Tag Archive | African American Culture

Object: Canteen

Reproduction Based off of an 1860s Model
Materials: Metal, Leather, Cloth

This canteen is a reproduction of the canteens that would have been issued to the Buffalo Soldiers during the Indian Wars era. Buffalo Soldier is a name that refers to African American soldiers that served in the United States Army during and following the American Civil War.

Before the Civil War, African Americans were not officially permitted to fight in the Army. During the war, combat roles and positions in the army would be opened up to African Americans after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. With this new opportunity, many signed up to serve over the course of the war. Over 175,000 African Americans served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT). From 1863 to the end of the war the USCT fought in 39 major engagements and hundreds of smaller skirmishes.

After the Civil War, the size of the military was cut down drastically. This affected African American units as well. In 1866, Congress called for the creation of six African American regular army regiments. Two of these regiments were cavalry, the 9th and 10th. These six regiments were represented far fewer soldiers than the massive numbers that fought in the Civil War, but they would distinguish themselves with bravery in the post war period. African American troops also served in state militias after the war ended. In 1882, Texas boasted nine companies, with 352 men, and in each state African American troops were 20 to 40 percent of the state militia.

Map of significant historic sites associated with the Buffalo Soldier Regiments 1860-1900. Image via WikiMedia Commons

These new regiments of Buffalo Soldiers would have a hard task in front of them in the post Civil War era. This was a time of conflicts between the United States and Native American groups. The first task for the 9th cavalry was to guard mail routes and travel routes in Texas. Native American and Mexican raiders had plagued these routes during the Civil War. Union troops were no longer in the state and the Confederate government was too busy to protect Texas. In the following years the Buffalo Soldiers would see intense fighting in Texas. In 1875 and 1876, there was fighting in west Texas, and the panhandle as well. In the Texas Panhandle was the Red River War.

In the late 1870s, disaster struck the Buffalo Soldiers. 60 men from the 10th cavalry regiment under the command of Captain Nolan got lost scouting for a Comanche war party that had undertaken raids in the area. Due to heat and drought, the expedition dissolved and failed. Four men were court-martialed, and four died. Although segregated into their own units, the Buffalo Soldiers served bravely in the years after the Civil War. [Ryan Farrell, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]

Additional Resources:

Barr, Alwyn. “The Black Militia of the New South,” in Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers: Perspectives on the African American Militia and volunteers, 1866-1917, edited by Bruce Glasrud, 73-85. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.

Carlson, Paul Howard. The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2003.

Field, Ron and Beilakowski, Alexander. Buffalo Soldiers: African American Troops in the U.S. Forces 1866-1945. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.

Field, Ron, and Richard Hook. Buffalo Soldiers, 1892-1918. Oxford: Osprey, 2005.

Kenner, Charles L. Buffalo Soldiers and Officers of the Ninth Cavalry, 1867-1898: Black & White Together. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.

Steward, T. G. Buffalo Soldiers: The Colored Regulars in the United States Army. Humanity Books, 2003.


Object: Quilt

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

African- American
United States
Materials: Cloth/Thread/Cotton

This object is a quilt, made in the 1950s, in the African- American tradition of quilt-making.   An appraiser from Antiques Roadshow was able to identify it based on the style, construction, and materials used.  It appears to be hand-quilted and pieced, assembled in the strip construction technique, in which strips of scrap fabric were sewn together to create a pattern.

Kente cloth weaver in Ghana. Image by aripeskoe2, via WikiMedia Commons

Kente cloth weaver in Ghana. Image by r aripeskoe2, via WikiMedia Commons

African textile traditions have not been well-documented in comparison to other types of folk art, however, it is thought that their origins can be traced back to four civilizations of Central and West Africa.  In Africa, most textiles were made by men.  It wasn’t until African slaves were brought to the United States that women took over the tradition, with work being divided based on Western gender roles.

By the time African-American quilting had become a tradition, it had been combined with traditions from the Caribbean, Central American, and southern United States.  However, some distinct characteristics survived, and can still be identified in quilts today.  Bold colors, strips of fabric, and symbolism are all dominant features in African-American quilting.

