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Sul Ross promoted education and rights for African Americans
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Sul Ross promoted education and rights for African Americans

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For the past few days I have noted the stories and conversation flying around about Sul Ross. True to form, there is a tremendous amount of misinformation and hype about Texas A&M President Ross. His life and career is one of the most researched and chronicled of Texans prior to 1900.

I have spent more than 40 years reviewing dozens of newspapers, archival documents and publications on his life. Ross was an honorable man. However, there were opinions about him when he was alive and there have been barrels of ink used since 1900 to tell his story — some of which, to no one’s surprise — have been politically motivated and revisionist in nature.

Ross was a household name by the time he was 19. Working on the Brazos Reservation near Graham with his father Shapley Ross, he was enlisted in the rangers to help stem the tide of hostile Indians and disruptive white trouble makers, who attacked both new settlers in the region as well as friendly Indians on the reservation. There were those who encroached on Indian lands and efforts were made to stop them. The late 1850s was a very unsettled and violent period on the western frontier of Texas.

Ross did indeed serve in the Confederate army, as did thousands of Texans including the entire 1883 inaugural faculty at The University of Texas. He returned home to Waco and received a full presidential pardon. He was one of the most vocal supporters of local education for all. He worked with a number of African-American and Indian families as the region struggled to recover. Known for his impartial fairness he was recruited to run for sheriff and arrested a growing gang of white-criminal squatters who preyed on people across East Texas. He abhorred mob violence and was swift to advocate harsh punishment for violators. To emphasis law and order he was the founder and catalyst in 1874 for the Sheriff’s Association of Texas, which still functions today.

His only other known memberships was as a Mason (the College Station lodge is named in his honor) and a supporter of a veterans group that raised funding and assistance for the widowed and orphaned families.

As a state senator, he championed education, frontier improvements and agricultural affairs. In 1886 he was elected governor by one of the largest percentage vote totals of any governor in Texas. A fiscal conservative, he balanced the state budget yet insisted that education at all levels be funded. Texas A&M and Prairie View Normal College would not be here today if it was not for Sul Ross. When opponents in Austin attacked, he went directly to the Legislature to prevent it from cutting off funding to both schools.

Ross continued to lead the efforts to expand African-American rural schools when radical Democrats wanted to de-fund support of local black education and he halted numerous attempts to attack the funding for Prairie View, fighting and demanding the Legislature to do the right thing.

He won — and provided additional funding and jobs after establishing one of the first agricultural experiment stations at an African-American college in the United States.

When African-American Sen. William Holland proposed the hospital for the “Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Institute” (today MHMR), Ross supported the full funding. Against massive opposition from the radical white Democrats, he appointed Holland, a Union Army war veteran, as its first director. When asked why, Ross simply noted, “He was the best man for the job.”

Concerned with the Texas criminal process, he insisted on a review and upon receiving the report he realized the inequity of justice and pardoned more African Americans than all the previous governors combined.

In 1890, at a time when he could have pursued other elected office or returned to his farm near Waco, he was offered the presidency of the A&M College of Texas. The school was struggling to jell into an institution, having faced low budgets, faculty turnover, poor water, and limited housing for students. There were no traditions as we know them today and a bleak undeveloped campus. Known statewide and very popular, it was said after Ross arrived, parents sent their sons not to A&M but “to Sul Ross.”

And it was not only sons who attended A&M, Ross routinely enrolled from seven to nine girls each year, known as “special students” (some wore cadet uniforms), and the credits they earned were transferable to other colleges. Prior to his death in early 1898, Ross proposed a school for girls to be co-located with A&M, the plan was supported by the Former Students (Cadets) Association and the local Bryan merchants who quickly were excited by the potential benefits to the local economy.

Ross increased the age to enroll at A&M, required entrance exams and instilled an atmosphere and esprit de corps that rightly gives him claim as the founder of A&M traditions — with the advent in the 1890s of football, the Aggie Band, the Aggie ring, the Battalion newspaper, corps trips, march to the Brazos, and much more that sealed the identity and image of what was to be known a few years later as the Fightin’ Texas Aggies and Aggieland.

One of his greatest accomplishments was the support of Prairie View A&M. While opponents in Austin yearly worked to kill funding, Ross made sure the only public school of high education for African Americans would grow and prosper. Ross a hired close personal friend, Professor Edward L. Blackshear, the former director of African=American schools in Austin when he was governor in the late 1880s, to become the ‘principal’ (president) of Prairie View.

Blackshear, the most prominent black educator and leader in Texas, testified to the “nobility of his character and his genuine support of education for colored youths.”

In addition to Ross and his staff spending a great deal of time at Prairie View, including holding periodic board meetings in Hempstead, Ross hosted Blackshear, his staff and students both at his residence on the A&M campus but also at his home in Waco. To encourage the growth of black education, he arranged special reduced train rates for the Black Baptist State Association to hold its annual meetings in Bryan, giving a chance for him and Blackshear to urge the clergy to promote education back home in their congregations.

Ross instilled a source of excellence and pride in higher education and espoused transcendent values of equality and justice for all in Texas. It is for this reason that to honor Ross and his legacy of selfless service as governor and his years of dedication to education for all Texans, the state of Texas and the Legislature, not some outside organization, approved funding for an official State of Texas statue in 1919, conspicuous in civilian dress, to honor President Sul Ross.

And thus, it is the totality of the man’s life for which the statue stands.

John A. Adams Jr. ‘73, is a historian and author of We Are the Aggies, Softly Call the Muster and Keepers of the Spirit. Another book, Sul Ross at Texas A&M, is set for release in 2021.

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