Abbott is wrong. In reality, Texas has a long history of white supremacist violence and police brutality toward Black and Brown people. Bringing this history to Texas classrooms would go a long way toward reckoning with the white supremacy deeply embedded in the state’s history.
The link between racial violence and Texas law enforcement goes all the way back to the state’s original police force, the Texas Rangers — the most celebrated state law enforcement agency in U.S. history. Established in 1835, popular mythology has long cast the Texas Rangers as the law-and-order good guys of the Old West, dealing out tough, but much-needed frontier justice. For decades, television shows like “The Lone Ranger” and “Walker, Texas Ranger” and novels like “Lonesome Dove” reinforced the Rangers’ heroic brand, masking the agency’s troubling and notoriously violent history.
During the 19th century, the Republic of Texas and, later, the Texas state legislature tasked the Rangers with the suppression of Indigenous peoples like the Comanche, the recapture of enslaved Black people and the raiding of Mexican communities in Texas’ border region. The Rangers carried out their duties with overwhelming force, earning them a reputation as ruthless fighters whose methods blurred the line between law and lawlessness. A tribute to the Rangers’ violent tactics, the arms manufacturer Colt named one of the world’s first six-shooters after Samuel H. Walker, a veteran Ranger captain killed during the U.S. invasion of Mexico from 1846 to ‘48.
At the inception of the Republic of Texas in 1836, the Rangers embarked on a decades-long campaign of “ethnic cleansing” to depopulate the nation of Indigenous peoples who controlled much of what is now West Texas. In March 1840, the Rangers and affiliated Anglo soldiers double-crossed and murdered 35 Comanche diplomats, women and children attempting to negotiate for peace. The event ignited a brutal war between Anglo Texans and the Comanche that dragged on for decades after Texas entered the United States in 1845.
The Texas Rangers were equally violent toward enslaved Black Texans. As the slave state’s main police agency, the Rangers were tasked with upholding slavery by hunting down “runaway” enslaved people — a job that represents the seed of modern American policing. In 1838, a band of Rangers cornered an armed group of Black men who had escaped from slavery. The Rangers captured one of the men, and, after slashing him several times with a Bowie Knife, sold him back into slavery for $800, splitting the profit among themselves. In 1855, Rangers crossed the Rio Grande seeking Black fugitives who had escaped to a Mexican border town, where slavery was illegal. The Rangers burned the town to the ground for harboring freedom seekers. Although the U.S. government had to pay reparations for the violence, Texas honored the Ranger captain and enslaver who was responsible for incident, James Hughes Callahan, with a grave in Texas’s State Cemetery.
During the Civil War, many Rangers, then known as the Frontier Regiment, fought as a unit in the Confederate Army, and following the war, they continued to promote racist violence. In 1877, Rangers started a shootout with Black U.S. soldiers in a West Texas saloon for allegedly violating the social order of segregation by flirting with Latinas. During the most violent years of Jim Crow, from 1880 to 1930, Texas saw hundreds of recorded lynchings. The Rangers rarely stepped in to protect Black Texans from White lynch mobs, tacitly or explicitly consenting to the extrajudicial murders.
The Texas Rangers committed some of their most shocking atrocities against Hispanic Texans and Mexicans on the porous U.S.-Mexico border during the early 20th century. Operating under the pretext of suppressing revolutionaries and cross-border raiders, the Rangers used tactics like night-riding and lynchings to instill terror in the local population. In October 1915, Ranger Captain Henry Ransom rounded up 10 local Mexicans and, falsely accusing them of holding up a passing train, summarily executed eight of the innocent suspects. The other two narrowly escaped death when the local sheriff intervened. When another Ranger captain arrested two Mexican men in May 1916, their White attorney intervened. Furious, the captain beat him with a pistol in the hallway of the Kingsville courthouse. Two years later, during the Porvenir Massacre, Rangers executed 15 unarmed Hispanic boys and men in cold blood under the cover of darkness.
The Texas Rangers also violently opposed the civil rights movement and reform efforts. In 1956, when local Black residents and the NAACP tried to integrate North Texas’s Mansfield High School, the Rangers stepped in at the governor’s behest and forcibly stopped Black students from enrolling. In 1963, when voters in Chrystal City elected a Latino mayor, Juan Cornejo, who spoke out against police violence, a Texas Ranger captain smashed the newly elected mayor’s head into a wall as retaliation for such remarks. Four years later, the Rangers brutally crushed farmworker strikes across South Texas, beating Latino strikers and arresting activists who attempted to expose the Rangers’ crimes.
Yet despite the Texas Rangers’ troubling history, the public has largely overlooked the agency’s violent past. The earliest histories of the Rangers, including celebrated books by Walter Prescott Webb and T. R. Fehrenbach, uncritically portrayed the Rangers as heroic White hats of the Old West, while overlooking racially motivated police brutality.
Generations of Texan schoolchildren learned this narrative in their middle school social studies classes and through statues and museums commemorating the Rangers. In 1962, inspired by Jay Banks, the Ranger who stopped integration at Mansfield seven years before, a bronze statue to the Rangers was placed at Dallas’s Love Field airport. Four years later, around the time the Rangers were strike-busting in South Texas, the state opened the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco. While the Ranger statue in the airport came down this year, the museum’s synopsis of Ranger history omits any mention of the Rangers’ brutal history of violence toward Black, Hispanic and Indigenous peoples.
Texas’s troubling history of white supremacist violence and police brutality will not come easy for some Texans, including Gov. Abbott, who has been consistently unwilling to confront it. Yet in his rush to uncritically exonerate police, Abbott’s blanket defense of law enforcement whitewashes the state’s long, undeniable history of white supremacist violence and police brutality.
Exposing this history, like the Wylie middle school teacher tried to do, undercuts the mythologized version of Texas history that has long been embraced by conservatives like Abbott. Indeed, illuminating the Texas Rangers’ bloody history is essential if Texans are to grapple with persistent police brutality in the state.