Though The Heavens Fall, Part 1

By  |  February 26, 2015
Washington, Texas, late 19th-century, photographer unknown Washington, Texas, late 19th-century, photographer unknown

On Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights

 

Part 1. “Editor Love”

Some people are by nature compelled to be shown everything. It is a waste of words to tell them certain things; therefore it is expedient to show them.
—C. N. Love, 1892

 

Texas they will tell you was born at a place called Washington, or Washington-on-the-Brazos, presumably to help distinguish it from the one on the Potomac, a gesture that, this being Texas, is hard to know whether to take in jest. And in fact, at the founding convention of early March 1836, when fifty-some delegates gathered in a cold wooden building (more of a “structure”) at a ferry-landing seventy-five miles northwest of present-day Houston, there to draft a constitution and “declaration of independence” (from Mexico), they were becoming not the twenty-fifth American state but a new nation, the Republic of Texas, which lasted for nearly a decade before absorption into the union. They were becoming not Texans but “Texians.”

Sam Houston, the tall Tennessean, was present. He drifted in and out, that is, both of Washington and of consciousness. If people out there displayed, as a period traveler said, a “passion for erecting grog shops,” Houston had a like one for abusing same. In fairness, the Declaration was signed on his birthday, when a person has a right. But diaries and accounts from inside those weeks give a sense that he needed helping to bed most nights. Others said he drank too much laudanum, liquid opium, not a strange taste among soldiers in the days when it quickly dulled pain on the battlefield. Perhaps the drug helped him keep a cool head, because when the Convention received a messenger bearing a panicked letter from the Alamo saying send troops or we will surely die, Houston convinced the others to carry on with the nation-building and not rush off to help. Supposedly he’d been told reinforcements were already on the way from elsewhere. It’s true the Washington delegates weren’t the only people getting desperate notes from William Travis, commander at the Alamo.

2015 02 27 Sullivan Finsel1Lieut. Col. William B. Travis

Lieut. Col. Travis was only twenty-six but already a failed Alabama newspaperman and attorney. He’d come to Texas fleeing debts and cuckoldry and the law. His abandoned wife back home had just divorced him and remarried (he knew of the former news but not the latter). He wore a cat’s-eye ring given to him by his new love, a woman named Rebecca. The ring survives and may be seen at the Alamo museum in San Antonio. Travis hung it around a little girl’s neck, before the battle, hoping the Mexicans would spare her. He was shot in the head at the very start of the fight, and Santa Anna’s men stripped him and burned his body in a heap with the rest of the defenders, but the girl did escape. Travis died feeling himself betrayed by Texas. “If my countrymen do not rally to my relief,” he’d written in one of the last of his urgent and eloquently doomed letters, “my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.”

The legend goes that before the battle Travis took the point of his sword and scraped a line in the dirt or sand in the courtyard of the old mission. Anyone who wished to stand and fight and pretty much unquestionably perish with him was invited to step across. They all crossed, or almost all, including the folk hero Davy Crockett. Even Kentucky-born Jim Bowie, a raging drinker to rival Sam Houston, now lying fever-sick in a cot, asked to be lifted and carried over. But the story and the testimony of more than one eyewitness interviewed later were clear on the name of the man who took the first step—he’d “leaped the line in a bound,” in one account. It was Tapley Holland.

Holland was Ohio-born, unmarried, an even younger man than Travis. He’d grown up along the Brazos, not far from Washington but on the other side of the river, in Grimes County. His parents had numbered among the so-called Old Three Hundred, Stephen F. Austin’s first waves of settlers from back in the 1820s. If it’s Texas we seek, English-speaking Texas, we’ll find the Hollands down among its deepest roots.

Tapley died in that battle, as he expected and seems almost to have hoped. At least one brother also fell in the Revolution. But a handful of Hollands remained in Texas and held on to some of that Grimes County land, close to Washington, where you can find rectangular plats with their name written in, on antique maps.

At some point the family bought, or perhaps they’d brought with them from the East, a group of Virginia slaves, and in 1842 one of these gave birth to a girl, Sarah Jane. She is listed, in the earliest censuses where she appears, as mulatto. It seems safe to speculate that her father was white. Or her grandfather was—one of the Holland men, perhaps, maybe Tapley.

