The city of Raymondville is a small town that people usually just pass by, but almost 100 years ago, the city made history for being the first city in Texas to have peonage cases brought against it.
During times of labor shortage the practice included charging people with homelessness in order to force them into labor.
Farmers paid off their fines and then had the prisoners work off the debt by picking cotton, often under armed supervision.
“You can think of it, in a way, of almost slavery,” said Sean Visintainer, Head of Special Collections at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“They were tried at roadside courts or they weren’t actually given the opportunity to have a trial or plead,” Visintainer said. “Instead they were issued fines, fines they couldn’t pay because they were cash poor.”
The cases involved Mexican, black, and Anglo cotton pickers who had been forced into servitude by Willacy County sheriff’s officers.
“The Department of Labor investigated them and then the chargers were pressed against members of the Willacy County Police force as well as farmers from the area,” he said.
The peonage cases were tried in Nueces County Federal Court in 1927, Willacy County Sheriff Raymond Teller, who is a well-known figure in the peonage cases, tried to justify his actions by claiming it was not an unknown way of life for Mexicans.
In addition to the charge of peonage, Sheriff Teller was tried that same year as an accessory to the murder of five men.