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Seeking information on a 19th-century Texas politician, Gregg Cantrell, Ph.D., examined the microfiche of an 1894 edition of the Fairfield (Texas) Recorder.
The University of North Texas professor of history read only one paragraph of the article he needed before discovering that the rest was missing. Cantrell asked the archivist for the actual newspaper. Turning the yellowed pages, he discovered the rest of the article was missing there as well.
Not giving up, Cantrell emptied the newspaper's storage box and found a disintegrated page at the bottom — the rest of the article.
"I pieced the shards together like a jigsaw puzzle," he says. "All good historical research is detective work, but this was detective work of the highest order."
It was detective work that helped Cantrell shed light on the life of John B. Rayner, the illegitimate son of a North Carolina congressman who became the pre-eminent black leader of the Populist Party in Texas during the 1890s.
After more than a decade of research, Cantrell wrote two books about Rayner: Kenneth and John B. Rayner and the Limits of Southern Dissent in 1993, which includes information on Rayner's father, Kenneth, and Feeding the Wolf: John B. Rayner and the Politics of Race, 1850-1918 in 2001.
The latest book is used in classes at the University of Texas at Austin and Sam Houston State University, among other institutions. Cantrell, a UNT faculty member since 2000, often assigns it to students in his Texas history classes.
"John B. Rayner is such an important figure in Texas history and black history, since he is the best-known black Populist. But little has been written about him," Cantrell says. "Very few books cover black history in the 19th century and at the turn of the century, but what happened then greatly influenced the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s."
Cantrell discovered the Rayners in the mid-1980s when he was deciding on a specialization for his doctorate in history.
While reading about the Populist political movement of the 1890s, he noticed a brief mention of John B. Rayner.
"The book identified him as a ‘mulatto,' meaning that he was African American with some noticeable white ancestry," he says. "It certainly came as a revelation to me that he had served on the state executive committee of the Texas Populist Party and had earned statewide fame as a fiery orator."
A few months later, reading about the pre-Civil War political crisis of the 1850s, Cantrell came across the name of Kenneth Rayner, a wealthy slaveholder from Raleigh, N.C., who became a major leader of the American, or "Know-Nothing," Party.
"Remembering that John B. Rayner had been born in North Carolina before moving to Texas, the wheels began to turn," Cantrell says. "Rayner wasn't a terribly common name, and I wondered if the two were related."
In a 1904 edition of the Houston Chronicle, he found John B. Rayner's account of his boyhood home in Raleigh. Rayner described how his father, "Judge Rayner," negotiated the surrender of Raleigh during the Civil War.
Cantrell then looked up a history of Raleigh and read how Kenneth Rayner negotiated the surrender.
"I had closed the loop. They were indeed father and son," he says.
The popular Populist
Cantrell learned that John had been born to one of Kenneth's slaves in 1850 and that Kenneth had openly acknowledged John as his son and paid for his education at two freedman's schools — Raleigh Theology Institute and St. Augustine University — in Raleigh after the war. John entered the Republican Party in the early 1870s and settled in nearby Edgecombe County. His first political appointment was as a constable of the grand jury.
In 1874, however, a large Democratic majority was elected to the North Carolina Legislature, and reforms to the state Constitution ousted Rayner and other African Americans from appointed positions. Deciding to make a fresh start, Rayner moved to Calvert, Texas, and taught school.
He was back in politics by 1890, becoming involved in the Populist Party formed by farmers and small-business owners in response to increasing debt interest rates and decreasing crop prices.
"Rayner recognized that blacks in the South would never enjoy political power if they were alone. The only hope was for blacks and whites to be in a bi-racial political movement," Cantrell says.
As the Populists began challenging the Democrats, Rayner, as his father had been in the American Party, became an outspoken critic of the Democratic Party.
Billed as "the silver-tongued orator of the colored race," he spoke throughout East Texas, urging African Americans to join the Populists. At a speech in Houston, he called Democrats "pigmies" and noted the party "had held back the South," which was "raising a lot of empty-headed and empty-pocketed ninny-heads to vote the same old timeworn ticket of the father and grandpap."
Rayner wasn't afraid to respond to white hecklers at his speeches. At the Houston speech, Cantrell says, Rayner told hecklers they were "unmanly."
"The fact that he could get away with it suggests that white Populists were willing to stand by their black ally," Cantrell says.
Feeding the wolf
Rayner's opposition to the Democratic Party proved to be his downfall.
In 1896, Populism declined nationwide when the Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, supported one minor Populist demand. Many Populists outside of Texas "naively believed that the Democrats had embraced reform" and supported Bryan, Cantrell says.
Rayner and other Texas Populists fought to save the party in Texas, but on election day, Democrats stationed armed guards at polling places to turn away anyone who wasn't voting a Democratic ticket. The Democratic Party established itself as the only viable party left in Texas. Rayner "found his political career in ruins" and virtually disappeared from the historical record for several years, Cantrell says.
militant politician "did a 180-degree turn" in 1904, when he
was hired as a financial agent for Conroe College,
Cantrell says that Rayner's influence gradually disappeared, and he died in 1918 in total obscurity. His father had died 34 years earlier.
A Republican after the American Party's decline in the 1850s, Kenneth Rayner was dismayed that the South remained solidly Democratic after Abraham Lincoln and other Republicans presided over its defeat in the Civil War, abolished slavery and gave freed slaves more rights, Cantrell says.
He notes that both Rayners' views on race relations greatly shaped their careers as political mavericks.
"In the mid-19th century, Kenneth found himself outside the Southern mainstream in affirming the essential humanity of blacks. John was equally out of step in the late 1800s when he worked to bring equal political and economic opportunity to blacks," Cantrell says.
He says today's politicians can learn much from the Rayners.
"The fact that a 21st-century historian can resurrect these extremely obscure lives and find much to admire about them because of the bravery of their positions shows that politicians who take an unpopular stand may not serve their careers, but their places in history will be more secure."