In the dead middle of the Civil War she gave birth to a boy. She named him Charles. The boy was just two or three when the war ended—in later life he would possess at most a few fuzzy snapshot-memories of slavery days—but he’d been born a slave like his mother, and as such with no legal surname. After emancipation, many former slaves were able to choose any names they liked. For herself, Sarah Jane took the name Holland. She pronounced it like “Hollin,” if the phonetic spellings in Houston city directories mean anything. She had carried her boys to Houston immediately after the War, settling them in the northern part of the Third Ward, just off Clay Street.

Little Charles wound up with a different name somehow: Love. In the 1870 census, he is Charles Holland, but in the 1880 census, he is a seventeen-year-old laborer named Charles Love. Whether this change took place because he really did have a father with the delightfully pleonastic name of Phil Love, as his not-entirely-credible death certificate will claim many decades on, or because he liked the word and what it connoted, is unknown. His brother, Richard, also took a different name, but that of Percy. It seems that in the first two decades after the war, some black teenagers turned to their parents and said, in essence, we don’t want the master’s name, you keep it.

At first, Love was marked down as mulatto, like his mother, but in 1900 he became black. There’s nothing especially rare about these adjustments and settlements in the race-designation column. Census moles grow used to them. The tendency is almost always away from complexity, with the miscegenational middle-ground most threatening. The census becomes a rod to drive it out. In place of a vital and sizable population of Ms—mulattos, mestizos, mustees, mixed, multiples, etc.—there would now be only NBCs, negroes, blacks, and coloreds. Except for those pale enough to pass, who silently turn white.

C. N. Love is different. Race may have been more fluid back then, but Love was a salamander. Through the decades in Houston, he was listed as mulatto, and then as black, and then as mulatto, and then as black, and then as negro or colored. We were baffled at first by the unusual pattern until coming across a note in a 1972 University of Texas dissertation by Charles William Grose. The note describes Love’s physical appearance: “a tall, slender albino.” After which certain facts align. His poor eyesight, for example. He was reportedly forced “to hold an instrument” (in the sense of a document) “within six inches of his eyes” in order “to read at all.”

It becomes possible (and enjoyable) to imagine a succession of white Texas census-takers trying to make sense of C. N. Love. He was a black albino, one of those human beings who had so fascinated Thomas Jefferson a century before. Jefferson had known some black albinos among his neighbors’ slaves (Love’s Virginia ancestors?) and describes their bodies in Notes on the State of Virginia with a sensual intensity that almost suggests he had issues with persons neither wholly white nor black. Their skin was “of a pallid cadaverous white,” he wrote, “untinged with red” (though sometimes “freckled”). Their hair was “white, short, coarse, and curled.” Jefferson deemed them “uncommonly shrewd, quick in their apprehensions and in reply,” but noticed that their eyes were “in a perpetual tremulous vibration, very weak, and much affected by the sun.” And yet, he added, “they see better in the night than we do.” 1

 

As a schoolboy in Houston, Love became known as a good public speaker, a deliverer of “orations.” He loved to read, even if holding the book against his face, and he paid attention to preachers’ tricks. His earliest nickname, apart from C.N., was Judge or “the Honorable.” Despite or perhaps helped in part by his unusual appearance, he grew into an object of community pride. In the 1880s he emerged as a figure in the city’s black cultural life, a fixture on the committees that planned the yearly “Juneteenth” or Emancipation Day celebrations, a perennial decider of beauty contests. He could sing, too. When “the Hon. C. N. Love” performed his “famous solo” for the Trinity League, it drew “large crowds,” said the Indianapolis Freeman. And when the Excelsior Social Club held a “German”—a dance with games—at its “resort on Robin Street,” the Freeman reported that “Love was master of ceremonies, as he is wont to be whenever Houston’s beauty and chivalry are required to give éclat to the social world.”

Due to his sight, presumably, he lived with his mother until he was forty. They moved to the Fourth Ward, into a house on Ruthven Street, close to the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Sarah Jane was getting older, taking in washing. Love did what he could to support her. They don’t seem to have suffered unduly—she owned their home outright—but it was hard for him to hold jobs. He briefly found work as a clerk, then as a teacher, losing both positions when his eyesight proved “too limited for him.”

