RAYMONDVILLE PEONAGE CASES
RAYMONDVILLE PEONAGE CASES. The Raymondville peonage cases, which were the first of their kind in Texas history, were tried in the Nueces County federal court in January 1927. Residents of Willacy County were arraigned for violation of federal statutes prohibiting peonage. Among the defendants were Sheriff Raymond Teller, Carl Brandt, Frank Brandt, Justice of the Peace Floyd Dodd, L. K. Stockwell, C. S. Stockwell, Roger F. Robinson, Deputy Sheriff William Hargrove, C. A. Johnson, and R. D. Riesdorph. Although the practice was illegal, peonage labor was used during the early twentieth century in some counties of South Texas, where it had become common to force laborers, usually Mexican or African Americans but also whites, to work off debts owed to farmers. During times of labor shortage the practice included charging individuals with vagrancy in order to force them into labor; "friendly farmers" paid off their fines and then had the prisoners work off the debt by picking cotton, often under armed guard. The government investigation found more than 400 such vagrancy cases filed in the Raymondville court.
The farmers of South Texas had not encountered obstacles to the practice of peonage until 1926. In that year the federal government intervened when Allen Nichols, a former page in the House of Representatives, and Leonard Swanson, from Washington, D.C., were subjected to peonage in Willacy County. The federal government was able to make a case against the sheriff's office and farmers with the use of testimony by the two men, who were deemed credible witnesses for the prosecution. The cases involved Mexican, black, and Anglo cotton pickers who had been forced into servitude by Willacy County sheriff's officers. They caused a sensation throughout the cotton region of South Texas. During the trial Hargrove stated that he had arrested Nichols and Swanson for vagrancy because they had charged groceries and not paid. He and the other defendants denied being party to the use of arrests to aid farmers in securing labor. However, Hargrove's further testimony indicated that he did not know the legal definition of vagrancy. The trial resulted in convictions for Teller, Carl Brandt, Frank Brandt, Dodd, and L. K. Stockwell and acquittals for C. S. Stockwell, Robinson, and Riesdorph. Sentences ranged from one to eighteen months. The convicted men received much sympathy from their communities, and the sheriff was even given a celebration upon his release from jail. A feeling shared throughout the county was that farmers had to protect their investments through some sort of law. Furthermore, Sheriff Teller stated that Mexicans often would ask to be arrested in order to have a roof to sleep under and that peonage was not an unknown way of life for them.
In addition to the charge of peonage, Teller and Frank Brandt were tried that year as accessories to the murder of Tomás Núñez and four other men in Willacy County. During the Nuñez murder trial it was established that Teller's sympathizers were harassing witnesses for the prosecution in the peonage cases. The sheriff argued that the murder charges brought against him were simply a political move to blacken his name before the peonage case trial and that the murder trial was instigated by his enemies, the "independents," to discredit him. During the murder trial he stated that there was nothing to the peonage cases and that if he had filed formal charges against the Mexicans arrested for loafing and let them stay out their fines in jail at the state's expense, he would not have gotten into such a mess. Other suspicious incidents occurred in the matter. An attorney who helped with the case against the defendants and served as a witness in the trial was beaten, and other witnesses declared they had been harassed in an attempt to keep them from testifying. Although half the defendants were found guilty of peonage, the general view in the county was that they had acted in an acceptable manner. The farmworkers' lives changed little.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, February 2, 3, 4, 7, 1927. David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Oliver Douglas Weeks Collection, LULAC Archive, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.