Austin College Trustee P.B. Hill made it clear to all those who would
listen. On a disgraceful day in Sherman, TX with very few heroes, one
exception was his friend and fellow Texas Ranger Frank Hamer.
It was true.
The 1930 lynching of Mr. George Hughes by the citizens of Sherman was
one of the most outrageous acts by any community in Texas history.
Hughes, an African American, had been unfairly accused of a crime. The
rumors that began to spread, combined with the knowledge that Hughes was
being tried downtown, led to an ever-growing mob presence. Frank Hamer
was dispatched to defuse it.
Hamer’s arrival briefly helped.
He announced that unless the crowd dispersed, many of Sherman’s citizens
might be going home in body bags. He fired warning shots to keep the
crowd at bay. At first the tactics seemed to work, as no resident had
any desire to take on Frank Hamer and his deputies. But there was one
enemy that Hamer could not fight. Fire.
Sherman citizens burned
their own courthouse down. Hamer’s men attempted to douse the flames,
but locals cut the hoses of firefighters. Hughes, locked in a vault
inside for his own safety, suffocated on the smoke. Residents spent
hours working to extract his body, before parading it around town in a
macabre spectacle seen in every lynching. The Governor of Texas
declared martial law in Sherman and Hamer departed, noting that “he had
never been so disgusted in anyone more than [the citizens of] Sherman.”
The recent movie “The Highwaymen” tells the story of Bonnie & Clyde
from the perspective of Frank Hamer, the man who ended the criminal run
of the famous pair in May of 1934. Hamer was ably played by Kevin
Costner. The ties of Bonnie & Clyde to Austin College &
Sherman, TX were so great that I turned the story into a Roo Tale last
spring, complete with clips from the movie. The tale was prompted by
the writing of a number of Roos, including Ruth Nuckols Cox Williamson, Tom Nuckols, Claude Webb Jr., and Dr. Light Cummins.
Claude’s mention of the book “I’m Frank Hamer” led me to my own copy;
within it, the story of Hamer’s time with the Texas Rangers during World
War 1 is told from the perspective of the famous Texas Ranger.
Just weeks after the deaths of Bonnie & Clyde, an editorial appeared
in a national newspaper lauding the efforts of Frank Hamer, the hero
who had taken out the outlaw bandits. The author, an acquaintance of
Hamer, criticizes press coverage of the final shootout and reviews
Hamer’s past with the Texas Rangers. One particular incident was
mentioned in detail: the 1918 events in a sleepy border town called
“’I never could get Frank Hamer to talk about the fight
at El Porvenir, a deserted bunch of adobes – a ghost town – on the Rio
Grande. He took two other rangers in there on the tip that two
outlaw-killers were holed up among the shacks. In place of two, they
bumped into 16, all notorious smugglers in a gang that had killed more
than one border patrolman. The outlaws opened fire. Hours later the
rangers rode out, all wounded, but behind in the shacks and streets of
El Porvenir they left 16 dead outlaws and Texas had 16 fewer ‘problems’
for criminal-coddlers to worry over.’”
The editorial author made
it clear to all those who would listen. On a late summer’s day in
Porvenir, TX with very few heroes, one exception was his friend and
fellow Texas Ranger Frank Hamer.
It was all a lie.
night of January 28th, 1918, Texas Rangers entered the town of Porvenir.
They awoke the families, separated 15 men and older boys from the
rest, and ordered them to march just outside of town. There, the 15
were executed in cold blood.
The Mexican revolution broke out in
1910, and contributed to an increasingly chaotic border for most of the
decade. The Rangers were responding in January 1918 to a crime in a
neighboring community when they arrived that night at Porvenir. There
is zero evidence that the residences of Porvenir were guilty or even
aware of the recent crime. There is ample evidence that the Texas
Rangers were motivated by retribution based on racial animus. Porvenir,
which means “future” in Spanish, became a Texas Rangers “My Lai.”
And now, there’s a film about Porvenir. Even more amazing? The film
was written and directed by an Austin College Kangaroo family.
The PBS documentary “Porvenir, Texas” is the creation of Andrew Shapter,
a writer and filmmaker who sadly passed away earlier this year.
Andrew’s spouse Christina Fernandez Shapter
produced the film; Christina was an Austin College Kangaroo in the
early 1990s with me. A review of Shapter’s prior work is an incredible
testament to the passion he brought to his craft. I did not know
Andrew, but those with whom I’ve spoken have mentioned their awe about
the man and his work.
The movie was released on September 20th,
2019; I watched that same day. It is very well done, and is recommended
viewing for those interested in Texas history. The film officially
celebrates its release tomorrow, October 1st, at the Paramount Theatre
in Austin not far from the State Capitol. The movie goes into detail
about the aftermath of the Porvenir Massacre at that very Capitol.
Representative J.T. Canales, the lone Texas legislator of Hispanic
descent in 1918, courageously decided to hold hearings to bring the
actions of the Texas Rangers to light. He feared for his life, with
good reason. One Texas Ranger made death threats against him, and
stalked the lawmaker around the city of Austin brandishing his pistol.
Canales bravely went forward with the hearings anyway, and mentioned the
Texas Ranger by name. His name was Frank Hamer.
spouse Joe Holley wrote a piece in the Houston Chronicle last spring
about “The Highwaymen.” In it, Holley discusses the history of the
Texas Rangers along the border:
“[Monica Munoz] Martinez, author
of “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas” and
co-founder of the nonprofit organization Refusing to Forget, insists
that our infatuation with the myth blinds us to the Rangers’ history of
racial violence against ethnic Mexicans, African Americans and Native
Americans. “‘The Highwaymen,’” she wrote in the Post, ‘threatens to
further this mythology at precisely the moment when many in Texas are
beginning to grapple with this appalling history.’”
“It’s a story
that needs to be told — and is being told by Martinez and her group in
their books and research and by former Texas Land Commissioner Jerry
Patterson. He’s the producer of “Porvenir Texas,” an upcoming
documentary about an early-20th-century border massacre that involved
While writing the Bonnie & Clyde Roo Tale last
spring, I came across this sordid past of Hamer during his time with the
Rangers. Little did I know that an incredible Austin College family
was at that time working on a film exploring the very topic.
Texas is Hispanic. Mexican families in Texas have generations that go
back well before the 1820s when the namesake of Austin College first
arrived. The US has more Spanish speakers than either Spain or
Columbia; thanks to Austin College and Shelton Williams directed study abroad opportunities in Spain & Mexico, I count myself as one of them.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to the victims
of lynching in the United States such as Mr. Hughes, opened in 2018.
There, Americans can reflect on past injustices such as the Sherman Riot
of 1930. In the movie “Porvenir, Texas,” descendants of the Porvenir
Massacre ask that Texans do something similar:
survived a massacre, and by him surviving the massacre, I’m here. At
least a letter from the government in the state of Texas saying ‘we’re
sorry’ to the families, the surviving families.”
– Dan Mesa, descendant
Christina, thank you for your family and for this movie. Andrew’s body of work is incredible; Dianne
and I plan to take all of it in over time. I know this year has been
extremely difficult. I hope time heals all wounds, and slowly brings
your family a more joyful porvenir.