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A History of Fort Worth in Black & White: 165 Years of African-American Life

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A History of Fort Worth in Black & White fills a long-empty niche on the Fort Worth bookshelf: a scholarly history of the city's black community that starts at the beginning with Ripley Arnold and the early settlers, and comes down to today with our current battles over education, housing, and representation in city affairs. The book's sidebars on some noted and some not-so-noted African Americans make it appealing as a school text as well as a book for the general reader._ Using a wealth of primary sources, Richard Selcer dispels several enduring myths, for instance the mistaken belief that Camp Bowie trained only white soldiers, and the spurious claim that Fort Worth managed to avoid the racial violence that plagued other American cities in the twentieth century. Selcer arrives at some surprisingly frank conclusions that will challenge current politically correct notions.

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1. The Antebellum and Civil War Years

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Chapter 1

From the beginning, Fort Worth, Texas, has been a community where Southern values and attitudes intersected with Western values and attitudes; both are part of our genetic code today, but they had to come from somewhere. Fort Worth began life in the mid-nineteenth century as a frontier settlement built by migrants from the Deep South who combined the racial prejudices of that region with the greater tolerance and openness of the Wild West. This combination could not help but have an effect on blacks and whites alike.

Slavery arrived on the twin forks of the Trinity almost with the first white men. The earliest settler in the area was Tennessee-born Edward S. Terrell who arrived in 1843. He was a contract supplier for the U.S. Army who made a killing in 1856 by selling his entire herd to the Fort Richardson garrison. He then invested some of the proceeds in slaves to sell to the incoming homesteaders who like himself were mostly Southerners.1

 

2. Reconstruction and the City’s Beginnings (1865–1879)

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Chapter 2

At the end of the Civil War, Fort Worth was as low as it would ever be. If the residents had been polled, most would probably have agreed with Khleber Van Zandt, an ex-Confederate who arrived in August 1865, that Fort Worth was a “sad and gloomy” place. Nonetheless, Van Zandt saw something that made him decide to stay. He hired three young freedmen to help bring his family and belongings from Marshall. That simple financial arrangement alone was a sign of how things had changed. Before emancipation he would have expected to pay their master to hire their services. Times had changed in ways both large and small.1

In 1865 what was left of Fort Worth’s white population numbered only about 250. By 1870 that number had risen to about 500 thanks to the seasonal cattle drives that came through headed north to Kansas railheads. The black population of Tarrant County in 1870 numbered 672. All those freedmen had to be doing some kind of work if they stayed on after being granted their freedom. Most still worked in virtual servitude for their former masters. Emancipation was unenforceable beyond the power of the U.S. Army. Significantly, there is no record of Fort Worth blacks celebrating the news of emancipation, probably because they didn’t dare. When ex-Confederates like R.E. Beckham, B.B. Paddock, and Abe Harris came home to post-emancipation Fort Worth they found race relations virtually unchanged from pre-war.2

 

3. A Growing Sense of Identity (1880–1900)

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Chapter 3

The 1880s to the end of the century were mostly good times for the citizens of Fort Worth. The economy was booming thanks to the cattle and railroad industries, and the population was growing exponentially: more than 400 percent in the twenty years. Most of the newcomers were white, but the black population also grew modestly. In 1880, the city had a total population of 6,718 out of a county of 24,671 people. There are no numbers for the black population of the city, but the county as a whole had 2,160 or roughly 11.4 percent of the total population. Five years later, the white population of the city had increased to approximately 9,000 of whom 4 percent were black, which comes out to 360 black residents. The numbers are hard to correlate since we are dealing with two different sets of numbers (county and city), but the disparity between black population of the county versus that of the city suggests that the great majority of blacks in Tarrant County resided outside the city. That makes sense because most were engaged in agricultural work. The percentage of blacks in the city’s population would continue to rise until by 1900 it reached 10 percent.1

 

4. The World of Jim Crow

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Chapter 4

“Jim Crow” is arguably the most despised name in African American history, more than Jefferson Davis, or even “Uncle Tom.” Derived from the name of a nineteenth-century, black-face minstrel performer, Jim Crow became shorthand for the entire system of racial segregation erected in the late nineteenth century—a vague, ad hoc collection of laws and conventions, ever-changing with the times. It was just as evil but more insidious than slavery because it paid lip service to equality when in reality it was just slavery by another name. Jim Crow’s purpose was never to encourage equality, only the appearance of equality. Its real purpose was to keep the black minority separate and subservient.

