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Uncovering History: African-Americans in Bandera County

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  • Uncovering History: African-Americans in Bandera County
    The historic Bertha Tryon/Hendrick Arnold Cemetery sits at the corner of Houston Street and Old Medina Highway. Plans are underway by the historical commission to improve the grounds and complete a radar survey to definitively locate all graves. Photo Cou

“The footprints of Blacks in the sands of Bandera County’s history are not easily found ... but they can be seen with diligent searching.”

These words were eloquently written by Carolyn Edwards, then Chairperson of the Bandera County Historical Commission, in 1991 in a Bandera Bulletin article for Black History month.

The stories of early Black residents were often forgotten by historians who focused more on Bandera’s European immigrants and white settlers.

A few exceptions existed.

In her book on early schools of Bandera County, Gladys Graves included the county’s two “colored” schools in her comprehensive survey. J. Marvin Hunter refers to a few early Black residents in his book, “100 Years in Bandera.”

Among his stories is one of Dave (no last name given), a freedman who shot his former owner, Joseph Poor, sometime after the Civil War.

Poor survived, and Dave was tried in a Bandera court for attempted murder, where he was acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence.

It was not until the 1990s that local historians began to pay more attention to the county’s Black history. In addition to the Bulletin’s Black History articles, local historian Peggy Tobin wrote of the county’s Black cemeteries. Tobin observed in early county histories, Blacks were only mentioned in passing and were referred to as servants, the consensus being Bandera was not a slave-holding county.

The 1860 United States Census proves this to be untrue, showing five registered slaveholders in the county.

One of the county’s first ranching operations was listed as the largest slaveholder with six slaves, two of whom were identified as mulattos on the census.

The other slaveholders owned one or two slaves, most likely for help in the home and on smaller farms.

After the Civil War, the population of Black residents continued to increase in the county. In the late 1800s, Bandera County became a significant cotton growing area. Jobs became available in the cotton trade, in local mercantiles and on area ranches and farms.

A number of black men, who had worked as teamsters during the Civil War hauling cotton to Mexico, continued to work as teamsters after the war. In 1910, a black teamster named Hamilton and his oxen team was able to deliver much needed supplies to Bandera after six weeks of heavy rains made the roads impassable for most wagons.

There was also Jeff Cooksey, who worked in the general store of Lincoln and Hart. Dr. Lincoln was known for creating a very powerful screw worm medicine. Cooksey mixed the ingredients for Dr. Lincoln’s “Hell on Screw Worm” special potion.

A sizable Black community arose during this time.

The 1880 census listed 29 Black citizens and the 1900 census showed the highest concentration of black residents with 97 citizens listed. Because of segregation, black residents tended to settle together in an area called Newtonville, located off of Schmidtke Road.

Bandera County Historical Commission ViceChair, Ray Carter, has done extensive research on the settlement that was named for one of the residents, Isaac Newton.

The residents established the county’s first Black cemetery in the area and the community was anchored by the Newtonville school, which was organized on July 27, 1882. On September 1, 1889, another “colored” school was established on the west side of town, where many Black families were buying land from Charles Montague and building new homes.

By 1910, the county’s Black population was starting to decrease.

By 1930, only eight residents are listed on the census rolls.

By this time, the cotton industry had been destroyed by a boll weevil infestation and the economic downturn of the Great Depression had begun. Families left the county to search for work in larger towns.

The Newtonville school was abandoned as well as the cemetery. In 1991, Carolyn Edwards wrote that only a few foundation stones and some square nails marked the location of the school. At that time, Louis Postert recalled the school building as not being very large, possibly measuring 16 by 20 feet.

A second cemetery was officially established in 1922 when Mrs. Charles Montague deeded a oneacre lot on the Old Medina Highway as the “Colored Burial Ground in which only Negroes are to be buried.”

Burials were being done on the lot before the deed officially established the cemetery.

The first burial was John Benson who died in 1890 as indicated by his gravestone that was still in the cemetery in 1991. Since then, the marker has disappeared, as has all of the other early markers.

Over the years, the cemetery had become overgrown with no one to care for it. Burial records disappeared or may not have been kept accurately. Today, there is some confusion of how many graves are there and who is buried there.

In 1993, the last burial took place when the family of Bertha Tryon requested permission to bury her there. Mrs. Tryon was a long-time resident of Bandera and, with her husband, Buddy, worked for John and Nell Steen at their River Ranch. Buddy Tryon and the family helped clear the property so Mrs. Tryon could be buried there.

Today, her gravestone is the only one in the cemetery. It was at this time Carolyn Edwards, as Chair of the historical commission, formally submitted a request to the Commissioners’ Court to change the name of the cemetery from the Bandera County Colored Cemetery to the Bertha Tryon/Hendrick Arnold Cemetery.

Arnold was a free black man who settled in San Antonio in 1835.

He served as a scout and spy to the Texian army during the Texas Revolution and earned a citation for his bravery in action and service.

After the war, he was compensated for his service with land grants. Part of the land he was given was located in what is now Bandera County.

Arnold never lived in the county; instead he settled on land granted to him in south Bexar County along the Medina River, and this is where he is buried. The historical commission requested the name change as a way of honoring Arnold’s service to the state and added Bertha Tryon’s name as a way to thank the family for helping with the maintenance of the cemetery.

Between 2013 and 2016, under the direction of Chairperson, Roy Dugosh, the historical commission once again cleaned the cemetery and commission member, Cecil LeStourgeon, built limestone pillars at the entrance. An iron sign with the name of the cemetery was installed along with a Texas Historical Marker.

A dedication service was held to honor those that are buried there.

Today, the county maintains the cemetery. Plans are underway by the historical commission to make further improvements to the grounds and to complete a ground-penetrating radar survey to definitively locate all the graves.

To ensure the county’s African American history is not forgotten, the historical commission is hoping to partner with other organizations in Texas to do further research for a Texas Historical Marker to be placed near Newtonville to remember a once thriving Black settlement.

Rebecca Norton is the Executive Director of the Frontier Time Museum.