Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Frank Hamer: An amazing record of race objectivity and professional integrity...
It was great when a friend showed me the October, 2011 American Rifleman Magazine, to see that Texas Ranger legend Frank Hamer is slowly but surely getting the recognition he deserves. It may be ironic then that people here in Navasota still refuse to recognize him. Perhaps now we have a chance to change that.
Since I have begun to meet many tourists who visit Navasota at our blues museum, I have run into at least two writers working on books about this real life hero. Hal Herring is one of them, and he has already published a chapter about Hamer in his book called Famous Firearms of the American West. Currently planning a book on three of the Hamer brothers who served as Rangers, Herring writes that Frank Hamer “was among the most ferocious and dogged lawmen of any age, in any nation.” Like the American Rifleman article, the focus of Herring’s chapter was on the famous lawman’s marksmanship and weaponry, which was second to none. But I’ll bet nobody ever does an article about his feet, even though eye-witnesses insisted he used them much more often to subdue lawbreakers.
There have been numerous accounts of Frank Hamer’s life, but none offer more intimate and interesting details than those gleaned by Glen Alyn from Mance Lipscomb. In an excruciatingly detailed and faithful biography of the famed Texas bluesman called I Say Me for a Parable, Alyn concentrated a whole chapter around the relationship between young Mance and his idol, the young Marshal who came to clean up the town, whom he remembered as “Charlie Hayman.” Mance was getting along in years and was depending on the memories of his youth, around the turn of the Century, and consistent with the book, he recalled names and dates through a muddy lens. Referring to Hamer and his deputy Bailey, Mance consistently dubbed them “Hayman” and “Bailiff.”
He was quite possibly offering a little protection according to Alyn, from those who might not approve. Mance considered the big Texas Ranger as a close personal friend, and it is possible that he knew that any kind remarks he might have about the Ranger, even in the 70’s, might have put him in a bad light with many racist whites. And Alyn saw firsthand that they were still a formidable reality, in Mance's part of the world.
Still, the size, temperament and talent that Mance described in detail could be no other than Frank Hamer. Frank Hamer was indeed a Texas Ranger before he came to Navasota in 1908. Appeals from citizens and the Navasota City Council got action from the Governor who sent for the best Ranger available. Although Mance recalled that he was just nine years old, he was more likely around 11, when his mother released him from the cotton fields to drive the buggy for “the baddest man ever been here.”
In this case bad meant good, as Mance told how the Marshal checked on planters to make sure they were not abusing their field hands, and treatment of blacks improved. When one nosey farmer teased Hamer about hiring Mance when he should have been working in the fields, the Marshal was quick to intimidate him into apologizing. Mance quoted the Marshal in his own, somewhat colorful dialect... “He doin' what I want ‘im ta do, and he aint gonna plow til he quit driven roun’ an openin’ these gates fur me.”
Mance remembered how they would stop sometimes and just listen to the cotton pickers as they sang, and sometimes they put on quite a show. Once when a cotton planter came out to see what was going on, Hamer gave him notice… “Landowner, how you treatin’ these fellas?” ( Mance spoke again in his own dialect…) ”An you know all this lynchin'? An all this colored beatin’s? Knockin’ em in the head? You know, I come here to stop all that…”
Mance told Alyn in detail how the Ranger used his feet when a suspect might slow down on the way to the jail… “He’d kick ‘em from here yonda to yo car. He’s a big man enough to do it. Strong enough to do it… When you git tired of him kickin’ you, why, you done got to the jailhouse. He’ll let you rest awhile from here to that car. Turn around an’- he was a man, he could kick you down. But if he hit ya, he knock you down. .. One lick, you goin’ down…”
Mance spoke of these incidents like it was a daily affair, something he had witnessed countless times, and quoting Hamer again as he finally brought a criminal to the jail door, “Well, git in…. I said git in! I done kickt you all the way up here. I don’t wanta kick you in the jail. I want you ta walk in there free.”
“Then he go down the street, whistlin’. Lookin’ for somebody else…”
One can easily see old Mance smilin’ as he declared “…Man, he was the purdiest white man I ever laid eyes on… He had the eyes of a eagle. .. he could shoot a gun better’n inybody ever been in this county…”
Hamer, then only about twenty four years old, had already been in several life or death shoot-outs with dangerous killers, and had busted numerous cattle rustlers. But from Lipscomb's account, he far preferred to use force without using guns. Hamer had already done his share of killing, and avoided it if he could. For two years, he kept the little black boy entranced with his recollections of chasing cattle rustlers and banditos.
