine launch event

For folks in Austin, please come to Grits' zine launch Sunday, July 23rd, from 2-4 p.m.. We're going to record interviews w/ me and others by Congressman Greg Casar about the zine topic (the history of a neighborhood grocery store 2 blocks from my house that turns 100 years old this year) and publish it afterward as a podcast. Event is at:

Community Garden wine bar
Hudspeth's Corner
1401 Cedar Ave., Austin, 78702
(between 12th and MLK, in East Austin)

The zine essentially takes the same investigative reporting skills Grits readers have seen me exercise on this blog for two decades, and applies them to a seemingly mundane topic -- a dilapidated corner grocery store -- with remarkable and compelling stories emerging that inform the whole history of the neighborhood.

If you can't come to the event, please do pre-order a zine, if you haven't already. And thanks, as always for your support over the years and into this next phase.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Pre-order Grits' new micro-history zine

With the paltry rate of posting on Grits, you might have thought I was no longer writing. But I'm pleased to announce a new zine I've been working on over the past couple of years: A micro-history of a small, 100-year-old neighborhood grocery store 2 blocks from my home, in a shopping center dubbed Hudspeth's Corner. (This is the cover art, above, by the wonderful Lakeem Wilson.)

No one living knew the site's origins, but it's a decidedly epic tale of the rise and fall of a segregation-era black family business. The saga, spanning 5 generations, provides a  unique window into the history of the whole neighborhood. (More or less against my will, the story includes significant criminal-justice themes as well.)

Undertaken as a palate cleanser after the 2021 legislative session, I began researching a series of deep, historical stories in the East Austin "Chestnut" neighborhood where I've lived for 33 years, all within a few blocks of my house. The rest will be released in 2024 and 2025, but because of the 100-year anniversary, Kathy and I wanted to get this one out now before we leave in August to go to Mexico for the rest of the year! 

It would really help if folks pre-ordered copies; you can do that here, ensuring your copy will get dropped in the mail the moment it rolls off the presses. (Price is $6 plus s/h.)

Then, on July 23, we're having a zine launch at the Community Garden wine bar at the Hudspeth's Corner site. Congressman Greg Casar has agreed to cohost and we're going to record a little podcast about the store featuring historians, preservationists, and neighborhood folks. If you're in Austin, join us! 

I'm excited to put this out; it's been a fun little project.

Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Near race war in 1868 Houston led to ban on carrying firearms for self-protection

I.C. Lord was the City Marshal in Houston following the Civil War who is credited with turning the Houston Police Department into a modern police agency, with uniforms, ranks, and patrol beats. I'd seen references to him being shot in 1868 in an episode of civil unrest by Houston freedmen, but until today hadn't ever seen the backstory. 

It turns out, if this contemporary press account is to be believed, Lord's injuries resulted from unusual episode involved a black lynch mob trying to break a black alleged murderer out of jail to hang him. This resulted in a tense standoff between armed black and white mobs that apparently, nearly led to a literal, violent race war in Houston. And it led the Mayor and Marshal Lord to enact a ban on carrying weapons in public, requiring that Houstonians "disarm themselves and place their entire reliance upon the execution of the laws by the officers thereof."

Today, this incident has been all but forgotten. This article was published in the Dallas Daily Herald, June 27, 1868 under the headline, "Disturbance in Houston." On Sunday, the 14th of June, 1868: 

A very serious disturbance took place in the city of Houston ... which it was at one time feared would result in much bloodshed and other riotous acts. 

A colored man, named Geo. Noble, and another colored man, named Bob Henrick, were at a colored dance, or ball, on Saturday night, in the suburbs of the city, near the "Old Grave Yard," at a place kept by a colored man named Bias. An altercation ensued between Bob Henrick and another colored man, whose name we have not learned. George Noble interfered and endeavored to stop the difficulty in an amicable manner. Bob Henrick took offense at this, and resenting it, put his hand upon his pistol, drew it, and fired, missing his aim. George Noble drew his pistol at the moment he saw the action of the other, and also fired, hitting Henricks in the neck, the ball coming out at the back of the shoulder. Henrick, however, is not dangerously wounded.

From the statement of Marshall I.C. Lord and Deputy Marshall J.N. Lord, we glean the following particulars of the subsequent event. Geo. Nobles immediately after the above occurrence went to Deputy Marshall Lord and stated his difficulty and delivered himself up, and was placed in confinement at the Bell Tower on Market Square. About 4 o'clock the next (Sunday) morning a number of freedmen, armed with guns, came to the calaboose and said they wanted Nobles. Of course, he was not given up to them. The negroes insisted that he should be given up -- and they believed he was not in confinement but at liberty.

