Fort Worth, Texas, Where the West and the South Meet: A Brief History of the City’s African American Community, 1849-2012

Bill McDonald with Congressman Adam Clayton at I.M. Terrell High School, Fort Worth, ca. 1945
Courtesy Tarrant County Black Historical & Genealogical Society

In the article below, Fort Worth historian Richard Selcer introduces us to the African American community which has been a presence in this city since its founding in 1849.

Fort Worth, Texas’s black community has a distinctive if not unique history.  Fort Worth was a western community (slogan: “Where the West Begins”) populated overwhelmingly by white Southerners. That means it combined the racial prejudices of the latter with the greater tolerance and openness of the former.

Slavery existed in Fort Worth from its beginnings as a tiny settlement on the bluff overlooking the Trinity River. Colonel Middleton Tate Johnson, one of the founding fathers of the original Army outpost (1849-53), owned a plantation of 640 acres northwest of the fort worked by 150 slaves. When Tarrant County was created by the Texas legislature on August 26, 1850, the settlement had a population of 599 whites and sixty-five blacks. The 1860 federal census showed the town’s population had declined to 500, but the number of slaves had nearly doubled to 115. The record does not show any free blacks in the little community.

When the Civil War ended, major slave owners like E.M. Daggett and Otis Isbell freed scores of slaves, not so much because Emancipation was the law, but because they could no longer afford to feed and care for so many dependents.  A number of African Americans left Fort Worth for east Texas, where blacks were more numerous and jobs, more plentiful. Those who stayed continued working in menial jobs as “servants” (room and board but not wages) or tenant farmers.

In 1873, in an unusual move for that era, the city council hired Hagar Tucker, a former slave, as “special policeman” to the black community.  Tucker performed a difficult job successfully but was nonetheless let go within a year when the economy went into a tailspin. Tucker was the first and last black officer in the Fort Worth Police Department until the 1950s.

Also during Reconstruction, John Pratt became the first black businessman of record in Fort Worth when he opened his own blacksmith shop not far from the courthouse. He was not well-received until his former master, Major K.M. Van Zandt, a Confederate war hero, began taking his horse to Pratt’s shop.

Men like Pratt and Van Zandt, represented two important elements to black-white relations. Independent entrepreneurs like Pratt were looked upon with great suspicion unless they had a white patron such as Maj. Van Zandt. The latter, along with men like William B. Tucker, constituted the face of the enlightened, white community — leaders who kept a lid on violence and opened a few doors to black citizens.

Slowly, Fort Worth’s black residents began to develop into a real community with their own schools, churches, and businesses. In 1882, the first black public school opened, with all grades in one building and five teachers, including respected black leaders Isaiah Milligan Terrell and Henry H. Butler. Before this, any black child who wanted to attend school had to enroll in one of two tuition-paying schools that met in Butler’s home or in the African Methodist Church. In 1894, The Item, which proudly proclaimed itself “The Only Negro Newspaper in the City,” began publishing. Fifteen years later it was still going strong.

If Fort Worth’s blacks escaped most of the Reconstruction-era violence that plagued the rest of the state, their economic development was painfully slow.  At the end of the century, most of the 1,600+ black working adults were either domestics or involved in vice in Hell’s Half-acre, the red-light district on the south end of town. They lived in shanty towns in the Trinity River bottoms or in other areas considered undesirable by whites. Those neighborhoods had colorful names like Buttermilk Flats, Irish Town, and Baptist Hill.

The most respected and successful black entrepreneur in town at the beginning of the 20th Century was William M. McDonald, who first came to the city in 1885 from Kaufman County. McDonald would build a financial empire that eventually included real estate, a bank, a pharmacy, and a hotel. He did not settle in Fort Worth permanently until 1908, but because of his influence in the state’s black community, he became a force in the Texas Republican Party.

