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HISTORICAL – Conroe College’s Grand Vision of 1905

Undated photo of Conroe Normal and Industrial College faculty and staff.

Undated photo of Conroe Normal and Industrial College faculty and staff.

From its founding in 1903, Conroe Normal and Industrial College was on the cutting edge of trends in African American education. Among its early leaders were persons of renown throughout the state and beyond. One of these leaders, John Baptis Rayner, promoted an idea unique to the whole Southland, an idea that should resonate strongly today as a bridge to racial harmony. Prepare to be amazed at the vision nurtured at the Conroe College in 1905.

Born a slave in North Carolina, Rayner first made his mark in Texas as a mover and shaker in the Populist Party of the late 19th century. The party emerged amidst the growing strength of Jim Crow laws eclipsing incipient gains made for African Americans in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The populists initially joined forces with the heirs of Lincoln, the Republicans. When even that party came to embrace discrimination on the eve of the 20th century, the populists lost their strength. A significant result lay in the reassessment of socio-political strategy among African American leaders.

Moving into this power vacuum, Booker T. Washington made popular a strategy featuring African Americans promoting racial harmony through modeling hard-working Christian lifestyles. Consequently, Rayner and his Conroe College colleagues set the motto of their curriculum as “educating the conscience, hand and head.” The program centered on enhancing the internal moral compass of students through meaningful physical labor to raise the consciousness of both black and white America to the value of interracial harmony.

Rayner’s vision found coverage in the important media outlets of the day. Among my sources are the Dallas Morning News of May 28, 1905 and The Southern Mercury and Farmers Union Password, Oct 5, 1905. Integral to the vision was a “Hall of Faithfulness” honoring slaves who remained loyal, providing protection and sustenance to white families who were absent their fathers and brothers during the Civil War. Thus was the theme of enlightened conscience and Christian compassion portrayed, bridging the racial divide.

Giving substance to the vision, Rayner sought to erect on the Conroe campus a four-story building to serve as a memorial to former slaves and a home for those yet alive. For his efforts, Rayner received unanimous endorsement and a financial contribution from the John H. Reagan Branch of Confederate Veterans. Though further encouraged by news stories all over the state and even official endorsement from the state legislature, the idea never reached fruition.

We are left, however, with a true story of racial harmony with representatives of all elements of Texas Society in common accord, for a while. It boggles the imagination to dwell on the potential, for Conroe and the whole country, should the project have come to pass.


Author Robin Navarro Montgomery, Ph.D., is a member of the Montgomery and Walker County Historical Commissions, chair of the latter and author of numerous books and articles.
Contact him at zippoboo@aol.com.





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