The staff at Hotel Dieu Hospital just north of downtown El Paso refused to admit the pregnant young woman despite obvious signs she was in advanced labor. Her cool green eyes, evidence of a forced Irish bloodline two generations back, did not make up for the fact that her skin was a hue darker than theirs.
In 1946, racial segregation excluded African Americans from accessing even the most vital services, even in a minority majority city like El Paso.
Mildred Parish Massey, the granddaughter of an enslaved woman and her Irish American master, was finally allowed into the hospital after a heated phone call from her obstetrician. By then, it was too late to perform the cesarean section she needed hours earlier. Instead, doctors extracted her unborn child with forceps. The metal instruments tore the flesh above her baby’s right eye, leaving the first of many battle scars the newborn girl would bear throughout her life.
This is how Barbara Lee, now a U.S. congresswoman, came into the world.
“From day one I knew my mother almost died and I almost didn’t get here because we were Black,” said Lee of her birth.
Since then, Lee has fought alongside the Black Panthers for civil rights, campaigned for the first Black woman presidential candidate, and stood out as the lone congressional vote against broad use of military force three days after the 2001 terrorist attacks. She was elected to Congress in 1998 and now represents California’s 13th District, which includes Oakland and Berkeley.
But before all that, Lee spent her childhood years in El Paso on Yandell Drive, four blocks away from Concordia Cemetery. She and her grandfather often walked to the nearby Price’s Creamery for ice cream.
They lived in the heart of a thriving Black and Mexican American community that spanned south, just past Bowie High School, into the eastern edge of Segundo Barrio. This community nurtured numerous future leaders including a civil rights activist, a best-selling author and a basketball hall-of-famer. Like Lee, these leaders would fight for racial equity each in their own way.
That struggle continues today on numerous fronts. Nationwide protests by The Black Lives Matter movement intensified last summer after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died while being restrained by a white police officer in Minneapolis. The protests, which reached El Paso, erupted in the middle of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic which is disproportionately taking the lives of Black Americans. El Pasoans have lived their own versions of these struggles and are finding their own ways of responding.
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Buffalo soldiers and railroad workers
The local Black community where Barbara Lee grew up is mostly gone, but it’s primary reason for existing— the Army base at Fort Bliss— remains.
Buffalo soldiers were among the first Black Americans to settle in El Paso after the Civil War. The military stationed some of these all-Black Army units in Camp Concordia, near the now historic cemetery.
Camp Concordia was one of three sites that housed Fort Bliss before its present-day location. When the railroads followed in the 1880s, they relied on the labor of Black and Chinese workers, among others, who made their homes in what is now south and central El Paso. Lee’s grandparents made their home in those same neighborhoods decades later.
“My grandfather, W.C. Parish, spoke fluent Spanish,” Lee said. “He got into the postal service and became the first Black letter carrier in El Paso. I’ve seen him in pictures delivering the mail on horseback.”
The El Paso Museum of History lists both William Calhoun Parish, Lee’s grandfather, and Marshall McCall as the city’s first Black mailmen.
The Parish family would mark other firsts in El Paso. Despite the racist hospital practices that nearly killed her, Mildred Parish Massey, Lee’s mother, would be among the first seven students to integrate what would become the University of Texas at El Paso. She’s also recognized as the first Black clerk hired by Fort Bliss.
Discrimination still persisted at private businesses, so Parish Massey preferred to walk across the border and get a manicure or her hair styled in Juárez. The family had a Mexican housekeeper who helped raise her three daughters, the youngest of whom spoke Spanish as her first language.
“I had Black and Latina friends in the neighborhood,” Lee said.
From neighborhood snoop to undercover cop
One of Lee’s friends was Nancy Stallworth, who lived two doors down on Yandell. The girls would sit on the porch and talk for hours. Sometimes they’d catch Nancy’s younger brother, Ron, eavesdropping and shoo him away. Ron Stallworth would later find a better use for his snooping skills, working undercover as the first Black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department.
His most famous investigation involved infiltrating the local Klu Klux Klan chapter, eventually thwarting the group’s plans for cross burnings. He also outed Klan members within the military. Stallworth retold his experience in a best-selling memoir that later became an Oscar-winning film, “BlacKkKlansman,” directed by Spike Lee.
The book and the movie gave Stallworth a public platform that he used to denounce racism and white supremacy. He often compared former President Trump to KKK leader David Duke. During a 2018 interview on NBC’s Today show, Stallworth wore a T-shirt supporting El Paso native Beto O’Rourke, who came within 3 percentage points of defeating Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat.
“El Paso gave me the values that I have,” Stallworth said. “It was the type of community that kept an eye on us kids and made sure we followed the straight and narrow path. I knew I could knock on any one of those doors and they would take care of me.”
That didn’t spare Stallworth from getting kicked out of school three times after getting into fights with Mexican American kids who he said called him “n—–“.