In 1890, Love was hired—or possibly he invented and craftily formalized a position for himself—as the Houston advertising agent for several African-American newspapers. Houston still lacked its own black paper, a secular one, but a consumer market existed there for other states’ and cities’ publications to exploit. Love had access to it. The job required only that he be convincing. He successfully peddled space in (and subscriptions to) the Freeman in Indianapolis, the New York Age, the Austin Texas Citizen, and the San Antonio Tonguelet.

When Love noticed how much money the other state’s papers were making on his labor and connections, he decided to start his own concern. This was in 1891. He moved back to the Brazos, back to the place he and Sarah Jane had left thirty years before—to Navasota, in Grimes County, where the Holland lands were. He started the Navasota Echo, one of the first black papers in Texas, “the cheapest and best colored paper published west of the Mississippi,” he boasted, calling it a publication “devoted to the interests of the people in general and the negro in particular.” Its motto: Fiat justitia ruat coelum—Let justice be done though the heavens fall. Love stood with “the uneducated and oppressed” and all who fought “against ignorance and superstition.” He employed correspondents, whom he kept reminding in the paper to avoid “verbosity,” to embrace “brevity and the non-use of vulgarisms,” and finally not to be so touchy about the editing of their stories. “Don’t get mad and stop writing to the paper because we do not publish what you write verbatim,” he told them. “You may understand your own phraseology but that doesn’t make it in accordance with the modern rules of rhetoric.”

Not a single copy of the Echo survives, that we know of, but scattered articles are preserved, caught by quotation in other papers, such as an item recording that, in Anderson, Texas, “Rev. and Mrs. Jones’ five-weeks-old baby spoke two or three distinct words last week.” The number of these citations received a small boost from the fact that, for certain of the white newspaper editors in Texas, Love was just the right kind of negro, not only in the sense that he was physically white, but in that he spent many column inches lecturing fellow blacks on their behavior. “Other races encourage clanship and foster race pride,” he complained, “while the negro race is given to self destruction and raising h—l.” He declared that, “before we can be a respectable people, we must annihilate the perpetrators of vice from our homes and social circles. . . . We must ostracize our best friend and nearest relative if it is necessary.” Plenty of whites were sympathetic to race-statements like that, in particular the editors at the Galveston Daily News, where Love’s Navasota Echo was deemed “a very good one of its kind,” containing bits “good enough for people of all races.” Love was “a man of education and a good writer.”

Within a couple of years the Echo folded, or passed into other hands. Love had gone in expecting it to happen. In the paper’s first year of existence he’d published a semi-ironic warning. “The object had in view in launching the Echo is to make money,” he told readers. “This we must do. If we cannot accomplish this we are ready to resign our posthumous fame to our successor, whoever he may be.” His pessimism proved prophetic. “Some people help[ed] us with their tongues,” he wrote later, “but it takes money to pay house rent and the printer.”

Love came back to Houston—back to an aging Sarah Jane, back to committees (the “Goat Race Starter Committee” on Colored Children’s Day), back to Juneteenth “Goddess of Liberty” pageants for “prominent colored girls,” back to welcoming visiting colored lecturers and singers when they came to town—but he was not the same man. Defeat had fired his ambition. He had become a political creature. Not that he’d shown a lack of interest before—in 1890 he’d even been briefly elected a delegate to represent the Fourth Ward—but in Navasota he turned into what today we’d call a wonk. He made connections, at the state level. He made his name. He became, in the words of the Indianapolis Freeman, not young Judge Love the emcee but “C. N. Love, the gallant moulder [sic] of public sentiment . . . using his pen to the credit of himself and community.” Nor was he a merely a moral or a moralizing scourge. More and more he advocated practical change, agrarian reform. “The negro farmers in Texas,” he wrote, “raise too much cotton.” (He was living again near the fields where his mother and older brothers had once been pickers.) These farmers must convert to “a variety of crops,” he argued, and thereby better insulate themselves against vagaries in white markets.

No less significant, C. N. Love had begun at the Echo to produce some of the most detailed reporting on the intricacies of late nineteenth-century black politics in Texas. For that matter, some of the only reporting period. Indeed, the political world he writes about—the world of power-wielding Southern black and mulatto Republicans—seems now so lost that to experience Love’s accounts can be like reading science fiction. He writes that in Galveston there were “two factions among the negro republicans styled ‘regulars’ and ‘old guards’. . . . The old guards say that if they are fairly beaten in mass meeting an end to the controversy will have been reached, otherwise the war will continue.” He reassures readers that, “Hoggism, paternalism, and the other isms that have been forced down the throats of the people since 1890 are indigestible ingredients.” At times he goes farther, as when discussing the career of the great Norris Wright Cuney, who at points was not just the most powerful black Republican in Texas but the most powerful Republican (albeit in a state where the Republicans had at that time little chance in most elections and the party had turned hopelessly internecine). To look at a picture of Cuney and remember that he was considered a “black” man should remind us of the strangeness of the racial world these people inhabited, one not stranger than our own but differently so.