Large shapes and bright colors were used in African tribes to distinguish people from far distances.  The ability to identify different warring tribes or hunting parties was crucial to survival.  This use of bold colors and oversized shapes has endured in African- American textiles.

Combined with that is a distinct tradition of asymmetrical patterns and improvised designs.  There are many reasons for this.  The ability to change or alternate the pattern allowed quilters to get the most use of scrap fabrics, as opposed to a repeating pattern, that required specific colors in set quantities.

More importantly, breaks in patterns held  great symbolism for African cultures.  A break in pattern could symbolize rebirth in the power of the wearer or creator of the quilt.  Pattern breaks were also believed to keep away evil.  It was believed that evil traveled in a straight line, and by breaking the pattern, evil spirits would become confused and be slowed down.  Improvising the patterning also ensured that the pattern could not be copied, and gave the creator and owner and strong sense of ownership and creativity.

Pictorial Quilt by Harriet Powers. Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, via WikiMedia Commons.

Pictorial Quilt by Harriet Powers. Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, via WikiMedia Commons.

Once in the United States, African quilts took on even more meaning.  Many women would create story quilts, in which they would applique pictures onto their quilts.  By doing this, they could record their family history- like a photo album- or tell a story in pictures. One of the most famous women to create story quilts was a freed slave named Harriet Powers.  In 1896, she created an intricately-crafted quilt which she entitled “Bible Quilt”, depicting several Biblical stories.  In 1898, she crafted the “Pictorial Quilt”, illustrating three rows of Bible stories, historical events, and significant weather anomalies.  The “Pictorial Quilt” now hangs at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and the “Bible Quilt” is housed at the Smithsonian Institution.

Few examples of African- American quilting tradition have survived through the years.  They were considered necessities rather than luxuries, and most were worn out.  However, men and women of African descent have kept the essence of the traditions alive, and are illustrated in pieces such as this quilt from the 1950s.  What was once  simply a functional piece of bedding, we know know is artistry to be preserved and celebrated. [Carrie Klein, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]

Additional Resources:

Hicks, Kyra E.  Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003.

Lyons, Mary E.  Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers.  New York: Scribner’s Sons; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.

Wahlman, Maude.  Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts.  Atlanta, GA: Tinwood, 2001.

Wilson, Sule Greg.  African American Quilting: The Warmth of Tradition.  New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 1999.

Object: Insignia


United States
Mid-19th to early 20th Century
Materials: Metal/Paint/Enamel

This object is an insignia pin for the 10th Cavalry of the United States Army.  It was used to distinguish the members of the regiment.  The 10th Cavalry was formed in the summer of 1866 as part of the Army Reorganization Act, which was enacted to rebuild the United States Army after the Civil War.

Liberators of Cuba, soldiers of the 10th Cavalry after the Spanish-American War. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Liberators of Cuba, soldiers of the 10th Cavalry after the Spanish-American War. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Civil War had depleted the troops, and the Army needed to replenish their numbers for a peacetime military.  As part of their reorganization, the Army created six regiments of black soldiers- two cavalry and four infantry– approved by Congress.   These regiments consisted entirely of enlisted black men, but were led by white officers.

Many of the men who joined these regiments had served during the Civil War and were farmers, bakers, painters, and many other occupations.  However, the military offered an opportunity for social and economic advancement.  As soldiers, these men earned $13 a month, along with food, clothing, and shelter- much more than their other jobs offered.

The 10th Cavalry was formed in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and was commanded by Colonel Benjamin Grierson.  Their biggest assignment was to aid in westward expansion and protect American settlements.  Tasked with keeping order, they were often confronted with raids by bands of numerous Native American tribes, who were growing more and more desperate due to buffalo- their main food source- going extinct from sport hunting by white settlers and soldiers.

Fighting bravely in over one hundred battles against the Native tribes, even when outnumbered, soldiers like those in the 10th Cavalry earned the respect of tribal leaders.  To the tribes, the soldiers’ hair was thick and curly, like that of a buffalo, and the American Indians believed the soldiers were brave like a buffalo, so began calling the black soldiers “Buffalo Soldiers.”  It was a term of respect toward what they considered a valiant opponent in battle.  The symbol of the buffalo became the regiment’s official insignia in 1922.

