Raymondville Peonage Trial (1927)
Peonage, or debt slavery or debt servitude, was a system where an employer compelled a worker to pay off a debt through labor. The practice was outlawed in the United States with the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867. However, this system of forced labor continued to thrive after during the period of Reconstruction, and often times, the abuse of labor when unreported and unprosecuted.
Poor people, immigrants, and people of color were disproportionately targeted by wealthier often white business owners. Once "employed" peonage laborers were deterred from escaping (threats of violence, legal action, or additional debt), and in some cases, prevented from escaping by chains, dogs, and armed guards.
In Willacy County in 1926, Sheriff Raymond Teller, Carl Brandt, Frank Brandt, Justice of the Peace Floyd Dodd, L. K. Stockwell, C. S. Stockwell, Roger F. Robinson, Deputy Sheriff William Hargrove, C. A. Johnson, and R. D. Riesdorph, were charged with violation of the federal peonage law. The subsequent investigation in Raymondville uncovered 400+ cases where people charged and fined for vagrancy, and their fines were paid off by farmers, who with the help of the county sheriff forced them to pick cotton to repy their debt.
The case was brought to trial in Nueces County in 1927 when an additional of accessories to brutal murder were brought against Sheriff Teller and Frank Brandt. The five victims included Tomás Núñez and his two sons, who were in Willacy County Sheriff's custody when they were taken by an angry mob, tortured, and killed.
Sheriff Teller was convicted in February 1927 and sentenced to 18 months in prison at Leavenworth, KS. While in prison he submitted to run again for Willacy County sheriff. He was released from prison in July 1928 and returned home to a caravan of supporters, a party, and a new car.
- The Persistence of Racist Violence in the Rio Grande Valley, 1921-1927, by Vincent Alexander Larralde. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2022. 29253901.
4 YOUTHS TESTIFY ON TEXAS PEONAGE: Accuse Willacy County Officials of Arrests to Force Them to Pick Cotton. New York Times, 1927 February 2, p.2.