Stephen F. Austin State University

Remembering Gregg County's "Black Hawk" orator (September 2012)

Remembering Gregg County's "Black Hawk" orator
By Van Craddock

Reese Calhoun DeGraffenried is a name little remembered in Gregg County today. After all, he's been dead 110 years.

But the big man with the handlebar mustache was considered one of the finest orators of the day, earning a national reputation for his speech-making. And the "Black Hawk," as he came to be known, was the first U.S. congressman to call Longview home.

Born May 7, 1859, in Franklin, Tenn., DeGraffenried had graduated from the University of Tennessee by the age of 19. A year later he graduated from the Lebanon, Tenn., School of Law, setting up practice in Chattanooga. He soon decided to make his fortune in Texas, however, becoming an assistant fuel agent and brakeman for the Texas and Pacific Railroad.

He moved to Longview in 1883, quickly making an impression on the local folks. The young man with the golden voice soon got caught up in local politics, and for a short time served as Gregg County attorney.

In 1888, he was named a presidential elector on the Democratic ticket and he began to earn a name for himself in the party. By 1896, he worked up the nerve to challenge C.B. "Buck" Kilgore, who had represented Gregg County in Congress for a number of years.

Kilgore - yes, the Gregg County town was named for him - had been a Confederate officer and Civil War POW and long had been popular with voters.

Lo and behold, DeGraffenried defeated Kilgore and became Texas' Third District representative in the 55th Congress.
The "Black Hawk" quickly became a popular figure in the nation's capital. Not only was he known for his oratory, but with his huge frame and mustache to match, he closely resembled another popular politician of the time, William Howard Taft.

DeGraffenried continued to impress the voters, twice winning re-election. In 1902, however, he was narrowly defeated by Judge Gordon Russell of Tyler. Although a lame-duck congressman, DeGraffenried worked as hard as ever for his constituents.

But on Aug. 29, 1902, DeGraffenried suddenly took ill and died. The cause was listed as "apoplexy."
"Today he was the picture of vigorous manhood and the glow of good health seemed to be on his face," reported a Washington newspaper. "He was habitually cheerful."

On Aug. 30, DeGraffenried's body was placed aboard a train for the long trip back home. Two days later, the casket was placed in the Gregg County Courthouse where hundreds of people filed by to pay their respects.

On Sept. 2, the day of the funeral, all stores and banks closed at noon. The services were attended by more than 6,000 people. Several congressmen made the trip from Washington to give eulogies and the "Black Hawk" was laid to rest with full Masonic honors in Longview's Greenwood Cemetery.

As a token of appreciation for services rendered by the Gregg County lawmaker, members of the 57th Congress appropriated $5,000 to be paid to Mrs. DeGraffenried.