In August of 2014, the Fort Bend Museum Association produced a series of scholarly presentations, as well as a dramatic reenactment, in recognition of the 125th anniversary of the Jaybird-Woodpecker gun battle in downtown Richmond. The following column appeared in the Sept. 3, 2014 issue of the Fort Bend Herald.
About 60 of us had been gathered in the newly restored 1909 Fort Bend County Courthouse to attend one of the series of Jaybird-Woodpecker lectures sponsored by the Fort Bend County Museum Association. The lectures were staged in the county commissioners’ courtroom, which is on the second floor where for many years the grand jury meeting room was located.
Following the program, as we stood preparatory to filing out, I said to another audience member that no matter how many times the Jaybird-Woodpecker story is told, it holds a certain fascination. “Yes,” she said in agreement, then added pointedly: “It changes, too.”
I had to nod and smile. Yes, in some ways the story has changed from what the winners told following the August 1889 gun battle in Richmond between the two political factions. The Jaybirds won control of county government and politics, put up a fine monument to their fallen heroes and proceeded to have things their own way for the next seven decades.
As far as the victors and their descendants were concerned, the Jaybirds (officially “Jay Birds,” as in Jay Bird Democratic Association) wore the white hats. They had overcome an opponent who, besides owning a majority of votes, tended to elect ostensibly corrupt officials — “allegedly,” as presenter W.M. Von-Maszewski emphasized.
As was noted in every lecture, Fort Bend’s experience was not typical of Reconstruction. Unlike in many Southern communities following the Civil War, the local government offices in our county were not filled by migrant Northern opportunists known in history as “carpet-baggers.” The ruling Woodpecker faction was an alliance of black voters (who were a clear majority of the electorate in the 1880s) and certain longtime white residents.
Were the Woodpeckers corrupt, as their accusers maintained? It would take a belated audit of the era’s government records to determine the answer; most likely that answer would vary, office to office. At least one attempt has been made at swapping out the white hats and black hats of the traditional story. It is a paper written by a student at Rice University some years back that does reflect original research but collapses under the weight of its pre-determined conclusions.
For the better part of a century, overt control of Democratic Party politics in a one-party county was exercised in the name of good government. And in fairness, the Jaybirds’ track record in delivering what they pledged appears to have been successful.
But in so doing, the white hats had become badly soiled. The Jaybirds’ methodology, which among other things effectively denied constitutional rights to black voters and prospective office-holders, finally ran into well-deserved trouble. In 1950, black residents Willie Melton and Arizona Fleming organized and headed a grassroots movement to sue for their rights, and three years later the Supreme Court of the United States voted 8-1 against the Jaybirds’ defense of their political system.
We are extremely fortunate that the late University of Houston professor and county resident Pauline Yelderman accepted a challenge from family members to document the story of the Jaybirds. She took on the daunting job of researching, compiling and relating details of the entire epic from the 1880s to the 1950s. In doing so, Yelderman interviewed many of the players in the latter stages of the drama. Her 1979 book, “The Jay Bird Democratic Association of Fort Bend County: A White Man’s Union,” has been reprinted in a facsimile edition and can be found for sale from various nonprofit entities around the county.
Tim Cumings is a retired journalist and former editor at The Herald.