Bud Kennedy

The Texas governor who hated Thanksgiving

Gov. O.M. Roberts refused to declare Thanksgiving.
Gov. O.M. Roberts refused to declare Thanksgiving. State Preservation Board

Texas used to be called “The Friendly State.”

Not so much anymore.

Not when the lieutenant governor chooses Thanksgiving Day for a news release that labeled Syrian refugee families an “outrageous” safety risk and called rejecting them “courageous.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s holiday nastygram was sent at noon, about when Texans were sitting down to ample dinners of turkey, sweet potatoes and pie.

Friendly? Sure, we’re friendly — as long as you’re not of some other ethnicity, or nationality, or religion or from Washington.

This wasn’t even the first time a Texas leader was a grump about Thanksgiving.

From 1879 to 1882, we had a governor who refused to declare the holiday.

Gov. O.M. Roberts hated it.

Roberts, a former Confederate officer and chairman of the Texas secession convention before the Civil War, considered the day an unwelcome federal mandate from Union Republicans in Washington.

He called it a “damned Yankee institution.”

Since the Revolutionary War, President George Washington and others had declared days of thanksgiving, but the November date was originally fixed in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln for wartime thanks and prayer.

Not until 1868, after the war, did Texas first celebrate Thanksgiving. Even then, the Austin State Gazette mocked the day and asked why Texans should ever celebrate “Reconstruction, the 14th amendment and [n-word] voting.”

By 1881, Roberts had risen to Texas Supreme Court justice and then governor. Other state governors had issued special Thanksgiving declarations calling for prayer for President James Garfield, who lay slowly dying from an assassin’s bullet.

Instead, Roberts declined.

He called Thanksgiving a “religious exercise” and said prayer wasn’t a government function. In an interview with a forerunner of The Dallas Morning News, he worried the day was “monarchizing” the presidency and federal government.

Northern newspapers did not take it well.

The Cleveland Dealer called Roberts an “unrepentant rebel and traitor.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that he “seems determined to keep up his state’s record for barbarism.”

Even the Southern New Orleans Times called him “the most consummate demagogue … pandering to the worst prejudices.”

But in Northeast Texas, the Clarksville Standard praised the governor’s “manly strength” against “puny sentimentalism.”

Texans responded by defiantly giving thanks.

Dallas leaders called Roberts an “old fossil.” Church leaders vowed to go ahead with prayers.

Roberts went on to great accomplishments. He oversaw the first school finance system and the laying of the University of Texas cornerstone.

But a 1907 Star-Telegram story calls him a Texas hero while adding casually that his slogan was “ ‘Civilization begins and ends with the plow’ — the motto of the Aryan race.”

Maybe we never were so friendly.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.