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  Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical :

NORRIS CUNEY

by Archie P. McDonald
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Norris Wright Cuney had become the most remarkable African American leader in Texas. Cuney technically began life as a slave on a plantation located near Hempstead on May 12, 1846. He also was the natural son of the plantation owner, Philip Minor Cuney, and a slave mother, Adeline Stuart, so he escaped a typical slave’s life in those days and was educated at the Wylie Street School for African Americans operated by George B. Vashon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Cuney left the school when the Civil War began and returned to Texas. He made his home in Galveston, where he married Adelina Dowdie on July 5, 1871. Cuney studied law and was influenced greatly by George T. Ruby, president of the Union League, a political arm of the Republican Party during Reconstruction that worked through agents of the Freedman’s Bureau. Cuney eventually became president of Galveston’s branch of the League.

Cuney supported Texas’ Radical Republican Governor Edmund J. Davis, and such support led to several appointed positions with the government and offices within the Republican Party. For example, Cuney became assistant to the sergeant-at-arms for the Twelfth Legislature in 1870, inspector of customs and revenue in Galveston and then Sabine Pass in 1872, and eventually collector of customs in Galveston in 1889.

Republican Party posts Cuney held included secretary of the Republican State Executive Committee in 1873 and in 1886 he became Texas’ national committeeman. Effectively, Cuney headed the Republican Party in Texas.

Cuney’s efforts to gain elective office were mixed. He lost races for mayor of Galveston in 1875 and for the Texas House of Representatives and Senate in 1876 and 1882 before winning a race as an alderman in Galveston in 1883.

For all his success in business and politics, Cuney’s most significant contribution came from his familiarity with the stevedores, also called screwmen, who worked the wharves of Galveston. A Screwmen’s Benevolent Society, a kind of labor union, organized in 1866, did not include African Americans. So Cuney organized the Black Screwmen’s Benevolent Association to provide a voice for these workers.

Cuney also supported education for African Americans, especially in the segregated schools of Galveston and at Prairie View A&M. Cuney died in 1898 and is buried in Galveston, a city he enriched just by living there.
© Archie P. McDonald
All Things Historical

October 10, 2005 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books on Texas.)

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