The Long Travails and Promises of Black Border Crossing

The Long Travails and Promises of Black Border Crossing

On September 19, 2021, Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographer Paul Ratje published vivid images of U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback forcefully corralling Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas.  When the images spread on social and news media, with commentators spotlighting the swinging leather strap in one agent’s hand, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promised his office would respond with “tremendous speed and tremendous force.”  President Joe Biden offered his own public condemnation: “It’s outrageous. I promise you those people will pay.  They will be investigated.  There will be consequences.”[1]

Historians have been quick to highlight the striking similarities between the images captured by the AFP photographer and those vividly painted in the testimonies of Black people enslaved in the 19th-century United States.  For some, the images conjured up the mounted, whip-wielding “patter rollers,” who struck fear into the hearts of the enslaved, especially those who grew old enough to share their personal narratives to New Deal program journalists during the mid-to-late 1930s.[2]  Of all the memories that endured the test of time, those of slave patroller violence – usually forged during childhood – remained poignant.  As Green Cumby remembered, “If de patter rolls cotch you without de pass…, you better wish you dead, ‘cause you would have yourself some trouble.”[3]

Photo of Sam Jones Washington, 1937. Washington was another former slave who highlighted the terror of slave patrollers in his testimony to a Federal Writers’ Project interviewer. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Del Rio images do more, however, than provoke the mid-19th-century terrorism of enslavers and enslaver-proxies in their quest to immobilize and subordinate enslaved Black communities across the U.S. South.  Perhaps more directly, the photographs remind us of the long, varied history of Black border crossing to and from Texas.  The Haitian migrants are by no means the first Black refugees to seek solace beyond the border, and their crossings certainly were not the first to unsettle government officials.  Since at least the 18th-century, Black border traversing in Texas has confounded state-building efforts, exposing both the ongoing violence of colonial (and postcolonial) communities and the inevitable porosity of imperial and national boundaries.[4]

Some of the earliest instances of Black border crossing likely occurred during the middle part of the 18th century, as far back as 1751, when Spanish officials contemplated the policy of liberating Black fugitives who escaped to Texas from French Louisiana.[5]  At the time, Spanish Texas was more a place of imperial instability than an obvious refuge for escapees, as both ambiguous colonial policy and the pronounced influence of Indigenous communities mitigated coordinated slave catching or extradition.  Within this context, fugitive esclavos were resourceful and adept. Whether they sought sanctuary among the Texas missionaries or banded together on their own in the woods, their efforts drove yet another wedge into Spanish-French relations.  Their border traversing stalled bureaucrats, frustrated colonial governors, and offered them at least a measure of relief from direct enslaver violence.[6]

In the decades that followed, after France ceded their Louisiana possessions to Spain, the imperial borders between the territories blurred.  This may have streamlined extradition processes for Spanish officials and enslavers, but Black fugitivity persisted nonetheless.[7]  When Louisiana switched colonial monikers yet again – from Spanish to French and finally to American – at the start of the 19th century, the imaginary borders of empires and nation-states became as untenable as ever.  Populations rapidly increased.  Communities moved and consolidated.  Production accelerated.  Goods flowed as never before.  Inter- and intra-community violence abounded.  And enslaved Black people took advantage.[8]  Even when Black freedom became as tenuous and uncertain as it had ever been in the borderlands – amid the mid-1830s Anglo-American slaveholder-led rebellion against Mexico – Black fugitives found ways to disrupt the prerogatives of their enslavers, enslaver-proxies, and sympathetic Mexican officials alike.[9]

