Mr and Mrs Skinner on Bell Avenue- 1913
The Quakertown Story :
The removal of an African-American community and the creation of Civic Center Park in Denton, Texas.
by Michele Powers Glaze
While early twentieth-century histories of Denton, Texas, chronicle the strides made by the young College of Industrial Arts, an all-white women's college on the hill, few mention Quakertown, a thriving black community nestled at its foot along the banks of the Pecan Creek. By 1920, nearly sixty middle- and working-class black families occupied land in the flood plain of the creek below the college. Small, mostly unpainted houses and businesses dotted the area bordered by Bell Avenue on the east, Withers Street on the north, Oakland Avenue on the west, and south of Pecan Creek on the south.
Former Quakertown residents remember the sense of pride and desire for a better life their families felt. Many families had arrived in groups in the years following Reconstruction. They had travelled to the small, agricultural community in north central Texas to escape former owners who pressured them to return to the plantations. Like many Southern blacks, Quakertown residents subscribed to Booker T. Washington's philosophy of self-help and coexisted peacefully with their white neighbors. Most worked for white employers and frequented the white businesses around the nearby square. Yet, they were surrounded by reminders of their second-class status.
A handful of the settlers managed to overcome some of the limitations faced by blacks in the South and established businesses. Ford Crawford ran a grocery; his son, Bert, the black mortuary. Across from Crawford's Store, Dr. E. D. Moten practiced medicine, while down the street, Anthony Goodall operated the Buffalo Bayou Cafe. These were the exception, however. Most residents worked in low-paying service jobs, buying their small homesteads on time. Women took in laundry or worked in white homes to supplement the meager wages of their menfolk. Together, the black men and women sought to build a new life in the tightly-knit community affectionately known as "Quaker".
As the black settlement blossomed in the 'teens, so did the nearby College of Industrial Arts, which had opened in 1903. The young school was faced with an ever-increasing need for expanded facilities and under the guidance of President F. M. Bralley, began to court state officials in Austin in a bid to win legislative appropriations and recognition as a full-fledged liberal arts college. The college regarded Quaker as a danger and an embarrassment in their bid for acceptance. The mud-lined streets, laundry- filled yards, and profusion of black children did not present the impression they wished visitors to get on their approach to the school. Conscious of the college's importance to Denton's economic growth, local businesses supported Brally wholeheartedly in his endeavors. It is within this dynamic that the Quakertown story emerges.
The only published reference to Quaker is in C. A. Bridges' 1979 history of Denton, in which he discussed the black community within the context of the movement for a city park. Like many women of the Progressive period, Denton club women had campaigned actively to beautify the city. But with nearly eight thousand inhabitants, Denton was a full decade behind its neighbors in establishing a park system. Dallas, just forty miles to the south, had already created seven park sites. Bridges told of the passage in Denton of a seventy- five thousand dollar municipal bond issue in April 1921 to buy out the predominantly black property owners. He described the purchase as being "several pieces of property" bought over a several month period and concluded that "most of the former residents of the area soon had newer and better homes about a half mile east of the railroad depot" in the newly settled area known as Solomon Hill.
A closer study suggests that although the creation of a city park fulfilled a valid civic need, it camouflaged the deeper desire of administrators at the college and business leaders to minimize contact between the black community and the all-white women's campus. Supported by local women's clubs and civic groups, CIA spearheaded the move, which proved to be neither a willing nor beneficial one for the black community. By 1923, traces of the once-vibrant settlement had virtually disappeared.
Although the unified campaign for a city park did not become evident until January 1921, the idea was not new. Mrs. Alvin C. Owsley, a prominent local club woman, addressed the Woman's Shakespeare Club of Denton in February 1916 seeking suggestions for possible park sites. As early as 1914, CIA professor C. N. Adkisson suggested converting the Quakertown property. It appears likely that city fathers were contemplating a similar action, for when Quakertown's Fred Douglass school mysteriously burned the Sunday night school was to open in September 1913, the city rebuilt it on a tract nearly a mile south of the original site between the branches of the M.K.T. and T. & P. railroads, the same area which would first be offered to the displaced residents in 1921. Nonetheless, the idea lay dormant until the close of the 1920 county fair.
