Gov. Jimmy Allred became governor of Texas in a desperate time for Texas. The Great Depression created many hardships for families and crippled state finances. Though he had met with several defeats and reverses in his life, Allred’s persistence guided Texas in a difficult time and cemented lasting changes for the state.
James V. Allred, affectionately known as Jimmy to friends and family, was born in the small Montague County community of Bowie in 1899. His childhood was uneventful, and he graduated from Bowie High School in 1917. He headed to Houston to enroll at Rice University. He ran out of money, which derailed his initial attempt at higher education, but he regrouped and pressed ahead.
The United States had entered World War I by this time, and Allred enlisted in the Navy. After the war, he found a job as a law clerk in Wichita Falls. Inspired to resume his education, he enrolled at Cumberland University in Tennessee and received a law degree in 1921.
Allred returned to Wichita Falls and opened his own law firm. A respected attorney, Gov. Pat Neff appointed him as district attorney for Archer, Wichita, and Young counties in 1923. Allred delighted in the role as a fighter for the common man, often taking on corrupt businesses and the Ku Klux Klan. He ran for attorney general, losing a close race in 1926. He ran again and became attorney general in 1930.
As the Great Depression deepened in Texas, Allred became increasingly popular for his actions taking on monopolies and corrupt business practices that hurt consumers and workers. As a result of his success, he ran for governor in 1934. In what became an unusual race for Texas, all three leading candidates for the Democratic nomination were from Wichita Falls: Allred, Tom F. Hunter, and Charles McDonald. Allred came out on top and won the general election easily.
Allred made combating the Great Depression the focus of his administration. He created the Texas Planning Board as an advisory commission to the state legislature to help determine how federal aid through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs should best be utilized. Thousands of Texans were put to work through Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps projects, building new parks, constructing schools and other public buildings, and paving streets and sidewalks. With these projects, the worst effects of the Depression were alleviated as many were able to put food on the table again.
He pushed through reforms to the state’s Prohibition laws, allowing local-option alcohol elections.
He reorganized law enforcement in the state. He consolidated the Texas Rangers and the highway department into the Department of Public Safety in 1936. Because of concerns over the issuing of pardons by previous governors, a constitutional amendment required all new pardon applications be reviewed by a special board first. The state also celebrated its centennial of independence in 1936, which included not only public observances – a welcome diversion during the Depression — but also the construction of monuments and museums across Texas. He also established the Interstate Oil Compact Commission to cooperate with other oil-producing states.
He had been stymied by the legislature in earlier attempts to establish a pension system for the elderly, but he pushed again after the Social Security Act was passed by Congress in 1935. In 1937, Allred enacted reforms to education, which included a pension for teachers and expanded funding for schools. New programs for the poor and elderly were also enacted, mostly paid for through new taxes on oil, gas, and liquor.
Allred was appointed a federal judge by President Roosevelt in 1938, a position he took after his second term as governor ended. He made one more attempt at office in 1942, resigning his position as federal judge to run for U. S. Senate in a losing bid against popular Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel.
In 1949, President Harry S. Truman re-appointed Allred to the federal bench, and the family moved to Corpus Christi. In 1959, Allred was presiding over a trial in Laredo when he halted the proceedings, complaining he was not feeling well. A few hours later, he collapsed and died at the age of 60. In 1995, the state opened a new prison, the James V. Allred Unit, between Wichita Falls and Iowa Park, naming it in the governor’s honor.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@ gmail.com.