On anniversary, locals recall Civil Rights Act and wrongs it sought to right
For some, Jim Crow laws are the stuff of history books. But for Herman Franklin and other Denton elders, the laws that divided Denton by black and white turned their everyday lives into storied ones.
Franklin didn’t question the circumstances when he was growing up in Denton in the 1930s and 1940s. But as he got older, he saw how he and other blacks got the lesser deal.
“And we didn’t think it would ever change,” Franklin said.
However, it did change, when 50 years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Franklin, 84, grew up on Denton’s southeast side and graduated from the city’s black high school after it was renamed for Fred Moore. Moore was a former teacher and principal at Fred Douglas High School, which started in 1909.
Franklin used to walk from Southeast Denton to the Square with friends to get a hamburger. They had to go to the back door of Denton businesses to be served. They could only use the water fountains and restrooms in the basement of the courthouse.
Barbara Tankersley Brown was among the last to attend the all-black high school before students started transferring to Denton High School. She graduated in 1963 and attended Texas Woman’s University, which had integrated by then.
Brown, 69, considers herself a generation younger than Franklin, but she had much the same experience “walking to town” when she was a young teen.
“We get some friends and go to Reeves Drug Store, which was on the Square then, and get an ice cream,” Brown said.
She remembers they couldn’t sit down at the counter. The teens would wait at the side, near the cash register, and wait for the clerk to bring them their ice cream cones.
“We were feeling free, but not really feeling free,” Brown said.
Historians differ on the president’s motives behind the passage of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, according to Tony Carey Jr., a political science professor at the University of North Texas.
Sometimes the legislators in the Senate at the time, particularly Hubert Humphrey, D-Minnesota, don’t get all the credit they deserve for getting the bill through Congress, he said. And public sentiment over the tolerance for the way blacks were being treated in the South was changing rapidly, in part because of the power of television news reports.
“LBJ was a complicated political figure,” Carey said, adding that both pieces of legislation came after 10 years of boycotts and protests. “The picketers were critical to it being passed.”
Longtime Denton resident Ruby Cole joined the picketers in Dallas. She attended what was then Prairie View A&M College, the first state-supported public university for blacks, after graduating from Fred Moore. The first test she ever took, she said, was her entrance exam into college. When she graduated college, she moved to Dallas for several years to work for a nonprofit women’s group supported by Dallas-area Methodist churches.
Each Tuesday, at the encouragement of local ministers, she and other women in her business and professional women’s club would meet at the YWCA and walk over to H.L. Green Co. to picket. The five-and-dime chain store had a lunch counter, but it did not serve blacks.
“Sometimes we got spit on or called names,” said Cole, 81. “But you don’t fight back.”
The community tried to ignore the effort for a while.
“But we were there to stay,” she said.
The UNT Oral History Program collected interviews from North Texas residents on the topic. They learned that people who fought the civil rights battle often were concerned much more about economic and political opportunities than they were about their ability to eat a hamburger at a lunch counter, said history professor Todd Moye.
The new law didn’t completely do away with Jim Crow immediately. Any law is only as good as the people’s will to enforce it, Moye said.
“If you don’t make it a priority, it’s easy to just let some things go by the wayside,” Moye said.
Linda Alexander Dedmon, 66, was among the first six students to transfer from the city’s all-black high school to Denton High School after the bill was signed into law.
She knew that she was doing something daring. But she also was among those students who participated in a unique exchange organized by local church leaders at Dedmon’s church.
The Denton Women’s Interracial Fellowship group didn’t want the riots and other violence that had accompanied integration at other schools around the nation. The women got to know each other, and they made sure their children got to know each other, too.
Dedmon said she knew that some of the youths she befriended in those exchanges were popular at Denton High. She knew that if they introduced her to their friends, it would go a long way for her acceptance at school.
“And the teachers were wonderful,” Dedmon said.
The community came along more slowly, she said.
Her English class planned a field trip to see a Shakespearean play, including a tour backstage, that nearly fell through after the company refused to accommodate the visit when they learned black students would be attending.
The high school principal would have none of it, she said. He went to visit with the theater group and the field trip went off without a hitch.
But when a local bank needed bookkeepers, Dedmon got left out. Her teacher took her aside before announcing to the class which three students would be recommended for a summer job at the bank. Dedmon was the top student, and the bank wanted the three best, but the teacher knew she couldn’t send Dedmon.
“They aren’t integrated,” the teacher had said.
When the teacher announced the opportunity in class and named the students who would be recommended, she was careful not to mention the bank’s “three best students” request, Dedmon said.
But the other students were bewildered by the recommendations. Why wasn’t the school sending Dedmon? She was the best bookkeeping student in class. She was a junior and she tutored some of the seniors.
“No one told them that the bank wasn’t integrated,” Dedmon said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.