Border Studies at EPCC
NW Library and EPCC Links
Other Local Libraries
We do NOT have the resources to assist with genealogical research.
For GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH please contact:
*El Paso Genealogical Society
L. A. Nixon Fought Texas Voting Law
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Sandra Pierce
He received his medical degree in 1906 but could not join the Texas or El Paso County Medical Societies until 1955. In 1924, he tested the Texas law prohibiting blacks from voting in Democratic primaries and waited 20 years to vote in one. He was 80 when the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 passed, guaranteeing all Americans equal opportunity in employment and public accommodations. In his lifetime, Lawrence A. Nixon saw great, albeit slow, changes in the legal system regarding the treatment of black people in El Paso, the state of Texas and the rest of the nation.
Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon. Photo courtesy of McCall Neighborhood Center
Born in 1884 in Marshall, Texas, Nixon grew up in comfortable surroundings, living in New Orleans for several years and attending private school. His father, Charles Nixon, served as chief steward of a private railroad car operated and owned by the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Back in Marshall, L.A. Nixon continued his elementary, high school and undergraduate college training at Wiley College.
The Nixon children not only had excellent educations, they also had the opportunity to travel by rail with passes afforded by their father's job. In 1894, Nixon and his mother visited her brother, a barber, in El Paso. The trip stayed in the 10-year-old's memory and influenced the course of his life and the future of El Paso.
Nixon worked as a cabinetmaker and Pullman porter to earn the money that he needed for college. He started practicing medicine in Cameron, 50 miles southeast of Waco. He married his childhood sweetheart, Esther Calvin, and in 1909, their son Lawrence Joseph was born.
Late that same year, Nixon would witness the public lynching of a black man by a crazed mob unwilling to wait for a trial. This incident would intensify his search for greater freedom and human rights. Remembering the trip in 1894 and believing El Paso would prove safer to live in and practice medicine, Nixon and his friend, Reverend Le Roy White, moved the doctor's family to this town.
Upon reaching El Paso, Nixon found that the schools were segregated, as they were all over Texas. Most restaurants and theaters denied him entrance, and he was not able to live in many parts of town. The El Paso County Medical Society rejected his application for membership year after year, not because he lacked medical qualifications, but because of his color.
In 1910 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was organized, Dr. Nixon and Reverend White joined, giving El Paso one of the early chapters of the organization.
Despite racial restriction, his medical practice prospered. He located his first office at 101 South Campbell Street, later purchasing a building for his home and office at 2029 Myrtle Avenue. He also secured the site next door for building the Myrtle Avenue Methodist Church. However, he was powerless to save his wife who died in the flu epidemic that claimed thousands of Americans in 1918.
When the NAACP began looking for someone to test the 1923 Texas law which forbade blacks to vote in Democratic prime elections, they chose Nixon. He was an active Democrat, a regular voter and a charter member of the NAACP, He also could help pay the costs of the lawsuit, and, most importantly, he did not fear the future.
On May 7, 1924, Nixon voted in a bond election, knowing that he would not be permitted to vote on July 26 in the Democratic primary.
Conrey Bryson's book entitled Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and the White Primary, recalls Nixon's encounter with election officials. Dr. Nixon said, "The judges were friends of mine. They inquired after my health, and when I presented my poll tax receipt, one of them said, "Dr. Nixon, you know we can't let you vote." "I know you can't," Dr. Nixon replied, "but I've got to try."
After this incident, El Paso attorney Fred C. Knollenberg filed a suit in Nixon's name in U. S. District Court. Although it was necessary to sue the election judges, Bryson writes that Knollenberg said, "I am not going to enforce collection of any sums of money against the defendants who are victims of a vicious law. The object of this suit is to get an adjudication in the Supreme Court."
