At the end of the Civil War, a new nation seemed to be on the horizon. Emancipation and the beginning of Reconstruction signaled a shift in national, state, and local institutions across the country. The Reconstruction Era, though certainly flawed, offered potential equality for Black and white citizens. During this period of immense change, Black men began to vote and entered positions of power previously denied to them. Formerly enslaved and freed men were elected to public office only a few years after the abolition of slavery.
In Texas, voters elected African American legislators throughout Reconstruction, including fifty-two at the state level. Comprised of farmers, businessmen, preachers, teachers, and lawyers, each of these men had different backgrounds. Though many were denied formal education by their enslavers, most were literate, and all joined the Republican, often referred to as the Radical, Party. Through their positions, they sought to improve the lives of Black people whose opportunities remained scarce after emancipation. For many, postwar freedom in Texas meant sharecropping and tenant farming for low wages, often under the supervision of former enslavers. Many Black officials during Reconstruction endeavored to address these oppressions and provide resources to those in need.
Shep Mullens, one of these Black officials in Texas, resided in Waco. Born enslaved in 1828 in Lawrence County, Alabama, Mullens’s white enslavers relocated to Texas in 1854. They eventually moved to Waco by 1860, where Mullens remained following emancipation. On August 23, 1867, he registered to vote in McLennan County. That same year, General Charles Griffin, a military leader stationed in the previously Confederate state, appointed Mullens to County Commissioner and Voter Registrar. Griffin, who worked for the Freedman’s Bureau of Texas, registered Black and white voters throughout the state, and refused to recognize public officials who had previously worked on behalf of the Confederacy.
After Mullens’s appointment in 1867, voters elected him to the Constitutional Convention of 1868-69, where he filled the seat of a deceased member who previously represented McLennan, Falls, and Bell Counties. There, he served as a member of the Public Lands, Commerce, and Manufactures Committees. Following this election, General Joseph John Reynolds, who succeeded General Griffin, again selected Mullens as County Commissioner of McLennan County. Republican Party members and local voters saw Mullens as a promising, rising politician.
In 1869, Republicans appointed Mullens to Republican Party leader of McLennan County, and voters elected him to a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. He took the oath of office for the Twelfth Legislature on February 8, 1870. That legislature included the largest number of Black senators and representatives as well as the only Republican majority in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras. During his tenure, Mullens served on the Privileges and Elections Committee as well as the Federal Relations and Immigration Committees. He also advocated for integrated, state-funded public education. Additionally, he sought to establish the Texas State Police and a militia to subdue violence, often initiated by white Americans against Black Americans, throughout the state. In 1870, the New Era, an African American newspaper, praised his efforts and declared that “[there] is no more earnest worker in the Republican ranks, and no man in his district possesses the confidence of the people to a greater extent than does Mr. Mullens.”
Mullens also worked as a blacksmith in Waco. Local tax rolls convey that he owned $1,174 worth of property, including two lots in the city. County marriage records also report that Mullens married Sallie “Agnes” Downs, a formerly enslaved woman in Texas, on December 26, 1866. Together, they had a daughter named Mary, born prior on April 22, 1858.
On August 6, 1871, Mullens passed away unexpectedly at the age of forty-two. He was buried in Waco at First Street Cemetery, and his elected positions remained unfilled as Reconstruction fell apart in Texas and throughout the country. A result of the Compromise of 1877, Reconstruction ended with an informal agreement between Southern Democrats and the Republican Party. Republicans, seeking Democratic approval of the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes, agreed to remove federal troops stationed in previous Confederate states. Though roughly two thousand Black men held positions at the local, state, and federal levels throughout Reconstruction, those numbers dramatically declined following 1877.
After the Compromise, white Americans overthrew Reconstruction-era governments, disenfranchised Black voters, and removed Black men from public office. In some states, white leaders attempted to eliminate Black politicians’ names from the historical record. As a result, little information remains about many of these men, their time in office, or their lives in general.
In Texas, following Mullens’s passing in 1871, white leaders and voters removed all Black officials from office by 1883. Not until 1966, following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the election of Barbara Jordan, would Texas be represented by another Black American. Though some documentation remains, many of their legacies remain sparse, including that of Mullens. His story, in some ways, lost—like the Reconstruction efforts of the late nineteenth century.
Note: Different documents contain varied spellings of Shep Mullens’s name. These include Shep, Shepherd, Sheppard, or Shepart, and Mullens or Mullins.