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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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Chapter 1: The Antebellum and Civil War Years

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post’s founder, owned a body servant, and so did his First Lieutenant,

Washington P. Street. In that day and age, white men who grew up in the South, regardless of where they had been born, considered slavery part of the normal order of things. Men owned slaves, not necessarily a field full, but more than likely a personal or body servant if they could afford one. Lieutenant Washington Street grew up in the upper Midwest of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa—abolitionist country. But when military service took him to Texas he was accompanied by London Triplett, a black man who had worked for the family in some unspecified capacity for years. Family lore has it that Triplett was a free man, and having a last name suggests that, but it is also hard to imagine a black man in antebellum Texas being able to come and go as he pleased. It is equally hard to imagine a young Army lieutenant paying servant’s wages out of his meager salary. Army life on the frontier was different from the world that gentlemen officers came from. Far beyond the pale of civilization, they might keep a black slave or live with an Indian squaw when they would never have done either back home.2

 

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

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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

Most white Texans saw Reconstruction not as a fresh start but as a foreign occupation, the “foreigners” being Yankee carpetbaggers and bluecoats. Ex-Confederate and former Texas Governor Francis R. Lubbock wrote in his memoirs that Texas was “writhing under the heel of military despotism. . . [with a] premium on ignorance and barbarism.” The latter were code words for elevation of the freedmen. When Lubbock got home from the war in December 1865 he found the state’s principal cities “crowded with lazy negroes [begging] for rations, clothing, and everything else they could secure.” He lamented the loss of his home, which had been destroyed, and adding insult to injury, “all our negroes are gone.”3

When prominent white men like John Peter Smith and B. B. Paddock returned home to Fort Worth after the war they found what they believed to be a restive black population. Some Dallas men, including June Peak, the brother of Fort Worth’s Dr. Carroll Peak, organized a Ku Klux

 

Chapter 3: A Growing Sense of Identity (1880 – 1900)

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During these years the city also endured epidemic outbreaks (dengue fever and smallpox), a bloody railroad strike (1886), and a national depression (1893–95). As if those were not enough, the city wrestled with rampant crime and vice. These problems affected the black community as much as the white, the chief difference being that their stories went largely untold.

The last two decades of the nineteenth century brought not just a population increase in the black community but a growing sense of identity. Neither slaves nor “freedmen” any longer, African Americans struggled to establish a new identity while keeping a low profile. It was a tall hill to climb.2

A COMMUNITY OF FREE MEN AND WOMEN

Emerging from Reconstruction, the black population of Fort Worth was scarcely a community in the sense of having a collective consciousness or sense of purpose. Fifteen years after the end of the Civil War they were still adjusting to freedom. Life was mostly about survival, which included, besides acquiring the basics of food and shelter, not antagonizing the white majority.

 

Chapter 4: The World of Jim Crow

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Chapter 4

The World of Jim Crow

“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.

 

Chapter 5: World War I: Jim Crow Comes Marching Home

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Chapter 5

World War I: Jim Crow

Comes Marching Home

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.

 

Chapter 6: Jim Crow Rules!

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Building “Social Capital,” Part 2

It was in unity that African Americans found the strength to resist racial oppression. The process of socialization (building “social capital”) that had begun toward the end of the nineteenth century gained momentum in the twentieth century. (See Chap. 3) In 1900, J.W. McKinney, Grand Master of the Texas branch of Prince Hall Masons, speaking to a convention of black Masons at Galveston, deplored the lack of racial unity: “Never was there greater want of unity of action among men,” he said, “than there is among our race today.” That message must have resonated outside the meeting hall because things began to change rapidly in the years that followed. A flurry of organizations appeared in the black community that mirrored the white community.1

Whites had always had their fraternal groups, social clubs, and the like; it was only natural for African Americans to want the same thing.

Fraternal orders such as the Masons ranked only slightly behind the church as centers of community life and mutual aid societies. The Rev.

 

Chapter 7: The Depression

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Chapter 7

The Depression

Or, Old Man Trinity Just Keeps on Rollin’ Along

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 worldweary “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.

 

Chapter 8: World War II

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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

By 1940, Jones St. was slipping as a business corridor for the black community after losing its residential population in earlier decades.

It was now paved and lighted all the way from Weatherford down to

Lancaster, home to hotels, restaurants, doctors’ offices, barber shops, and beauty parlors. By the middle of the decade it had the Colored

YMCA, the swanky Jim Hotel, the Colored Country Club, and the Red

Cab Company. The glow had long since gone off Ninth St., formerly the principal black business corridor. Now it was bisected by multiple railroad tracks, increasingly given over to warehouse and industrial properties, and hemmed in on the south by not just the railroad reservation, but south of that, by a “wholesale, garage, and lumber-yard district owned by white capital.”3

 

Chapter 9: The Early Civil Rights Years or Jim Crow in Retreat

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The Early Civil Rights Years or Jim Crow in Retreat

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celebrants gathered for fun and games in Greenway Park, which was the city’s designated “negro park.” Swift and Armour, angling for a public relations coup, donated the meat for hotdogs and hamburgers.2

But if Fort Worth blacks expected a return to the more enlightened policies and practices of the New Deal, they were disappointed. With hardly a pause the nation went straight from World War II into the Cold

War. The global fight against communism pushed civil rights issues to the back burner. All the money and effort invested in national security was money and effort that could not be invested in solving problems like poverty and race. Ironically, if America was truly the “Land of the

Free,” it was hard to wage war against the communist evil while America consigned millions of its own people to permanent second-class status.

This contradiction was acknowledged in some measure. In the spirit of the Cold War, Texas Christian University offered black airmen at

 

Chapter 10: Jim Crow R.I.P.

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Chapter 10

Jim Crow R.I.P.

The Later Civil Rights Years

The King Comes To Fort Worth

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

 

Chapter 11: The Race Is Not Always to the Swift

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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

Some things, however, had not changed. J.W. Webber and Bill

McDonald were exceptional. Both had achieved the American Dream, yet as a black minister pointed out in 1967,

Ninety-nine percent of all Negroes are [still] employed by whites.

Ninety-eight percent of all the home mortgages are [still] held by whites. Whites hold ninety-nine percent of all the car notes. 2

In other words, whites still held the keys to the kingdom. Booker

T. Washington might have seen an object lesson in those numbers; he always said only when the black man achieved economic equality could he hope to achieve full equality with the white man, but for most African

Americans it was the same old same old.

Music Hath Power

 

Chapter 12: A Few Conclusions

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Chapter 12

A Few Conclusions

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 “selfsufficiency” 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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