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Day 16: Remembering early East Texas black leaders

28 Days of Black History

By Coshandra Dillard

During Black History Month, we sometimes forget about history made right here in East Texas. Tyler and surrounding areas are full of people and events that helped build and improve the condition of communities.

The late Amos Henderson, of Nacogdoches, is one. Born in 1909, Henderson was the first black person elected as a county commissioner in Texas since Reconstruction. (Thomas Lane Taylor, Fort Bend County, served from 1878 to 1882 ). Henderson served only one term from 1975 to 1978, but left a mark on those around him, namely his family.

“He inspired me to dream big and in those dreams work to become your own boss, call your own shots,” said his grandson, Kendrick Henderson. “I’m still working on that.”

Henderson describes his grandfather — who also found a church — as a straight shooter, true to his faith and genuine. He said his time in office fulfilled a need at that  time.
“I’m not sure why my grandfather chose to step into politics, but I believe he saw a need in Nacogdoches County, (and saw) a lack of leadership, so he ran with it,” Henderson said. “Running for county commissioner seemed like the right thing to do.”

He added, “I wouldn’t say my grandfather inspired me to go into politics but he did inspire me to be educated on political and social issues and more specifically those issues that affect the African American community.”

 

 

Henderson’s political achievement was made possible by the efforts of Frank J. Robinson,  an Anderson County man known for his vigorous political activism.

In 1969, the Anderson County Commissioners Court realigned the county’s voter precincts. As a result, much of the black community was divided among three precincts, diluting the black vote.
Robinson organized the East Texas Leadership Forum with civic, labor, religious, social, and fraternal leaders in 16 counties. They were charged with combining the resources of black residents to ensure equal representation in the county.
Robinson got the support of the AFL-CIO, the ACLU, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and State Rep. Paul Ragsdale of Dallas.
Robinson, along with Rodney Howard, and Timothy S. Smith, filed a lawsuit against the county in Robinson v. Commissioners Court, Anderson County.

They cited the 14th and 15th amendments, asserting that the commissioner’s court deliberately tried to weaken the black vote.
On March 15, 1974, District Judge William Justice ordered commissioners to redraw precinct lines. The ruling was later upheld in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Robinson’s victory resulted in the election of the first black official in the county’s history. He also organized the East Texas Project, which created similar cases in other East Texas communities, helping to change the political landscape of not only Anderson County, but also across East Texas.

Robinson died from a single gunshot wound to the head on Oct. 13, 1976. According to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas, “his death was ruled a suicide despite considerable evidence to the contrary, and many claimed that it was a political assassination related to his work with the East Texas Project.”

 

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