Besides their contributions in battle, the soldiers of the 10th Cavalry, as well as the other buffalo soldier regiments, had countless accomplishments.  Constantly subjected to racial prejudice, and making due with cast-offs like aging horses and worn out equipment from more prestigious regiments, the buffalo soldiers carried out missions that were vital to America’s success.

In 1871, the 10th Cavalry accompanied General William T. Sherman on an inspection tour of Texas.  They were instrumental in mapping the uncharted territories of the state.  In addition, they strung thousands of miles of telegraph line, opened new roads, escorted stagecoaches and wagon trains, protected railroad crews, and were the driving force behind building and renovating dozens of frontier forts, including Fort Stockton in west Texas.

The 10th Cavalry, and all buffalo soldiers, hold an enduring legacy in American history.  Their success in the face of adversity makes them true heroes, and their contributions to the expansion of the United States can be seen throughout the stories of the American west. [Carrie Klein, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]

Additional Resources:

Christian, Garna L.  Black Soldiers in Jim Crow Texas, 1899-1917.  College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 1995.

Cox, Clinton.  The Forgotten Heroes: The Story of the Buffalo Soldiers.  New York: Scholastic, 1993.

Glass, Edward L.N.  The History of the Tenth Cavalry, 1866-1921.  Ft. Collins, CO: Old Army Press, 1972.

Leckie, William H. and Shirley A. Leckie.  The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Black Cavalry in the West.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

Object: Photographic Print

I-0014c (2)

Photographic Print
19th Century

This object is a photographic print of Richard Allen (1830-1901) a political leader in Texas. Richard Allen was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia on June 10, 1830. He was brought to Harris County in Texas, where he was owned until emancipation in 1865. While a slave he became skilled in carpentry and designed the mansion of Houston mayor Joseph R. Morris.

Depiction of a bureau agent standing between armed groups of whites and freedmen.

Depiction of a bureau agent standing between armed groups of whites and freedmen. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

After emancipation Richard Allen became a contractor and bridge builder. The first bridge to be built over Buffalo Bayou is said to have been Allen’s work. Allen first entered the political scene when he became a voter registrar, in charge of distributing and accepting voter registrations. He later became an agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands or more popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau was established by the War Department in 1865 after the end of the American Civil War. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created to help former black slaves and poor whites in the American south. After the war many communities were left in ruins. The Bureau provided food, housing, medical aid, established schools, and offered legal assistance. The people who worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau were essentially social workers. Each district would send out assistant agents to communities in the south. However, once there they were exposed to ridicule and violence from whites which included terror organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan or KKK for short was an organization founded in 1866 and in almost every southern state. The group largely rejected President Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction policies. The group ran a campaign of violence against Republicans, both black and white, hoping to reverse reconstruction and return to white supremacy in the South. 10% of black legislators who were elected during the 1867-1868 constitutional conventions were victims of violence from the KKK and some lost their lives. Due to the violence being spewed toward blacks, a movement to leave the south and head west toward Kansas became a popular.

Benjamin "Pap" Singleton

Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The movement was led by a man named Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, and the goal was to find a better life somewhere other than the south. Singleton was born a slave near Nashville, Tennessee. He was skilled in carpentry but never learned how to read or write. After attempting to escape from slavery several times he was finally successful in 1846 and headed north to Detroit using the Underground Railroad. Singleton witnessed the inequality that freedmen were facing and realized they would never get equality in the south. In 1874 Singleton founded a real estate company in the hopes of helping African Americans get land in Tennessee. This failed as many white land owners refused to bargain and sold the land for high prices. Singleton then turned his eye to Kansas, and after a few setbacks, the first wave of exodusters migrated to Kansas in 1879.

As for Richard Allen, after he led the short lived exodus movement he served as a delegate for the National Colored Men’s Convention. He also served as chairmen for black state conventions where African Americans voiced their concerns about civil rights, education, and economic issues. He became Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons once they organized in Texas. Richard Allen passed away on May 16, 1909. [Joscelynn Garcia]

Additional Sources:

Athearn, Robert G. In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879-80. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978.

Cimbala, Paul A., and Randall M. Miller. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=16387>.

