Writer Bill Minutaglio is a friend of mine. Our paths cross occasionally, although less so these days because of the pandemic. The last time I saw him in his writerly role was at Brazos Book Store a few years ago, where he was doing a reading from his newest book at the time, a biography of the late Texas journalist Molly Ivins. (He’s the author of several books, including biographies of George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales, but is probably best known for “City on Fire,” his gripping account of the 1947 Texas City disaster.)
At Brazos, Bill read for a while about the colorful Houston native who had written for the New York Times and edited the Texas Observer, and then he fielded questions. Almost immediately, hands shot up. A couple of women who had grown up with Ivins in River Oaks pounced. They differed with Bill on details about their old friend’s childhood.
Bill’s sardonic sense of humor rarely fails him and didn’t this night either. He handled the women’s objections with grace and aplomb and managed to escape out the front door relatively unscathed.
My friend may be in for something similar with the release of his new book, a history of politics and race in Texas. It’ll be out this spring, about the time the 87th session of the Texas Legislature will be getting down to serious business. The book is called “A Single Star and Bloody Knuckles,” and, as the title suggests, Texans do have strong opinions about the two overlapping topics.
What’s striking about the book, published by the University of Texas Press, is Bill’s ability to resurrect not only the marquee names we would expect to find in a history of Texas politics (famous and infamous) but also fascinating names that have faded into the fog of history. Let’s say you’re standing on the outdoor balcony of Austin’s Paramount Theater on Congress Ave. Parading up the street toward the Capitol, a cavalcade of Texas political figures passes in review, ghosts of Texans past mingling with our contemporaries. Governors Hogg, Neff and Moody parade by, followed by Ma and Pa (Ferguson) and Pappy (O’Daniel). Will Hobby and John Connally stroll by. The regal Barbara Jordan stands out. George Bush, Rick Perry and Greg Abbott smile and wave.
Numerous others in the cavalcade require a program, or Bill’s book. Walking anonymously among the well-known, for example, is Dr. Ellen Louise Dabbs, the only daughter of a Confederate colonel who became a Fort Worth physician and founder of the state’s first women’s suffrage group. Robert L. Smith of Waco walks by. The African-American founder of the Farmers’ Improvement Society of Texas somehow got himself elected to the Texas House in 1894, at a time when the KKK and devotees of the Lost Cause were at their most virulent. There’s Norris Wright Cuney of Galveston, an African-American political player who wielded power for decades. Also walking by is Jovita Idar, a young South Texas newspaper publisher who dared defy the Texas Rangers, and Emma Tenayuca of San Antonio, who organized the pecan shellers. Coming over from Houston is Lula Belle Madison White, an NAACP leader who spearheaded the lawsuit opening the doors of the University of Texas to black Texans.
“They were great Texans, great Americans, and driven by singular courage and righteous idealism,” Bill noted in an email a few days ago. “They were unafraid in the face of enormous dangers. Learning about them gave me hope – especially today, and maybe more than ever.”
Bill is a native New Yorker, although he’s lived in Texas for decades (Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin). He knows as deeply as the most deeply rooted native Texan that courage and idealism in this state have been in short supply at times, but drama, indeed melodrama, is invariably just around the corner. His opening chapter, in fact, recreates a scene disturbingly reminiscent of the January 6 Capitol insurrection, although the Capitol he’s writing about is in Austin.
It’s January 1874. In the first-floor governor’s office is a former Union brigadier general named Edmund J. Davis, a Florida native and later a district judge in San Antonio who had almost been lynched during the war for his fiercely held anti-secessionist, anti-slavery beliefs. As a pro-Lincoln Republican, he had been elected governor by 800 votes, with Conservative Democrats howling that the 1869 election had been rigged and that white voters had been prevented from casting ballots.
For four years, Davis earnestly tried to implement Reconstruction-era reforms: a handgun prohibition (except on the frontier), restrictions on gambling and alcohol, and the creation of a state militia, with the governor as commander in chief and reserving for himself the power to declare martial law. Most infuriating to disenfranchised former Confederates was his state police force, including a sizable number of freed black men carrying guns. Davis also pushed through legislation guaranteeing voter protections for black Texans and more money for public education. Not surprisingly, Davis lost his re-election bid, 85,549 votes to 42,663.
The defeated governor refused to leave. Barricading himself in his Capitol office, he summoned the state militia to guard him, along with a military unit called the Travis Rifles, whose founders included Andrew Jackson Houston, the second of Sam’s four sons. When the Rifles arrived at the Capitol, they staked out positions on the top floor and refused to protect Davis. The governor’s militia, many of them African Americans, patrolled the basement. Outside, partisans from both sides ringed the building.
Worried that a shooting war was about to erupt between the black militia and the white Travis Rifles, Davis sent desperate messages to the White House. He fully expected President Ulysses S. Grant to send troops to protect the man who had been doing the dangerous work of, in Bill’s words, “dragging Texas back into the United States – and then fighting to enforce the Republican Reconstruction; to allow Black Texans to be free; and to cobble together all the fractured pieces of the state.”
Grant turned him down. “Would it not be prudent, as well as right, to yield to the verdict of the people as expressed by their ballots?” the president messaged.
Davis was devastated. Removing the barricades, he emerged from his office surrounded by his guards and handed over the governorship to Richard Coke, a former Confederate soldier. Leaving the governor’s mansion for the last time, his wife Lizzie took a portrait of President Grant off the wall and jammed her foot through it.
Nearly a century and a quarter later, Bill was writing about a more congenial occupant of that same white-columned mansion, a governor already making plans to occupy an even bigger white house. Researching “First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty” (1999), he got to know the governor well. Bush knew Bill well enough to pin a nickname on him: “Mononucleosis.”
Bill was sort of proud of that appellation. He saw it as a backhanded compliment. It suggested that he was a dogged reporter, hard to shake.
Well, not exactly, Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon told him, laughing. The governor called him “Mononucleosis,” because he couldn’t pronounce his last name.