By the mid-19th century, Black fugitivity and border traversing had become a scourge to Anglo-American Texas, the obvious limits of enslaver authority.[10]  “All we had to do was walk,… and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande,” Felix Haywood explained during the 1930s. “In Mexico you could be free.”[11]  Contemporaries claimed that the number of Black escapees to Mexico from the United States reached into the several thousand.[12]  The fact that some Black fugitives collaborated with displaced Mexican peones – border interlopers in their own right – only heightened the danger they posed to an ordered, White supremacist society.[13]  Naturally, enslavers and their allies responded by violating the supposed “sanctity” of the U.S.-Mexico border to re-enslave their runaway property. In one of the more infamous border-traversing incidents of the era, James Calhoun Callahan marched across the Río Grande with over 100 men to attack a well-known Black settlement, fought back a defensive force of 200 Mexican servicemen and their Native allies, and occupied the town of Piedras Negras, another home to Black escapees.  Although Callahan and his men were largely unsuccessful in their slave-hunting operations, before returning to Texas they set Piedras Negras ablaze, devastating the prominent Black refuge.  The 1855 Callahan expedition, conducted without official sanction, was ostensibly a retaliatory mission against resistant Lipan-Apaches – who were border traversers themselves – but the implications and message of his invasion and other slave-hunting activities were clear: only certain kinds of border crossings, by specific kinds of people, were permissible and righteous.[14]  By the 1860s, the inability of U.S. federal forces to halt the flow of Black bodies beyond their frontiers was yet another reason the (slave) State of Texas rejected the Union.[15]

C.E. Bonwill, “Our Mexican frontier – cotton press at Piedras Negras, on the Rio Grande, the centre of the rebel trade,” 1864. Piedras Negras was a key node in the Black freedom network in Mexico during the first half of the 19th century. During the U.S. Civil War, Confederates used the town to traffic cotton across the border to maintain the lucrative, slavery-based trade, despite the Union naval blockade. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Today, the impetus for Haitian border crossing lies more in structural disparities, globally instituted neoliberal policies, and persistent anti-Black racism rather than immediate escape from the personal violence and exploitation of White supremacist enslavers.[16]  Haiti’s existence, of course, stands as a monument, albeit an imperfect one, to slave resistance, and it would be grossly disingenuous to suggest that the struggles the Haitian people face in the 21st century, in Haiti itself or at the U.S.-Mexico border, have nothing to do with Haiti’s 300-year history of anti-Black slavery.  But there’s no need to elaborate those connections here.  U.S. Border Patrol agent responses to Haitian border traversing draw as much from a long internal history as from a foreign one.  State borders, whether they be national or colonial, exist not as static demarcations of territorial boundaries but as articulations of power.  The terms of border crossing – who can cross, when, and how – are historical; they reflect the changing imperatives of those in power, as well as the challenges they face to maintain it.  Sometimes, those challenges are a necessary path to an elusive freedom.

[1] Bill Chappell, “U.S. Border Agents Chased Migrants on Horseback. A  Photographer Explains What He Saw,” September 21, 2021, NPR,; Kevin Johnson, “DHS vows to have findings within ‘days’ in investigation of Border Patrol’s Treatment of Haitian Migrants,” September 22, 2021, USA TODAY,; Maureen Groppe, Joey Garrison, Rick Rouan, and Courtney Subramanian, “Biden Vows action for treatment of Haitian Migrants,” September 24, 2021, USA TODAY,

[2] Javonte Anderson, “Historians: Border Patrol Agent’s Treatment of Haitian Migrants Recalls Slavery-Era Whippings,” September 24, USA TODAY,

[3] Testimony of Green Cumby, in Federal Writers’ Project, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, Typewritten Records Prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, Assembled by the Library of Congress Project Work Projects Administration for the District of Columbia Sponsored by the Library of Congress (Washington, 1941), “Texas Narratives,” Volume XVI, Part 1, 260.  For all of the published narratives, see

[4] On the porosity of borders, see, for example, Jorge Bustamante, “Demystifying the United States-Mexico Border,” Journal of American History, Vol 79 (1992): 485-90.

[5] Ultimately, a Spanish war council argued that the policy, advocated by the Texas governor in 1751, was not “advisable, honest, or decorous… as this would serve to incite the anger of the French and to provoke… war.” Proceedings of the Junta de Guerra y Hacienda, January 21 and 22, 1754, Bexar Archives Online, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin,

[6] The Spanish Royal Decree of September 24, 1750, for instance, promised liberation of fugitives from Protestant empires, but local officials still felt bound to established extradition law, especially when the “offender” moved from Catholic empire to Catholic empire.  Opinion of the Marqués de Aranda, April 5, 1758, Bexar Archives Online; Bram Hoonhout and Thomas Mareite, “Freedom at the Fringes? Slave Flight and Empire-Building in the Early Modern Spanish Borderlands of Essequibo-Venezuela and Louisiana-Texas,” Slavery & Abolition, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2019): 62, 71; Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), 148.

