How Big Is Texas?

Texas, the only state which was once a nation under its own flag, is bigger than France with Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland thrown in, and this heritage of size has affected the behavior of every native son. We know that Texas is the biggest and potentially the richest state in the Union. But how about its political leadership? How about its attitude toward the Negro and the Mexican? How about the integrity of its educational system? How about the conservation of its resources? For answer we turn to Dixon Wecter, a Texan born and bred, a historian whose books are widely respected, and an author who has been appointed literary editor of the Mark Twain estate.

by DIXON WECTER

1

THE magniloquence of Texans has come to be a stock property of regional humor, along with the Coolidge-like traits of Vermont and the boosterism of California. Regarding the only republic of ten years’ standing to enter the Union by treaty, innumerable GI stories have been heard of the Lone Star flag planted on some beachhead before the Stars and Stripes, or the message received at GHQ on V-J Day, signed by three Texas Marines, “Does this surrender apply to us too?” The new Governor, Beauford Jester, recently published an expansive article called “Texans Are a Race of People.”

A third-generation Texan myself, I may be forgiven for confessing more than a little boredom with the professional Texan, who identifies himself on sight and talks freely of his origins as if the miracle of his genesis had left him somewhat dazed. It sometimes seems as if this state’s first legendary hero, Davy Crockett, that old ring-tailed roarer, had passed on his coonskin cap not only to Pecos Bill, Bigfoot Wallace, and Strap Buckner, but in a measure to the whole citizenry.

In a Texan this heritage has grown to be the expected thing, along with behavior which is a shade unusual. The eccentricities of a gentleman who used to stand on his head in places like the foyer of the Metropolitan Opera were satisfactorily explained in the New York press by the circumstance that he came from Texas. But pride of place and tradition, when controlled by social intelligence, can also be a very fine thing, leading its bearer to carry himself with dignity, act with responsibility, and (in Emerson’s phrase) treat with other men “as sovereign state with sovereign state.”

This pride is the prime reason why Texas will never claim the right, under terms of its admission to the Union, to divide itself like a paramecium into five parts. “Who will be willing to give up the name of Texas?” asked the State Gazette back in 1852. “Which State would yield the emblem of a single star . . . [or] the bloodstained walls of the Alamo?” These things are indivisible. Furthermore, as every Texan will tell you, the fission of his state would end the boast of size — in a region rich in similes like “as big as hell and half of Texas.” Area long ago became the yardstick by which citizens like to measure other superlatives of their commonwealth.

Yet the most remarkable fact about Texas is not magnitude but diversity. Like a long bridge, Texas vibrates in sections. Its unity is grounded upon the piers of history and sentiment, not the mandates of economic geography.

In trying to puzzle out the logic of Texas a regionalist might well despair. Climates, drainage basins, crops, industries, cultural patterns are all a very mixed lot. The Panhandle, with its high prairies and icy northers, obviously has little in common with the lush, subtropical lower Rio Grande Valley. But the cleavage which tends to absorb all others (aligning the Panhandle with the West, the coastal valleys with the East) roughly follows the ninetyeighth meridian. It divides the old cotton kingdom from that of wheat and cattle, the pine woods and sweet gum from mesquite and hackberry and, still farther, the land of greasewood and cactus.

While East Texas shows the dominant (and now badly depleted) red and yellow soils of the Deep South, the high prairies share the soil of the Great Plains, whose wealth of minerals like magnesium and calcium, not leached out by floods, is transmitted to the “hard” wheat grown here, also to grasses and thence to beef. Early settlers are said to have noted the effect of such pasturing in converting old horses into mettlesome bronchos; certainly the wild, buffalo-hunting Comanches of the Staked Plains were unlike the mild agricultural Indians of the eastern river bottoms, from whom came the name tejas, meaning “friendship.” Recently Professor Albrecht, University of Missouri agronomist, has declared that the state’s “dauntless and aggressive people are a consequence, in part at least, of her great area of prairie soils.”