2015 02 27 Sullivan Finsel2Norris Wright Cuney

Cuney was the son of a white state senator and a tri-racial (white, black, Indian) slave named Adeline. Love called him “The Bronze Leader” and addressed him “in a loud voice” in the Echo, writing, ‘Commander, thou man of destiny, go up higher.’” But when Love gets down to the actual maneuvers and machinations within and around the Cuney machine, the language can only be invoked:

The good book says a prating fool shall fall. . . . Cuney does not believe in ghosts, therefore the hootings of owls do not affect him. . . . The man whose mental calibre is thin and volatile hies away to the backwoods and brays like a blatant, full-blooded donkey. . . . He went into the city; he affected poetic singularity; his muse soared high, but not well; he languisheth in the wild woods of Texas; contents himself at slinging mud at the sun in its zenith, but the sun wotteth not that he slingeth. Thou fool, go into thy hole and pull it after thee.

You can do a Ph.D. and figure out what that means or back away in wonder.

Within a year of his returning to Houston, C.N. had been elected chairman of the South Fourth Ward Republicans, in charge of sending delegates to the Harris County convention. But most important during this time (most important of all, in the sense that it’s the solitary thing about him history has deigned to half-remember), he created the Texas Freeman, not the first black newspaper in Texas but the first great one, the first publication that blacks in Texas could hold up unembarrassed against the best “of its kind.” The Freeman ranks among the defining cultural expressions of black Houston, and black Texas, for that matter. A single copy survives, physically, digitally, in any form, that we know of. For a long time people thought there were none. In 1940, a man named Carter W. Wesley, a black publisher who’d at first worked under Love and later assumed control of the Freeman enterprise, lamented in print—or rather expressed his amazement—that nobody appeared to possess a solitary copy of this great newspaper, which had started everything. Well, paper is useful—it gets used—especially by people who don’t have money to buy more. A fire supposedly destroyed a complete set of the Freeman at some point. Love’s offices were trashed when he retired. But in 1972 the widow of Carter Wesley (she’d taken over her husband’s role at the company after his death and was rich enough to pay people to hunt for antiquities) located the only copy, somewhere in California. Grose reproduces it in his dissertation. You can see there, among other things, the symbol Love used for himself in writing his weekly column, “The Man About Town.” This man goes about town stooped over, on a cane (he’s blind), wearing a broad-brimmed hat.

2015 02 27 Sullivan Finsel3The Man About Town

It is one of our only images of C. N. Love, and a fitting one, since it shows how his readership saw him on the street.

There is another image, a photograph of “Colored Editors and Leaders,” which ran in the Kansas City Sun in 1918. A group of seventy men standing on stone steps somewhere in Washington, D.C., where they’d been summoned for instruction on how to “enlighten Negro public opinion” on the war.2015 02 27 Sullivan Finsel4Colored Editors and Leaders, Kansas City Sun, 1918

It’s C. N. Love’s face. He’s in his mid-fifties. His eyes are hooded—he looks, it seems, not out from the picture so much as inward.

2015 02 27 Sullivan Finsel5C. N. Love

 

Love’s name is synonymous with the Freeman, but he didn’t found it alone. In the beginning he had two partners. One was the estimable Emmett Scott (who’d formerly worked at the white-owned Houston Post), the other a person named John S. “Jack” Tibbitt, about whom very little can be learned. Before Tibbitt had shown up in Houston, in the 1880s, he’d worked for a black newspaper in Dallas called the Ethiopean Echo, but he abruptly went “missing” after a convention, and shortly thereafter was fired for “alleged crookedness.” He may have pulled something similarly shady at the Freeman, for he vanished after just a few years (despite having begun as editor-in-chief) only to pop up again a decade later as an insurance agent.