[7] See, for instance, Luis de Blanc to Manuel Múñoz, April 26, 1793, Bexar Archives Online.  For an astute discussion of Black fugitivity and “the unpredictable movement of Black bodies,” see Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 108-24.

[8] On the economic and demographic changes of the period, see Andrés Reséndez, Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 51, 70-73, 93-123; Andrew J. Torget, Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformations of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 28, 35-36; Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 144-51; John Craig Hammon, “Slavery, Settlement, and Empire: The Expansion and Growth of Slavery in the Interior of the North American Continent, 1770-1820,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer, 2012): 175-206.  On the violence of the era, see Folsom, Arredondo, 69-76, 87-94; Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, Spanish Texas: 1519-1821, rev. ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 246-52;Thomas W. Kavanagh, Comanche Political History: An Ethnohistorical Perspective, 1706-1875 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 155-58.  For examples of Black fugitivity in the early 19th century, see: Nemesio Salcedo to José de Yturrigaray, January 23, 1805, Bexar Archives Online; Dionisio Valle to Juan Bautista de Elguézabal, September 19, 1805, Nemesio Salcedo to Manuel Antonio Cordero, November 4, 1805, August 14, 1806, and July 6, 1807, Francisco Viana to Manuel Antonio Cordero, July 29, August 12, September 10, and October 11, 1807, and May 1, 1808, Testimonies of fugitive negros Juan Luis, Margarita, Luis, Narciso, Ambrosio, Luis, and Perri, January 21, 1808, all in Bexar Archives Manuscripts, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin; Hoonhout and Mareite, “Freedom at the Fringes?,” 73-77; James David Nichols, The Limits of Liberty: Mobility and the Making of the Eastern U.S.-Mexico Border (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 58-67.

[9] Max Floman, “The Long War for Texas: Maroons, Renegades, Warriors, and Alternative Emancipations in the Southwest Borderlands, 1835-1845,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar. 2021): 40-42.

[10] Alice L. Baumgartner (South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War [New York: Basic Books, 2020]) even argues that Black border crossing in Texas contributed to the sectionalism that led to the U.S. Civil War.  Also see Nichols, The Limits of Liberty, 118-22, 134-43, 155-61; Sean M. Kelley, “‘Mexico in His Head’: Slavery and the Texas-Mexico Border, 1810-1860,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Spring, 2004): 709-23.

[11] Testimony of Felix Haywood, FWP “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 132.

[12] Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey through Texas; or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier: With a Statistical Appendix (New York: Dix, Edwards & Co., 1857), 323-25; The Texas State Times (Austin), June 2, 1855.

[13] Texas State Gazette (Austin), September 2, 9, 23, and October 14, 1854, and December 12, 1857; Standard (Clarksville), September 9, and October 21, 1854; Nichols, The Limits of Liberty, 162; Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez, River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands (Durham: Duke University, 2013), 185

[14] Ronnie C. Tyler, “The Callahan Expedition of 1855: Indians or Negroes?,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Apr., 1967): 574-85; Nichols, The Limits of Liberty, 170-88, 196-201; Baumgartner, South to Freedom,212-13.  For other (including Hispanic) slave-hunting efforts along the border, see Jerry Thompson, Tejano Tiger: José de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823-1891 (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 2017), 74-75.

[15] This was articulated at the 1861 Texas Secession Convention.  William Winkler, ed., Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas, 1861 (Austin: Austin Printing Company, 1912) 34, 62-64.  After the war, many defeated White Southerners believed their sanctuary lay south of the border.  See Todd Wahlstrom, The Southern Exodus to Mexico: Migration across the Borderlands after the American Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

[16] Mabinty Quarshie and Javonte Anderson, “Del Rio Migrant Crisis: How Did So Many Haitians End Up at the Southern US Border?,” September 21, 2021, USA TODAY,; Uriel J. García, “‘We Suffered a Lot to Get Here’: A Haitian Migrant’s Harrowing Journey to the Texas-Mexico Border,” October 1, 2021, The Texas Tribune,



Paul Barba

Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016. His first book project, tentatively titled Country of the Cursed and the Driven: Slavery and the Texas Borderlands, tracks and analyzes the multiple forms of slaving violence that emerged, dominated, and intersected throughout Texas from the early eighteenth century into the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is currently under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. Prior to Bucknell, Dr. Barba served as a managing editor at the Journal of Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos.

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