Norris Wright Cuney, (1846–1898) was born on May 12, 1846, near Hempstead, Texas, the fourth of eight children born to a white planter, Philip Minor Cuney, and a slave mother, Adeline Stuart.
Cuney attended George B. Vashon’s Wylie Street School for blacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from 1859 to the beginning of the Civil War. Afterward he wandered on riverboats and worked at odd jobs before he returned to Texas and settled in Galveston. There he met George T. Ruby, president of the Union League. Cuney studied law and by July 18, 1871, was appointed president of the Galveston Union League. He married Adelina Dowdie on July 5, 1871, and to their union were born a son and a daughter, Maud Cuney-Hare.
Cuney was a supporter of Edmund J. Davis, and his career in the 1870s and 1880s was a mixture of success and failure. In 1873 he was appointed secretary of the Republican State Executive Committee. He was defeated in the race for mayor of Galveston in 1875 and for the state House and Senate in 1876 and 1882 respectively. But in appointed offices and as a dispenser of patronage, Cuney was powerful. From his appointment as the first assistant to the sergeant-at-arms of the Twelfth Legislature in 1870, he went on to serve as a delegate to every national Republican convention from 1872 to 1892. In 1873 he presided at the state convention of black leaders at Brenham. He became inspector of customs of the port of Galveston and revenue inspector at Sabine Pass in 1872, special inspector of customs at Galveston in 1882, and finally collector of customs of the port of Galveston in 1889.
In 1883 Cuney was elected alderman on the Galveston City Council from the Twelfth District, a post that left him time to work simultaneously as a leader of the Republican party and a contracting stevedore. In 1886 he became Texas national committeeman of the Republican party, the most important political position given to a black man of the South in the nineteenth century. One historian of the Republican party in Texas characterizes the period between 1884 and 1896 as the “Cuney Era.”
In order to lead Texas blacks to increased prosperity, in 1883 Cuney bought $2,500 worth of tools and called together a group of black dockworkers, which he eventually organized into the Screwmen’s Benevolent Association. He was also strongly committed to education. He was appointed a school director of Galveston County in 1871 and supported the black state college at Prairie View, now Prairie View A&M University.
Cuney was first grand master of the Prince Hall Masons in Texas from 1875 to 1877. He also belonged to the Knights of Pythias and the Odd Fellows. He died on March 3, 1898, in San Antonio and was buried in Lake View Cemetery, Galveston.
Adapted from Handbook of Texas Online, Merline Pitre, “Cuney, Norris Wright,” accessed June 27, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcu20. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.