Students take a trip down black history road

02/23/2014 6:23 PM

02/23/2014 7:53 PM

A two-hour bus tour could be the city’s most appropriate Black History Month vehicle, said Dayon Harris.

“It may sound cliche, but the biggest thing I can think of is you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you came from,” said Harris, a student development associate at Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus. “We had so many people doing great things during the time of segregation. We had great churches, great hospitals and great people doing things we can be proud of.”

The college, which sponsored the recent tour, found an excellent guide to help TCC students and others appreciate the origin and evolution of Fort Worth’s African-American communities: Sarah Walker, president of Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society.

Using a voice that carried easily from the front steps to the back bench of a school bus, Walker didn’t just tell folks what they were seeing. She gave them reasons to want to see the churches that were the city’s African-American residents’ community centers; several buildings where people found everything they needed to nurture their bodies, minds and souls; and a museum that goes the final mile to put it all together.

“So much needs to be seen,” Walker said. “The major things are the historic black churches in downtown: Mount Gilead, Greater St. James, Morning Chapel, Allen Chapel.”

Mount Gilead Baptist Church, at 600 Grove St., was the tour’s first stop. Walker stood on its broad veranda to point out buildings that were integral to the black community’s growth, as well as spots where other buildings once stood. She and her guests were disappointed that they couldn’t go inside, because among the surviving original fixtures and facilities is the only swimming pool that many black residents were able to use.

African-Americans weren’t allowed to use Forest Park Pool, the city’s largest public swimming hole, except for one day out of the year: June 19, Walker said.

Ironically, Fort Worth’s big African-American church buildings may owe their splendor to attitudes that insisted on a “separate-but-equal” co-existence of black and white residents.

Mount Gilead’s 4,800-square-foot modified-gothic building wasn’t financed by a congregation of doctors, lawyers and bankers, according to Bob Ray Sanders, a Star-Telegram columnist and vice president.

“They were janitors, schoolteachers, working-class people,” said Sanders, who wasn’t on the tour but helped explain the city’s history. “You might wonder how they did that. But the churches were the focal points in many communities. They couldn’t use the public library for meetings, couldn’t book other facilities either. So the gatherings were held in the churches.”

A treasure reclaimed

The tour also focused on heritage that was virtually lost and is in the process of being reclaimed. Evans Avenue Plaza, just north of Rosedale Street, is an homage to an area that was Fort Worth’s entertainment capital in the 1930s and ’40s, Walker said.

“Names like Charlie Pride, Jackie Wilson, the Clara Ward Singers appeared in venues like Zanzibar, and a number of what we called hole in the walls,” Walker said.

The Zanzibar was replaced by a restaurant at Rosedale Street and Evans Avenue, Walker said. But there were plenty of others.

“The Aquarium Club was two floors, state-of-the-art and brought folk from across Tarrant County, particularly on Sunday, when there were jazz concerts and all kinds of stuff going on on Evans Avenue,” Walker said. “You don’t see that now because, as change will happen, the bourgeoisie African-Americans got involved, the dollar became almighty, and they moved into the suburbs.”

When the homeowners who built what Fort Worth now calls the “near south side” died off, most of their heirs moved away, said Walker, who proudly says she still lives “in the ’hood in Riverside. All of Fort Worth is the ’hood as far as I’m concerned.”

Riverside is one of several black communities that sprang up in every quadrant of Fort Worth, Sanders said.

“There were black communities in Riverside, Rock Island Bottom near I.M. Terrell High School, Baptist Hill off East Lancaster, Greenway west of I-35 and east of downtown,” Sanders said. “… In Fort Worth, in many cases, only one street divided white and black communities, and you almost had to come in contact with each other.”

Future revitalization

Walker hopes that the city will expand the revitalization to Terrell Heights, the neighborhood adjacent to Evans Avenue, where many of the early black community’s leaders lived and where the blight that followed their departure can still be seen.

“This street housed our professors, our doctors, our lawyers, our Indian chiefs,” Walker said. “Certainly for me, I hate to see it go down. But I’m hoping the city of Fort Worth will continue to help improve it.”

Terrell Heights also is the location of the Historical and Genealogical Society’s museum, the tour’s final stop. Among the hundreds of artifacts preserved inside are photos of William “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald, the banker credited with being Fort Worth’s first black millionaire and the man whose genius helped many other businesses succeed.

The tour left Terrance Gilbert, a 28-year-old Bryan/College Station transplant and TCC student, with a feeling of pride and a confirmation of where he chose to live.

“I’m happy in a city with history and as much cultural relevance as Fort Worth,” Gilbert said. “The tour really validated my wanting to build a life in Fort Worth.”

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