Although no location was cited, articles in the Denton Record-Chronicle, alluded to the need for fairgrounds and a city park in late October 1920. The articles linked the future growth of Denton's dairy industry to the city's ability to host the annual county fair and called for immediate action to provide adequate facilities, including a coliseum.
Civic organizations embraced the project. The Chamber of Commerce held a special directors' meeting in early November to discuss the park and fairgrounds idea and created a three-member committee to research it further. In a November 18, 1920, speech to the Rotarians, CIA President Bralley spoke of the mutually beneficial relationship between Denton and its two colleges. Recounting CIA's contributions to the city, Bralley indicated that in reciprocity the city could "rid the college of the menace of the negro quarters in close proximity to the college and thereby remove the danger that is always present so long as the situation remains as it is." This, he said, could be done "in a business way and without friction." In early December the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet hosted by CIA attracted a large number of area farmers eager to discuss new fairground plans. By now the women' clubs, Chamber of Commerce, Rotarians and other civic groups supported the project. The Denton Carpenters Union, anxious to provide improvements, pledged to donate six days work for each union member. The dawn of 1921 saw a full-fledged park campaign.
The Chamber of Commerce initiated a petition drive in mid-January, outlining the Quaker area and several adjacent parcels owned by whites. The petition called for the City Commission to schedule a special bond election in April to raise funds for the purchase of the designated park property. Despite its sponsorship by the Chamber, the document clearly bore the imprint of the college. Of the 140 signatures, forty-six were linked to the CIA. Signers included President Bralley, Dean E. V. White, Associate Dean R. J. Turrentine, Professor C. N. Adkisson, who had originated the idea, and other key administrators and faculty as well as parents of current, former, and future students. All had a vested interest in the welfare of the college. The business community and neighbors comprised the balance of the signatures.
The park issue only interested a limited segment of the general population. Although the inclusion of a fairground and coliseum secured the support of local farmers and otherwise-disinterested citizens, only 607 of Denton's eligible voters cast their ballots. Women, having won the right to vote the previous year, were well-represented in the 367 votes in favor of the park. This was due in part to an intensive house-to-house canvas conducted by members of the City Federation of Women's Clubs, which was made up largely of female faculty members and faculty wives from the city's colleges. Despite these efforts, the bond issue passed by only a slim margin of 127 votes. Interestingly, once procurement of the property became a reality, no further action was taken to include a fairgrounds at the location. The wheels of the legal system turned rapidly as purchase preparations continued. Ordinances, City Commission and Park Board meetings, municipal bond negotiations, and other legalities filled the ensuing months. From the beginning, the park committee seemed convinced of a willingness on the part of the owners to sell. They felt the City would be forced to evoke its condemnation right on few properties.
While plans moved swiftly in the civic arena, rumors ran rampant in Quakertown as residents wondered where they would go. Older residents in particular resisted the thought of moving. A committee of concerned black citizens beseeched the Commission to pay full price for their property so they might afford a permanent settlement. Despite this effort, many residents, including Will Hill, feared they would not receive fair compensation for their land.
Hill and his wife, Ida, had arrived in Denton in 1896 and bought property. A firm believer in saving money and owning land, Hill was aware that the white man could take it away. The proposed removal of Quakertown residents only substantiated these fears and Hill resented the racial implications that he and other blacks felt were the underlining cause for the move. But of the fifty-eight property owners involved, Hill was the only one openly to challenge the City's actions. Acting in accord with his motto "Respect every man, but fear none," Hill sued the City. But in 1922 southern blacks had little legal recourse and his action brought no compensation. Fearing reprisals against his family, he eventually dropped the suit.
Another of Quaker's elder residents, Henry Taylor, also felt the impending doom. Henry and Mary Ellen Taylor had purchased their property from Mary Ellen's brother, Giles Lawson, an early black settler. Enticed by the promise of education for their children, the couple had moved from Decatur in 1895 where Henry had worked as a cowboy. Now he cleaned houses and gardens for wealthy white families on the west side of town. With throwaways from the lawns he tended, Taylor's yard resembled a park, boasting a rare white lilac and a magnificent elm tree. Brick walks led to the house and surrounding buildings. When the committee rejected Taylor's asking price of two thousand dollars, countering with a lower figure, Taylor's daughter travelled from Denison to entreat the committee to reconsider. Her parents were old and the tree alone was worth what they were offering, she argued. In the end, Taylor accepted $1038.55 and moved his house and the prized lilac bush.
By May 1922, the City, near to closing the municipal bond contract, began to conduct negotiations in earnest. Throughout the month, owners pleaded their cases before the City Commission. Twenty-two property owners appeared the first night. The three white, owners, developers, John Alexander, Ray Lakey, and C.I.A. store manager W. P. Whitson spoke first. Commissioners accepted Alexander's and Whitson's requests of forty-five hundred and four hundred thirty five dollars respectively, but delayed action on Lakey's land. Later that evening black Henry Maddox finally accepted four thousand dollars for his three lots and large frame boardinghouse; neighbor Henry Webster settled for eight-hundred-fifty dollars. The Commission took no action on the requests of the remaining seventeen black owners.
As price negotiations continued, the question of where the residents would move loomed paramount. Most Quaker residents objected to the tract of land between the railroad tracks originally suggested to them and sought more favorable property. White property owners, on the other hand, wished to move the blacks further from their neighborhoods. One petition specified locating the blacks east of the railroad tracks and south of McKinney Road. A second, signed by twenty-one concerned citizens, read:
The undersigned property owners and citizens of McKinney St. [handwritten in] Frame and Paisley streets hereby advise you that a majority of us voted in favor of the Park Bond issue; that we do not wish to sell our property on said streets, and hereby protest against any attempt to locate the colored population of Quaker Town in our midst, or near [sic] us than you would wish them located to you
The altruistic quest for a city park touched a more deep- seated issue as the relocation question was addressed. What had been treated as a move for the civic good suddenly became a campaign to remove the black population from the white neighborhoods.
The solution came from rancher A. L. Miles. In 1920, Miles had borrowed to purchase sixty acres adjacent to his forty-nine acre homestead southeast of town, but he had been unable to make the subsequent payments on his land. A fair man with a mind for business, Miles saw the Quaker relocation as an answer to his cashflow problem. In July 1922, Miles platted thirty-five acres of pasture and offered to sell the lots to the displaced blacks, calling the development Solomon Hill. But the quiet Texas community of Denton was not immune to the violence and anti-black sentiment that was sweeping the country. In December 1921, the Ku Klux Klan marched in downtown Denton and left an anonymous fifty dollar contribution to city charities. It followed with a second unsigned communique to the Denton Record-Chronicle claiming:
"The KKK stands for law and order. It stands for the protection of the sanctity of the home and the purity of young girls -- college girls who are without the immediate parental guidance ... With its large membership drawn from every walk of life, it gathers information from many sources and of varied character. . ."
Rev. Willie Clark, a young man of twenty at the time, recalls an incident that occurred on Miles' land. Miles had been warned of possible trouble from the Klan; many white residents were disgruntled that he had offered his property to the blacks. As Clark and two cousins cleared land at fifty cents a day to make way for the black homes, they heard riders approaching. Miles directed the young black men, who were all "crack shots," to take cover behind some fallen logs and await his command. "Don't shoot until I shoot," he warned. "If I shoot, you shoot - and shoot to kill otherwise we'll all be dead." Luckily, the hooded riders did not notice the hidden men or their shotguns, and no encounter occurred.
Throughout the summer and into the fall, the houses were moved, one by one, often travelling by night to avoid traffic. The houses rested on sled-like runners atop large rollers. As teams of horses pulled the structures forward, work crews scrambled to reposition the cylinders. The arduous process required careful calculation to traverse the creeks and narrow roadbeds on the way to the ultimate destinations.
As 1922 progressed, a number of Quakertown owners refused to accept the City's offers. In response, City Commissioners set about condemning the disputed properties. John Neal, Clarence Nix, and Callie French were among eight owners whose property was cited for condemnation. Land belonging to C. F. Witherspoon, a leading white citizen whose recent death put these holdings into the hands of an estate, was included in the suit. The proceedings dragged on into 1923.
But by early 1923, the majority of the land lay vacant. Terry and Holt Streets were closed, and crews cleared remnants left behind in the evacuation. Equipment leveled and graded the once-vibrant residential area. The creeks received much-overdue drainage work as brush and sediment were cleared from their banks and beds. Precautions were taken to alleviate the flooding problem, made worse in recent years by continued developments to the west. Soon the area bore no resemblance to the Quakertown community.
Not all the families bowed to the will of the City and accepted the land offered to them. The Crawfords left for Wichita, Kansas to reestablish their businesses. John Neal, a porter on the M.K.T. railroad, moved his wife and seven daughters to Parsons, Kansas, where he felt his family would receive more equitable treatment. Angelina Burr and her family were in Los Angeles when they signed the final papers deeding their land to the City of Denton. E. D. Moten, the young physician, and his family returned to Indianapolis, Indiana. But the pain of these departures penetrated deeper than just the loss of friends and neighbors. Most Quakertown families had intermarried, which meant the separation of extended families, long an important element in black culture.
As the new park took shape, the former Quaker residents went about transforming cowpastures into a new home. They no longer feared flooding, for the land was high, but it lacked the trees so abundant in Quaker. Henry Taylor dug saplings from the creek banks to line his property. He carefully nurtured his beloved lilac as he planted vines and flowers around his new home. Mary Ellen Taylor told of flies so heavy she was forced to burn them off the screens, and mosquitoes prevented sleeping outdoors to escape the summer heat. Odors from the open sewer disposal system nearby frequently lay heavy on the air. Even after a new system was completed further downstream, a strong breeze often brought the pungent stench uncomfortably close. "Cessie has her skirt up" became a popular term for the offensive condition.
The added distance to work and shops presented problems for those without transportation. What had been a short walk to CIA, where many blacks worked as janitors and cooks, was now well over a mile; and black residents had to walk nearly two miles to North Texas State Normal College. Few neighborhood businesses survived the move, so all shopping was done at the now-distant square. No longer able to walk to the houses he tended, Henry Taylor was forced to buy a horse and wagon to carry his tools. Many residents felt cut off from the mainstream of city life they had enjoyed in Quaker.
But in time, flowers and greenery flourished and the new land became home. Along Pecan Creek, the city park flowered and became a center of community activity. White families enjoyed band concerts in the cool evening breeze, and children splashed in the wading pool where the branches converged. On the hill above, the college grew as a symbol of women's ongoing struggle for equality. Yet life never totally returned to normal.
Although Denton and the College of Industrial Arts benefitted from the creation of the park, the damage to the black community was long-lasting. With the departure of most Quaker businessmen, the community lost its leaders with the vision and means to improve the quality of black life, and the black business community rebuilt slowly. But the psychological damage was perhaps the most devastating. The black community again found themselves at the effect of white society; their years of freedom and toil seemed fruitless. Seventy years later, the effects can be seen in the fear expressed by many former Quakertown residents that it could happen again as the city marches eastward.
(Reprinted from the Winter 1991 issue of "The Denton Review")