Crouch, Barry A. The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Texans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Muraskin, William A. Middle-Class Blacks in a White Society: Prince Hall Freemasonry in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Lecture this weekend at ITC

Kerrvillec1949Don’t miss the Voices from the Invisible Diamonds lecture this Saturday! Former members of Negro League baseball teams in Texas will be sharing their stories. Joining the players are Damian Thomas, sports curator of the Smithsonian African American Cultural and History Museum in Washington, D.C.; and Layton Revel, founder and director of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research in Carollton, Texas, who also played a role in opening the Negro League Museum in Birmingham, Alabama.

Find out more HERE!

Object: Quilt


African American
Materials: Cloth/Thread/Cotton

This item is a quilt from ca. 1950 obtained from the estate of an African-American family living in the San Antonio area.  An appraiser from the Antiques Roadshow verified the date and ethnic origin of the quilt by its style, construction, and materials. The quilt appears to have been made using a “strip construction” technique. Strip construction uses strips of fabric cut and sewn together in bands. This method, combined with the improvisational style, is consistent with African American quilts from the 1950’s.

The origin of quilting in African-American culture is a greatly debated topic. Researchers are unsure what influenced the quilts style. They also question what purpose and function they were made for. The answers are hard to pin down because few quilts from before, during, and shortly after the Civil War survive today. Some scholars suggest that African-American quilts were influenced by traditional African weaving and textile production. In West Africa, men were traditionally the main producers of textiles. However, when enslaved Africans were transported to the United States, women became the principal makers of quilts. Some scholars point to the use of bright colors combined with pattern improvisation, asymmetrical design, and strip banding as proof of African influence in African-American quilting. They claim that strip banding in particular is similar to African weaving. They also suggest that slaves may have hid African designs and religious symbols in the quilts they created in order to preserve their African heritage. However, other scholars say those theories are the result of speculation. Instead, they believe that the time periods as well as the regions the quilts were produced in were the major influences on the design and construction of African-American quilts.

This is a photo of a former slave in her home taken in May 1941 by Jack Delano. Two quilts can be seen in the background

This is a photo of a former slave in her home taken in May 1941 by Jack Delano. Two quilts can be seen in the background. Image via: Wikimedia Commons

Another controversial topic is whether African-American quilts were used during the Civil War to conceal secret communications. Two historians, Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, suggest that a “quilt code” may have been used to assist slaves in navigating the Underground Railroad. According to their theory, a slave seamstress would sew a quilt that contained several patterns for other slaves to memorize. The seamstress would then display different quilts using those patterns to provide information to help people trying to escape. The patterns displayed may have included designs such as a wrench pattern directing them to gather tools, a wagon pattern indicating the need to pack, and a bear claw pattern directing slaves north over the Appalachian Mountains. But no verified “code quilts” exist to this day. Additionally, Tobin and Dobard obtained their information about the quilt code from only one source: an individual descended from slaves. The claims have yet to be corroborated by other individuals or oral histories.

Some of what we do know about early African-American quilting culture was obtained by the WPA during the 1930’s. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a New Deal program created to provide work relief. The WPA started the Folklore Project in order to employ out of work writers. They would gather stories from Americans who lived during major historical periods, including former slaves. In the oral histories, prior slaves could recall female family members piecing together quilts out of old clothes and scraps. More information on early African-American quilting can be found in documents about slave life. Both the WPA and written records verify that slaves made quilts for both their masters’ use as well as out of necessity for their own families. What does seem to be apparent about early quilting practices is the importance of quilting parties, or frolics. Quilting parties were integral in allowing slaves to socialize.  Informally, female slaves would gather in the evening or on Saturday afternoons to quilt and sew.  After the Civil War, quilts were made from scraps of discarded clothing and feed sacks. During the 1920’s, more and more people moved to northern cities to find work in jobs created by increased industrialization. As the years passed, African-American women were able to create quilts for enjoyment as well as need.

The Bible Quilt, created by former slave Harriet Powers circa 1886

The Bible Quilt, created by former slave Harriet Powers circa 1886. Image via: Wikimedia Commons

In 1966 a group of African-American women in Alabama established the Freedom Quilting Bee, a quilting cooperative. The group began as a way for poor women to provide for their families. It began with 150 quilters who learned their craft from their mothers and grandmothers. They would auction off their work and split the proceeds with their members. The group also provided a support network for the women of their cooperative. Their group is credited with revitalizing the popularity of quilts in American home decor during the 1960’s.

