Many historians have said that slavery played “no role at all” in the Texas Revolution, according to historian Carey Latimore. More recently, others have argued the war that led to Texas’ independence from Mexico was all about slavery.
Latimore, a Trinity University associate professor, told a virtual audience Tuesday that slavery was a “part of the conversation” in Texas in the 1830s, but that conversation also focused on the Mexican states’ relationships with the country’s central government and a “move to dictatorship” under politician and general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
“Slavery cannot be dismissed, but I don’t think that it’s the central reason for the Texas Revolution,” Latimore said. “It’s part of a larger number of issues. We often find that people don’t enter revolutions for one reason.”
In an event sponsored by Alamo Trust, Latimore, who specializes in African American history during the 19th century, acknowledged that the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution tends to inflame intense passions online.
“There are people who may say, ‘Why is the Alamo [Trust] even talking about slavery?'” Latimore said. “I’ve read the comment sections out there.”
He began his discussion with a personal story, recalling parents and grandparents who showed him family landmarks in Virginia, where he grew up. They included the former site of a plantation house where his great-great-grandfather lived and worked. He later learned that he had other ancestors who were slaveholders.
“When I come to this speech and this talk, I recognize all of my ancestry as a struggle within me but also as a struggle within Americans to come to some type of reconciliation with who and what we are,” Latimore said.
Latimore said slavery was a significant part of the lead-up to the Texas Revolution. Anglo Texans saw slavery and the plantation system of cotton as key to their economic system. Mexico, meanwhile, had a generation of leaders who emerged from their war of independence against Spain with ideologies that were “antagonistic towards chattel slavery.”
Mexico banned slavery in 1829, with a one-year delay for Texas. However, the country continued allowing other forms of unpaid labor, such as indentured servitude, Latimore said.
Texas slaveholders found ways to skirt Mexico’s anti-slavery law, though it had a dampening effect on Anglo expansion into Texas. Many would-be cotton growers were wary of setting a plantation in Texas and having their slaves freed by order of the Mexican government, Latimore said.
He quoted from J.A.E. Phelps, a Missouri man who wrote in 1825 to Stephen Austin about his fellows’ concerns about moving to Texas.
“Nothing appears at present … to prevent a portion of our wealthy planters from emigrating immediately to the province of Texas but the uncertainty now prevailing with regard to the subject of slavery,” Phelps wrote.
Tejanos such as Juan Seguin saw the Anglo expansion into their state as a lucrative opportunity. Latimore described the commingling of Tejanos and Anglos in the 1820s and 1830s as a “very businesslike enterprise.”
He boiled the core conflict of the Texas Revolution down to this:
“You had Mexicans who were not happy with the people moving in, with too many of them moving in,” he said. “You had the Anglos who were unhappy being told what to do in a dictatorship. … And you have these principles on both sides in contrast with themselves.”
Without a doubt, the Republic of Texas that emerged from this revolution was a “slave nation”, with “some pretty hard restrictions on free Blacks as well,” Latimore said. The number of slaves in Texas ballooned from 5,000 in 1835 to more than 100,000 by 1860, he said.
Latimore cited examples of free Black Texans, such as Sam McCullough Jr., who was awarded land for his service fighting on the Texas side in the revolution. He and some others were able to build their lives in a state whose laws worked against them.
“As a frontier, it didn’t always work exactly the way the law said it should work,” Latimore said.
But most had difficult lives under the Texas sun. They included Sarah Ashley, a former slave interviewed at age 93 in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. After her family was bought and sold by a New Orleans speculator, they ended up in San Jacinto, Texas, where she was forced to work on a cotton plantation.
She told her interviewers they had to pick a certain amount of cotton per day. If they didn’t, they would be whipped, Latimore said. Then, they’d have to walk their bales of cotton 1 mile to the nearby gin. She told her interviewers she thinks “of them old times and what was so hard, and I’m ready now for the Lord to call me home,” Latimore said.
Latimore added that he hopes to see a broader conversation about the Texas Revolution and U.S. history overall, adding that “part of the reason we are divided is that we don’t share the whole story.”
“I’m not saying we dismiss those heroes of the Texas Revolution, but I also think we can add people like Sarah Ashley to that story,” Latimore said. “She, too, was part of what made America great.”