More than four decades ago, an enterprising group of young independent historians produced a path-breaking book and documentary, Talkin’ Union. It featured one of the first scholarly accounts of the great San Antonio pecan sheller strike of 1938, amplifying the powerful but overlooked voice of lifelong organizer Alberta Zepeda Snid. It uncovered interracial unions among Black, white, and Mexicana women garment workers in Dallas, of all places, as well as their union sisters along the border—long before anyone had heard of maquiladoras. The rare oral history interviews and pioneering scholarly essays in this book have clearly withstood the test of time and will now bring the power of people’s history to a new generation of activists!
NJP Publishing is proud to announce that Talkin’ Union:Texas Women Workers is now available for purchase at Lulu.com. Edited by Richard Croxdale and Melissa Hield with a preface by Glenn Scott, Talkin’ Unionis the third book published by NJP Publishing as part of a 2019 series featuring women’s work, memoir, poetry and history. Talkin’ Union tells the groundbreaking story of Texas women pecan shellers and seamstresses who organized for economic and social equality in the ’30s. Researchers with People’s History in Texas relied on first-hand oral histories and extensive archival research to bring this history to life. The Pecan Shellers Strike is now acknowledged as an historic mass movement, the largest mass strike in Texas, and the foundation for Hispanic organizing for a generation. The Texas garment workers who organized in the ’30s with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union have never received the attention they deserve. Essays from 1979 about African American women and Chicanas in the Texas workforce capture the beginning of a sea change in women’s workforce participation that would soon transform women’s lives, family dynamics, and the U.S. economy. The material was available for limited distribution as a booklet in 1979, but has been published by NJP Publishing with a 2019 introduction to make this history available through online platforms.Talkin’ Union:Texas Women Workers can be purchased at Lulu.com and will be available soon through Amazon, Ingram, and Barnes and Noble.
PHIT’s new project is to visit small Texas museums and tell stories of peculiar and little known episodes in Texas History. It is modeled somewhat on the Mysteries of the Museum, but we don’t want to get sued, so we changed the name to Meditations at the Museum.
The Johnson County Historical Museum is located in Cleburne, in the County Courthouse. The Johnson County Courthouse is truly one of the finest courthouse reconstructions around. Beautiful marble rises four stories around a central court. Faces of creatures can be seen peering through the marble. You have to see it to believe it.
The Museum is on the second floor and is nicely arranged although clearly it is a volunteer and an underfunded affair. While circling the exhibits, PHIT found a note in a cabinet devoted to General Patrick Cleburne, a confederate general who is the town’s namesake.
Cleburne was born in Ireland, and he fought in the British Army before migrating to Arkansas. He signed up to fight on the Confederate side in the Civil War, and proved to be a brilliant tactician. He was known as the Stonewall of the West. After the war, a group of his soldiers settled in Johnson County, Texas, and pressed to have the county seat named after their commander.
In the exhibit dedicated to the town’s namesake, there was a small quote from Cleburne. In late 1863, Cleburne advocated a unique policy to win the war. “Free the slaves and arm them.”
DUH! That is some serious thinking outside the box. The logic was inexorable. Free the slaves and what’s the point of fighting. Of course, it goes without saying that the proposal was rejected and Cleburne was ordered to not talk about it. He was killed in Battle of Franklin later in 1864.
HIs proposal gave me great mirth the rest of the day. Talk about cognitive dissonance. What did he think he was fighting for?
But it turns out the proposal wasn’t so off the wall. It was actually quite well thought out and sophisticated, clearly the product of a brilliant tactician. Cleburne basically prefigured in 1863 the ultimate Reconstruction adaptation to the victory by the North.
In late 1863, the South was clearly losing the war. The generals knew that they didn’t have the manpower. They had drafted every white male Southerner of fighting age. No one was left. Except male slaves. The only route to victory was to arm them. Offer them their freedom. And put them on the front lines.
It was an existential moment for the South, or at least it was to those who bothered to think about the implications.
By freeing slaves and keeping the North at bay, the South would get to keep their institutions. If they won the war, then they didn’t have to submit to the North. They were worried that Abe Lincoln really would give all the land, all the plantations, to the former slaves.
By 1863, those who bothered to think about it understood that the slaves were gone. Slavery was done. But if the South wanted to be in control of their own destiny, the south should free the slaves. Freedom didn’t mean they got the right to vote. Freedom didn’t mean that African-Americans had the right to control their lives.
Cleburne was Irish. He knew that the Irish were free, but the English still controlled everything. He understand that you can be free and not free at the same time.
Debate about Confederate Emancipation raged for rest of the war. Until the end, actual slaveowners said “No Way!” Cleburne’s gambit might have worked in 1863, but, by the end, when Confederate Emancipation was actually enacted in early 1865, the south worried, with good reason, that blacks would turn the guns on the slave owners.
“They day they give us guns, that the day the war ends,” said one slave in Georgia.
Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves by Bruce Levine is an excellent book that details this existential crisis in the South. As one of the Southern generals said during the discussion of Cleburne’s proposition, “If we arm the slaves, and they fight well, then everything we have said about the capacity of the Negro for the last 60 years is wrong.” Basically, he was admitting that if this gambit proved successful, his whole concept of how the world worked was wrong. Talk about an existential moment!
On another note, one major gripe about the Cleburne museum is that the Populist Party had its origin in Cleburne. During a major convention held in the town, the Alliance split into two factions, one of them political—they issued the Cleburne Demands in 1886. It was this platform that led to the creation of the Populist Party. There is not one word of mention of this major historical event.
This is a new effort and hopefully it will spur more local activity such as the effort in Bastrop to identify and preserve this legacies.
Freedom colonies were the communities created by freed slaves after the the June 19th declaration of emancipation. Freed African-Americans purchased land and created new communities. Most of them were located on the edges of counties in order to get as far away as possible from the oversight of County Police.
Thad Sitton has written a wonderful book on this piece of Texas history. Freedom Colonies was published in 2005 and collected as much information as was available at the time. This new effort should add to the identification and preservation of that history.
PHIT, inspired by the book, began a documentary project on St. John Colony, located in Caldwell County. Every Juneteenth, a Trail Ride is conducted to replicate the original caravan from Bastrop to St. John Colony (originally known as Winn’s Colony) to commemorate the hurried trek to their new community. It is an impressive sight as the Buffalo Soldiers ride their horses along the rural roads. A great and inclusive feast is held at the community building when they arrive. We were unable to finish the project, but still have the video clips and interviews.
Travis County is listed in Freedom Colonies as having 5 settlements. Clarksville, Kincheonville, Littig, Masontown, and Burdett’s Prairie(which is now known as Montopolis).
People’s History in Texas interviewed Brady Coleman last week. Brady Coleman was a member of the Austin Law Commune that practiced movement law in the 1970’s. The movement law office was started by Jim Simons and Cam Cunningham in 1969. Brady Coleman joined in the early 70’s. The lawyers operated as a commune in that, the secretaries, legal assistants and lawyers, collectively decided on the cases they would take. There were no salaries. The money, what little there was, was dumped into a big collective pot and each person drew what was needed to live.
There were only a few such arrangements in the country and the Austin Law Commune lasted for most of the 70’s. It wasn’t unique to America, but it was rare, and it was certainly unique for Texas.
PHIT is collecting the oral histories of the lawyers and clients of the Austin Law Commune. A documentary is expected to be completed in 2020. We also have plans to expand the oral histories to include other significant movement lawyers of Austin. This is a slice of history that has been neglected in the history books. And it is PHIT’s mission statement to tell those neglected and forgotten stories. If we don’t collect these stories, they might be lost forever.
Brady is an engaging storyteller. In 1991, Brady retired and began an acting career. He played a lawyer in the movie Bernie. He also appeared in numerous episodes of Walker—Texas Ranger. He has a rather lengthy filmography on IMDb.
In our interview on camera, Brady regaled us with tales of the Gainesville 8, who were accused of conspiracy and terrorism for protesting Nixon in Miami at the Republican National Convention. They were acquitted.
He successfully defended Bartee Haile who was accused of police assault in Houston. This was the same incident in which Houston police killed Carl Hampton and wounded 12 others in a planned sniper attack.
Chicanos Unidos were accused of a firebombing in El Paso and Brady and Cam Cunningham successfully defended them.
Brady also defended conscientious objectors, draftees, GI’s facing military litigation, and a plethora of protestors against the Vietnam War.
Brady also plays in a band—the Melancholy Ramblers. They play standards and sing labor songs and generally have a rousing good time.
Keep an eye out for the Austin Law Commune Documentary. We will post updates as we interview more lawyers of the Austin iconic law office. We will soon start fundraising to pay for the editing of the documentary. So hold on your nickels and dimes.
Paul Buhle, Steve Max, Dave Nance and Noah Van Sciver have produced a new and delightful biography of Eugene Victor Debs, the iconic American socialist, told in a comic book format, although these days, the proper term is graphic book. For Debs, who created and constantly evolved new approaches to the battle against capital and injustice, approaches that were always peculiarly American, a graphic book is the perfect vehicle to tell his biography.
Eugene Victor Debs is an icon of American Socialism. The man spoke of an American socialism in an American context in words that still resonate today. A labor organizer, he was one of the first to insist on industrial unionism. He was the primary organizer that helped create the Industrial Workers of the World, the legendary IWW. He was the driving force behind the formation of the Socialist Party. He supported women’s right to vote and defended their right to birth control. He was imprisoned for his pacifist speeches in WWI.
During those troubled years, Debs was an American moral force that is still largely unrecognized. And this biography presents, graphically, the direct line of succession of that moral force from Eugene Debs to Bernie Sanders.