Today, African-American quilts are artistic as well as functional and can be found in both homes and museums. A list of museums that exhibit African-American quilts can be found here. Despite the controversy of its origins and influences, what is clear about the African-American quilting tradition is that it is a mix of cultural influences and traditions that can be seen in quilts made today. [Ashton Meade, edited by Joscelynn Garcia]

Additional Resources:

Beardsley, John. Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2002.

Brackman, Barbara. Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery. Lafayette: C&T Publishing, 2006.

Brackman, Barbara. Making History: Quilts & Fabric From 1890-1970. Lafayette: C&R Publishing, 2008.

Callahan, Nancy. The Freedom Quilting Bee: Folk Art and the Civil Rights Movement. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1987.

Object: Record

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Record, Phonograph
Diana Ross and the Supremes with the Temptations
Materials: Paper/Ink/Plastic

This object is a 33-rpm record album stored in the original record jacket for T.C.B. featuring music from the television special of the same name. T.C.B. stands for ‘Taking Care of Business’ and aired December 9, 1968 on NBC.  This was the first of two television specials that starred Diana Ross and the Supremes with the Temptations. The broadcast was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Electronic Production. The record of the original soundtrack knocked the Beatles out of the number #1 LP sales slot.

From the left: Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Cindy Birdsong; December 22, 1967

From the left: Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Cindy Birdsong; December 22, 1967. Via Wikimedia Commons

Diana Ross (born Diane Earle), Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard met while living in Detroit’s Brewster housing project.  Due to segregation, African-Americans were obligated to live in separate parts of the city from Anglo-American citizens, often in unsafe conditions. In response to the need for safer housing, Brewster Homes broke ground in 1933 as the first federally funded housing project for African-Americans. The original property featured several town-homes. Eventually in the 1950’s the homes were converted into six towers called the Frederick-Douglass Towers with 14 stories each. The initial process to approve residency was highly selective. Residents were required to meet a number of requirements like income standards and marital status. However, as early as the 1960’s the process became less rigid. As more people moved to the suburbs and as racial tensions increased, the Brewster projects fell into decline. They experienced high levels of drug and criminal activity. The buildings themselves started to fall apart. By 2008 the towers were no longer occupied by any residents and in 2014 the buildings were torn down.

After meeting, the girls formed a quartet, first including Betty McGlown and then Barbara Martin as teenagers. The group was named The Primettes because they started as a sister act to The Primes. Two members of The Primes, Eddie Kendrichs and Paul Williams, later formed the Temptations. Originally, Florence Ballard was the lead singer of the Primettes. However, as time moved on, it was Diana Ross who eventually became the leader the group.

The Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show, May 1, 1966

The Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show, May 1, 1966. Via Wikimedia Commons

The girls had their big break in January of 1961 when the group signed with an all black-owned record label, Motown Records.  They changed their name to the Supremes, and by 1964, they had received 7 gold records. Their tenth release “Where Did Our Love Go?” sold 2 million copies and became their first number one hit in the summer of 1964. The same year, they topped the charts with their songs “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me”. In fact, the group had 5 U.S. number one hits in a row between 1964 and 1965.

The Supremes were the most commercially successful female group and among the top 5 pop/rock/soul acts of the 1960’s.  They were the first group to have 5 consecutive records reach the top of the bestseller charts. During this decade the Civil Rights Movement was at its height and the Supremes were embraced as a symbol of African American achievement. They appeared multiple times on mainstream TV with guest appearances on the Tonight Show. In 1967 the group released “Reflections,” the first song to be credited with the groups new name, Diana Ross and the Supremes.

In 1969, Diana Ross left to start her solo career. She starred in several films, including Lady Sings the Blues in 1972, Mahogany in 1974, and the Wiz in 1984. In 1972, she won a Grammy for Top Female Singer and later was named female entertainer of the year. The Supremes last top 40 single after Ross left was “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking” in 1976. Diana Ross and the Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. No Motown act matched their success and Diana Ross and the Supremes were the second most successful singing group of their decade, next to the Beatles. [Ashton Meade, edited by Joscelynn Garcia]

Additional Resources:

Osborne, Richard. Vinyl A History of the Analogue Record. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012.