As Mance gathered a lifetime of lawman stories, the youngster also got out of hard labor as he drove for Marshal "Hayman," and as he fetched for him and set up his shooting targets and opened gates and generally tormented the jealous white folks for two years. Mance remembered “Charlie Hayman” as a generous boss, who even indulged him. Although many people might make assumptions about Frank Hamer’s attitudes towards race, according to Mance Lipscomb, he was not the typical Texas lawman, in fact its antithesis.
Hamer was born in a west Texas family of German immigrant stock, and Germans had little patience for the racial injustices of the South. But Mance shared another reason as he is quoted in Alyn’s book, quoting the young Ranger…
“Now look. A colored man was the best friend I ever had in my life. Listen, I don’t want ya’ll ta be mistreatin’ these colored folk. Cause I been a Ranger. A colored man pickt me up, while the Carr boys shot me down. Shot my guts out, and left me layin’ there. An a colored man come along, and my guts was hangin’ out. An’ toted me, an rested, and carried me to a hospital,. An’ let 'em wash that sand off my guts, and sewed me up, and I’m livin’ today… I want y’all to be surer than hell respect ‘em.”
Hamer was remembered as an equal opportunity enforcer. Once, according to Mance, a white woman begged for the Marshal to let her husband out of jail so he could sleep in his own bed and Hamer refused, saying he had to stay in jail all night. The woman said the Marshal was mean, and insisted her husband was after all, a white man! And deserved to be treated as such.
Lipscomb must have cherished what the young Marshal said next, for the rest of his life: “Yeah, that’s what’s a madda with this town: White. I’m a white man, but I’m doin’ my job. He kin come out in the mownin’. But he caint git out with no amount of money that you offer me. Cause money don’t buy me. I’m already bought, to take this here position. Now you come down in the mownin’ bout nine O'clock, I might let im out fur nothin’. But he gonna be in there til tomarra.”
Lipscomb gave Marshal Hamer credit for leveling the playing field for blacks. “Boy, he cooled that town down. Po colored folks was scared ta meet white folks on the street… ‘bout bein’ around ‘im, cause they was white and they was niggas, they don’t wanta touch up against no white folks. But them white folks commenced to letting the colored folks git by. Give some room fur them. But wadn no room fur nobody but whites until he come there… Man, not nary another colored man was lyncht after he tuck the job bein’ a Ranger there.”
It is impossible to gauge the impact this friendship had on either person, but it must have given Mance hope and inspiration, and the heart to sing his songs, no matter the fear of reprisal. Marshal Hamer had been the first ray of hope since the White man’s Union had murdered several black elected officials in 1900 and seriously wounded and ran their popular white Sheriff off for good. Soon a cunning underworld started to conspire against the young Marshal, making threats and even trying to assassinate him, as they had done uncooperative lawmen in the past. After three butt-kicking years taming Navasota, Hamer wisely took a new job in Houston, where he eventually wore out his welcome with the corrupt bankers there.
He soon exposed their thinly veiled murder for hire racket, inadvertantly created while trying to shut down Houston bank robbers. Hamer proved that bounty hunters were setting up stooges and killing them to collect the generous rewards.
Regardless of the odds against him, Frank Hamer stood up time and time again for what was right. He was sent as a Ranger all over the state, wherever there was big trouble. Oil boom towns were his specialty, and he made a lasting impression at Mexia, Borger, and other hot spots where organized crime brought in bootleggers and prostitutes and gambling dens. The no-nonsense west Texas cowboy always seemed surprised when certain "special" segments of society demanded special consideration. To Hamer, the law was the law, and anybody, no matter how rich or powerful or white they were, who broke the law, was merely a lawbreaker, and treated as such.
This dangerous objectivity, especially racial objectivity, was later demonstrated when Captain Frank Hamer was serving Texas on the Mexican border. Texas based gun-runners had convinced Austin politicians that illegally selling arms to bandit Pancho Villa was a necessary, if not profitable evil, and soon the Rangers were getting suggestions through the grapevine to put on the correct show, but to leave those helping the Mexican Revolution alone. But Hamer told his men to enforce the law. Next Hamer saw most of the men he had gradually reassigned, to other parts of Texas. He was left almost to himself to police thousands of miles of west Texas trails, which were becoming a network of contraband traffic.
