Juanita Jewel Shanks Craft (1902-1985) and the Long Civil Rights Movement in Texas

Juanita Craft, 1976
Courtesy Dallas City Council, Fair use image

A small but growing number of black women are slowly being recognized for their contributions to the “long” civil rights movement, the nearly century-long struggle by African Americans against all forms of racial discrimination. In the account below University of Texas-El Paso historian Cecilia Gutierrez Venable describes Juanita Jewel Shanks Craft, one of the most important of these activists in 20th Century Texas history.

Juanita Jewel Shanks was a pivotal local, state, and regional organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the campaign for racial justice in Texas as she confronted the state’s segregationist practices from the 1930s to the 1980s.  Shanks, the only child of educators David Sylvestus and Eliza Balfour Shanks, was born on February 9, 1902 in Round Rock, Texas.  Both her parents taught school, and her father would later become a principal.  The young Shanks went to Austin’s segregated Anderson High School, but after a couple of years her mother Eliza Shanks fell ill with tuberculosis and Juanita accompanied her to San Angelo state sanitarium.  They were refused admission because of their race and this experience of pleading with hospital officials to care for her mother and living in a tent during the rainy season near the hospital for months was one of the seminal experiences Juanita Shanks carried with her throughout her life.

Eliza Shanks died in 1918, and the sixteen-year-old Juanita Shanks joined her father in Columbus, Texas and later graduated high school in 1919.  Juanita Shanks moved to Prairie View and studied sewing and millinery at Prairie View Industrial School (now University) but returned to Austin and graduated from Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University) where she received her teaching certificate.  She briefly taught in 1921, but—that same year—left the profession to marry an old boyfriend, Charles Floyd Langham, who was a tailor in Galveston.

In 1925, Juanita moved to Dallas with her aunt, and the couple divorced.  Despite her college training, Juanita Shanks began working at the Adolphus Hotel as a bell maid.  She saved her money and soon rented her own home, taking in Pullman Porters as boarders.  Craft met several celebrities and politicians while working at the Adolphus and became friends with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who encouraged her political activity.  Juanita Shanks left her Adolphus position, however, in 1934 because of the depression.

In 1935, Shanks joined the Dallas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) beginning a fifty-year “career” in civil rights work.  At this time, the local branch, under the dynamic new leadership of A. Maceo Smith and Rev. Maynard Jackson Sr., began a campaign to organize and register black voters through the Democratic Progressive Voters League.

In 1937, Shanks married Johnnie Edward Craft, a salesman and gambler.  He provided the now Juanita Craft with some financial stability, allowing her to concentrate exclusively on her civil rights work.  Racial tension was particularly high in Dallas at this time and the George F. Porter episode of 1938 intensified black concerns about the city.  Porter, once president of the Wiley College Branch in Dallas and later branch NAACP secretary, attempted to exercise his right to serve on a jury.  When asked to leave a Dallas courtroom, he refused to be dismissed. Two men then grabbed him and threw him out of the courtroom and down a flight of stairs.  Porter sustained a blow to the head which left him blind.  The perpetrators of this crime were never arrested.  This incident drew national NAACP attention when the Association’s main attorney, Thurgood Marshall, decided to investigate this situation.  He met with the judge concerning this case, and after leaving the appointment Marshall was chased to his car by a gun-toting police chief, and only the presence of a Texas Ranger prevented any harm to befall him.  Craft met Marshall when he was in Dallas for this meeting, and they developed a friendship and collaboration which lasted for decades.

The Porter incident, racial segregation in Dallas, limited access to government jobs, and the inability to vote, persuaded Craft to commit more of her time and energies to civil rights work.  In 1936, several organizations converged in Dallas, including the NAACP, Democratic Progressive Voters League, and the Texas Negro Peace Officers’ Association to celebrate the opening of “Negro Appreciation Day” at the Hall of Negro Life at the Texas Centennial Exposition and World’s Fair.  While in Dallas, these groups agreed to establish more sophisticated organizational structures to fight against racial disparity in Texas, which further motivated Craft to undertake a stronger leadership role in recruiting new members for the NAACP.

Craft was personally involved in the fight for voting rights.  When the US Supreme Court in Smith v. Allright (1944) invalidated the Texas All-White Primary rule, allowing thousands of blacks across the state to participate in Democratic politics for the first time, the NAACP won one of the most important victories in its 35-year history.  Black participation was crucial in a state dominated by Democrats and Craft took advantage of the Smith decision, becoming the first African American woman in Dallas to vote in the Democratic primary later that year.

By 1946, the Dallas branch of the NAACP had 7,000 members and was the third largest chapter in the country thanks largely to Craft’s efforts.  Her success in Dallas brought her to the attention of the statewide NAACP and in 1946 she assumed the position of state NAACP organizer.  Craft, in partnership with Houstonian Lulu B. White, director of state branches, traveled through Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.  They fostered the creation of 182 new branches of the Association.

