Born the Son of a Slave and a Father “Unknown”

Sometimes two halves don’t make a whole.

jeff mugIn an era when the South was rigidly segregated, Jeff Daggett, half black, half white, was always the son in the shadows, the skeleton in a proud white family’s closet, the secret that everyone in town knew. (Photo from History and Directory of Fort Worth.)

The “Daggett” name is among the most prominent in Fort Worth history. Three brothersEphraim Merrell, Henry Clay, and Charles Biggers—were Fort Worth pioneers and instrumental in the town’s development.

daggettEphraim Merrell Daggett especially was an early civic leader, known as the “father of Fort Worth.” In fact, in 1873, when Fort Worth incorporated, the city placed Ephraim Merrell Daggett’s likeness on the city seal. Ephraim and his first wife Pheneba (daughter of Texas Rangers Colonel Jack Hays) had one son, born in 1838: Ephraim Beck Daggett. Pheneba died in childbirth, and Ephraim married Caroline Nored. (Photo from Tarrant County College Northeast.)

Ephraim Merrell Daggett had brought his family and slaves to Fort Worth in 1854 from Shelby County in east Texas and established a plantation at the south end of today’s downtown. The Daggett home was located where the convention center is today.

Son E. B. enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861, but by 1863—the year of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—Daggett was back on the family plantation. There in 1863 he fathered a child by Daggett plantation slave Matilda Smith. Because baby Jefferson was born to a slave woman, he had no birth certificate; on documents throughout his life his father was listed as “unknown.”

jeff 1870 census

In the 1870 census Jeff, then six, was listed as “Smith” in the Daggett household. He apparently had an older sister Catherine. Both are listed as “m” for “mulatto.” The two Turner children listed, George and Amanda, surely are relatives of Charles Turner, who was Ephraim M. Daggett’s son-in-law. Notice that two African-American members of the household—Mimee and Angelineare listed by the Daggett surname.

Notice, too, that Jeff’s father E. B. Daggett is not listed. In 1866, three years after Jeff was born, E. B. married Elizabeth Jane Marsh in Dallas. The couple moved to Bryan and to Waco before returning to Fort Worth.

daggett 70 census

E. B. Daggett was a farmer in McLennan County in 1870.

daggett 80 censusBut by 1880 E. B. was back in Fort Worth, and his father, family patriarch and “capitalist” Ephraim Merrell,  then seventy, was living with E. B. and his family.

Ephraim Merrell died in 1883, leaving nothing in his will to his only son, perhaps because of the shame brought upon the family, in that era, by E. B.’s miscegenation. (E. B. was, by the way, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.)

But if E. B. Daggett was estranged from his father, Jeff suffered far more: His kinship was not acknowledged by his Daggett kin. Jeff left the Daggett plantation after his grandfather died. Perhaps in defiance of the family who refused to acknowledge him, Jeff took with him one prized Daggett possession: the Daggett name.

Out on his own in the South of the 1800s, Jeff Daggett, being half white, half black, surely found it difficult to be wholly accepted by either race and found it easy to bear a grudge against both, especially whites. Beginning in 1885, for the next quarter-century the name of Jeff Daggett was in local papers for negative news almost as often as his Daggett family members were in the local papers for positive news.

jeff craps 11-21-91Jeff became a “sport”: a gambler. (Clip is from the November 21, 1891 Gazette.) Jeff also operated a saloon on Main Street in Hell’s Half Acre that catered to African Americans. (Much of Hell’s Half Acre was located on the 320 acres platted as “Daggett Addition”—land once owned by Ephraim Merrell Daggett.) Historian Dr. Richard Selcer writes in Fort Worth Characters that Jeff Daggett also served as a police informant on occasion.

jeff crime panelThat chip on Jeff Daggett’s shoulder found expression in his trigger finger. These six clips cover an assault on police officer John J. Fulford, murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and abusive language with pistol drawn.

In the second clip, if Daggett served time for the Vaughn murder, he didn’t serve long: Two years later Daggett fired shots at a woman identified by the newspaper as “Becky Daggett” (his wife’s name was “Hester”). Well into the twentieth century newspapers identified African Americans by race.

Notice that Daggett was indicted at the same time as J. W. Davis, who had killed merchant Burwell Christmas Evans on July 6, 1889.