Other entrepreneurs in that period were less well known.  They included Bill Love, a saloon owner described as the city’s “leading colored politician;” Hiram McGar, who ran a pool hall and helped organize the Colored Texas Baseball League, Dr. William E. Davis, Fort Worth’s first black physician, and  Tom Mason, a businessman and land owner who created the city’s first black public park. Under Jim Crow laws, blacks were prohibited from using the city’s public parks except one day a year –“Juneteenth.” Mason established a playground that could be used year round.  This “Who’s Who” of Fort Worth’s black community illustrated how difficult it was in that era for African Americans to make their mark in any area other than entertainment or vice.  McGar, Mason, and Love all made their money in the saloon business.

Like most of Texas, Fort Worth society was strictly segregated into separate and unequal communities. The more fortunate blacks lived in what were described as “negro tenements” on the eastern edge of town. The first middle-class black neighborhood, Terrell Heights, emerged on the south side in an area that had once been exclusively white. After 1900, black professionals such as Bill McDonald moved to Terrell Avenue which unlike the river-bottom shanty towns where most blacks lived, had electricity, telephone service and connections to water and sewer lines.

By the end of World War I, a third black community emerged around Lake Como on the far west side of Fort Worth.  This area had formerly been home to servants working for wealthy whites in Arlington Heights but by 1920 it began attracting upwardly mobile black families. This area eventually became the city’s second largest middle-class black neighborhood after Terrell Heights. In 1922, Fort Worth annexed both the Lake Como and Arlington Heights additions. By 1930, some 180 black families lived in the Como neighborhood although many of its residents still worked as domestics for white home-owners nearby.

There was no black hospital in Fort Worth before the 1930s. Any black patient needing hospitalization had to go to the “Negro Ward” in the basement of St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital. St. Joseph’s was also the only major hospital that licensed black doctors. That situation was remedied only in 1937, when Riley A. Ransom, a black M.D. with a degree from Louisville National Medical College, opened the Ethel Ransom Memorial Hospital, a hospital on par with any of the white Fort Worth hospitals.

The political structure was controlled by whites as well. In 1897, a group calling itself the Afro-American Citizens’ Conference met in city hall to discuss running a “colored man’s representative” from the Third Ward for city council. Nothing came of it because even when blacks had a significant presence, their political participation was severely restricted by the poll tax and less subtle intimidation.

Shortly after becoming President, Theodore Roosevelt attempted to create a “black-and-tan alliance” inside Abraham Lincoln’s party, but the only local blacks to benefit were a few community leaders like William McDonald whom, it was believed, could get out the black vote.  When Roosevelt visited Fort Worth in 1905, local black Republicans helped organize a choir of 600 black schoolchildren along the parade route who serenaded the President with the Star-Spangled Banner. Afterwards, they returned to their segregated schoolhouses.

At least the black religious community thrived with five large, active congregations in or near downtown. Those churches helped fill the void created by the absence of public parks, meeting halls, and entertainment venues for blacks. They were Allen Chapel (African Methodist Episcopal), Morning Chapel (Christian Methodist Episcopal), Greater St. James Baptist Church, Mount Gilead Baptist Church, and Corinth Baptist Church. They were rocks of stability and respectability in a turbulent community plagued by ignorance and vice.

The legal system was completely in the hands of whites. Even after the turn of the century there were still no black lawyers to represent black defendants. Likewise, all the police, judges, prosecutors, and juries were white. In the event of a race riot, such as occurred in 1913, black homes and business were at the mercy of the white mob.  After one unsuccessful start a decade earlier, the city finally got a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1938 thanks principally to the efforts of Dr. George G. Flemming.

Economic opportunities for blacks gradually improved in the first half of the 20th century, starting with the opening of Swift and Armour meat-packing companies on the North Side in 1903. Texas Steel Company began hiring black laborers in 1907. Defense industries like the Consolidated Vultee bomber plant (later, General Dynamics) and Bell Helicopter were slower to open their work forces to blacks. What all these jobs had in common is they were blue-collar, low skill; management was closed to blacks.

Black entrepreneurs had an even harder time of it. The overwhelming majority of the buying public (whites) would not consider patronizing their businesses. Due to Jim Crow restrictions, black business owners and professionals could serve only black customers and clients. In 1909 there were just two black-owned drugstores to serve a black population of 7,000.  The entrepreneurial spirit burned brightly nonetheless.  In 1915, E.C. Gray started the city’s first black “jitney” service with a single car and a license from the city. Without a trace of irony, he called his business the “Jim Crow Cab Jitney Service.”

