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Group eased way for change

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

About 25 women gathered for a reunion luncheon this week to commemorate the quiet, difficult work they started in the city 50 years ago after it became clear Denton public schools would be desegregated.

The group started when concerned mothers from both sides of the railroad tracks decided they needed to get to know each other.

Known as the Denton Christian Women’s Interracial Fellowship by 1964, the women didn’t want the riots and other violence that accompanied integration at other schools around the nation. They wanted their children to be safe.

Many of those members later became influential, if not pivotal, in local politics, serving on the school board and at City Hall.

Tuesday’s luncheon was the first time the group had gotten together since a 25th anniversary reunion, according to member Alma Clark. Since then, several of the women have died.

In those early meetings in the 1960s, the women were deliberate in finding ways that would eliminate some of the racial barriers between them — for example, pairing a white woman and a black woman to chair each meeting and alternating meetings at each other’s homes.

“It was a radical thing to do,” Clark said.

At first, they were very nervous, said Euline Brock, who would later become mayor.

“It was absurd how nervous we were,” Brock said. “We all wanted to be friends.”

They arranged picnics and get-togethers for the children so that they, too, could get to know each other. That was especially important for the older children, who had more understanding, and more fear, of the changes, Martha Watson said.

Watson’s daughter, Sue Watson O’Neill, said she remembers a get-together at a pizza place that helped break the ice.

Soon, the women started tackling spillover issues in the community, including desegregating businesses on the Square and lobbying city leaders until the streets in Southeast Denton were finally paved.

Linnie McAdams, who would later serve three at-large terms on the City Council, fought for jobs. She said it still bothers her that Denton was home to two universities and it took so long for meaningful change.

“It should have been better,” McAdams said, adding that the women’s group made a huge difference in Denton.

The group not only laid the foundation for many of the women to become influential in the community, Brock said; it also became the roots for other community initiatives, such as the formation of Denton Christian Preschool.

At Tuesday’s gathering, Catherine Bell told the roomful of women that all those good works notwithstanding, the group also brought lifelong friendships.

“When I lost my only child, this group came to me and stayed,” Bell said.

The luncheon was conducted by the Denton Association of Christian Women at First Baptist Church, an institution that 50 years ago would not have allowed Bell, Clark, McAdams and the other African-American women to come into their building — another sign of progress, the women said.

The oral history program at the University of North Texas recorded interviews with 19 women from the original group 25 years ago. Brock said they had hoped to gather stories from 10 white women and 10 black women, but only nine black women agreed to be interviewed.

Bell, who later led the local NAACP chapter for many years, was one of those women who didn’t want to be interviewed at the time. Even in 1988-89, it was too soon, she said.

Would she consent to record her memories now?

“Yes,” Bell said, pointing to the progress the entire nation has made with integration and in electing Barack Obama as president. “Our work wasn’t for nothing.”

Transcripts of the interviews are available in the research collection at the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum and in the special collections at Emily Fowler Central Library.

Mary Cresson, public services librarian, said the transcripts do not circulate, but users can make a copy to take with them.

The recordings themselves are not available because they are in reel-to-reel format and need to be converted to a digital format. The library’s budget allows for just a few of those to be done each year, Cresson said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.