Notice also that local newspapers did not mention Jeff’s relationship to the Daggett family.

(Clips are from, top to bottom, December 23, 1885 Gazette; September 12, 1889 Gazette; June 6, 1891 Gazette; January 13, 1897 Register; May 12, 1904 Telegram; July 7, 1909 Star-Telegram.)

jeff van panelIn 1892 Jeff Daggett was convicted of murdering fellow gambler Dick Van and sentenced to ten years in Huntsville. He was pardoned after two years. (Clips are from the March 15, 1892 and August 9, 1894 Gazette.)

Jeff’s father E. B. Daggett had been an alderman from the Third Ward, which included Hell’s Half Acre. As an alderman he pushed for Fort Worth’s first dedicated high school. He also was a prominent businessman, dealing in real estate. But E. B., too, would occasionally cause his family members to squirm. Selcer, in his Hell’s Half Acre, writes that E. B. Daggett was among the prominent local businessmen who posted bond for madam Mary Porter when she was arrested for keeping a disorderly house (brothel) in Hell’s Half Acre. Selcer writes that in 1890 E. B. Daggett himself was convicted of “keeping a disorderly house.”

jeff gop 8-24-02 teleFreed after two years in prison, Jeff Daggett reformed, at least for a while. He worked as a janitor at the federal building/post office. He even became active in Republican Party politics in the Third Ward. He occasionally served as a security guard and was even made a “special officer” of the city police—a designation bestowed upon few African Americans.

jeff ball park beating 7-6-9 stJeff Daggett’s job as a “special officer” did not last long. In 1909 he was on duty at Douglass Park (named for African-American social reformer Frederick Douglass), Fort Worth’s only park set aside for African Americans.

jeff d douglass 20 rogersDaggett attempted to arrest two white men. They beat him up. Then two white police officers arrived to arrest special officer Daggett. He resisted. They beat him up. Map shows Douglass Park east of North Main in the “Trinity River Bottoms.” (From Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)

jeff as smithAlthough newspapers referred to Jeff as “Daggett,” he occasionally went by his mother’s surname. In the 1900 census and 1905 city directory he was listed as “Smith.” City directories identified African Americans with a “(c)” for “colored” until 1924.

In the 1910 census Jeff was listed as “Daggett alias Smith.”

Chambers Avenue is east of downtown (where the Butler Place apartments are today) in what was then the African-American “downtown.”

jeff dad and son 97 cdIn the 1907 city directory father and son were separated by just five lines of type; their places of business were just five blocks apart, but father and son lived in different worlds.

Jeff Daggett’s saloon at 1107 Main was located on the former Daggett plantation where he had been born.

jeff eb obit 9-10-11Jeff’s father Ephraim Beck Daggett died in 1911. Clip is from the September 10 Star-Telegram. Jeff was not listed among the survivors.

Six years after Jeff Daggett’s father died, Jeff got crossways with county detective Ben LeGett. In 1917 local law enforcement was clamping down on vice as the Army opened Camp Bowie. LeGett was raiding nightclubs, saloons—any place he suspected of criminal activity, but the Dallas Morning News said LeGett was “unusually vigilant in hunting down Negro lawbreakers.”

One night LeGett tried to get into an African-American nightclub where Jeff Daggett worked as a security guard. Daggett refused to let LeGett enter the club. LeGett hit Daggett in the head with his pistol. Daggett vowed to get even.

jeff dead 10-24-17 s-tOn October 23, 1917 Jeff Daggett went to the courthouse. His intent, Selcer writes, was to file an assault complaint against LeGett. But courthouse employees heard Daggett repeat his vow to get even with LeGett. Some of LeGett’s colleagues warned him that Daggett was looking for him. LeGett took the offensive: He found Daggett in an elevator and shot him to death.

Jeff Daggett, fifty-four, was unarmed.

LeGett was charged with murder but found not guilty.

jeff death certificate

daggett headstoneFather Ephraim Beck Daggett is buried in Oakwood Cemetery. Not far away—at least as measured in feet and inches—son Jefferson Daggett, whose father was “unknown” and whose two halves never made a whole, is buried in Trinity Cemetery, the African-American section of Oakwood.

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7 Responses to Born the Son of a Slave and a Father “Unknown”

  1. earl belcher says:

    Cause of death . . . death by misadventure.

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