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Fort Worth’s black history museum seeks expansion despite financial roadblocks

Garden Of Eden

Drew Sanders, author of Garden of Eden, tells the story of his great great grand father riding with the Sam Bass gang
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Drew Sanders, author of Garden of Eden, tells the story of his great great grand father riding with the Sam Bass gang

In 1974, Lenora Butler Rolla was serving on planning committees for the United States Bicentennial and was concerned that Tarrant County’s black citizens would not be represented in the celebrations.

She was even more concerned that while some black history-related documents and artifacts were available in private collections, the local universities and libraries had very few materials accessible to the public.

Three years later in 1977, Rolla founded The Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society to do just that: to organize and highlight the contributions of African-Americans in North Texas.

After a few years of setting up a museum in rental houses, Rolla recognized that the task she had undertaken to preserve black history required more space that what she had available to her.

So she borrowed $4,000 from her husband and purchased the Rev. Alexander Lee Boone house in historic Terrell Heights, the first middle-class black neighborhood in Fort Worth. The Society opened its doors to the public in the early 1980s but closed in 1997 for renovations.

Rolla died in 2001 but what remains is the Lenora Rolla Heritage Center Museum in the same Boone house on East Humbolt Street.

Today, executive director of the Society Brenda Sanders-Wise is in a similar predicament: with just a sampling of the historical materials the Society has on display and another 200 boxes sitting in the Central Library, how will local African-American history be taught and celebrated if it’s tucked away?

“This is a historic resource and you can find a lot of historic information that’s not printed in textbooks,” Sanders-Wise said.

The Society is the closest to an African-American history museum that Fort Worth has. On the first floor of the Boone house are four interconnected rooms dedicated to different eras of history in Tarrant County, with photos, preserved artifacts and artwork.

Currently the Boone house is open two days a week and doesn’t charge an entry fee. Sanders-Wise said the current space receives 1,500 visitors annually, or about 15 visitors each day it’s open.

Everyone involved is a volunteer and no one receives a salary.

For comparison, the annual operating budget for the 75-year-old Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is $10.8 million.

Vice president of marketing and community relations Rebecca Rodriguez said that in 1941, a group of women teachers were granted a charter to start the science and history museum. It started out in two classrooms in De Zavala Elementary School and later moved into a house on Summit Avenue. In 2009, the museum moved into its current space on Montgomery Avenue in the cultural district.

For Black History Month, Rodriguez added that the Cattle Raisers Museum will display the history and artifacts of African-American contributions to ranch life and culture.

Sanders-Wise and Sarah Walker, the president of the Society’s board, said they have begun the process to apply for grants, and have spoken with Mayor Betsy Price and the City Council about the need for an African-American history museum in the city. They have built relationships and partnered with schools, libraries and businesses for art showcases and exhibits.

“Our vision is to become the premier African-American museum in North Texas and in doing so, we’ll continue the legacy of Mrs. Rolla,” Sanders-Wise said.

She also said that donors are a huge part of making a museum the best it can be. The science and history museum and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art donated many of the artifact cases, which create a more museum-like environment.

“Otherwise it would just look like somebody’s house that we’re just collecting stuff in,” Sanders-Wise said. “I would love for people who contribute to Bass Hall or Sundance Square to have the same attitude about contributing to a place like this.”

Sanders-Wise and Walker both grew up learning about their families’ heritage and roots. Walker knows she had an uncle who moved to California and became a recording artist.

Sanders-Wise’s great-great-grandfather was Major Cheney, who worked as a slave for the white Cheney family that settled in the historic freedman’s community, the Garden of Eden. The Cheneys continued to live there after slavery was outlawed and worked the land and raised livestock and crops. Relatives of the Cheney-Sanders family still live there today.

They’re concerned that the next generations won’t appreciate their history if they don’t have the access to learn about it.

“Dallas has a great museum, but why should we have to leave Fort Worth to see the history of blacks in Dallas, Texas? Why can’t there be one here as well?” Sanders-Wise said. “They’re two different cities with two different cultures.”

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