Rudinow, Joel. Soul Music Tracking the Spiritual Roots of Pop from Plato to Motown. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010

Smith, Suzanne E. Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Object: Cabin

Sharecropper’s Cabin
African American
United States of America
Early 20th Century (1900)
Materials: Wood, Newspaper, Tin

This artifact at the Institute of Texan Cultures is a sharecropper’s cabin. Constructed out of simple materials around 1900, the cabin most likely served as a residence for a tenant farmer and his or her family. It’s a simple home with two rooms, windows with no glass, a tin roof and a front porch. While in the past it was someone’s home, today it stands as an example of a practice that flourished in the American South for decades.

What is sharecropping?


Sharecroppers in Georgia 1888. Image via britannica.com

Sharecropping is an agricultural system where a landowner allows a farm worker (also known as a tenant farmer) to rent and use the land in exchange for a share of the expected crop production. This system of agriculture became a standard in the American South after the American Civil War. The large, newly freed African American population, were suddenly in need of employment and landowners (often former plantation-owners) were in need of employees to farm their lands.

In the Reconstruction Era that followed the American Civil War, many freedmen and their families migrated into the northern United States and Canada in hope of a better life. However, for those who remained in the South, the business of rebuilding after a devastating war was fraught with uncertainty. Usually unable to read or write, many former slaves chose to return to the work that they had practiced before the Civil War—manual labor in agriculture—in order to provide for themselves and their families.


Diagram of Sharecropper Cycle. Image via pixgood.com

How does sharecropping work?

A landowner or landlord and the tenant farmer come to an agreement. The landowner allows the farmer to work and grow crops—usually cotton— on their property, and in exchange the landowner claims a portion of the crop that has been produced (usually a third or half of the yearly yield). For their hard work, the tenant farmer would usually be able to live on the property and receive their own portion of the crop for their use as they saw fit. The landowner provides the tenant farmer with initial supplies: seeds, farming equipment such as a plow, etc. The farmer tends to the fields, and at the end of the year the crop is divided between the two parties.

This system doesn’t sound like a bad deal! Is it fair?

While the system sounds fair, in a majority of cases the tenant farmers were at a large disadvantage. Landowners often took advantage of the tenant farmers in various ways. One popular method involved providing the necessary agricultural supplies at a cost to the farmer. If the farmer could not afford to pay for the start-up supplies, they were given on a line of credit with high interest rates. At the end of the year, the landowners would not only take their portion of the crops but also collect on the interest. If the interest was very high and the tenant farmer could not pay it back, he had to work extra hard to cover the costs for years to come. This often trapped the tenant farmer in a cycle of poverty as they worked to pay the landowner back. Sharecroppers of all races and backgrounds were at the mercy of the landowner. Sometimes, the tenant farmers even had to pay rent on the homes they lived in― this sharecropper’s cabin at the Institute of Texan Cultures reflects one of the many styles of housing used as a sharecropper’s home.

Was sharecropping a big deal in Texas?

ghost town

Abandoned Home near Novasota, Texas featured in the Novasota Current.

After the American Civil War, many recently freed men migrated to Texas hoping to settle their own land. With the majority of its farmland intact, Texas became the de facto leader in cotton production of the United States. East Texas had a very good climate for cotton and by the turn of the 20th century some figures estimate that Texas cotton produced almost one third of America’s cotton supply. To meet the employment needs, many African Americans and Hispanic Americans flocked to the East Texas area where cotton production was at its peak.

In the 1920’s, four brothers named Clarence, Steve, Tom and Harry Moore bought land near the Navasota area slightly north of Houston, Texas. In the process of constructing a thriving cotton business, the Moore brothers used a sharecropping system that employed African Americans, prison labor, and even German prisoners of war during World War II. After years of successful operations, Thomas Moore donated the cabin to the Institute of Texan Cultures and it was moved to its current location in 1979. Though it’s unknown as to whether the Moore Brothers constructed the cabin or if the cabin came with the property when they purchased it, this little house stands today as a testament to a large chapter in American agricultural history. [Caira Spenrath, Edited by Jennifer McPhail]

Additional Resources:
Byres, Terence J. 1983. Sharecropping and sharecroppers. London [etc.]: Frank Cass.

