AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Capitol is a busy place, filled with people always on the go, fighting for a seat at the table. So, it can be easy to walk past the pictures on the wall and forget the trailblazers.
"They kind-of get written out of history," Amanda Strittmatter said.
Strittmatter has a masters degree in history museum studies and is the Lead Tour Guide at the Capitol.
To celebrate Black History Month, she and other guides give the African American Trailblazing Texans Tour.
"It's very important to remember that all of the important points of Texas history; the first exploration, the Texas Revolution, all of these involved African Americans," Strittmatter said.
And that includes the Texas legislature.
News of the Emancipation Proclamation came to Texas on June 19, 1865. Three years later, 10 African Americans were elected to the Texas Constitution Convention and helped create a constitution that gave black men the right to vote.
So, when the 12th Texas Legislature met in 1870, there were black lawmakers.
"There's actually a fair number of them, and they're able to enact a few changes," Strittmatter said.
But they couldn't change the rise of Jim Crow and a system set up against them.
In 1881, the Capitol caught fire and the Capitol Texans see today was built on the backs of black men — largely because of Jim Crow.
"We didn't actually pay money for this original Capitol. We traded land to a group of investors," Strittmatter said. "And part of that deal was that they would be able to use convict labor here in Texas to help keep the costs of building the Capitol down."
"A lot of these folks are people who were arrested on largely trumped up charges from the Jim Crow era," she added.
In 1897, Robert Lloyd Smith was the last African American lawmaker to serve in the Texas Legislature until 1966.
"We can't talk about African Americans in Texas without talking about Barbara Jordan," Strittmatter said, smiling in front of Jordan's portrait on the Senate floor.
Jordan — the great, great granddaughter of one of the last black legislatures of the 1800s, Edward Patton — became the first black woman elected to the Texas Senate.
In 1966, Jordan, Curtis Graves and Joe Lockridge broke a 69-year drought of no African American lawmakers in the Lone Star State.
Six years later, the first black women were elected to the Texas House; Eddie Bernice Johnson, who is now a Congresswoman; and Senfronia Thompson.
Thompson, the longest serving African American and longest serving woman in the Texas legislature's history, is still in office today at 80 years young.
"You know, God didn't touch...Moses, until he was 80 years old to lead the children out of Israel," Thompson said with a smile while discussing her age.
And like Moses, following her calling hasn't always been easy. When Thompson first came into office, it was a different time for women.
"Couldn't even have a credit card," she exclaimed. "Not even for Macy's or Penney's. You couldn't own a credit card even if you had your own money."
And inside the Capitol, discrimination and misogyny reared their ugly heads.
"They were not ready for women," Thompson said. "When I first got here, there was a colleague who, I barely knew who he was, called me his 'black mistress.' And he thought it was something that was complimentary. But, you know, in our culture that was a great, great put-down."
So, Thompson gave a personal privilege speech on the House floor that became a part of history.
"I had to tell them that I was a duly elected member of this body and that I was demanding respect," she recalled. "And they must respect me or else I was going to have to take matters into my own hands."
"Ms. T." as she's affectionately called, is a living piece of black history. She said she's still working because there is more to fight for to ensure all Texans have a seat at the table.
The Texas State Preservation Board is offering the African American Trailblazing Texans Tour until February 28. Visitors to the Capitol can take the tour Monday through Friday at 10:15 a.m. or 1:15 p.m. or on Saturdays at 11:00 a.m. or 1:00 p.m. The tours are free and open to the public.
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