I am not sure about the correlation between minerals and manliness, vitamins and virtues, but from many years’ observation I am certain that Texas has a split personality, cleft between East and West. I was born In Houston forty-one years ago and spent every summer of my youth there with grandparents — Houston’s summer climate, I regret to add, being not unlike that of Mexico’s Quintana Roo. Between this metropolis of the Southwest (for filial piety forbids concealment) and the region where I grew up during the rest of each year, Brewster County on the Rio Grande (the biggest county, I am constrained to add), no more resemblance exists than between Alabama and Arizona.

Houston was then a fragment of the Old South — dreamy, charming, languorous, just beginning to feel the tug of world commerce but not yet swept into the main stream. Today, of course, the economic landscape has changed, thanks to the prodigal wealth of petroleum and sulphur and the ship channel lined with half a billion dollars of indust rial installations, like those which blew up with such catastrophic effect at Texas City near by. Houston itself is the nation’s sixth biggest port, and its brood of war-hatched enterprises owes something also to the incubative concern of Jesse Jones. Another local millionaire, Roy Cullen, last spring brought Houston into the national news by giving a fortune of between 100 and 160 million dollars to the municipal university and medical education. This city — its proud skyscrapers alternating with shacks and vacant lots — has now become part of the major industrial structure of the United States, along with Cleveland and St. Louis, and it is much too prosperously cosmopolitan to claim sisterhood with Natchez and Mobile. Houston, like most of urban Texas, is living far less in the aura of a Lost Cause than in that of the main chance and a still more affluent tomorrow.

Yet upon certain social, cultural, and political levels the region dominated by Houston — East Texas — is bound at least sentimentally to the South, just as that portion of the state from San Antonio to El Paso marches with New Mexico, Arizona, and the Pacific slope — regions which, in part, the exuberant Texans of 1848 tried to annex as the “County of Santa Fé.” Within the constellation of the Union, the Lone Star today finds itself poised between the Southern Cross and the Hesperus of the western states.

Despite an Alabama and Texas grandfather who wore the Confederate gray, I have never felt that Texans had much to gain by mulling over a war in which their state was not overrun and where so-called Reconstruction was comparatively mild. Some East Texans, in particular, still have vague romantic feelings about the Bonny Blue Flag— perhaps because Texans are rebels by disposition, and have always chafed a little in the Federal harness — but the majority seem even in my lifetime to have grown steadily more indifferent to the legend of the Old South, with its contrasts of glamour and squalor, the hookworm and the honeysuckle.

2

YET that ghost of slavery, the race problem, still haunts Texas, particularly in the rural east and central regions, although the Negro population has shrunk from a third in 1870 to less than a seventh today. Here as elsewhere, the dormant virus of intolerance and hatred — unhappily as universal as mankind — can be kept from multiplying only by a healthy state of mind, among individuals and communities alike, and by economic health. For of course, in any unprosperous milieu, competition for lean pickings always aggravates race friction along the planes of each section’s pet prejudice, victimizing the Negro in East Texas, the Mexican in the Southwest, the Oriental in the Far West. Hence among the eastern stretches of the state — the piney woods and small towns where the Klan of a quarter century ago drew its support, and which used to elect Martin Dies to Congress until the influx of war workers and a spirit of urban progressivism overtook his home town of Orange — Texas most nearly resembles certain backward regions of Georgia and Tennessee.

In this portion of Texas, agriculture is sick and has long been so — a fact which horizons of oil wells and booming shipyards edging the Gulf cannot disguise. Like the pioneer community it once was, Texas has burned up its natural resources — not only petroleum and virgin timber but the once fat topsoil — at a prodigal rate, although new developments like the State Research Foundation in Dallas and its investigation of chemurgy and conservation presage better times. Today over half the farmers of Texas are tenants; two in five own no car, and four in five no tractor. Texas still leads the Union in cotton production, but has the lowest yield per acre, while California heads the roll; Texas’s sixteen bushels of corn per acre might be contrasted with Iowa’s sixty.

