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Special Collections & University Archives: African American History & Heritage

Welcome to our LibGuide! Use the pages here to learn more about our department and research collections.

Our African American Heritage & Black History in the RGV

Our African American History & Heritage Research Guide

IMPORTANT: Some materials in the collections and resources provided contain offensive and racist language and/or imagery, especially in depictions of enslaved people, African Americans, Black Americans, and other people of color. These harmful and racist perspectives are not representative of the beliefs of the University, library, or staff. It is our hope that our research guide provides historical context rather than perpetuates negative positions, language, values, and stereotypes.

Summary & Background

Historically, the Black and African American communities in Rio Grande Valley have been small and tightly-knit (see McAllen Monitor, 1999). The first people of indigenous African descent arrived in the Rio Grande Valley region as enslaved people. During the period prior to and directly following the U.S. Civil War, they began to arrive as freed men and women and established themselves as farmers and ranchers, including the Jackson, Webber, and Biddy families. Later Black Americans would arrive as members of the U.S. military, teachers, farmworkers, rail road workers, and other trades people--all seeking new opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley.

Throughout these historic periods of migration to the Valley, Black and African American people were subject to racial hierarchy as codified law and practice. As in the rest of the American South, Jim Crow and sustained racial discrimination, segregation, humiliation, hostility, and violence toward African and Black Americans has been documented in the RGV from first hand accounts, newspapers, historic research, court records, and more. 

The purpose of this guide is to focus on resistance, resilience, and perseverance among our Black and African American communities in the RGV, which began as early settlers, like Silvia Hector Webber, resisted slavery, secured her own freedom, and aided other enslaved people seeking southern passage to Mexico. The conflicts at Fort Ringgold and Fort Brown further demonstrate of the resistance of decorated soldiers to racial degradation and discrimination. Local Juneteenth Celebrations held publicly since 1996 also highlight the imperative of not only commemorating the end of slavery but also honoring and memorializing the achievements of Black people in the Valley to ensure their heritage remains our history.

Early Black and African American Communities

Topics in Black and African American History

Early Historical Overview

The first Black people arrived as enslaved Africans to the area that would become Texas, Mexico, and the United States.

Enslaved and free Black people came with Spanish exploring expeditions first as soldiers and later as settlers. They would become African Tejanos accounting for 15% of the non-native population of Spanish Texas by the end of the 18th century. Soon after Mexico won its independence from Spain (1823) and abolished slavery (1829), starting a wave of Black Americans migrating south and seeking freedom. However, Mexican Texas was granted exception and slavery continued well after Texas became its own Republic. Texas not only prohibited free Black people from coming to the republic, limited the emancipation of enslaved people, and restricted the rights of freedmen. (Barr, p. 7-11)

While the vast majority of Black and African American people arriving in Texas between the 1830s and the U.S. Civil War were also enslaved there is some emerging evidence that some families in the Rio Grande Valley helped people escape enslavement through the Underground Railroad in South Texas to Mexico. And, while President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (1863) abolished slavery in the United States, Confederate States, including Texas, continued the institution until the end of the war. News of their freedom did not reach Black Texans until June 19, 1865, or Juneteenth, when federal troops arrived in Galveston to take control of the state. 

However, the end of slavery did not result in the end of racial discrimination for African or Black Americans. The period following Reconstruction gave rise to increasing hostility as Jim Crow laws became institutionalized across the country including the military (e.g., conflicts at Fort Ringgold and Fort Brown). Black Texans were victimized by discrimination and segregation in all aspects of their public and private lives, and co-mingling with white people was generally forbidden and could result in brutal and even fatal punishment against black people. It was not until 100 years after emancipation that Black Americans were officially afforded the same legal rights as other Americans.

Underground Railroad in South Texas


Juneteenth, or June 19th, is a federally recognized holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Although President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to abolish slavery, Texas was the last Confederate state to emancipate enslaved people. In fact, freedom did not arrive for nearly two years on June 19, 1865 when federal troops assumed control of the state in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3 proclaiming independence for Black Texans. Opal Lee, a retired school teacher from Texas, campaigned for decades for the national recognition of Juneteenth. Her efforts were rewarded on June 17, 2021 when President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. Juneteenth has been celebrated locally since 1996.

Juneteenth: Freedom Day Library Resources:

Local Juneteenth Celebrations

Collections include videos, photographs, programs, and other documentation relating to local Juneteenth Celebrations in the RGV.