Jim Crow denied blacks the basic benefits of American society: police and fire protection, representation in city government, even their own militia companies. From 1874 until 1952 Fort Worth had no black policemen on the regular force. Neither the volunteer fire companies nor the municipal fire department created in 1893 had black firemen. The first African American would not sit on the city council or school board until the 1960s, and in the late nineteenth century, Fort Worth had two local militia companies, both lily-white. Even finding a final resting place was challenging. There was no public burial ground for blacks in Tarrant County before 1889. Over the next few years privately donated properties, one adjacent to Oakwood Cemetery (“Old Trinity”) and another in Haltom City (“New Trinity”) became available. Only in 1911 did the city council take up the question of creating a black public cemetery, but the white outcry against locating it near any white neighborhood was so severe, the idea was tabled. In the meantime, death, like life, continued to be racially segregated. Old Trinity Cemetery had its own sexton, grave-diggers, and undertaker, and a fence separated it from Oakwood Cemetery.1

 

5. World War I Jim Crow Comes Marching Home

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Chapter 5

When the United States entered “the Great War” in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called on the American people to rally ’round the flag and “make the world safe for democracy,” without reference to race or creed. This stirring call did not resonate equally with African Americans and whites. W.E.B. DuBois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told his people, “We the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome” of this war. Still, he advised them to forget their “special grievances and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens.” In 1917 the U.S. Army had four all-black regiments numbering 10,000 men in all (with no black commissioned officers). Another 10,000 African Americans served in Negro National Guard units. All of them were liable to being called up and shipped out to the Western Front despite the fact that the high command had long-standing reservations about the black man’s fitness for combat. Their intelligence, initiative, and vigor were all suspect. White officers like Col. William Pitcher of the 27th Infantry Regiment did not believe the U.S. Army should even be trying to make soldiers out of African Americans because “they are not up to the challenge.”1

 

6. Jim Crow Rules!

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Chapter 6

Camp Bowie, which brought a small army of black men to Fort Worth without a single racial incident, was the biggest thing that had happened to the local African-American community since emancipation. Sadly, it did not produce any real progress on the long road toward equality. It was an aberration, compliments of Uncle Sam. The black soldiers who trained at Camp Bowie could not break down the walls of Jim Crow or capture the castle in a single determined rush. The ultimate victory would have to be won one small victory at a time.

As African-American numbers grew in the twentieth century, so too did the number of social and professional groups representing their interests. The combination of greater numbers and more assertiveness provoked white resistance that was reflected in vague talk of a “race problem” in the newspapers. There was no race problem but that was all it took for Jim Crow to clamp down tighter as the twentieth century advanced. Yet there was this silver lining: the creation of numerous organizations and institutions in the black community that advanced the cause of equality.

 

7. The Depression

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Chapter 7

The stock market crash of 1929 did not have an immediate impact on the black community, but the Great Depression that followed within a year had an enormous impact on all areas of black life. In 1936 Universal Pictures released the definitive version of the musical Show Boat with black actor-singer Paul Robeson pouring his heart out singing the world-weary “Old Man River.” That heart-wrenching number not only became Robeson’s signature song, it also went on to become the first anthem of the modern civil rights movement, expressing all the bitterness and resignation felt by African Americans at the height of Jim Crow, which coincided with the depths of the Great Depression.1

The song talks about how no matter what blacks do nothing ever seems to change—“Old Man River just keeps on rollin’ along.” This was the way life in these United States looked to African Americans in the 1930s. The Depression was hard on everyone regardless of race, but it seemed to weigh especially hard on minorities.

 

8. World War II

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Chapter 8

World War II was the paramount event of the 1940s for all Americans regardless of race, but for African Americans, the struggle against the Axis was part of a more personal war for freedom and democracy. It became a “two-front war,” not just in Europe and the Pacific, but on the home front.

The decade started literally with a bang in Dallas with a series of bombings in black neighborhoods, commencing in the spring and continuing into the fall in what one newspaper called “a year of racial troubles.” The bombings were about the same old issue: blacks moving into all-white neighborhoods.1

Meanwhile, on the west side of the Trinity all was quiet. Fort Worth blacks faced the same oppression and felt the same resentments as their Dallas brethren, but were not trying to force their way into historically white neighborhoods at this point, thereby not provoking a violent white reaction. Still, the racial violence in Dallas was so close that Fort Worthers of both races could not help but feel a little anxious. The city had not experienced racial upheaval since 1913, and anyone alive who had been around then was willing to do almost anything to avoid another race riot. Most of Fort Worth’s African Americans probably agreed with the black Dallas resident who advised, “Out of respect to peace and harmony, Negro and white ought not to live as next-door neighbors.”2

 

9. The Early Civil Rights Years or Jim Crow in Retreat

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Chapter 9

Following World War II, Jim Crow was in full retreat. The government’s wartime appeal to black patriotism and the sacrifices made by black servicemen like the Tuskegee Airmen made the old ways increasingly harder to justify. New Deal liberals, still riding high in Washington, helped drive some of the first nails into the coffin—not in bold actions like the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts of the 1960s, but in small ways.