Between 1930 and 1910, some 200,000 Texas farmers deserted their acres — over half the total number of defeated agriculturalists in the whole Mississippi drainage area — and among the Negro population, withdrawal from rural areas proceeded twice as fast as with whites. This is one of the reasons why the race problem in Texas is drawing a little nearer at least to a numerical solution. The Negro health record, particularly in respect to malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and venereal disease, is strikingly poorer than that of whites, and is likely to remain so until the state provides education for Negro doctors.

Here certain important developments apparently are brewing. Under threat of Supreme Court action along the lines of Missouri’s famous Gaines case, agitation by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and pressure from local progressives (who are more numerous than outsiders believe), the outlook for higher education for Texas Negroes has suddenly brightened. The Legislature has approved a bill providing for the construction of a Negro university at Houston, and has passed a constitutional amendment appropriating for such education an annual amount equal to one sixth of the income from a 60-million-dollar permanent fund (derived mainly from state oil lands) which is now divided between the University of Texas and the A.&M. College. But the NAACP, unappeased, fights on for mixed rather than segregated colleges.

Although three out of five white adults favor continuance of the poll tax, as the Texas Poll reported as lately as May, 1946, the fair-mindedness of Texans toward the Negro has increased appreciably in my lifetime and observation. Among denominational groups, the cause of racial understanding has been promoted markedly in recent times by clergy and educators of the Episcopal Church. Among progressives, the Negro is coming to be recognized as an integral part of the East Texas region, like its soil and skies and his white neighbors with whom ancestrally he took root.

West Texas is more aware of the Spanish-speaking minority, whose numbers have grown from 70,000 in 1900 to 1,000,000 today — four out of five being United States citizens by birth or naturalization. With its thousand-mile Rio Grande border, Texas is the chief proving ground for good will between Latin and North America. Yet in most small towns, persons of Mexican descent are barred from cafés, barbershops, schools, and sometimes the right to vote. The railroads and farmers of the new northwest cotton belt pay them substandard wages; labor unions exclude them along with Negroes. In 1943, nettled by long discrimination, Mexico set the present ban upon migration of her nationals into Texas. Her best cartoonist drew a restaurant bearing the sign, “We serve everybody — even Texans.”

Today the situation is better, thanks partly to the war record of Texas Latins. The Good Neighbor Commission, made a state agency in 1945, builds self-respect in both camps. The Farm Labor Office has dotted West and Central Texas with reception centers for migratory workers, and the State Department of Education is fostering better attitudes in the schools, while seeking to end that complex of conditions which keeps nearly half the state’s Latin American children from attending any school, public or parochial.

West Texas’s other problems set it apart from the East. Its agriculture pivots upon the conservation not of soil but water; vast tracts will never support crops. But these western plains, sending two million head of cattle each year to northern markets, are now rapidly outstripping in economic importance the river bottoms of East Texas, or the black lands of the central area. The primacy which cattle-raising had in early days but lost by midnineteenth century to that of cotton began to reassert itself about 1923. In contrast to the dwindling yield of Texas agriculture, that of the livestock business is booming steadily, and now leads the nation in beef cattle, sheep and lambs, mules and goats — an output valued annually at about 700 million dollars. It is proverbial that West Texas has more cows and less milk than any other place on earth; like most people who grew up on the range, I gained a perverse taste for milk out of a can.

3

WEST TEXAS used to regard itself as very badly used by the thickly settled and greedy East — the same situation, on a local scale, as the psychology of the Great West vis-à-vis the Atlantic seaboard. As a Texas friend of mine says, the West begins wherever people start carrying a chip on their shoulder about the East. It was complained that tax revenues from the western population, along with the sale or usufruct of the tens of millions of acres in public lands lying in the West, seemed preponderantly to go to the more favored section — for building a state capitol, a university, and various charitable institutions, as well as subsidizing railway construction along the seaboard.

That tension has eased somewhat since my Brewster County boyhood, when there was bold talk about a “State of Jefferson,” largely for its nuisance value. The grumbling has since borne fruit in the creation, for example, of a spectacularly growing institution in the Texas Technological College at Lubbock. Lacking a major state university within range of hundreds of miles, the population has made that college far more than its name implies, a big center for higher education in general, while western legislators, by sly perennial demands for a slice of the 60-million-dollar endowment from state oil lands, have won for it a series of generous appropriations.