The resourceful Captain Hamer just shrugged it off and crossed the Rio Grande. Soon the legendary Ranger was working in cooperation with the Mexican police, who were more than glad to have his talent and help. Hamer constantly used creative solutions to fight crime, and later this flexibility came in handy in getting Mexican cooperation in foiling "The Plan of San Diego," a Mexician born conspiracy to recapture the American Southwest. In 1920 he was photographed along with his men for a magazine article, once again working with Mexican authorities, this time to curb the bootlegging of Mexican liquor into south Texas.
Over and over, Frank Hamer fought some of the most dangerous and powerful underworld cartels in Texas. If criminals despised him, the corrupt and powerful loathed him. In his controversial career, Hamer was known to challenge governors, bankers, even other policemen, if they were hindering or breaking the law.
But the Sherman riots of 1930 are probably the most telling about Frank Hamer’s race convictions. The County Seat of Grayson County, Sherman was the scene of one of the most outrageous race conflicts in American history. The May, 1930 Literary Digest called it a "wild orgy of venomous hate and frenzied violence..." A black man named George Hughes had been arrested and charged with rape of a white woman. He denied raping her, but had confessed to her assault, over wages owed him, and when the trial required his victim to be brought into the courthouse on a stretcher, the crowd outside became violent. Soon the word got out, and a huge vigilante mob formed outside of the courthouse. In their minds there was no need for a trial.
As usual, Ranger Captain Frank Hamer was sent into the most dangerous and unpredictable situations. He and three other Rangers discreetly entered a pot of heated tempers that was about to boil over. Advising the Judge to get a change of venue, Hamer and his few men braced themselves to keep the peace. Mance Lipscomb quipped that he was a true PEACE officer, and most others were just piece officers.
True to his character, Hamer once again found it necessary to stand against the growing tide. Unfortunately, the locals overheard the discussion about changing venue, and decided to act very forcefuly before their prey was snatched beyond their reach. A large mob broke down the double doors in the hallway Hamer and his Rangers drew their guns down on the crowd as they tried to overtake the courtroom. They were able to bluff the crowd outside, temporarily, at the point of their guns and the use of tear gas.
After the halls were cleared of troublemakers, the court tried to proceed, a fatal mistake, to allow the judge to affix punishment. But the crowd came back like a tsunami, and the jury had to be dismissed, and the Rangers began to use tear gas once again to repel the rioters. When this did not work, and more Shermanites rushed up the stairs, Captain Hamer fired his shotgun, wounding two men, according to his own reports. This seemed to make the vigilantes more afraid of the Rangers, who had been rumoured to be under orders from the Governor not to fire on civiliians. Frank Hamer settled that question.
Hamer and his men took position inside the second story of the courthouse, outnumbered 500 - 1. They had to continuously threaten the mob, and pushed them back again with tear gas. When one leader of the mob announced that he was coming up to get the prisoner, Hamer told him to do so any time he felt lucky, but that if they came up the stairway one more time, there would be many funerals in Sherman. Still the rioters beat on the doors and climbed through the courthouse windows. The suspect had been locked away, by order of the Judge, in a large steel safe in the County Clerk's office to protect him in case the Rangers were overtaken. When a throng of men once more busted through the doors of the courthouse, the Grayson County Sheriff and his deputies fled, and Hamer and his men fired their guns, once in the air, warning the mob to get back. This was a moment of truth...
But the moment did not last long. Hamer and his men were finally forced to leave their post when Sherman youths threw rocks through the windows and spread gasoline and sent the first floor up in flames. The Shermanites burned their own courthouse down, in retaliation for not having their way. And they finally got what they wanted.
This is one of very few times, perhaps the only case in American history from this era, when white police stood up to, and fought off white people in defense of a black prisoner. Later, the Rangers regrouped, and Captain Hamer phoned the Governor's office. As he tried to place his call, he even heard the phone operator speaking satisfaction that the courthouse had been torched. Meanwhile the charred lifeless body of George Hughes was extricated by cutting torches and dynamite and dragged through the city and hung, followed by perhaps 2,000 (some reports said 5000)onlookers. Sherman was one town that would not ever be tamed... except perhaps by its own shame.
When, in other similar instances lawmen stepped aside rather than draw the wrath of a Texas lynch mob, Frank Hamer was impartial and steadfastly professional. And yet, this great man, respected by Hollywood western stars, historians and the people he defended, has never been honored by the erection of a statue commemorating his stellar service. If there ever was a man, black or white, that was the vanguard in the last Century for equal justice under the law, and the impartial enforcement of law and order, with authentic first hand sources to prove it, it was our own town Marshal, Frank Hamer, whose story is yet to be told. And it started right here in Navasota.