One freedman, Ned Lockhart, offered to lead his companion to the calaboose, take him out and hang him. Marshall Lord went up to Lockhart and attempted to arrest him, but he broke away, but Lord succeeded in getting to him and struck him with his cane when a general melee resulted in which Marshall Lord was bruised and shot in the back of the head, and Lockhart was shot in the thigh, another freedman, who had shot at Marshall Lord, was pursued and after being disabled by a shot was also arrested and sent to the lock up. Immediately after these occurrences the colored people began to pour into the Market Square from all parts of the city, a large number of them being armed. Vengeance on the prisoner Nobles, was the generally expressed object, and bitter hostility and threats toward the white people were generally manifested and uttered. The Telegraph adds:

At this time the city bell began to ring to call the citizens together and they came pouring in, a great many of them armed, and as the two races mingled together and expressed their feelings according by the temper of the occasion, a bloody collision seemed for a while unavoidable.

After a time, however, the negroes dispersed, and in a little while the news spread rapidly that over five hundred of them were assembled at the colored Methodist Church, and that they openly proposed to march down Main street, seize all the arms they could, arm the black population generally, attack the whites, and  that the unarmed ones among them would assist by firing the city. This turned out to have been very nearly correct. But better counsels at length prevailed. Several of our prominent white citizens, who were either sent for or were of their own motion, together with the Mayor, made addresses to them, and they decided to abide by the decisions of the courts in all matters involved. At the same time, however, colored couriers were seen going in all directions, mounted and on foot, to summon their brethren from near and far.

While all this had been going on, the citizens had been rapidly organizing and arming both in independent companies and as a special police force. This work continued the whole day, and until after dark. The whole city was full of armed men and men arming. In addition to the large police force organized, the various fire companies were armed and ready to turn out at a moment's warning, besides the temporary organizations of citizens, each company being under the command of officers selected for the occasion. Signals were agreed upon to which every man was to respond instantly. Scouts and couriers were sent out, and the armed citizens not in the companies were generally agreed to turn out should a general fight ensue at any one place.

Thus was the evening and the night passed, until the next morning dawned on the city. The patrol went through every part of the city during the night, and strange to say hardly any colored men could be found. The women and children were all alone. The men had evacuated the city entirely. The most of them, however, returned in the morning.

The following was the arrangement agreed upon under the auspices of the Mayor:

"In the matter of the killing of a colored man by George Noble (colored) by which a serious public riot was imminent, His Honor, Mayor McGowan, appointed the following persons, to wit: C.S. Longcope, B. A. Shepherd, W.R. Baker, John Shearn, T.W. House, Elias Dibble, Charles Chatman, Sandy Parker, Dick Allen and John Sessums, a committee to concoct such measures as would tend to allay the excitement and prevent like occurrences in the future. And among other things, after appointing C.S. Longcope Chairman, and W.R. Baker Secretary, the committee unanimously adopted the following resolutions.

"Resolved, As the sense of this committee that while deploring the occurrences of this morning, that it is deemed proper that a thorough investigation should be had into the conduct of the persons who assumed the initiative in it, to ascertain if there was any partiality in the proceeding whereby the city was seriously endangered in its peace and in the preservation of property. If it be ascertained that there has been any wrongdoing on the part of any one, that steps be taken to appropriately punish any such party or parties.

"Also, Resolved, That the trouble in this community which was caused by the death of a fellow human being, and the wounding of several others, which threatened a general riot, grew out of the pernicious habit of carrying concealed weapons, and that the Mayor and Aldermen of this city be requested to pass an ordinance with sufficient penalties prohibiting the carrying on the person of all concealed weapons; and that the Council memorialize the State Convention to make a Constitutional provision of the sme import for the State at large."

                                                C.S. Loncope, Chairman

Subsequently to the above the Mayor of the city issued the following proclamation.

                                                Mayor's Office, Houston, June 16, 1868 

Notice is hereby given, that, in order to allay all feeling and excitement occasioned by the unfortunate occurrences of Sunday last:

It is hereby ordered that all citizens disarm themselves and place their entire reliance upon the execution of the laws by the officers thereof.

All parties who have been called upon to act, and were sworn as special police, are required to leave their arms at home and are relieved of active duty until called upon to prevent disturbances, regardless of the quarter from whence they arise.

I call upon all good citizens to assist in carrying out the laws, for upon the execution of them alone can we rest safely. 

And I earnestly request of all that they pursue their usual avocations, that all disquietude and feeling may be suppressed.

