In 2023, the world-renowned Rangers will mark their two-hundredth anniversary of service to the great state of Texas. Today, with more than 160 women and men serving across our vast 254 counties, the modern Texas Rangers reflect the diversity, integrity, and professionalism you would hope to find in one of the country’s oldest and finest law enforcement organizations. Like any individual or organization, though, there is also some bad and downright ugly; some of these incidents are noted below. A full discussion of the Rangers’ history and how they’ve evolved into the Rangers of today would be impossible to cover in one short op-ed. In my opinion, the net good of two hundred years of Ranger history far outweighs the negative, but there are critics who contend the opposite is true. I believe many of these critics are engaging in presentism, that is: judging people in the past by the moral standards of our own time. At a Texas Rangers Summit in Kerrville on November 12, hosted by Schreiner University, I asked a co-founder of Refusing to Forget, a nonprofit public history project formed by scholars critical of the Rangers’ history, if we could collaborate with them on one of their projects. He declined. I would extend the offer to collaborate with any Rangers critics. I hope, by engaging with some of their critiques, we can have some new conversations and more open, honest discussions.
I will start with Texas Monthly’s own White Hats podcast, which takes its name from an ahistorical Hollywood trope. In fact, Rangers technically do not have to wear white hats. Today’s Texas Rangers often wear either silver belly or silver sand—never black—and that iconic feature is part of their uniform. Maybe “Silver Belly Hats” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it would be a more accurate depiction of today’s Rangers.
At the zenith of Rangers criticism is the 1918 Porvenir massacre, in Presidio County, in which fifteen unarmed boys and men of Mexican descent were killed after being taken from their homes in the night by a group of Texas Rangers, local ranchers, and soldiers of a U.S. Calvary regiment. While Rangers critics claim this event has been “hidden” or “erased,” Porvenir is likely the most studied single event of Rangers malfeasance—to my mind, because such events were the exception, rather than the rule. Critics of the Rangers point to Porvenir as an example of widespread “state-sanctioned violence,” yet no Ranger today would assert that the events at Porvenir were in any way justified and, even in 1918, the governor of Texas and the adjutant general of the Rangers condemned the actions. In fact, five of the Rangers involved were investigated and fired, the company responsible was disbanded, and Texas Rangers captain James M. Fox resigned after being assigned to a different post. While no indictments were made, that process belonged to the district attorney and grand jury over that region, and was outside the legal purview and authority of the Texas Rangers. (Fox later reenlisted as a Ranger and served for two years; he was later appointed again as a special Ranger by Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson.) When discussing the events at Porvenir, some critics tend to discount the involvement of the U.S. Army soldiers and local ranchers; archaeological studies suggest those soldiers and ranchers participated in the massacre. Why were U.S. troops there? Because Porvenir—an unincorporated hamlet on the Texas side of the Rio Grande—was a territory in the throes of what many today might consider a guerilla war. No one today disputes that the Porvenir massacre was a horrific tragedy; by studying and discussing the findings, we can commemorate that history.
Another critique of the Rangers’ past is that they actively worked to maintain and support institutional white supremacy in Texas, namely in pursuing fugitive slaves and, later, in enforcing Jim Crow laws. In fact, from 1823 to 1865, the role of the Rangers was essentially as a military unit—not as a law enforcement agency—tasked with frontier defense against American Indian tribes engaged in a raid-and-trade economy that conflicted with the republic and later the state. There’s no evidence that there was an official Rangers directive to track runaway slaves—or any directive regarding slavery. Furthermore, recent scholarship has found no convincing evidence to support the often-repeated claim that one Ranger commander, James Hughes Callahan, led Rangers on a campaign to capture escaped slaves.
The modern era for the Texas Rangers started in 1935 with the creation of the Texas Department of Public Safety, of which the Texas Highway Patrol and the Texas Rangers would be members. The Texas Rangers of the Jim Crow era frequently defied Jim Crow norms and actively opposed the vigilantism of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist activities of that era—often under tremendous local criticism and public pressure. The 2021 Journal of American History book review of East Texas Troubles: The Allred Rangers’ Cleanup of San Augustine, demonstrates that the Texas Rangers were instrumental in bringing justice to African Americans in Jim Crow–era East Texas. The book clearly shows how Rangers investigated crimes committed by whites against African Americans, and notes that Rangers protected young African American men from lynch mobs. The 2016 biography of legendary Texas Ranger captain Frank Hamer, by attorney and author John Boessenecker, is a prime example: it shows that over the course of his career, he saved fifteen African Americans from lynch mobs. Numerous other works also document how Rangers aggressively defended the civil and due-process rights of African Americans during that dark period. There is evidence that many Rangers of that period were eager to intervene on behalf of Black Texans, but they were frequently notified too late by local authorities about incidents where they could have done good.
Investigative journalist Doug Swanson outlined these and other critiques of the Rangers in his 2020 book Cult of Glory. While well-received by the press, the book fell short with some Ranger scholars, who called it “agenda-driven” and “one-dimensional.” In reviewing it, Ranger historian Darren L. Ivey said the book “cherry picks information, plays fast and loose with details, applies a broad accusatory brush, and engages in a great deal of editorializing.” Richard B. McCaslin, professor of Texas history at the University of North Texas, called it “a good book if you want to understand the violence that swirled around the early settlers of Texas, and the legal conflicts that wracked the Lone Star State in the twentieth century,” but added that “the Rangers are not the most common source of this brutality.”
While it’s important to look back and examine ways in which some Rangers engaged in terrible acts, it is my hope that the Ranger bicentennial will inspire Texans to learn more about the Rangers, their whole history, and who they are today. History is complicated. We should read it, engage with it, and draw our own conclusions.
Russell Molina is chairman of Texas Ranger 2023, a committee organizing the bicentennial commemoration.