The New Deal in the 1930s helped focus attention on the plight of the nation’s poor and disadvantaged. The Fort Worth Housing Authority issued a report noting that “at least 30,000 citizens lived in “decrepit, disease-breeding homes.” In response, the Public Works Administration (PWA) provided the funding for two segregated housing projects that opened in 1941. Ripley Arnold Place was reserved for whites and H.H. Butler Place was designated for blacks.  The “Butler Projects,” as they came to be called, were on the eastern edge of downtown, between the old Hell’s Half-acre district and the Trinity River bottoms where blacks had lived for so many years. The Butler Projects are still standing today, hemmed in by three freeways and still a monument to racial segregation.

After World War II, the Jim Crow system began to break down as a result of changing attitudes and Federal civil rights initiatives.  In 1953, the Fort Worth Police Department got its first black officers since Hagar Tucker.  Four men were hired, but a few years later only one of them, Lonnell Cooper, was still on the job, and he was assigned to “community relations” at headquarters.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision in 1954 ordering the end of segregation in the nation’s public schools, the Fort Worth Independent School District began desegregating only in 1962 in a foot-dragging approach that did not reach the high schools until five years later.

In 1955, future baseball hall-of- famer Maury Wills played shortstop on the Fort Worth Cats, a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team. However, when the Cats played on their home field, LaGrave Field, only white fans could attend the games. Taking the good with the bad, Wills would later recall how the locals never “taunted or abused him” during the season he spent in Fort Worth.

For blacks who were not talented ball players, life could be a lot harder. In 1956, when a black couple attempted to move into the all-white Riverside neighborhood, protestors took to the streets to taunt them even before they finished unloading their belongings. The Fort Worth police refused to intervene.

Most blacks from long experience knew to stay in their own neighborhoods and keep a low profile in public. If there were no Emmitt Tills in Fort Worth in the 1950s, there were also no Rosa Parks. Fort Worth buses continued to segregate black and white riders until well into the 1960s, and downtown department stores had “black” and “white” water fountains and restrooms as late as 1960. That was the year Leonard Brothers broke ranks as the first of the big three downtown department stores to take down the “Colored” and “Whites only” signs on water fountains and restrooms. The reason was as much about economics as altruism: blacks constituted as much as 30% of the store’s business.  By 1963, every department store, theater, and restaurant downtown had been fully integrated.  In 1970, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram became the first big-city newspaper in the state to hire a black reporter (Cecil Johnson).

Ironically, the break-down of Jim Crow laws in the 1960s led to the collapse of the small black business district that had flourished on the edge of downtown.  Now black customers could shop in the up-scale department stores, bank in the major banks, and get their hair cut at the same barber shops as whites. Black-owned businesses were unable to compete, and one-by-one they closed down, leaving empty store fronts and deserted blocks.

In 1967, Fort Worth got its first black elected political figure, Dr. Edward Guinn, who came to politics after a successful career as a physician. Guinn is remembered today as one of the most active and innovative council members in city history.

It is impossible to gather accurate statistics on the numbers of black residents in Fort Worth in those long-ago years. Census-takers missed many Negroes because they were considered second-class citizens, the Colored City Directory was limited to those who bought space in it, and the white Directory ignored anyone it did not consider a productive member of society. What we can say is that in the latest Census ( 2010), black residents comprised 19% of the population (140,133 out of 736,200) or just 1% more than a hundred years ago (4,694 out of 26,076).

But progress can be seen, too. Blacks sit on the city council, the school board, and every other public governing body. In 2001 Jim and Gloria Austin created the Cowboys of Color Museum & Hall of Fame, the first institution of its kind in the country. And Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards District has a statue honoring legendary black rodeo performer Bill Pickett.

Fort Worth is a different world today than 100 or even fifty years ago — not a perfect world, but a much better world. Its history has much to teach us about the past and, just as important, about our future.