Love in the Time of Texas Slavery

by Maria Hammack

I wasn’t looking to find a story abounding love when researching violent episodes of Texas history. Love, unsurprisingly, can be found even in the vilest records of human atrocities. The story found me while I was conducting research on material pertaining to nineteen century lynchings on the Mexico-United States borderlands. A newspaper report shed light on the story of a Black woman and a Mexican man who lived as husband and wife in the early 1840s, twenty-five miles northeast of Victoria, Texas. She was a Black woman forced to live in bondage in Jackson County, in the town of Texana, near present day Edna, Texas. Her husband, was a Mexican man likely indentured, employed, or a peon in that same vicinity. The report, unsurprisingly, did not fully document much of their lives, experiences or bonds of intimacy. But, while we may never know where this couple met, how their love story developed, or when or if they ever officially married, we do know that this couple absconded to seek freedom and a future far removed from Texas slavery, together.

1856 Jackson County TX Map showing Texana. Texas General Land Office.

Theirs was a story of bravery, of life and death; a harrowing tale of love, sacrifice, and heartbreak different from others I have ever encountered. They stayed together until death did them part. We know very little about their relationship, their background and the extent of their intimacy, but in their story, love was empowering, death was swift and its perpetrators, vicious. A macabre ending awaited them, committed by Texas vigilantes and sanctioned by laws that protected and promoted the institution of slavery in Texas. Theirs was a story raw, fleeting, and heartbreaking. This was a love story shaped by slavery, freedom, and resistance; one marked with blood and violence and no happily ever after.

In the summer of 1842 these lovers carefully planned their escape, surely detailing every trail, bend and river they would encounter and need to traverse on their journey to freedom. In the early days of July,  they took two horses and rode them southward, hoping to leave Texas behind and reach safe havens beyond the Mexican border.

Eastman Johnson. A Ride for Liberty. Brooklyn Museum.

They made their way towards Mexican territory, but as they reached the Lavaca river they were intercepted and pursued by a group of slave hunters, unscrupulous employees of a highly profitable profession. Slave hunters caught up with them and quickly surrounded them. They stood no chance and received no mercy. Romeo in this story was lynched. His body was returned to the place whence authorities claimed he had “stolen” his enslaved wife. His body was then hung and displayed as a public reminder (and threat) to all others who hoped or braved or even thought to run away. In this story, fugitive Juliet faced an unimaginable fate. Tortured and robbed of the freedom she almost secured for herself, she was forcibly returned to her ruthless enslaver. The rest of her story still remains hidden, silent, until it is found, and told.

The report of this couple’s story is but a fragment, a tiny visible thread in the vastly unknown tapestry of the lives and experiences of thousands of women, men and children who faced, fought, resisted and survived (or failed to) enslavement in Texas. It offers us a window into the vibrant, diverse and porous composite that was Texas, during a time when freedom existed just a few miles South, and the unyielding institution of slavery thrived and consolidated on its opposite sides.

“Runaways to Mexico: [—–] Stealing.” The Telegraph and Texas Register. July 7, 1842.

This fragmented record of love and loss on the Texas borderlands, has kindled many questions regarding love, romance, intimacy, courtship and marriage for me and my work on the lives of people enslaved in Texas. Did these forces and actions shaped the experiences of people of African, Mexican and Native descent who forged relations, or any type of love bond (romantic or not) with each other during the extensive period when Texas held zealously to the institution of slavery? How? To what extent? Were these bonds similar or different from bonds forged in non-borderland spaces? Love, across a rich and diverse borderland, wedged between slavery and freedom, was assuredly a complex, power-wielding force; a force that inarguably needs further study.

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