Conrad, David Eugene. 1965. The forgotten farmers; the story of sharecroppers in the New Deal. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hanania, Denisa Nickell. 2013. The sharecroppers.

Wilkison, Kyle Grant. 2008. Yeomen, sharecroppers, and Socialists: plain folk protest in Texas, 1870-1914. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.

Object: Forage cap


Forage cap
African American
United States
Date: 1889-1895
Materials: Felt, leather, brass


Photo via: U.S. Army Military History Institute, nps.gov

This item is an 1889 model of a Buffalo Soldier forage cap. It has an attached 1872 model brass cavalry insignia that shows two crossed swords. Above the swords is the regimental number 9, and below the swords is the troop letter, F. Buffalo Soldiers belonged to one of two regiments, the Ninth United States Cavalry or the Tenth United States Cavalry. The regimental number 9 means that this cap was used for the Ninth United States Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Edward Hatch of Iowa. The two regiments were divided into a number of smaller troops. The troop letter F means that this cap was used by a soldier in Troop F, led by Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt in Fort Davis, Texas.

In 1866, the United States Congress authorized two regiments of African American cavalry, the Ninth United States Cavalry and the Tenth United States Cavalry, to be added to the United States army. For the first time in the history of the United States, African Americans were able to join the army during peacetime. The term ‘Buffalo Soldier’ was given to these two cavalry regiments by the Plains Indians since the hair of these soldiers appeared similar to a bison’s curly black hair. The term caught on with the soldiers themselves, and they eventually added a bison to their regimental crest.

Following the Civil War many African American men joined the army, seeing it as an opportunity for advancement. As soldiers they were fed, clothed, sheltered and earned $13 per month. Initially, white officers were reluctant to lead a regiment of African American men, believing that they would be obstinate and difficult to manage. Once the white officers were in place, they soon found that their fears were misplaced. The degree of drunkenness and desertion of African American regiments was far lower than white units.


Photo via: Robert Wooster; Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers Number 34. 1990.

The Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at a variety of posts in Texas from 1866 to 1890. The Ninth United States Calvary was ordered to western and southwestern Texas in 1867 to protect the area between the Rio Grande and Concho Rivers from Native American attacks. Troop F, along with troops C, D, G, H and I, were under Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt in Fort Davis. Fort Davis was situated on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and the Chihuahua Trail. Its location allowed for greater ease in controlling activities on the Mescalero Apache war trails and the Great Comanche war trail during the American Indian Wars, a period when Native Americans were being forcibly removed from their land.

The motto of the Ninth United States Cavalry was, “We Can, We Will.” This motto truly guided the regiment as they carried out a variety of assignments. The soldiers protected the frontier, recovering livestock, capturing horse thieves and serving justice. They restored a number of forts, built roads, hung thousands of miles of telegraph lines and escorted stagecoaches, wagons, mail parties, survey parties, railroad trains and railroad crews. The soldiers even partook in frontier campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Ninth United States Calvary overcame prejudice on the frontier and were greatly respected for their hard work and contributions. [Lauren Thompson, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]

Additional Resources:

Glasrud, Bruce A. 2011. Brothers to the Buffalo Soldiers perspectives on the African American militia and volunteers, 1865-1917. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Kenner, Charles L. 1999. Buffalo soldiers and officers of the Ninth Cavalry, 1867-1898 black & white together. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Leckie, William H. 1999. The Buffalo Soldiers: A narrative of Negro Cavalry in the West. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Odintz, Mark. “Buffalo Soldiers” The Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association.

Ramos, Mary G. The Buffalo Soldiers of Texas: Texas Almanac 1990–1991. Texas State Historical Association.

The TARL Blog

Experimenting with collections access since 2013

Museum Anthropology

Experimenting with collections access since 2013

Center for the Future of Museums

Experimenting with collections access since 2013


Experimenting with collections access since 2013

Smithsonian Collections Blog

Experimenting with collections access since 2013

Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

Exploring the digital humanities

ethnology @ snomnh

experimenting with social microexhibitions since 2007

%d bloggers like this: