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The removal of a statue at an airport in Dallas that shows a Texas Ranger who helped stop Black students from integrating public schools in the 1950s is the latest racial flashpoint in Texas. That it involves the Rangers, a much mythologized frontier force created in 1823, is not surprising.
A generation of scholars has shined a spotlight on the Texas Rangers and the agency’s past treatment of Black and Hispanic residents, including a particularly bloody period in the 1910s. Now as the United States is roiled by protests against racism, minority communities in Texas are among those questioning the legitimacy of statues to honor men who enforced racial injustice in the past.
Doug Swanson, the author of a new book on the Texas Rangers, is wary of pulling down statues, but agrees that it’s essential for all Texans to understand how minorities see their present-day grievances – echoed and amplified in the national conversation – rooted in historical wrongs.
“The way Texas is changing, it’s really important to talk about what Texas is and how it got to be this way, and where it’s going,” he says.
As the United States wrestles with racial injustice and policing, a broader conversation has emerged over historic and present-day injustices faced by ethnic minorities. In Texas, that conversation has turned to the violent history of the Texas Rangers.
Created in 1823 to fight Native Americans and secure the frontier for settlers, the Texas Rangers redeployed to the borderlands in the early 1900s, resulting in widespread racial brutality on which recent historical research has shined a harsh light.
Today the reality of the Texas Rangers is in sharp focus.
A statue of a Ranger at the Dallas Love Field airport – modeled on a Ranger who stood by as white mobs physically blocked the integration of public schools in the 1950s – was taken down last month. Other statues, monuments, and mascots honoring the Rangers have become a focus of public debate. And even before the killing of George Floyd convulsed the nation, historical markers had already begun to go up in south Texas to memorialize the victims of Ranger violence.
For generations of Texans raised on heroic cultural depictions of Rangers, this may be a jolt. But historians say that acknowledging and embracing that broader, more complicated history is an important step on the path toward building a more just and equitable society.
“The history happened, and like it or not it informs contemporary identities,” says Sonia Hernández, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University and member of Refusing to Forget, which seeks to memorialize the racial violence in Texas a century ago.
According to recent historical research, as many as 5,000 Hispanic Americans were killed here in the 1910s; many died at the hands of Rangers themselves.
“Anything to do with complicating the history of Texas, talking about some of its dark chapters, that’s not going to destroy our state,” she adds. “I only think it’s going to make us better.”
Rapid change, racial tensions
The early 20th century in south Texas was a period of rapid change, and of heightened fear and distrust.
Railroads and commercial agriculture brought an influx of white farmers from the north and Mexican laborers from the south, joining communities of landowning “Tejano” families who had lived in the region since Spanish rule. A revolution had broken out in Mexico, and revolutionaries and refugees were crossing the border constantly. In 1917, then-wartime adversary Germany was revealed to have been seeking an alliance with Mexico.
Historians believe that between 700 and 5,000 Tejanos and Mexican Americans were killed by U.S. law enforcement in this period, many of them innocent. The deaths were justified as the lawful killing of Mexican “bandits.”
In September 1915, Jesus Bazán and Antonio Longoria – both prominent leaders of the Tejano community in Hidalgo County – were fatally shot in the back by Texas Rangers after reporting a horse robbery. In January 1918, a company of Rangers surrounded the residents of the town of Porvenir in the early morning, separated 15 men and boys from the town and executed them.
This is not the only controversial chapter in Texas Ranger history.
The Rangers also have a long history of “using force, violence, and intimidation to undermine desegregation efforts, labor organizing, and anti-lynching campaigns,” Monica Muñoz Martinez, an assistant professor of American and ethnic studies at Brown University, writes in an email.
Between 1919 and 1921, the Rangers helped pressure 24 of the 33 original NAACP chapters in the state to disband, according to Dr. Martinez, who is also a member of Refusing to Forget. And in the 1950s, the Rangers blocked Black students in Texas from enrolling in white schools in defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
It’s from this period that the statue at Love Field, a city-owned airport in Dallas, is modeled.
The sculptor modeled it on Sgt. E.J. Banks, who commanded Rangers sent to police anti-integration protests in Mansfield. In a 1956 photograph, Banks, hands on hips, leans against a tree outside Mansfield High School as white students gather under a Black person hanging in effigy from a noose over the school’s entrance. The inscription reads, “One Riot, One Ranger.”
The airport took the statue down – it is now in storage – after the backstory was described last month in a local magazine. The photograph of Banks “seemed to display flippancy towards racial issues,” says Christopher Perry, a spokesman for the airport.
Depicted as heroes
The magazine article was an excerpt from Doug Swanson’s new book “Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers.”
Banks and the other Rangers in Mansfield at that time were doing what they were told, says Professor Swanson, a former journalist at the Dallas Morning News. Still, the coverage of their actions depicted them as “heroes who waded into the mob and dispersed them and brought order to an unruly situation, and all that just is not true,” he says.
He says it’s important to unpack the myths of the Rangers not only in the context of the current national dialogue around racial injustice, but for Texas itself, given its evolving demographics.
“It’s really important to understand what some of the long-term grievances are from minority communities,” says Professor Swanson, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. “The way Texas is changing, it’s really important to talk about what Texas is and how it got to be this way, and where it’s going.”
That said, he’s wary of seeing statues pulled down. “I’d kind of like to see more statues rather than fewer, just to give people a chance to talk. Why is this statue here? Who put it here and what were they trying to say? What does it say about who had political power at the time?”
The talk is likely to continue for some time.
Students and faculty at Texas A&M are calling for the removal of a 1919 statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross – a former president of the college, as well as a former Texas Ranger and Confederate general – from the school’s main campus. So far, no action has been taken.
San Antonio College has removed the Ranger as its school mascot. It had been discussed for years, says Robert Vela, the college president, but in recent months the College Council felt “we needed to act” and passed a unanimous vote this month.
“We needed to be sure that whatever we present as our community, what represents us, that it’s inclusive, and that it supports student success and student development,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball team has come under pressure to change its name. In a statement, the Rangers said that while the team took its name from the law enforcement agency, it had forged its own identity since 1971. “The Texas Rangers Baseball Club stands for equality. We condemn racism, bigotry and discrimination in all forms.”
A bicentennial beckons
Today, the Texas Rangers agency is a 234-person division within the Texas Department of Public Safety. It maintains some operations on the border, but its main function is assisting local police departments in Texas with their serious-crime investigations.
Some say the agency’s bicentennial in 2023 offers an opportunity to confront and discuss its complicated past.
“I think in the end it’s a healing action,” says Professor Swanson. “We have to confront this. We have to go through the pain of talking about it and acknowledging it to do this healing.”
Scholars also hope that a broader historical view will show not just the tragic chapters of history for people of color in the state, but more positive chapters too, such as Bessie Coleman, an early female Black aviator and Lee Roy Young, who in 1988 was sworn in as the first Black Ranger.
“There were so many positive stories in Texas history as it relates to people of color,” says Michael Hurd, director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University. “I’m hoping this is an opportunity for people to learn and appreciate that history, and appreciate others’ humanity.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the year of the Porvenir massacre and the spelling of Bessie Coleman's name.