The President’s Committee on Fair Employment (PCFE), one of the most minor of federal agencies, took on racist “help-wanted” ads. Every newspaper had “classifieds”—they were an important revenue source—and those ads had always been blatantly racist, stating whether a potential employer wanted white or black workers. One 1944 ad in the Fort Worth Press said,

Colored Men!
Do you want a steady job with overtime?
Apply 901 N. Throckmorton.

 

10. Jim Crow R.I.P.

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Chapter 10

1963 was the year of the historic 250,000-person March on Washington that climaxed with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Years later, Fort Worth blacks would look back on 1963 as “the year the [civil rights] movement began” although few were aware of the planned march and Fort Worth did not send a delegation. Fort Worth was largely insulated from the national civil rights movement at this point. Among those who did attend was Lenora Rolla who was in Chicago at the time and traveled to Washington from there. It changed her life.1

According to Rolla, the civil rights movement almost passed Fort Worth by. When she returned home from Washington, D.C. (riding on a segregated train), she was “energized” to bring the fight to Fort Worth. Her dedication to change elevated her in the eyes of the local black community, but the march changed nothing in the near run; it was just an item in the newspapers. No civil rights marches or sit-ins occurred in Fort Worth. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Urban League were not even represented in Fort Worth while the NAACP and NCC kept low profiles and played by the rules. To their credit, city fathers were not totally insensitive to the racial issues of the day. They made sincere attempts to build bridges to the black community. In 1956, 1960, and 1963, three different mayors appointed bi-racial “commissions” to help ease the transition from Jim Crow in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision (1954). They tapped “responsible” community leaders of both races to serve on these commissions, with “responsible” meaning they were not only respected but unlikely to rock the boat by demanding immediate change. Each of these commissions opted for the carrot over the stick. While white members urged white businesses to open their doors to blacks, black members urged their people to be calm and patient—the same message blacks had heard since emancipation.2

 

11. The Race Is Not Always to the Swift

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Chapter 11

There is an old saying that “victory is not always to the strong nor the race to the swift.” The struggle for black equality, often summed-up as “the civil rights movement,” was a marathon not a sprint, and marathons are not won in the first hundred yards or even the first ten miles. They are won by perseverance and determination over the long run. Fort Worth’s black community has been in a marathon since the tiny outpost was planted on the bluffs over the Trinity in 1849. Some would say the struggle (race) is still going on. The black community has triumphed over slavery, Jim Crow, and the glass ceiling, but the race is not over. There are more miles to be run, more battles to be fought.

As the 1960s wound down, “Jim Crow is dead! Long live Jim Crow!” might have served as a battle cry, paraphrasing the traditional proclamation of the English when one king dies and the crown passes immediately to his successor. Thanks to civil rights legislation and court decisions, racial segregation was legally dead, only to be replaced by school busing, quotas, and the glass ceiling in the 1970s. Bill McDonald had likewise died, only to be replaced by J.W. Webber as the paragon of black success and the city’s richest African American. He operated a string of nursing homes and was the president of an insurance company and a funeral home. He owned a big house in a nice, integrated neighborhood and did not have to look up to any man. He was the new Bill McDonald.1

 

12. A Few Conclusions

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Chapter 12

Immersing oneself in a subject allows a writer to take certain liberties, one of which is drawing certain conclusions. I would be presumptuous to claim to completely understand the black experience, but I can make some observations about what I have learned.

One of the big differences between the black community in the past versus now is the message they hear from their own. Back in the early twentieth century, local black leaders preached the gospel of “self-sufficiency” and “self-dependency” as the path to success; today it is about empowerment, affirmative action, and political activism. The message delivered then, in particular from the pulpit, was, “Don’t be angry, don’t be hatin’; pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make a success of yourself!” And with that message came a big dollop of a thank-you to all the white people who had “helped and encouraged the negro to rise.” Those messages would never fly today, but in 1905 and 1921 they were applauded by black audiences.1

 

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