January 31, 2008

Chapter 4: Gov. Pat Neff (1917-1925)

If you ever go to Shreveport, Louisiana, you'd better walk right
You'd better not quarrel and you'd better not fight
Coz the sheriff will arrest you, and he'll take you down
You can bet your bottom dollar, you're penitentiary bound.
(The Midnight Special)

The case against "Walter Boyd" was a lot more serious than quarrelling or fighting, but the sentiment in the song, a favorite amongst prisoners in the southern penitentiaries, is clear: a black man had better watch his ass or he'll end up on the "farm."
The legend had it that if the headlight of the train — "The Midnight Special" — shone on a prisoner, he would soon be set free. There was no escape for Ledbetter this time: at the beginning of 1918 he embarked upon a thirty-year sentence which would eventually find him on the Imperial prison farm at Sugarland, near Houston.
The effect on his family was dramatic. His father and mother had already given up thirty acres of their land to defend him, fruitlessly, in the 1915 case. Elethe was left alone and realized that her marriage was a lost cause. She headed back home to Terrell, and eventually became a preacher. Cousin Blanche said the last she heard of her, Elethe, was in Kansas City. The two nieces, Viola and Irene, were taken back by their grandparents after their year in DeKalb. Viola had wanted to go to college in Marshall but she now had to give up that dream. In 1919 she got married to an oil field worker and spent the next twenty years in the boom towns of northwest Louisiana and East Texas. The next time she saw Huddie was fifteen years later when she was living in Kilgore, Texas, and he washeading for New York.
"We've had a hectic life. It's all mixed up in little pieces," says Irene, who eventually worked her way through college doing domestic work, and became a school teacher. She saw Huddie again about ten years after DeKalb. Both Irene and Viola spent some time with their uncle in New York during the last year of his life. [1949]

The year 1918 is mainly remembered as the year the Great War ended, with the Armistice on November 11. There was also a major world epidemic of influenza that year. In the United States alone, 548,000 deaths were attributed to the virus.
On 16 January 1919, the Prohibition Era began with ratification of the constitutional amendment by the 36th state, which happened to be Nebraska. Prohibition led to an increase in illegal activities such as moonshining, though many towns and counties in Texas — including Harrison county — had enacted their own "dry" laws long before the Federal government did so. During Huddie's youth, it had been necessary to cross the Louisiana line to buy liquor. For the people of the Caddo Lake region, this was not a long trip. The state line ran through the middle of Morgan's General Store near Leigh, on the Latex (Louisiana/Texas) Road. Liquor could be purchased on the Louisiana side, but not on the Texas side, of the store. But that was before Prohibition, and before Huddie's prison term.

Queenie: [Huddie] was in prison when his daddy died. Me and my husband bought this place from my uncle Wes — that's Huddie's daddy. My uncle Wes had a house on that knoll up yonder beside them pines right there. He was on his death-bed and I came over to see him. I was staying on the other side of them woods and I come over one day after I cooked dinner. I come on down to see how he was.
He said he wanted to see me so I come on down here and he say — he called me "Sis" — he say, "You the onliest one I believe will keep this land and I want you to buy it. I done willed so much to the girl I adopted." That was Australia Carr. The girl was in the kitchen and he called the girl out and said, "Now I know you ain't going to keep that land what I already deeded you. You let Sis have it when you get ready to sell it, cause you ain't going to keep it."
So she said she would sell it to me and come one evening I was way up in the field, I heard the car horn blowing but I didn't have time to go to the house to see who it was cause I was chopping cotton. And so the next morning I was chopping down next to the road and York Bickham came by and asked if I heard the car horn blowing and I said, "Yes," but I didn't have time to come down there. So he told me Australia said she wanted to sell that land, so I say, "Alright, I'll tell my husband when he comes in for dinner." York say he take us to town if we want to go cause he's going to carry his mother to the doctor. So when he come on back I said, "Yes, my husband said he'll go." So when you get there all you got to do is call Australia, and Australia come to the office and so we bought.

Queenie married Early Davidson in 1912; five of her nine children survived past infancy. She and her family have lived on what was once the Ledbetter home place ever since Wes's death in the early 1920's. Later in that decade, she bought the remaining land which was owned by Huddie and Sallie.

In August, 1920, the first regular radio broadcasting license in the United States was issued and in November, radio station KDKA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, broadcast the results of the presidential election. The Republican ticket of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge was victorious. The radio broadcasting business exploded during the next few years until, by 1924, there were about 1,400 stations on the air in the United States, and one-third of all the money being spent on furniture went for "wireless" sets.
In those early days, radio didn't know whether to view the record business as an accomplice or a competitor. Commercial radio has now become a promotional arm of the record companies, but in the 1920's, the two fledgling industries were jealous of their own domains. There was a close association between the furniture business and the recording industry: Columbia and Victor both manufactured records to go with their gramaphones, or talking machines; the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, begat the Gennett record company; the Wisconsin Chair Company of Port Washington started Paramount; and the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company of Chicago, which manufactured billiard tables and bowling alleys, created the Brunswick label.
In the area of black popular culture, there was no problem between radio and the record business — radio simply ignored blacks. The recording industry, meanwhile, had begun to take an interest in black performers. In February, 1920, "contralto" Mamie Smith recorded a couple of songs, "That thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down," written by a black music store owner from Chicago named Perry Bradford. They were "jazzy" numbers with a kind of old-time show business bounce to them, and the original idea was to get Sophie Tucker to record them. But Bradford pushed for Mamie and prevailed. Mamie Smith wasn't a blues singer, she was a vaudeville entertainer, but she accomplished the task of breaking the color ban in recording, and setting the stage for the era of the "Classic" blues singers that followed.
"There's at least fourteen million Negroes in our great country," Perry Bradford had said. "A lot of them own phonographs, and they will buy records if they are recorded by one of their own." Nobody paid much him much attention until he went to OKeh, then an aggressive, independent company that was a bit more willing to take chances.

Okeh agreed to record Mamie Smith singing the two Bradford songs, though they prevaricated for a while before finally releasing her record in August, 1920. And although she was not advertised as black, Negro newspapers like the Chicago Defender let out the news, and the record took off and sold an estimated 75,000 copies. The lesson was not lost on OKeh: they got Mamie Smith into a recording studio immediately, cut another record, and released it, this time proclaiming her as black in advertisements. It went over better than they had hoped — and all of a sudden the "Race" race was on. (Cook130) The way was paved for popular singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who were touring the country's black vaudeville theater circuits.
Perry Bradford, who subsequently did well for himself as a songwriter and entrepreneur, had been proven right. There was a black audience out there and they were willing to pay plenty. Those first records by Mamie Smith on the OKeh label, for example, cost a dollar each. Bessie Smith records on Columbia towards the end of the twenties went at seventy-five cents each and sold better that 20,000 copies. In spite of inflation, the price of a single record did not change appreciably between 1920 and the 1980’s when CDs started to appear in the musical marketplace. In other words, they were originally quite an expensive item which Afican-Americans were willing to purchase.

The Ku Klux Klan was officially revived in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1915. The original organization, which thrived briefly after the Civil War, was all but eliminated around 1870 when the Federal government's reconstruction policy got underway. The new Klan had a slightly different purpose than the original: it set itself up as the national arbiter of morals, not so much as a tool to keep blacks in place. Klan members helped to enforce Prohibition and kept a close eye on gamblers, pimps, adulterers, and generally rowdy folk. It was like a resurgence of violent puritanism, and there was a prepoderance of preachers and policemen in this new movement. Not all white-on-black violence was perpetrated by the Klan in the years after 1915, but the re-emergence of the Klan gave the violence a certain legitimacy. There is a kind of familiarity to the incidents which occurred, and the case of Thomas Rivers is unfortunately typical. The New York Times ran the following brief story on page 17. The year was 1922.

Louisiana Mob Lynches Negro
Shreveport, La., Aug. 30 - The body of Thomas Rivers, a negro, who
confessed he was the assailant of a young white
woman of this city, was found this morning by
Bossier Parish authorities hanging from the limb
of a tree near the Shreveport-Bossier highway
in Bossier Parish, about twelve miles from
Shreveport. He was taken from officers by a
mob late last night as he was being transferred
to Benton, La., for safe-keeping.

There are certain elements that are common to all such stories. First, the "negro" confesses to his crime. Rivers was arrested at 3 o'clock in the afternoon of August 29th by Shreveport Police Chief D.D. Baser. There had been a complaint by a young white woman, and the woman's family was determined to teach the offender a lesson. During questioning, Rivers also conveniently stated that he had tried to attack a young girl in Marshall, Texas, the previous month. He was identified as the attacker by the Shreveport woman, thus "guilt" was firmly established.
At that point, it was deemed by the authorities that the Shreveport jail is not a safe place for Thomas Rivers, because an irate mob is likely to storm the place, capture him, and lynch him. In reality, of course, there was collusion between the police and the mob. In order to make it easier for the lynch mob, the police decide to drive Rivers to the Bossier Parish jail in Benton. It was 11 p.m. and the mob knew exactly where to intercept the police car.
The official story states that Detective John Hudson and Deputy Sheriff Bert Stone were driving along the road to Benton at a high rate of speed when they were suddenly confronted by an armed band of masked men. Rivers was kidnapped by the marauders and the officers were ordered to turn around and go back to Shreveport. There were about twenty-five of these masked men, but who they were, or where they came from, was a mystery to everyone. Sheriff Adair of Bossier Parish stated that he was positive that there were no Bossier citizens in the party, because nobody in Bossier knew about the transfer until the Shreveport police told them about the seizure, after the fact. And, of course, nobody in Shreveport had the slightest idea how the news of the transfer might have leaked out.
A newspaper reporter from the Times of Shreveport spent the whole night searching for Rivers. Early in the morning, someone mentioned that he might want to look at a place known locally as "lyncher's stamping ground." The reporter was directed to a small side road in the cottonfields between the hamlets of Brownlee and Willow Chute. At the time he thought that the mob must have known the territory very well; it was difficult to follow the twisting trail and the reporter got lost a couple of times. There were small decrepit bridges spanning the creeks which were watering holes for the cattle which roamed about, and he worried that one of these bridges might collapse under the weight of his Model-T Ford. Eventually, the reporter came upon the grisly scene.
The rope that held Thomas Rivers' body was tied to a young oak tree that bent over the trail and entwined with an elder tree on the opposite side of the roadway. In stark contrast to the violence, the trees formed a peaceful arbor which provided the only shade from the blistering sun for miles around. It was a place where the field-workers sought shelter during their noon-time breaks.
The dead man was dressed in the same clothes he had on the day before. His checkered cap was still on his head, pulled halfway down his forehead. His hands were hanging limp at his side. His neck was swollen at the back and appeared to have been broken. His ragged shoes were about eighteen inches from the ground and a small notebook was in the right rear pocket of his khaki trousers. He was wearing wrapped leggings, which suggested he may have been a veteran of the Great War. A three-ply knot was hitched at the back of his neck; the rope was looped over a sturdy limb and tied to the trunk of the elder.
There was a small group of blacks gathered near the body. The younger men kept a respectful distance, but one ancient gentleman hobbled over to the hanging form, stared at it over his glasses, and then touched one of the lifeless arms a couple of times. The ancient shook his head and muttered sadly to himself.
According to the Times reporter, it was a fast and efficient lynch job. The several cars which carried the masked men easily found their way to the lynching ground where they prepared the rope, and ordered the victim to step up to the running board of a car. With the noose securely in place, the car drove away and left the body struggling in thin air. The verdict of an on-site inquest was that Rivers had come to his death at the hands of "parties unknown," and no further investigation was considered necessary.
The Shreveport newspapers, the Times and the Journal, usually reflected the Southern white supremacist opinions of the era, though there was an occasional bow to the growing national consensus against lynching. On 19 February, 1925, for instance, an editorial in the Journal praised the citizenry of Natchitoches, Louisiana, for its law-abiding behaviour during the arrest and trial of Sam Prater and Almo Smith. These two black men had been convicted of murdering a popular white high school student named Dan Barr.
The Journal spoke too soon, however. The following day, Prater and Smith were dead, each shot in the head by the Sheriff and his Deputy who were taking them to the state penitentiary at Angola. The officers' version of the incident could hardly be repudiated since there were no witnesses. They had stopped to change a flat tire when the two prisoners, who were handcuffed together, had attempted to escape. Dr. Phelps, the coroner, exonerated the officers.
There was a tremendous amount of activity on the part of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920's. Wendy Russell, a white woman who later became an international fashion model and patron of the arts, grew up in poverty in Marshall. She said there were regular Klan meetings opposite the house in which she was raised. The young girl watched in awe as the white-sheeted and hooded figures, many of them "respectable" citizens by day, gathered, burned crosses, and marched on some hapless victim. Russell witnessed two blacks burned alive on a courthouse square, and several incidents of tarring-and-feathering.
On Mardi Gras, 24 February, 1925, seven thousand Ku Kluxers held a parade in Shreveport. Cars were parked all the way from the State Fair grounds to Flournoy, Louisiana, a distance of six or seven miles. The number one man in the Caddo parish Klan, the "Exalted Cyclops" if you please, was Reverend E. L. Thompson of Central Christian Church.
The next day, a lynch mob got hold of Joe "Son" Airy, a black man who allegedly slew a state highway officer in Bossier Parish. According to a report from the Bossier Sheriff's office, Airy was surrounded by a posse when he drew a revolver and was promptly wounded by a deputy. The mob then strung him up, said the report. As the body lay on the ground, it was mutilated for souvenirs. The victim's fingers, toes and ears were cut off, bits of his clothing were torn, and the rope with which he was hanged was cut to pieces. The coroner reported that "Joe Airy came to his death from gunshot wounds while resisting arrest." The incident took place outside the house of one of Airy's relatives, who was too terrified to claim any part in it.
Just a few weeks prior to this incident in his home region, Huddie Ledbetter was released from the Texas penitentiary. Almost unbelievably, he received a pardon from outgoing governor Pat Neff.

Gov. Pat Neff
Pat Neff had been a "reform" governor. There has been a tendency in both Texas and Louisiana politics to alternate populists and reformers in the governor's office. The populists, like the Fergusons in Texas and the Longs in Louisiana, appeal to the common people but have a tendency towards ostentatious corruption. This leaves an opening for reform governors to be elected periodically on a "clean-up" platform. Neff had decided that there were to be no pardons on his watch. According to the Austin American of 5 April 1925, Neff abolished the board of pardons, and would only pardon in very extreme cases, "where the convicts were friendless and penniless and no voice of mercy or persuasive lawyer could speak for them."
The pardoning policies of Neff’s predecessors, Jim and Ma Ferguson, have been termed "liberal." Jim Ferguson made penitentiaries his hobby and was far more liberal in giving pardons than was Neff. While in the Governor's office, he issued pardons to 3,000 convicts, while Neff, in his four-year term, extended pardons to a grand total of two men. “The former was criticized in the last political campaign for being too lenient and the latter is being lampooned for being too strict.” ("Honor")
The popular image of southern penitentiaries prior to World War II is of almost medieval institutions where men in striped outfits were chained together and driven like animals to work in brutal conditions. It is surprising, then, to discover that the public utterances of such governors as Pat Neff and Jim Ferguson display a liberal attitude towards the prisoners. It may be true that Neff pardoned only two prisoners during his four years in office, but he certainly took an interest in his prison system. He initiated a program for the maintenance of State Parks which employed prisoners working on an honor system. At Boerne, 30 miles northwest of San Antonio, twenty convicts serving terms from five years to life worked on beautifying a state park under the suveillance of a young Texas Ranger. Outside of working hours, the men were permitted to come and go as they pleased.
Neff also started an "honor farm" at Sugar Land. One hundred and fifty
prisoners were selected from prisons all over the state, guards were transferred, bloodhounds removed, and the men informed that they were free to come and go outside of the eight-hour work day. There were wake-up and bed times, however, and during the first two months of operation, eleven inmates walked away from the farm. Forger Charles Miller was the first to escape. He was a leader among the prisoners who made a speech and presented a gold fountain pen to Neff when the governor appeared at the launching ceremonies. Miller disappeared from the honor farm the following week but later relented and opted to return. In his absence, the other prisoners had vowed to punish Miller if he was recaptured, but since he returned voluntarily he was let off the hook.
Jim Ferguson, in his role as "Deputy Governor" to his wife Miriam, better known simply as “Ma,” vowed to continue Pat Neff's parks program. During his previous terms as governor, Ferguson had the prison system paying for itself, and he had always taken a particular interest in it. Perhaps there were fewer duties for governors in those days to account for their interest in prisons. In an article in the New York Times, Ferguson uttered remarks which would be unthinkable for many contemporary Texas politicians.
“Upon one visit to the Imperial Farm,” he said, “I made a speech to the men and told them that if they worked for the State and behaved, I would examine every record sent in to me when a pardon was requested. I promised them I would pardon where I could and shorten their terms.
“One fellow got up and made a better speech than I did. ‘You really mean that, Governor ?,’ he asked, and when I told him that I was serious he declared that he was guilty of theft, that his punishment was just, and that he had a wife and three children, and that he intended to work hard for his freedom. He got it, too.
“I could not be so hard-hearted as to refuse to listen to the plea of a human being, trapped up in a prison asking for a hearing and pleading the cause of his family. ("Honor")
During Neff's tenure, the prison system started losing money and he had to borrow $800,000 to keep it solvent. He was hoping that some of his reforms would put the system on a more secure financial footing. Money, apparently, was the major problem faced by the Texas prisons at the time. Pat Neff was a serious and determined man who had been a county prosecuting attorney and Speaker of the Texas house before being elected to the governorship. He later served for fifteen years as president of Baylor University in Waco, a Baptist institution. In his 1925 autobiography “Battles for Peace,” Neff described the circumstances which led to his pardoning one particular prisoner:

On one of the farms, during my administration, was a negro as black as a stack of black cats at midnight. I visited a number of times, during the four years, the farm where he worked, and on each visit he sang a song which was a petition for pardon set to music. This negro would pick his banjo, pat his foot, roll his eyes, and show his big white teeth as he caroled forth in negro melody his musical application for pardon. In one verse he mentioned his wife; in another, his home; and I recall the third, closing with these words:

I know my mother will faint and shout,
When the train rolls up and I come stepping out.

Then, with much negro pathos and in full confidence, he sang:

If I had the Governor where the Governor has me,
I would, before morning, set the Governor free.

I listened to this song every visit for four years, and the day before I went out of office I pardoned the singer. He had been in the penitentiary some seven years, and had provedhimself to be a trustworthy convict (Neff 177).

Neff’s musician was, of course, Huddie Ledbetter (alias Walter Boyd) who had been in the penitentiary seven years when he was pardoned (pardon #18141) by Governor Neff on 16 January 1925. It was the day before Neff left office. Huddie told John Lomax that he decided, after a couple of failed escapes, to become a model prisoner and a leader of the chain gang. He worked harder and faster than anyone else, he claimed, and was highly regarded both by his jailers and by his fellow convicts. Then, in 1924, he had an opportunity to sing for Governor Neff.
“This here's a song I composed to Governor Pat Neff so that he would reprieve me from the thirty years I had in the Texas penitentiary. When he come to visit Camp A, Imperial State Farm, he had his wife and a carful of ladies with him. They all listened when I sing the song I had composed to Governor Pat
"Had you, Governor Neff, like you got me,
I'd wake up in the mornin', and I'd set you free", (Negro 200).

Once, Neff entertained folk song collector Dorothy Scarborough, at the˙ Governor's mansion in Austin. He told her the story of a convict who approached him after supper during an official visit to a prison farm and asked if he could sing the governor a song. Scarborough quoted Neff who was reciting from memory:

If I had the gov'ner
Where the gov'ner has me,
Before daylight
I'd set the gov'ner free.
I begs you gov'ner
Upon my soul:
If you won't gimme a pardon,
Won't you gimme parole.

Scarborough was collecting for her book, “Negro Folk Songs,” at the time, but apparently Neff did not mention the prisoner by name, and did not say whether the pardon song was successful (Scarborough 30). And even though there is no other mention of banjo playing anywhere in the Huddie Ledbetter canon, we can safely assume that he was talking about our man. Perhaps the idea of a banjo fitted in best with the rest of Neff's picture of the black minstrel, or maybe Huddie was, in fact, playing a banjo. It would not be beyond his capabilities.

Twenty years later, In 1945, Pat Neff, then president of Baylor University, wrote to Mr. Huddie Ledbetter at a Hollywood, California, address:

Friend Ledbetter:

Do you remember me vividly and distinctly? Do you recall how at the Imperial Penitentiary Farm you picked the banjo many times for me as I visited the penitentiary system? Do you recall that one of the last things I did as I left the Governor's Office was to sign a pardon for you?

Neff went on to say that he had heard good things about Huddie and to
suggest that he should come and give a free concert for the faculty and students, if he should ever pass that way. Huddie gave a concert at the University of Texas, Austin, in 1949, but there is no record of him accepting the invitation to visit Waco.

It became part of the legend of Huddie Ledbetter that he had sung his way to freedom twice. Such journals as Time magazine and the New York Herald-Tribuneï repeated it as fact during the 1930's, and though Ledbetter's release in Louisiana nine years later is an entirely different matter, it appears that he did, indeed, sing his way to freedom in Texas.
This was certainly an unusual and unorthodox way of achieving release from a murder conviction. Was Governor Neff acknowledging, by this whimsical act of mercy, that black prisoners in the Texas system were more akin to political detainees than serious criminals? Or was there something about Huddie Ledbetter's (Walter Boyd's) trial and subsequent conviction that made Neff realize that he shouldn't have been in prison in the first place? There were 3,600 convicts in Neff's prison system; he extended pardons to just two of them.


Zigzag said...

My grandfather James author Odom was pardon by Governor Pat Neff in Jan 1922

Unknown said...

Nice blog. Thanks for sharing such great information.
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