San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas
Email Email | Print Print --

May 31st, 2012
Bartee Haile: Gov. Hobby declares martial law in Galveston

This Week in Texas History: A column

Meeting behind closed doors with William P. Hobby on Jun. 2, 1920, worried Galveston business leaders begged the governor to do something before striking dockworkers strangled the Island economy.

Will Hobby was elected lieutenant governor six years earlier at the politically tender age of 26. When controversial James E. Ferguson was removed from office in September 1917, the Beaumont newspaperman became the youngest governor in Lone Star history.

Though never strong statewide, organized labor packed a powerful punch in Galveston after the First World War. The decisive union vote produced a bumper crop of city officials, who were expected to return the favor.

The International Longshoremen’s Association struck for higher wages in March 1920 and quickly paralyzed Atlantic and Gulf Coast shipping. The 1,600 members of the Galveston ILA local, employees of Morgan and Mallory Lines, joined the walkout and brought the busy harbor to its knees.

When nonunion laborers showed up in May to move the mountain of accumulated freight, pitched battles were fought on the picket line. Luckless “scabs” caught it coming and going. Beaten in broad daylight by the strikers, pro-union police then arrested them for vagrancy.

Racial tensions shortened the fuse on the dangerous powder keg. The ILA majority was black, while most of the strikebreakers were white. After the opening round of violence, vigilante groups formed on both sides.

A mob attack on the Houston interurban, a trolley line connecting Galveston with the mainland, brought in the Texas Rangers. Citing the chaotic conditions in the city, the famed lawmen requested reinforcements.

Following the Jun. 2 emergency meeting, Gov. Hobby took the bull by the horns and gave Galveston officials 72 hours to put their house in order or face martial law. The legislature backed up the ultimatum with a $100,000 appropriation to cover the cost of a possible occupation.

The mayor of Galveston called the governor’s bluff. In a terse telegram, he laid his rebellious cards on the table and challenged Hobby to make good his threat.

Bright and early on Monday, Jun. 7, 1920, the governor declared Galveston to be under an immediate state of martial law. Within hours over 500 citizen troops, most World War I combat veterans, patrolled the streets, and by the middle of the week a thousand National Guardsmen were camped on the beach.

City commissioners protested the action as “the biggest outrage ever perpetuated on a peaceful city,” but most residents welcomed the return of law and order. The Galveston News, which praised the intervention, extended a tongue-in-cheek invitation to upstate Texans to come and enjoy not only “the finest surf bathing in the world, but also the nicest martial law on earth.”

Under the watchful eye of the National Guard, the idle docks came to life. Waiting ships were loaded, and the crisis seemed to pass.

The Guard contingent was cut in half in early July, and the end of military rule appeared imminent. However, strike-inspired mayhem flared again, and as usual the police looked the other way.

Angered by the brazen defiance, Hobby cracked down hard. The Galveston chief of police and his entire department were suspended, and the beefed-up Guard assumed all law enforcement duties.

Criticism of the occupation was not confined to Galveston city hall. Assailed as unwanted invaders, the military authorities were a daily target of the Houston Press. Brigadier General Jacob F. Wolters, the Guard commander, was sarcastically nicknamed “King Jake” and “General Disappointment.”

In retaliation a thin-skinned National Guard officer ordered the arrest of Press editor G.V. Sanders. The result was a bizarre episode right out of a slapstick comedy.

On the evening of Aug. 30, three plainclothes Guardsmen appeared miles out of their jurisdiction at the front steps of the Houston Country Club. Answering an anonymous summons, the unsuspecting Sanders was suddenly seized by the trio.

Several Houston notables, including the mayor and city attorney, responded to the editor’s screams. By the time the Guardsmen produced the warrant for his arrest on the charge of “circulating incendiary articles,” the fast-thinking newspaperman squirmed loose and sprinted for home across the golf course.
After four months of martial law, Hobby and the apologetic city fathers finally came to terms. Relinquishing control of the Island to the Rangers, the Guardsmen boarded a couple of chartered trains and waved goodbye to the hundreds of grateful Galvestonians who came to see them off.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or

Email Email | Print Print


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *