In the early 20th century, the small, quiet town of Raymondville, Texas, made national headlines after they were exposed with openly exploiting farm workers with peonage schemes.
Peonage was an illegal option for farmers to control labor for large-scale planting. When they experienced a labor shortage, farmers in Raymondville practiced debt peonage causing exploitation of people who were predominately Mexican Americans, African Americans, and, seldom, white.
In David Montejano’s book, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986, he said, “Thus the budding South Texas towns of this period… were populated by two major racial classes, Anglo farmers, and Mexican laborers.” He went on to describe the state of the economy in South Texas in the 1920s as repressive labor agriculture.
The peonage schemes in Raymondville were systems in which an employer hired a worker and did not pay them in money for their labor, but instead, the employer allegedly paid off the worker’s debt. The debt that farm workers accumulated were a collective form of charges like vagrancy, transportation fees (when farmers transported laborers to their farms), and or housing fees (when farmers housed laborers.) Vagrancy, or homelessness, was a typical charge. While it was not the only charge forced upon penniless farm workers to get them to fall into debt, vagrancy laws were perceived to be the root of peonage opportunities. The frequency of people charged with vagrancy heightened during the cotton season; labor for the cotton season in the Valley was needed during February through March and again in August through September.
Montejano explained this seasonal pattern:
“These practices and conditions… had a distinct seasonal character. It was customary to invoke vagrancy laws at the beginning of cotton picking season. Especially in times of feared labor ‘shortages,’ the mechanism of arrest served to force laborers to work for wages for the two weeks or so necessary to pick the farmers’ cotton. During times when labor was needed, local farmers would recruit contract laborers who discovered, upon arrival, that the terms they had agreed to were misrepresentations. Any who then refused to work were picked up by the local deputies, found guilty of vagrancy, and fined double the amount owed the farmer for transportation or food. The convicted were then given the option of working off the fines by picking cotton for the farmer who had recruited them. Any laborers passing through the county during the picking season also experienced the same fate: convicted of vagrancy, they were informed that the fines should be worked off in the cotton fields. Naturally such ‘convict labor’ was routinely guarded by armed deputies while working cotton. To complement this method of recruiting labor, a ‘pass system’ was instituted to prevent unauthorized pickers from leaving the county. Laborers leaving the area had to have passes signed by one of the local farmers involved in the compact.”
Even after Congress passed the Peonage Abolition Act of 1867, Raymondville farmers and Willacy County officials continued to practice peonage well into the 20th century. As a result, Raymondville became the first city in Texas history to be charged for practicing peonage after its abolishment. More than 400 cases were filed over the following years.
During the peak of the peonage cases in Raymondville, “roadside courts” were commonly used instead of formal hearings. The practice of roadside courts was not a fair due process, as described by Sean Visintainer, Head of Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“They would not have them in an actual court building undergoing the legal process,” Visintainer said. “It would have been more on the spot deliberation where they would have plead guilty to an officer or potentially somebody involved in the peonage schemes as well.”
These informal courts brought charges upon farmworkers that were commonly used to set them up, causing them to fall into debt. According to Visintainer, sometimes testimonies conflicted with each other, like in one specific case that essentially exposed the illegal peonage system that was rampant in Raymondville.
When two young, white vagrants traveled to Raymondville in 1927, during the height of peonage, they were initially charged with vagrancy but were also accused of charging groceries to a farmer’s account without asking for permission. The farmer arrested them for the groceries, but the deputy who later arrested them says he came across them on a highway and arrested them because they did not have any means of support. When the two men who were charged provided the necessary evidence to a local attorney who was “politically hostile” to the county sheriff, an opportunity arose to bring the case to court.
Typically, it was Mexican people who were forced into debt, but in this case, the fact that the two vagrants were white may have been the reason for the peonage operators’ “downfall.”
An article from the New York Times described the testimony against Sheriff Raymond Teller, County Attorney Robinson, and Justice of the Peace Floyd Dodd all of Willacy County in the peonage cases. Four men, all under the age of 21, testified on Feb. 1, 1927. They claimed that they were arrested in Raymondville and jailed after they refused to work for a farmer named A.C. Johnson who was going to pay them $1.25 for 100 pounds and charge them for board when he had contracted them on the promise of getting free board. The judge assigned to the case told the men that they needed to work for Johnson because they owed him what he paid for transportation to get them there.
According to Montejano, “In these Anglo vagrants, the attorney had unimpeachable victims and witnesses, traits that Mexican and black laborers lacked before Anglo juries.” Both white and Mexican spectators said that this trial happened because Raymondville deputies involved two white people.
In total, five county officials were convicted including the sheriff and the Justice of The Peace. These officials received support and even sympathy from those who believed that “farmers had to protect their investments through some sort of law,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.
A quote from the Brownsville Herald’s coverage of the peonage schemes, on Feb. 6, 1927, reads:
“Clarence Kendall, assistant United States Attorney, in summing up against the defendants declared that the law enforcement machinery of the county had been made into a slave market during the cotton picking season, presided over by Justice of the Peace Floyd Dodd of Raymondville.”
Although the two white farm workers were freed from their charges and received justice for falling victim to the farmer’s schemes, brown and black farm workers in the Valley continued organizing for their civil and human rights well into the 20th century and continue to this day.