This interior Texas is the product of the longest weathering by the frontier to which any part of the nation has been subjected, a toughening process stretching from Spanish and Mexican days almost to date. Wars over fence-cutting and brands and water rights, incursions of drought and dust storms, the epic of cattle and the epic of oil — two of man’s most rugged ways of livelihood — have left their mark upon the country and its people. It is a land long tinged with western melodrama.

What is commonly conceived to be the Texas hallmark — generous, breezy, nonchalant, cocky — belongs a good deal more to these western plains than to the land of cotton. Generalizing about regional traits is always treacherous, but a few observations may be risked here. The plainsman is more deliberate and easygoing than the Far Westerner, but closer to that type than to the classic Southerner. In comparison with the latter he seems more definitely the extrovert and less the sentimentalist, with a firmer line to his jaw and the planting of his hat. The Texas plainsman is also more spontaneously democratic, apt to be interested in individuals rather than their grandfathers; he is convinced it is more important to be an ancestor than a descendant.

Upon the Texas tradition the plainsman has imposed his hearty individualism, as any reader of J. Frank Dobie will readily comprehend. Such diverse modern careers as those of Maury Maverick in politics, of Robert R. Young in the railroad business, have the indefinably West Texas quality. And of course the old patterns of ethics and justice owe something to this mold. One still hears quoted the saying of Captain Bill McDonald of the Rangers, “No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right — and keeps on a-comin’,” and likewise the remark attributed to Judge Roy P. Bean, famous through all the Pecos country, that “in Texas the first question to be decided by a jury in any homicide case is, ‘Should the deceased have departed?’” On the whole, the traditions in whose mirror Texans like to see themselves are more western than southern.

4

THE dilemma of Texas is that of a state garbed traditionally in Confederate gray, which for a long time has been discovering that its decaying cotton agriculture and the rise of diversified farming, oil, and other extractive industries, as well as its rapid urban growth and manufactures, give it a complexity of economic and political interests undreamed of a generation ago. Its divided mind may be illustrated by Texans’ widespread uneasiness, sometimes convulsive allergy, in the presence of four rather miscellaneous concepts: Republicanism, liberalism, organized labor, absentee control.

Back in 1845 Guy M. Bryan said tersely, “We are all Democrats in Texas.” And for a while after the Civil War the simple maxim ran, “Vote as you shot.” But scars heal, new industry and prosperity draw masses of immigrants from the North, manufacturers and oilmen and cattlemen feel little kinship with the cotton bloc, and deep cleavages wrought by the New Deal still remain. Despite the large personal popularity of the late President Roosevelt, the early ardor of many Texans for the Administration departed with Jack Garner and the commencement of a third term. Here as elsewhere, the war helped to create an external unity of purpose, but considerable pressure of revolt simmered under the lid — taking such shapes as the prosperous plainsman’s devotion to “free enterprise” and some ranchers’ opposition to reciprocal trade treaties which began to invite beef from Canada and South America, along with a mixture of Southern qualms concerning the Roosevelts’ friendship for the Negro and the appointment of a Presidential agent at the Vatican,

In the past twenty years, Texas political dissent has begotten “Constitutional Democrats,” “IIoovercrats,” a sprinkling of Liberty Leaguers, “ Jeffersonian Democrats,” and in 1944 the anti-Roosevelt “Regulars” — this label (along with its heavy radio and financial backing from the purveyor of laxative salts called Crazy Crystals) possessing faintly cathartic overtones that were something less than happy — not to mention about 200,000 faithful Republicans, pitted against 800,000 straight Democratic voters. Although affluent Houston was the cradle of the Regulars, it remains a core of invincible anti-Republicanism. When in April, 1947, a special election was held to fill a state senatorial seat vacated by death, no fewer than fortytwo Democrats filed, while the total number of persons who showed up for a Republican mass meeting to pick a candidate was only thirty-two. In consequence, no Republican nominee entered at all, and the Democratic winner received less than a quarter of the total votes cast.