Few anecdotes survive from that earliest period, when the three men were working together, but one that does is good. During the paper’s first year of existence, Love didn’t write much. He was the business manager. Scott and Tibbitt handled most of the copy. Several times, when a piece they’d published had angered a reader sufficiently, the injured party would storm into the offices seeking justice or revenge, whichever came first. This being Texas in the 1890s meant these readers carried pistols, which they’d wave around. Scott and Tibbitt used to head the visitors off at the door. “You know C.N.,” they’d say, “how stubborn and bullheaded he is. You can’t do nothing with him about what he writes.” The two would then retreat to an office and hide there holding their sides while whoever it was went off to confront C.N. As a joke it seems both funny and risky. Perhaps they felt Love’s oddity protected him somehow, that no one would shoot a blind black bookish albino, and no one did (not for many years).

When Scott and Tibbitt left The Freeman—Scott to become Booker T. Washington’s right-hand-man at Tuskegee, Tibbitt to go underground—the paper’s operations fell to Love, and he embraced the opportunity. He acquired the last of his nicknames, one that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He became Editor Love. That’s how they spoke of him in Texas and throughout the whole guild of black journalism, and that’s how they remembered him, that’s how older people in Houston would talk about him until not very long ago. Editor Love.

Right around the time Love took control of the paper, something unexpected happened. He turned Lily-White.

The Lily-Whites were a party within the Republican party in the South. The name was flatly descriptive, they wanted white control of the party, and blacks out or sidelined. Some of them were racists and some of them were both racists and cynical pragmatists who believed that this was the only way to challenge Democratic power in the South, that a party full of blacks would stay forever hopelessly marginal. Blacks lacked numbers in too many places and could be politically toxic on too many issues. Yes, this was the party of Lincoln, but Lincoln was not a horse to ride into the ground.

On the other side of this debate were the equally well-named Black and Tans, who desired an interracial party, for reasons both noble and calculating (the mixture occurring in various ratios within both the faction and each member’s breast). Editor Love himself had been Black and Tan not five years before. During his wilderness days at the Navasota Echo he’d written that “the days of the lily whites are numbered. The best speeches . . . at the [1892] convention were negro efforts.”

Yet he went Lily-White. Why?

Did it have to do with his being . . . white? (The question is both unavoidable and almost too strange to ask.) The white black man became a black white man.

There were other black Lily-Whites, not many but some. An article in the Pittsburgh Courier made the only attempt we could find to explain their existence. “The Negroes on the lily white delegations were, as a rule, representative men, possessed of an intelligent viewpoint, who insisted that they were serving the interests of the race, by supporting a white leadership in Southern States which would display its honesty of purpose by encouraging and aiding Negroes to vote.”

The vote—it was everything. And the Democrats had made clear, from shortly after the war’s end, their intention to shut blacks out of the voting process by any available means. They used poll taxes, violence, trickery. Most insidious, however, because most sweepingly efficient, were the “white primaries.” Rarely discussed now, they were a key instrument in the Jim Crow campaign to subvert the freedoms blacks had gained in the war. You took a state—like Texas, but it happened all over the South—so firmly under white Democratic control that whoever won the Democratic primary was guaranteed to win the final race. Then you factored in an unfortunate legal right the Democrats possessed as a private political party (not, that is, a branch of the government) to pass arbitrary rules regarding primaries and elections. Those rules passed, the Democrats simply barred blacks from voting in the primaries. The candidate who won the Democratic primary would thus take the general election without a single black voter having influenced the process. In this way, hundreds of thousands if not millions of Southern blacks were “effectively,” which is to say totally, disenfranchised.

C. N. Love and other black Lily-Whites saw this occurring and reasoned like so: with the Democrats we have no hope. Whereas the Republicans at least look willing to go on letting us vote. The motto of the African-American Dallas Express says it all: “The Republican Party is the ship, and all else the sea.”

And yet for the Republicans to do us any good, they must gain power. The only way to help them do that is to efface ourselves from the party, in which only yesterday we were a rising force. Retreat to the shadows. Until we can win again. Then we start reclaiming ground. Wishful thinking, in retrospect, but not crazy.

Editor Love staggered passionately into these debates. Newspaper accounts of the Republican conventions of the 1890s make for dramatic and occasionally madcap reading. The Galveston Daily News spoke of “wild and woolly scenes” in 1894. Love was reported to have rendered some kind of obscure objection. Next,

A. T. Lockett made a speech in which he invited someone to take a drink of whisky. This caused a squabble and somebody invited somebody else to fight it out. . . . Uproar and cries of order. . . . By 11:30 pandemonium reigned to full extent. . . . The lights were turned out. When they came back on, C. N. Love called all those who were in favor of republicans to go into temporary organization.

