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Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

NORRIS WRIGHT CUNEY

by Archie P. McDonald, PhD
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
Norris Wright Cuney, though born in 1846 on a plantation located near Hempstead, became a powerful figure in Texas' Republican circles, especially in Galveston.

Cuney was the child of a white planter, Philip Minor Cuney. His mother, Adeline Stuart, was Cuney's slave. Evidently recognized as Cuney's child, he was educated in Pennsylvania at the Wylie Street School for blacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Civil War and the end of slavery also ended Cuney's preparatory education.
Norris Wright Cuney
Norris Wright Cuney
Photo Courtesy Texas State Library and Archives
Cuney returned to Texas after the war and settled in Galveston. He became active in the Union League, the political arm of Radical Republican Reconstruction in Texas. Cuney was an ideal candidate for advancement at a time when the party sought exceptional blacks to place in positions of leadership.

Cuney studied law, but politics became his ladder to success through his support of Radical Republican Governor Edmund J. Davis. Cuney became president of the Galveston chapter of the Union League in 1871, then was appointed secretary of the Republican State Executive Committee in 1873. He ran for the post of mayor of Galveston in 1875, and for the state legislature in 1876 and 1882, and lost because of the return of white voters in the electoral process.

Cuney remained powerful within the Republican Party because he could influence African American voters and because he remained the party's primary advisor in patronage to that constituency. And he prospered in appointed positions, such as customs inspector in Galveston and eventually as collector of customs there in 1889. Such federal appointments were not blocked by the "redemption" of Texas by white Democrats in 1875-1876. In 1886, Cuney became the Republican Party's national committeeman from Texas, the highest party rank achieved by a Southern African American in the remaining decades of the century.

Cuney finally won election as alderman in Galveston in 1883, but a contribution of greater significance was his founding of the Negro Screwman's Benevolent Association. White screwmen, or longshoremen worked on the docks improve working conditions, but would not admit blacks, who did the same work, into their labor union. Cuney provided African Americans with a vehicle for collective bargaining.

Cuney died in 1889, and is buried in Galveston. He was the most remarkable African American leader in Texas in the nineteenth century.


Archie P. McDonald, PhD
All Things Historical July 1, 2004 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.

See Cuney, Texas

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