Friday, February 5, 2021

Eristus Sams (1913-1990)

Portrait from Ebony Magazine, November 1975.

  February is Black History Month and with that comes a month-long theme of curiously named African-American political figures. We start this month in Texas with Eristus Sams, a former instructor in physical education at Prairie View A & M University who was active in politics in Waller County. In 1961 Sams became the first black man in modern Texas history to launch a statewide bid for the U.S. Senate, and in the year following was a Democratic candidate for Waller County Judge. While he may have lost both those races, Sams achieved political victory in 1970 when he took office as mayor of Prairie View, Texas, holding that office until 1984.
  Born in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana on January 9, 1913, Eristus Sams was the son of John (1888-1951) and Viola (Bolt) Sams (1889-1967). Little information could be found on his early years, excepting note of his family's removal to Beaumont, Jefferson County, Texas. In the 1920s he worked on a dairy farm in Beaumont, a period that inspired a lifelong love of agriculture. In the 1930s Sams was a student at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he excelled on the football field. Sams and his Golden Tiger teammates were profiled in the Birmingham Herald shortly before their visit to Houston, where they took on Prairie View College, with the Herald noting:
"While the team is made up of players from all sections of the United States, there is only one Texas man in the lineup, Eristus Sams, halfback, from Beaumont. Sams, who has been playing great ball all season, is expected to stand out in the game on New Year's Day. He is rated as one of the best halfbacks in the Southern Conference. This flashy native son will see plenty of action when Tuskegee tackles Prairie View."
   Sams's time at Tuskegee also saw him as a member of the school's track team, and in May 1936 placed second with his team in the two-mile college relay and the one-mile relay, held during the 10th annual Tuskegee Carnival. All told, Sams played halfback for the Golden Tigers between 1934-38, and in 1937 received further honors when he was "placed on the All-American football team by several sportswriters." In 1938 Sams graduated with his degree in agriculture. During the Second World War he enlisted in the coast guard, and of the seventy enlistees was one of ten African-Americans to enlist in June 1942. These ten men were acknowledged by the Fort Work Star-Telegram as having been "the first of their race to be inducted as regular apprentice seaman. Heretofore recruiting openings for Negroes had been restricted to the mess attendant division." Sams's service in the guard saw him as an instructor in self-defense, as well as an instructor in boxing, being stationed at the Manhattan Beach Coast Guard Training Station. As a boxing instructor, Sams was an assistant to former world champion boxer Jack Dempsey (1895-1983), who was then a lieutenant in the Coast Guard Reserve.
  In the 1940s Eristus Sams married Annie Vivian Jackson (1916-2010), to who he was wed until his death. The couple had three children, Rosetta (1944-1996), Dalzenia, and Michael Eristus.

Eristus Sams referees a boxing match between pro boxers Lou Ambers and Marty Servo.

  Following his Coast Guard service, Eristus Sams returned to Texas, where he became a physical education instructor at Prairie View A&M College. During this time he began farming, which he later pursued full time. Specializing in corn farming, by the mid-1950s Sams's farm in Waller County comprised 300 acres of land, and in a 1955 Alabama Tribune article concerning his work, made note that he wasn't satisfied until "his corn yield averages 80 to 90 bushels per acre." The Tribune further remarked that:
"In addition to growing 250 acres of feed corn, Mr. Sams also is raising 50 acres of certified hybrid seed corn to help keep the farmers in the Gulf Coast area of Texas growing hybrid corn. He is the only colored farmer in Texas growing certified hybrid corn."
From the Waco Tribune-Herald, April 2, 1961.
   In 1961 Sams made his first move into politics, announcing his candidacy for the United States Senate. Filing his papers in February of that year, this special primary election had been occasioned by the resignation of Lyndon Johnson, who'd been elected vice president the previous November. In a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article highlighting his candidacy, Sams detailed his campaign platform, "get big business out of farming", remarking that big business interference in farming "constituted unfair competition with the little man." 
  As the first black man in modern Texas history to run for a U.S. Senate seat, Sams took to the campaign trail, touting his wanting to aid the small farmer. In this candidacy, Sams faced an uphill battle, as he was one of over seventy candidates vying for the nomination. On primary election day in April Sams placed seventh in the vote count, polling 4,490 votes. The winning candidate, John G. Tower, went on to face incumbent senator William Blakley that May and emerged victorious at the polls
  Undeterred by defeat, Sams announced his bid for Waller County judge in the year following his senatorial bid and was profiled in the Brookshire Times. Announcing his support for the "present administration in Washington", Sams detailed his anti-communist stance, as well as his favoring a "balanced budget and a pay as you go plan". One of four candidates vying for judge, Sams was defeated in the May primary by Ralph Walters, who polled 803 votes to Sams's 548.

From the Brookshire Times, April 26, 1962.

  Following his defeat, Sams returned to farming and reemerged on the political scene in 1969, when he announced his candidacy for mayor of Prairie View. He was elected that year and began his first term in 1970. In total, Sams served fourteen years as mayor, and during his tenure served at various times as secretary of the National Conference of Black Mayors and was president of that organization's  Texas chapter. Additionally, Sams led a thirteen-year fight to give students and Prairie A&M College the right to vote, and in 1979 saw his efforts acknowledged when the U.S. Supreme Court decided:
"That a residency questionnaire arbitrarily implemented by county officials discriminated against students at the predominately black institution."
  The latter period of Sams's mayoralty saw him named to the Texas Family Farm Advisory Council for 1980-81, and in 1982 survived an attempt to oust him from office, originating from politically motivated charges leveled by members of the city council that he had misused city funds. Upon an order from district judge Oliver Kitzman, Sams was restored as mayor and served until leaving office in 1984. 
 Following his last term, Eristus Sams continued residence in Prairie View until his death at age 77 on October 11, 1990, following a heart attack. He was survived by his wife and children and was interred at the Martha Godfrey Cemetery in Chambers County, Texas.

From the Greenwood South Carolina Index-Journal, October 15, 1990.

No comments:

Post a Comment