The 1898 convention was, in the words of the Bryan Eagle, “hard to handle, and the sergeant-at-arms and his assistants were kept busy endeavoring to maintain order. C. N. Love said that the leaders had wandered after ‘false gods and the golden calf,’ and quoted scripture to prove it.”

In 1900 things got worse. There were “Riotous and Disgraceful Scenes,” said the Houston Post. Love was furious. He claimed to have heard it “openly stated that as far as possible only white delegates would be sent to [the state convention].” This was a step too far even for Love. Effacement was one thing, removal another. He understood “the view of getting a respectable delegation” but wondered “when honest colored men had ceased to be respectable.”

Love mounted the stage to proceed to call his followers to order. As he passed [acting county secretary Ed] Williams the latter remonstrated with him.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” said Love. “I know my rights,” said he in rather a defiant voice.

“And you can’t bulldoze me either,” replied Williams, at the same time drawing a knife.

When Love saw the knife he immediately went for Williams with a drawn pistol.

With this there was a wild rush for the stage. Mr. Tracey was the first to grab Mr. Love’s pistol.

2015 02 27 Sullivan Finsel6Houston Post, Feb. 18, 1900. Presumably Love is the pale-faced man on the far left.

 

Editor Love! He is simply a titan, a lost titan of black history. He was “a fearless advocate of the rights of colored Americans,” said the Washington Bee, “known from one end of Texas to the other.” According to the Broad Ax, in Chicago, he was “on the firing line preaching eloquent truths against the brutal tyranny and oppression of the Southland’s wickedness.” You feel him raging against the political humiliation blacks had suffered, as they realized Republicans didn’t want them and Democrats wouldn’t have them. He organized a “Colored Citizens’ Association,” its goal “to influence the colored vote to band together for the political welfare and to ask for better representation in the public services of the city.” He asked why, if blacks paid taxes to “pap suckers at City Hall” for park-construction, they weren’t allowed to enter the parks. He worked “to impress upon his readers . . . the necessity of action as well as speech.” He fought for black women (including prostitutes), black postal workers, and the right of blacks to hitch their “horses on downtown streets for longer than thirty minutes.” (The last battle he actually won, by parking his own horse downtown and refusing to move for eight straight hours.) He went after his competitors if he thought they deserved it. He questioned the “courage and backbone of the Dallas Express,” charging that in the face of “lynchocrats,” the paper “cringes and cowers rather than publish what it really thinks.”

In 1896 he was shot. He was in St. Louis. He’d been sent there in June, to the national convention, as a delegate by the Republicans. On the 14th the New York Herald reported that “Charles Norvell Love, a colored delegate from Texas, got lost last night on his way home to his lodgings and was shot in the shoulder by a citizen, of whom he inquired the way, and who mistook him for a robber.” The Reading Times in Reading, Pennsylvania, reported on it the next day. The irony of that paper’s account, vis-a-vis black/white American racialism, black Lily-Whites, albinism, etc., is seemingly infinite.

One of the Lily White delegates from Texas was shot last night as he was returning to his hotel. He is Charles N. Love, blacker than the ace of spades. He was coming through Morgan street. It was mighty dark. He ran into Robert Thest, a citizen, who took him for a highwayman, pulled his gun, and shot him in the shoulder. He fired five shots altogether, but only one bullet took effect. Thest was arrested. Love is seriously but not badly injured.

Thank God he was only injured “seriously.” Also, what’s with the itchy trigger finger, Robert Thest? Five shots toward the chest area—the fool had meant to kill him. A blind man, with a cane? Had Love’s appearance startled him?

People at home weren’t buying it. There were rumors it was an assassination attempt. It does seem curious that one can’t find a “Robert Thest” anywhere in records, in Missouri or any place. Had Love been shot by a Black and Tan or somebody hired by them? Had he been shot by a Lily-White who wouldn’t tolerate any black men in the party, even white black men? “The telegram said that it was accidental,” reported the Galveston Daily News, but “friends are wondering how a delegate on a contesting delegation to a republican convention could be shot accidently on the day [of] the contest showing.”