Why not a flourishing Republican Party in Texas, healthy enough to include grass roots as well as country-club turf? Its effect in creating open debate rather than huggermugger in the caucus, and in putting candidates on their mettle until after the November frost, would seem salutary. Republican leadership showing higher political intelligence than previously displayed in this state would find much fruit ripe for the plucking. Harold Stassen recently visited here admittedly “to get you people into the Republican column,” and Speaker Joseph Martin is expected later. As a lifelong Democrat I incline to agree with a friend of two-party government lately quoted in the Dallas News: “It is like a bunch of kids wanting to play cowboy and Indian. All want to be cowboys. I think we need more Texas Republicans, but I don’t want to be one!”

Today the wrench is not so severe as it once might have seemed, because the line where Democrats leave off and Republicans begin is none too clear. Ever since the 1936 campaign, a Republican candidate appears to be a man who promises the more abundant life at bargain rates, although a few promise just the bargain rates. In this motley political circus — with a Democratic President trying earnestly to balance the budget out of the hands of the Republican majority, and the latter emerging as the champion of states’ rights against federalism — the jump from one ring to another should not be too difficult.

Less lip-service to the Democratic Party and more searching bipartisan debate would help aerate the political soil, cropping those unhealthy fungi that sometimes sprout in the shade of provincial demagoguery — such as W. Lee O’Daniel, for example, a “Kansas carpetbagger” who (to paraphrase a saying of Bierce) is nothing if not the hillbilly’s friend, and he is not the hillbilly’s friend. Texans share enough of the southern love for buncombe and florid showmanship to boost occasional buffoons to high office, but their political life-expectancy is shorter than in Georgia and Mississippi. O’Daniel is already a dead duck. The man who is supposedly ready to oust him next year is former Governor Coke Stevenson, at one time “Pappy’s” running mate, a cold customer but an intelligent one, whom O’Daniel is already calling an “ingrate” because of his aspirations to be junior Senator.

Also none too popular in Texas is the word liberal. To many it chimes with a recent definition (undoubtedly inspired by Henry Wallace) that a liberal is a man with both feet firmly planted in the air. It was used last year to damn Homer P. Rainey, ousted University of Texas president and unsuccessful candidate for Governor; more recently Charles Bolté, head of the American Veterans Committee and a stout fighter against Red borers in his organization, was refused an invitation as guest speaker before the Texas Legislature under the allegation that he was “too liberal,” By and large, Texans have not yet realized that to lump together all varieties of so-called liberal opinion and pour them into the same bin with the Communists is of enormous help to the latter in the perfection of their camouflage.

5

THE suspicion here noted, as strong in the smalltown and rural areas as among the oil millionaires of River Oaks, is often akin to that directed toward organized labor. Industrialization has brought to Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Beaumont, and other industrial centers a class tension unknown to the Texas of my youth, where a picket line was as unfamiliar as a saraband. The war greatly spread the net of unionization, and since that time the CIO has been making a determined effort to close that net with its own ingenious knots. But opposition to organizers from outside the state, to militant union tactics and the closed shop as a form of monopoly, is growing still faster.

Probably the majority of Texans, who are neither city dwellers nor factory workers, approve most or all of those measures lately passed by the Fiftieth Legislature which make Texas, even in these days of anti-labor recoil, one of the most conservative states in the Union. Organized labor in Texas now finds itself fenced in with a remarkable maze of new prohibitions, curbs, and admonitions of responsibility.

If a great many Texans resent the presence of labor organizers from Brooklyn and Detroit, they also tend, though less violently, to distrust that of capitalists from Wall Street and State Street. Much grumbling is heard about absentee control. Dallas, for example, according to one count, has some 2900 manufacturing concerns controlled from outside the state. Too rarely is it admitted that such “foreign" rule has often been made possible by local negligence of opportunity, or that native bankers and the best managerial brains have joined cheerfully with the so-called carpetbaggers of industry in siphoning off the state’s natural resources and legitimate expectations of profit, imitating that wasteful spirit of colonialism whose essence is exploitation. May one paraphrase Robert Frost and say that home is the place where, when you exploit it, you have to stay and take the consequences?