Hidalgo County Schools

Rev. John B. Norman (1896–1967) was born in Glen Flora, Texas. Soon after relocating to Edinburg, he founded one of its earliest African American churches, Lily of the Valley Baptist Church at the corner of 19th Ave. and Van Week just across the street from his house on Schunior Road. Rev. Segregation prohibited African American children from attending white schools. Therefore, Rev. Norman began teaching school inside the church and then in a one-room schoolhouse he built behind the church a few years later. The E.W. Norman School, named for the Edwards, West, and Norman families of Edinburg, served around 25 black school children during the 1930s. It provided curriculum for kindergarten through 8th grade, and early teachers at the Norman school included Rev. Norman, Verna Veil Butler, Ruby Leona Parker, and Melissa Dotson Betts. The E.W. Norman school closed in 1938 when Edinburg Consolidated School District open George Washington Carver Elementary School (on E. Lovett St.).

Melissa Dotson Betts (1902–1988) attended Wiley College (Marshall, TX) and earned her BA from Texas Southern University (Houston). Mrs. Betts began her teaching career in San Benito (1929–1934), but in 1935, she began teaching in Edinburg first at E. W. Norman School and later at George Washington Carver Elementary School (1014 E. Lovett). Mrs. Betts split her time between teaching during the week in Edinburg and spending time with her family in San Benito on the weekends. Like most teachers at so called, "colored schools", Mrs. Betts was the only teacher at Carver for multiple grades and was expect to fulfill the roles of principal, counselor, cook, custodian, and even groundskeeper. She spent her final four years teaching at Austin Elementary before retiring in 1969. Thirty years later Edinburg CISD honored her decades of service and education with the opening of Melissa Dotson Betts Elementary School (1999).

Parnethia Archer (1920–2003) was born in Cuero, Texas and was a lifelong educator and resident of South Texas. She taught elementary school and special education for nearly 40 years and was herself a lifelong learner. She attended Booker T. Washington School (Harlingen) until 8th grade and returned to Cuero for high school. After attending Junior College, Miss Archer continued her education, earning BA in education from Huston-Tillotson (Austin) and her first MEd from Texas Southern University (Houston) followed by her second from Texas A & I University (Kingsville). She taught for four years in Mission before moving to Weslaco in 1947. Miss Archer became the school teacher at Beatrice Allen Elementary School, located on Pino Street, and at the time, it was simply referred to as the "Colored School" before she campaigned to officially name it. After integration, Miss Archer taught classes at Roosevelt, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin before retiring in 1982 from Weslaco ISD and later All Faith Christian Academy in Harlingen.

Cameron County Schools & Educators

Mittie Anita (Williams) Pullam (1913–2009) was most known for her historic achievement as the only African-American School Principal and the first African-American Teacher for the Brownsville ISD. Mrs. Pullam earned a Bachelor's Degree in Literary Arts from Samuel Houston College in Austin and a Master's Degree in Education from Texas Southern University. In 1947, she began teaching at the segregated school for African Americans in Brownsville, Frederick Douglass Elementary School (located on E. Fronton St.). Later in the 1960s, owing to Mrs. Pullam's high standards for curriculum, the school was incorporated into Skinner Elementary, where she continued teaching until her retirement in 1975—the same year she was recognized as the Elementary Teacher of the Year. Mrs. Pullam's devotion to students touched countless generations and inspired a grassroots campaign to name a school in her honor. Mittie Pullam Elementary School in Brownsville honors her three decades of service to her community.

Jean Marie “Joe” Callandret (1883–1931) and his wife, Fannie Sanco, moved from Louisiana to San Benito, Texas in 1908. Joe was a farmer and respected businessman, who was fluent in English and French. He and Fannie raised six children and were among twenty-four African American families living in San Benito in the 1920s. In 1921, San Benito became the first Texas school district to establish a one-room school for black children. However, the school fell into disrepair, was relocated several times, and was once destroyed by a hurricane. Seeking a more permanent structure for her community, Fannie donated land to the San Benito School District (1948). The new two-room cinderblock school house opened in 1952, and the Joe Callandret School served African American children from San Benito and Harlingen until integration in 1960. Today the former school serves as the Callendret Black History Museum.

Additional Resources

Rio Grande Valley Oral Histories

The Rio Grande Valley Oral History Collection consists of over 500 digitized oral histories recorded and collected by faculty, staff, students, and community members and donated to the University Library. Oral histories provide unique, and in many instances, otherwise unavailable written information, and as such provide valuable insight into life in the region, including immigration, military service, ranching, education, agriculture, border violence, sports, and much more.

Additional Resources

Additional Resources

Books from Our Catalog

Relevant Databases for Primary & Secondary Sources: African and Black American History

Quick Links

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