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The monuments and paintings of Confederate leaders that adorn the Texas Capitol became a subject of debate last year as Senate Republicans approved a bill that would have made it harder to remove or relocate historic monuments, including those memorializing Confederate figures.
Those discussions resumed last month during a hearing of a Senate committee empaneled by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick charged with reviewing the history of the Confederate portraits in the Senate chamber. That committee, the Senate Chamber Review Committee, is composed of five Republicans and three Democrats, including the only two Black members of the Senate — Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Borris Miles, D-Houston.
As the hearing got underway, West took a moment to recognize what he believed was a milestone.
"I just want to make sure that I make a note that this is the first time in history, during my tenure as senator for the past 27 years, that two African Americans have ever served on the same committee," West said. "I personally want to thank the lieutenant governor for making that happen, even though it is dealing with the issue of Confederate monuments."
"I’m sure glad you noted that," responded Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who chairs the committee. "Everything we do here is a part of history, and when something like that happens, we need to drive a stake in the ground and note it."
Black members first served in the Texas Senate during Reconstruction, when recently freed slaves won the right to vote and run for political office. During this era, three Black senators were elected to the Texas Senate between 1869 and 1882 — George Ruby, Matt Gaines and Walter Burton, according to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
It wasn’t until Barbara Jordan’s election in 1966 that a Black member returned to the Senate. Jordan served for six years until she entered Congress in 1972.
Eleven years later the Senate added its second Black member. Sen. Craig Washington, D-Houston, was elected in 1983 and served as the only Black senator until he was joined by Sen. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, in 1986. The two were appointed to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services during the 70th legislative session in 1987, marking the first time two Black members served on the same committee since Reconstruction.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, replaced Washington in 1990. He and Johnson served together until Johnson was elected to Congress in 1992, but were never appointed to the same committee.
West filled Johnson’s vacated seat in 1993, and there have been two African American senators ever since. But is it true that West has never served on a committee with another Black senator until this year?
For 23 years West and Ellis served alongside each other in the 31-member body until Ellis resigned his seat in 2016 to successfully run for county commissioner in Harris County.
According to the Legislative Reference Library, Ellis and West served together on the Senate Jurisprudence Committee as chair and vice chair during the 74th legislative session in 1995. During that same session, the two also served on the Senate Finance Committee.
It wasn’t until the 77th legislative session in 2001 that Ellis and West again were assigned to the same committee — the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence, which West chaired. This was the last time West and Ellis served on a committee together.
Ellis confirmed through a spokesperson that he and West had served on these committees together in 1995 and 2001.
After serving several terms in the Texas House, Miles replaced Ellis in 2017. The Senate Chamber Review Committee is the first time the two have been assigned to the same committee.
There have been several other instances where two or more Black lawmakers have served on a joint committee. For instance, in 1993 West and Ellis were appointed to the Select Committee on Historically Underutilized Businesses alongside state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, and Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas. However, West’s spokesperson said that West was only referring to standing Senate committees when he made his statement last month.
West’s spokesman said he was speaking from memory. West’s office didn’t respond to several messages after PolitiFact noted the three instances in 1995 and 2001 two Black senators served on the same committee.
West said during a Senate committee meeting last month that Patrick made history this year when he appointed the Senate’s only two Black members to the Senate Chamber Review Committee. West said it’s the first time during his 27 years as senator "that two African Americans have ever served on the same (Senate) committee."
However, it appears West was forgetting when he served on committees with Ellis in 1995 and 2001.
The first time two Black members of the Texas Senate served together on a standing committee since Reconstruction was in 1987.
We rate this claim False.
The Texas Senate, Senate Committee on Senate Chamber Review, Nov. 23, 2020
Dallas Morning News, Texas Senate to review chamber art, including confederate paintings, Dec. 2, 2019
Austin American-Statesman, Texas Senate panel revisits debate over Confederate art at Capitol, Nov. 24, 2020
Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Early African-American Senators, Dec. 5, 2017
Texas State Historical Association, Handbook of Texas, accessed Dec. 10, 2020
Legislative Reference Library of Texas, Committees by session, accessed Dec. 10, 2020
Interview, emails with Sen. Royce West Spokesperson Kelvin Bass, Dec. 4
Email with Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis Spokesperson David Ellison, Dec. 10
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