On Christmas Eve in 1947, Craft lost her beloved father and three years later in 1950, she witnessed the death of her husband who passed away in the basement maintenance room of the segregated Parkland Hospital.  Alone she moved to a small home in South Dallas and lived on her husband’s Social Security, once again took in boarders, and worked as a seamstress to support herself.  Despite these financial setbacks, she remained deeply committed to civil rights.  She continued her work with the NAACP youth council and encouraged these members to persuade their parents to register and vote.  Craft raised money and took the youth to the National NAACP Conventions for over 25 years. She also continued to challenge racism.  In 1955, for example, she publicly opposed the segregation of the Texas State Fair (the fairgrounds were permanently located in Dallas), and encouraged the youth throughout the state to boycott “Negro Achievement Day,” which was the only day blacks could attend the fair.  Under her leadership, a number of young people marched and picketed the State Fair site in Dallas during Negro Achievement Day, and they persuaded many African Americans to avoid the longstanding symbol of racial segregation and subordination.  Craft continued her opposition to Negro Appreciation Day until 1967 when the fair was unconditionally desegregated.

Craft also helped desegregate schools.  One of Craft’s youth council members, Joe L. Atkins, sought admission at North Texas State College in Denton, Texas (now University of North Texas) in 1955, but he was denied admission.  Although Atkins met admissions standards, Vice President of Academic Affairs Arthur Sampley sent a letter to him refusing his admittance:  Atkins was black, and school policy admitted African Americans to only their doctoral program.  Craft encouraged him to file suit; Joe Atkins and his father were aided by NAACP counsel with U. Simpson Tate as their attorney and Robert L. Carter and Thurgood Marshall as co-counsel.  While the case was in the courts, Atkins became one of the first African American students to enter Texas Western in El Paso (now University of Texas at El Paso).  Atkins won his suit in 1956, but never attended North Texas State because he found a home at Texas Western.

Along with school desegregation, Craft supported the activities of the NAACP.  In 1956, when Texas attorney General John Ben Shepperd tried to shut down the Texas NAACP, the organization fought back.  Since the trial occurred in the heavily segregated town of Tyler, the NAACP attorneys could not stay at any of the hotels in town, so Craft drove them to and from Dallas every day for the duration of the six week trial, a distance of more than 200 miles round-trip.

All of Craft’s civil rights work finally garnered national recognition when she was invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and again in 1966, when she traveled to the White House for the civil rights conference sponsored by fellow Texan President Lyndon Johnson.  In 1970, she was invited a third time, by President Richard Nixon, to participate in the White House Conference for Children.

By 1974, the city of Dallas also recognized her civic contributions when it named the Juanita Jewel Craft Park and Recreation Center in her honor.  A year later in 1975, Craft ran for elective office for the first time, running for the vacated District 6 seat on the Dallas City Council.  She won the contest at the age of 73 in a raucous campaign against the Republican candidate, Elsie Faye Heggins.  Craft easily won a full term in 1976 and remained on the Council until 1978.  During her tenure, she worked on a number of issues, including a major drug and alcohol reduction program, subsidized housing, historic preservation, strengthening code enforcement and environmental ordinances, and animal control.

Juanita Jewel Shanks Craft died on August 6, 1985 in the Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas surrounded by friends.  Her final words were “I have made a difference.”  The eighty-three-year-old was memorialized at the Hall of State at the Texas State Fairgrounds she had once picketed.  Her service was attended by numerous dignitaries, including former US Senator Ralph Yarborough, Texas Governor Mark White, State Treasurer Ann Richards, and State Attorney General Jim Mattox.  President Jimmy Carter, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Senator Lloyd Bentsen all sent condolences to be read during the service.  President Carter described her as “national treasure,” while Justice Marshall wrote that “what the NAACP accomplished in Texas could not have transpired without her.”

Craft was cremated and buried next to her father, mother, and husband in Austin’s Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.

Craft received several prestigious awards, including the much prized Linz award in 1969, the NAACP Golden Heritage Life Membership Award in 1978, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for public service in 1984. The City of Dallas later named a United States Post Office in her honor.  Juanita Craft left her home to the Juanita Craft Foundation, and in 1992, the Foundation gifted it to the city of Dallas.  The facility is now known as the Craft Civil Rights House and Memorial Garden and is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.  The Craft home operates as a historic museum and community center and is open to tours.  As such, it memorializes Craft’s legacy of community and civic participation.  The Juanita Craft Foundation, established at her request in 1985, serves to sustain her legacy through programs, public history exhibitions and sponsored research.