In December 1924, the judge dismissed the case, arguing that a primary was not an election under the Constitution but merely a method whereby political parties agreed on candidates to run for election. Nixon's lawyers asked the Supreme Court to reverse the verdict, claiming the judge had erred in dismissing the case without trial. On March 7, 1927, the Supreme Court ruled in Nixon's favor with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing the court's majority opinion. On Feb. 1, 1928, a twelve-man jury returned a verdict in Nixon's favor, awarding him damages of one dollar. The first battle had been won.
In 1928, the Democratic State Executive Committee of Texas passed a resolution stating that "all white Democrats would be allowed to vote in the primary election in July of 1928." Nixon went to the polls in July as he always did and once more was turned away.
A second suit was filed, this time against the Democratic Executive Committee members. Again the judge dismissed the suit, arguing that the Democratic Party of Texas was a voluntary organization and thus could determine the qualifications of its members. Once more, Knollenberg took the case to the Supreme Court, where, in 1932, a majority found in Nixon's favor and reversed the case.
Nixon once again won damages of one dollar in the El Paso court against election judges. In the meantime, the Texas Democratic Convention had passed a resolution allowing only white Texans to become members of the Democratic party and to participate in its activities.
Nixon and Knollenberg had made progress, but every victory was matched with a new maneuver by the Democrats. Meanwhile, Dr. Nixon continued trying to vote in Democratic primaries with no success.
It would take another case similar to Nixon's, Smith v. Allwright, originating in Houston and eventually going to the Supreme Court, before the justices would take the stand that a primary was an election and a political party was an agency of the state and thus could not discriminate by race. On July 22, 1944, twenty years after first being denied the right to vote in a Democratic primary, Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and his wife, Drusilla, presented their poll tax receipts and voted.
While the court battles dragged on, Nixon had met Drusilla Tandy Porter of Toledo, Ohio, who had come to El Paso for the climate. Over a six-year period, the two became friends and eventually married in 1935. The Reverend Le Roy White performed the ceremony, nearly 25 years after their move to El Paso.
In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education forced the desegregation of schools, and in 1955, Thelma White won the right to be admitted to Texas Western College, causing public universities in Texas to open their doors to blacks.
The Nixon family, deeply devoted to education, welcomed these decisions. Nixon's son, a Douglass school graduate, attended the University of California and became a journalist. Mrs. Nixon's oldest daughter, Dorothy, graduated with honors from Douglass High School and received a master's degree from the Yale University School of Nursing.
Edna, the first daughter of the Nixon marriage, was one of the first black students at El Paso's Loretto Academy, where she graduated with honors and went on to Texas Western College. She married Dr. W. J. McIver, a few days after he received his medical degree in 1962 from Meharry College, her father's alma mater. Dr. Nixon attended the graduation on the 56th anniversary of his own graduation.
In June 1962, El Paso's City Council passed a public accommodations ordinance, making first-class hotels, restaurants and places of entertainment accessible to blacks. But it was not until December of 1969 that the city adopted an ordinance providing open access for all races to the purchase and rental of housing.
On March 6, 1966, Lawrence Nixon died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident a month before. Friends and admirers of various races and backgrounds praised the physician for his dedication to civil rights, his generosity to the El Paso community and his gentle demeanor.
Bryson quotes Mrs. Johnny Calvert, a former Douglass teacher, at a special memorial service commemorating Negro History Week on February 4, 1968: "For his beautiful life we pay tribute to this man who was not born great, nor did he have greatness thrust upon him. He achieved greatness! Not through his profession, but through honorable conduct and a noble disposition."
"Dr. L.A. Nixon was one of the most humble men I have ever known. ...Never from meeting him and talking with him would one suspect that he was famous. Yet ...his name is familiar to every student of Constitutional history. It was Dr. Nixon who challenged a law enacted by the Texas legislature denying Negroes the right to vote in primary elections."
Mrs. Nixon, who moved to Albuquerque to live with their daughter Edna, died on May 10, 1991.
To honor this man, El Paso named a street and a school after him. Nixon Way runs eastward from Douglass School, and Nixon Elementary is located at 11141 Loma Roja Drive in the El Paso district -- both tributes to a man whose life shows that persistence and hard work can effect change.