The Klan tried to burn him out. This was later, after he’d married. Lilla, his wife, was roughly fifteen years his junior (we could find hardly anything on her, but their marriage lasted the rest of his life). The African-American Plaindealer of Kansas City and Topeka reported that “angry whites” had set fire to the home of the “militant editor.” Luckily he was “a light-sleeper who awoke to the smell and found smoke rising through the door of his wife’s bedchamber and bed ablaze.” He woke her and she led them out. Afterward the police “found slabs of wood saturated with oil piled under and around his house.”

In 1925 the Chicago Defender reported that “Texas, America’s banner state for legalised crime, added another star to its crown of abuses Saturday.”

Editor Love was collecting a subscription debt when an officer began to follow him and called to another cop to arrest him. He was beaten for not taking off his hat fast enough. He was held under no charge for several hours and released. He was rearrested four days later for disorderly language against the cop who arrested him and released under $200 bond . . . Citizens are up in arms . . . Love has never been arrested before in 30 years of editing the newspaper. Now he suffers from a badly bruised eye and possible fracture of his jaw where he was kicked by one of the officers. No step has yet been taken by the chief of police or mayor to get justice for the veteran editor.

The vote, that’s why they hated him, that’s why they targeted him. All sorts of things he did enraged them, but if you were talking the vote, you were talking “negro rule,” and that made them violent. C. N. Love wound up leading the fight against the white primaries in Texas, a major civil rights battle that blacks first engaged a full half-century before the movement we call “Civil Rights” came into existence.

It’s said that Justice Thurgood Marshall was asked once (by the Harvard legal historian Randall Kennedy) to name his favorite case among all those he’d worked on personally. Kennedy expected that Marshall might say Brown v. Board of Education or something else well-known. Marshall surprised him by naming instead a more obscure case, that of Smith v. Allwright, the 1944 case that finally brought down the white primaries in Texas. What even fewer people recall is that there had been a Supreme Court case, an effort aimed at undoing the same voting laws, a quarter-century before Smith v. Allwright. That case started in 1921, lasted three years, and is known as Love v. Griffith.

The Galveston Daily News reported that, “The Negroes, of whom C. N. Love is leader, claim that they are [D]emocrats, having recently become such, and that they are entitled to vote.” This marks the mass turning of black American voters from the Republicans to the Democrats. They had given up on the Republicans. Not that the Democrats were much better, but blacks themselves had begun to reason differently. The Democrats had power. Smash through the wall there, and you had it, too. No waiting for the Republicans, whatever colors they called themselves, to do the right thing. The courts might attempt what neither party would.

Love didn’t win his case. The Supreme Court deemed it “moot,” with the Chicago Daily Worker reporting that the justices “held the question was political and not judicial and the courts were without jurisdiction.” But one can tell that Oliver Wendell Holmes knew how bold a thing this was to say about a law that in only one state’s instance had taken the vote away from 100,000 citizens. In delivering the opinion, Holmes warned that the case involved “a grave question of constitutional law.” With those words he created a crack in the legal wall that could only widen.

 

When the white primaries finally fell almost twenty-five years later, in 1944, that voting day in Houston turned into a celebration for blacks. But the Plaindealer in Kansas reported that, “One of the most dramatic scenes in the entire day’s activities was when C. N. Love, political warhorse of another day, was escorted to the booth to cast his vote.” He was led through the crowd by Lilla. White, blind, bald, an old lion. Were people clapping? Or silent? They interviewed him afterward. “He recalled when he could call mayors and legislators ‘his best friends.’”

He died two years later, in 1946. His bones are in Paradise Cemetery, in Acres Homes, the same neighborhood where the blues singer L. V. Thomas lived and was buried. She’s in Cemetery Beautiful. She had grown up on Washington Avenue, in Houston, so named because it led to and from Washington County, and she remembered as a little girl looking up the road and seeing it thick with wagons bringing cotton from the bottoms. One of those wagons, before she was born, had carried Sarah Holland and little Charles Norvell and his brother to town.

“Editor Love,” said the Pittsburgh Courier, “swapped a bloody head and a beaten body to help pave the road that we now travel. Selah!”


Read Part 2: The Higher Musical Calling

John Jeremiah Sullivan is the author of Pulphead and Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son.

Joel Finsel was born in Pennsylvania and lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. He has written for Salt magazine and the journal Palaver. 

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