In 1912, Debs received more votes as a Socialist than any Socialist candidate has since that time. 1912 was the high mark. The story of how that happened and why it faltered needs to be understood. And this graphic novel is a short and excellent portrayal of the story.
Most histories of Debs’ life start out with his working life, toiling on the railroad as a fireman, shoveling coal into a furnace. And, indeed, artist Noah Van Sciver has some exquisite panels of Debs that depict his time working on the railroad.
But Paul Buhle begins his script, his graphic biography, with an earlier and more hopeful start in which Debs’ French immigrant parents name him after two French humanist novelists—Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. It turned out to be exceptionally appropriate. Eugene Victor Debs had the ability to write and deliver amazingly stirring and memorable speeches. Those who heard his speeches say he was as mesmerizing as his namesakes.
Perhaps the most eloquent and endearing and essential element of the Debs story is the end of his long and productive life in which he is imprisoned for speaking out against the stupidity of World War One. This is, again, the peculiarity of American Socialism. The European Socialists eagerly jumped the militaristic nationalist bandwagon, but Debs, the American Socialist, was imprisoned for loud and vocal pacifism and when sentenced gave his impassioned speech, still remembered—“If one person is of the lower class, then I am of the lower class. If one person is in prison, then I am not free.”
A labor unionist, a socialist, a pacifist, a supporter of women’s right to vote, an advocate of minorities rights, Eugene V. Debs was a towering figure in America.
This little graphic book is as much the story of American democratic socialism as it is the story of Eugene V. Debs. In the final section, it follows the Socialist saga from Eugene Debs to Norman Thomas to Michael Harrington to Bernie Sanders. A direct line of impassioned pleaders for justice and equality. The Socialist Party that was never successful politically but always pointed the way to the next set of changes. In one panel, Norman Thomas reflects that the New Deal was effectively the platform of the Socialist Party.
Understanding Eugene Debs story and his approach to an American socialism is vital to understanding the process of change in America.
A graphic novel is an oddly successful way of achieving this. Debs, shown in his trademark bowtie and his slouching way of walking and his determination to continue the fight in spite of his deteriorating health, is clearly illustrated and clearly sympathetic.
Debs is not the macho male revolutionary with the correct political strategy. Debs is the moral force of change. Debs saw wrongs and tried to make them right. Labor unions, women’s rights, racial equality, peace. He fought the good fight for decades.
The graphic pictures show the story as only a graphic book can. Hitting the highlights and trouncing quickly from peak to peak, it tells the story and tells the story effectively.
Since this is also a People’s History in Texas blog cross-post, the Texas connection must be pointed out. In the last section, where the historical lines are drawn to the present day, one panel depicts the Oleo Strut. The Oleo Strut was a GI Coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas that offered support to antiwar soldiers. It was enthusiastically supported by Students for a Democratic Society activists from Austin. The peaceniks, apparently, were the sons and daughters of Debs and beautiful descendants of his pacifism in WWI.
The PHIT documentary THE RAG, an Underground Newspaper talks about the Oleo Strut.
As a final minor note, and of interest only to Texas historians and to People’s History in Texas, it must be pointed out the Wilson’s Postmaster General, the one who denied second class mailing permits to the socialist press, was not Albert Burelson, but Albert Burleson. Burleson was from San Marcos and a friend of Colonel House. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin if anyone wants to drop by and say a few words to him.
New Journalism Project is collaborating with People’s History in Texas (PHIT) to re-publish two books. As a new generation of activists take on gentrification and find inspiration in the history of women who organized before they were born, these books will find new audiences.
Clarksville: Whose Community? by Jennifer Sharpe was first published in 1982 and chronicles an important fight against gentrification in a west Austin neighborhood. Clarksville was founded in 1871 as black freedom town where former slaves reunited with family separated and displaced by slavery. In the late 70s, this community waged a battle against developers. That story is now relevant as the city of Austin is grappling with gentrification on a massive scale. PHIT and New Journalism Project hope this new book this will contribute to the discussion.
A second project is a booklet originally published in 1979 to accompany the PHIT documentary, “Talkin’ Union.” The film uses oral histories and archival photos to tell the story of Texas women garment workers and pecan shellers who organized successful labor actions in the 30s. Women in the Texas Workforce: Yesterday and Today, edited by Richard Croxdale and Melissa Hield with an introduction by Glenn Scott, is an important addition to the documentary, relying on research and transcribed interviews. PHIT wants to to make the book more widely available by republishing with the New Journalism Project.Peoples History in Texas (PHIT), a 501(c)(3) organization, was founded in 1975 by five women including a writer, an elementary school teacher, a librarian, and two graduate students. PHIT brings to life the stories of ordinary people and significant socio-political movements through its research, publishing, and media production.
The New Journalism Project is a 501(c)(3) Texas nonprofit that publishes The Rag Blog, sponsors Rag Radio, and produces educational and community activities related to alternative progressive journalism. Building upon the success of its first book, Celebrating The Rag, New Journalism Project is expanding its publishing efforts under the imprint of NJP Publishing.