War has served, as nothing else could have done, to decentralize the manufacturing monopoly of the northeastern states; and while a good many southern communities seem disposed to let their war-born industries wilt on the vine or pass from the War Assets Administration into “foreign” hands, a good many Texas businessmen now appear to feel more bullish. Popular applause and a solemn resolution of approval from the Legislature greeted the revival in 1947, under local financing, of the big war-built Lone Star Steel Company at Daingerfield — in the state’s northeast corner adjacent to large iron-ore deposits — which bids fair to challenge Big Steel and “Pittsburgh plus” much as Henry Kaiser’s Fontana is doing in the Far West.

The spirit of regional protectiveness is not new. A generation ago restrictive measures were begun. The Robertson law compelled insurance companies doing business in the state to invest in Texas properties, and the corporation laws forced oil companies and railroads operating in Texas to obtain resident charters under Texas business labels. These laws touched the façade rather than the reality, causing only minor inconvenience to Standard Oil, the Mellon interests, Electric Bond & Share, and Southern Pacific. And for a long time certain Texans like Congressman Ed Gossett have taken a leading role in attacking discriminatory freight rates, which, since the revisions undertaken in tentative form in 1945 by the Interstate Commerce Commission, give signs of crumbling, to the joy alike of South, Southwest, and West.

The biggest Texas industry is of course the annual 1 1/4-billion-dollar petroleum and natural gas business. One who has traveled through the larger Texas fields, particularly by night, carries an unforgettable impression of magnitude and also appalling waste — the flares of casing-head gas, like giant flambeaus mile after mile against the dark, burning 1 billion, 200 million cubic feet of gas a day, enough to supply sixty cities the size of Dallas, and three quarters of this commercially recoverable. Operation of the Big and Little Inch pipelines from Texas to the Appalachian area, now ready to deliver 140 million cubic feet of gas daily, is an important step in the right direction.

As for petroleum, the war vastly speeded production, but resulted in no discovery of important new fields, and the fruits of this transient prosperity are seen largely to be vanishing beyond the grasp of local advantage, save for a few urban owners and managers, notably in Houston, Corsicana, and Beaumont. Although West Texas has important oil fields, the regional dictation over this industry is still concentrated in the big East Texas cities, and this circumstance inevitably tends toward the old sectional jealousy already mentioned, as well as friction between the have and have-not counties in respect to taxing such wealth.

The hottest issue now before the Texas Legislature is a natural-resources tax bill, sponsored by Representative Woodrow Bean of El Paso and other legislators from oil-poor areas. This bill seeks to tap the flow of oil, gas, and sulphur for revenue purposes — notably to finance bills recently passed to raise teachers’ salaries to a 2000-dollar yearly minimum and provide a per capita apportionment of 55 dollars per pupil. (In education Texas stands thirty-eighth among the states.) The rocketing profit of oil companies since the war’s end is the immediate fulcrum of this argument. Its most powerful opponent is Governor Jester from Corsicana, concerning whom a current quip runs that “the Lone Star Flag has been displaced over the Capitol by the sign of the Flying Red Horse.” Like a good many other East Texans, he is a foe of the Federal Power Commission, which, he argues, “has invaded the proper sphere of state sovereignty” in holding down field prices on natural gas. In late April the Governor refused to sign these educational bills, apparently on the ground that they would rob the oil-rich counties to give to the others, but stayed his veto after it was certain that both Houses would override it. Still more vigorously he has opposed the heavier natural-resources taxes necessary to implement this program, claiming his election last year as “a mandate from the people against new taxes.” The issue, bitterly debated, remains unsettled, but it seems likely that within the next year or two the long and profitable joy-ride of eastern oil and sulphur corporations in the Texas field, uninterrupted since the Spindletop gusher was brought in, back in 1902, is due for a sharp curb.

Such are among the fault lines which divide the biggest state, running along with the chief geological ones, in a manner largely to separate East from West. While they do not mean that Texas will ever claim its unique right of fragmentation, they do explain some of the reactions — economic, social, and political — that make Texas one of the most interesting laboratories of change in the Union.