    A. McGowan,

    Mayor City of Houston

UPDATE: Another, contemporary story adds that the shooter was a black conservative sympathetic to the white establishment who had killed someone several months before and been acquitted. That article says that Marshal I.C. Lord had not taken the shooter to jail but was sheltering him elsewhere, and the mob demanded he either be jailed or hung. They dispersed when he was taken to the county lockup. He was convicted in 1869 and sentenced to two years in prison.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Jeff Blackburn Memorial Comments

On Saturday, per his request, I spoke at Jeff Blackburn's memorial service about our work together in the aftermath of the Tulia drug stings and at the Innocence Project of Texas; here's what I said. Below my comments, I've compiled links to a guest post by Jeff and various interviews with him on this blog over the years, if only for my own selfish purposes: It was nice to turn on a couple this morning and hear the sound of his nasally, flat, Panhandle drawl. They broke the mold after Jeff Blackburn and I probably will never stop missing him. Rest in Power, brother.


For the first year or so I knew Jeff Blackburn he was mad at me. I was part of a group of people who revived the ACLU in Texas after it had been dormant a number of years, and in 2000 we began organizing family members of the Tulia defendants to bring them to the capitol in Austin to push for drug-law reform.

Along with Vanita Gupta, who at the time was a 26-year-old rookie and is now the #3 at the US Department of Justice, Jeff had taken on a civil suit on behalf of the Tulia defendants, and he was sure their family members were going to say something at the capitol to screw up his case. We defied Jeff and did it anyway, which made him more or less apoplectic. He and I had some epic rows. But we also kept him in the loop, bringing him down to Austin whenever the families came so he could see first-hand what we were doing.

One of the “Tulia bills” we passed that session created a new requirement that prosecutors corroborate testimony by confidential informants to secure a drug conviction. In September 2001, when the law took effect, a reporter called around to the largest DA’s offices to ask how many cases they’d dropped as a result: The number was around 800, and that was just for the 5 or 6 largest counties. To be clear, for the non-attorneys in the audience, that’s 800 people who would otherwise have been convicted based solely on the testimony of drug dealers getting their own cases dismissed in exchange for cooperation.

One of my fondest memories was calling Jeff to tell him this news. I’ll never forget the long pause on the other end of the phone line, then he said quietly -- as quietly as I've ever heard Jeff Blackburn say anything -- “Henson, I couldn’t get that many cases dismissed in 10 lifetimes!”

From that moment, Jeff was hooked. We became collaborators, coordinating legal and organizing work to craft a narrative and build a movement beyond the confines of the courtroom. It worked. Eventually, 38 defendants were exonerated and Tom Coleman, the crooked cop who’d framed them, was convicted of perjury.

Not only were several significant pieces of legislation passed as a result, in 2006 we achieved the Holy Grail. Governor Rick Perry eliminated all funding for the task forces. When the Tulia drug stings happened, there were 51 of these things around the state employing more than 700 narcotics officers and making between 12-14,000 arrests per year. Fifteen years before anyone coined the phrase “defund the police,” we wiped them off the face of the earth.

Soon after that, Jeff founded the Innocence Project of Texas and I became their policy director. Once again, organizing exonerees to advocate for themselves was a central strategy, only this time Jeff was an enthusiastic supporter. I’m incredibly proud of that work, and I know Jeff was, too, but since Cory Session is going to talk more about that era in a moment, I’d like to pivot to another subject.

Since Jeff passed, a line from a pop tune by Lizzo has been ringing in my head. In one of her early songs, she asked: “Why men great till they gotta be great?” That applies to most men, but to me, Jeff was the opposite. Day to day, if we’re honest, Jeff wasn’t always that great. He was a curmudgeon; obstinate, profane, prickly, blunt. He was challenging to work with and five failed marriages tells you he could be a challenging person to live with. By saying that, I’m not telling you anything Jeff hasn’t said himself many, many times.

But when the time came that someone’s “gotta be great,” Jeff always stepped up. Every time. He thrived and excelled in those big, high-pressure moments and at crunch time was always his best self. That’s rare and part of what made him special. It’s certainly why he merited a massive, front-page obituary in the Houston Chronicle: Jeff’s work benefited many, many thousands of people all over the state. No other lawyer has had as big an impact on the Texas criminal-justice system in my adult lifetime.

Now that he’s gone, those of us who knew and loved Jeff and believed in his work incur an obligation. Leaving here today, all of us going forward will find ourselves in situations where we think, “If Jeff Blackburn were here, he would do X.” This knowledge creates a moral obligation. With Jeff no longer here, when you recognize a situation where you know he would have stepped up, that means you need to do it. That’s the best way we can honor his memory. The people in this room are a powerful force, and Jeff has given us a powerful example. My prayer is that everyone here today can find the courage and the will to follow it.

More of Jeff Blackburn on Grits: