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Community activist Carolyn Phillips dies

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

Carolyn Joyce Phillips spoke up for others and for her neighborhood and many say the city, especially Southeast Denton, is the better for it.

She died Tuesday, at age 63, after a fierce battle with cancer.

Friend and Southeast Denton neighbor Effie McQueen said Phillips had a vision for the neighborhood and helped start a group in the late 1990s now known as the Southeast Denton Neighborhood Association.

“People would come to her with their concerns and she would follow up and do what she could to help,” McQueen said, adding that Phillips would call on judges, lawyers and civil rights leaders when needed. “She voiced her opinion, one way or the other. I’ll say this, she got results.”

Some of the neighborhood’s vulnerabilities can likely be traced back to its early history, when city leaders ordered Quakertown residents to move. The black community had grown between downtown and the Texas Woman’s University campus. After a bond election in 1921 to create Civic Center Park, the residents were forced to move their homes and businesses to the southeast part of the city.

After officials renamed Civic Center Park to Quakertown Park, Phillips reminded the city in a 2009 editorial that old injustices remained, including property liens related to road and drainage work in Southeast Denton.

She also lobbied the Denton Fire Department to diversify its workforce and served on two task forces meant to achieve that objective.

After Denton resident and Dallas firefighter David Johnson applied to the department in 2006 and saw his application thrown out, Phillips wrote a letter expressing her concern. Johnson later filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the city in September 2007, alleging that the department routinely discriminated against black applicants.

Several months after the lawsuit, which was eventually dismissed, the city hired its first black firefighter. The department also announced changes to its hiring practices that critics had long maintained were biased.

Denton Fire Chief Ross Chadwick said Phillips spoke her mind about the issue and was instrumental in opening doors in the community in a way that helped the department recruit more effectively.

“She fought hard,” Chadwick said, adding that he was sorry Phillips wasn’t able to recover from her illness to see more than the early fruits of her labor. Currently, the department has two black firefighters.

Phillips also represented the neighborhood’s concerns when the Denton County Transportation Authority announced the A-train line, which cuts through Southeast Denton. During the early days of planning, it was sometimes a lonely job, as others stayed away from talks in protest.

Concerns about noise and air pollution associated with a bus yard planned on the edge of the neighborhood saw that project delayed until recently. Under Phillips’ leadership, the group secured agreements for safety features and other improvements along the new rail line, some of which could be funded by a $700,000 grant.

The neighborhood worked for a long time, but was not able to pull together a small-area plan, however. Only the Denia area neighborhood has been able to complete such a plan since the city developed the option to protect the vitality of its neighborhoods.

Denia area resident Alice Gore said that she and Phillips often showed up at the same meetings when neighborhoods were concerned about a city issue.

“She was always willing to go to bat to protect her neighborhood,” Gore said, adding that they often talked for a long time on the phone about their mutual concerns. “I hope somebody steps in to fill those really big shoes.”

As the current president of the Southeast Denton Neighborhood Association, Collette Johnson said she knows she’s the one expected to do that. The transition began when Phillips got sick, but Phillips pledged to help Johnson through it.

“She’d told me how tired she was, but she didn’t want it [the association] to fold,” Johnson said. “She told me she would be by my side. She also told me to never back down and to speak my mind.”

One battle still waging when Phillips died was over the city’s ordinance that changed its utility policies, allowing Denton Municipal Electric and the city’s other utility departments to charge higher deposits to customers with poor credit or payment histories.

“Carolyn told the city in 2010 that this was not a good idea, but they passed the ordinance anyway,” said Hatice Salih, a co-plaintiff with Phillips on a lawsuit over the matter.

Phillips and others tried to petition the City Council to repeal the policy, or at least put it before the voters. The effort eventually became embroiled in a costly battle over whether the city handled the petition correctly, Salih said.

Since then, the city has begun developing another, prepay option for customers with bad credit or outstanding balances.

Phillips became ill during the battle and was not able to complete a court-ordered deposition in the case, Salih said.

Court records show the matter scheduled for trial in November. Salih said she hoped she and the other plaintiffs could continue without Phillips.

Arrangements are pending with People’s Funeral Home and Chapel.

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