“I was raised by my mom that you’re not that and you don’t tolerate anyone calling you that,” he said. “She was a protective Black mother dealing with a young Black child in the end of the civil rights movement. You were always given the talk by your parents.”
Stallworth was on the track team at Alta Vista Elementary. He and his friend Mike Davis would stand on a neighborhood sidewalk, wait for a car to come by, then race it to the end of the block. The boys would part ways before the streetlights came on, before Stallworth’s mother stepped outside to holler his name.
Neighborhood was the ‘center of our life’
‘You’re meeting people all over the country.’ Estine Davis on her years running a barbershop
Estine Davis talks about her experiences running Estine Eastside Barber Shop at 106 North Piedras Street in El Paso.
Briana Sanchez and Mónica Ortiz Uribe, El Paso Times
Mike Davis grew up farther south, in the public housing complex across from Beall Elementary. Back then, he said, the “projects” were segregated with “Black and brown families” living on opposite ends. Between the Stallworth and Davis homes was Alameda Avenue, a bustling Black business and entertainment corridor that drew the likes of James Brown, Earl Grant, and the Harlem Globetrotters.
Before taking to the stage, many of those performers would stop at Estine Eastside Barbershop for a trim and some chatter. The shop is the last remaining business from that era still open today. Estine Davis, Mike Davis’ mother, has run the barbershop near the corner of Alameda and Piedras Street for six decades now. She celebrated her 88th birthday in December.
“That’s where the center of our life was. Right there in the community between the church, the barbershop, the restaurants, the beauty shops,” Mike Davis said.
Alameda Avenue was a respite for Black soldiers who came to El Paso via Fort Bliss. They included Davis’ dad, a military officer who in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, was not welcome at clubs on base.
“They served on base, worked on base, but on nights and weekends they would go down to the community and that’s where they would see entertainment,” Davis said.
Construction of Interstate 10 in the ‘60s eventually severed the easy path between the families and homes on Yandell Drive and the thriving business district on Alameda Avenue. Stallworth and Davis would move away from El Paso. Davis joined the military and became a chemical engineer who, among other things, worked on the anthrax vaccine.
The African American center of El Paso began to disperse.
“I-10 opened up the doors for many folks to see there were other opportunities out there not only for housing but for jobs,” Davis said. “People took advantage of it. My cousins and many other family members, they moved.”
Highway construction in that period notoriously targeted and also displaced minority communities nationwide.
Today many of El Paso’s Black residents are concentrated in the Northeast in proximity to Fort Bliss. Their percentage of the overall population since 1970 has grown half a percent to 3.6, according to the 2019 Census. Historically, the Black population in El Paso has never exceeded 3.7%.
Fighting a racist legacy
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, but the racist legacy of the United States endures. While hospitals and movie theaters may not be turning people away solely based on their complexion, other threats continue to endanger the lives of minority communities and the poor.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a report in October stating that the greatest terrorist threat now facing the United States is extremist violence by white supremacists. The report came 14 months after an alleged white supremacist opened fire at an El Paso Walmart, killing 23 people and wounding more than two dozen others. The gunman allegedly told police that his intention was to kill as many Mexicans as possible.
In testimony before Congress on March 2, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau’s domestic terrorism caseload has doubled since 2017 to 2,000 investigations. Since his testimony, eighteen people have died in two separate mass shootings that happened less than a week apart. One of the shooters opened fire at three Atlanta-area spas and killed six women of Asian descent. The other shooter targeted shoppers at a grocery store in Boulder, CO.
“Racism needs permission to live. It needs someone to validate it and it’s tested on the backs of people who are afraid to expose the darkness and offer the light,” said Pastor Michael Grady, whose daughter Michelle survived three gunshots the day of the El Paso attack.
Grady, who ministers at Prince of Peace Christian Fellowship, strives to neutralize racial tensions by working with other minority communities. He recently joined with the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), an immigrant advocate organization, in an effort to start a citizen-led police accountability commission.
One year later: El Paso community mourns 23 lives lost in Walmart mass shooting
BNHR is looking into the deaths of 30 El Pasoans who died in encounters with police or in police custody since 2008 when Greg Allen, the city’s first Black police chief, took charge. El Paso Matters reported that at least three of those deaths resulted in lawsuits against the police department.
One of those lawsuits involves an officer who shot and killed a 22-year-old who was suffering from a mental health crisis. The lawsuit accuses the police chief of creating a culture of impunity when it comes to his officers’ use of extreme force. A jury trial is now pending for that case.
When the El Paso Times requested an interview with Chief Allen about his leadership role, a spokesman replied, “your request has been denied” without further explanation.
“Sometimes the resistance is in our own camp,” Grady said.
Sam Morgan, the only Black El Paso City Council representative lost his seat in the 2020 municipal election. His predecessor, Carl Robinson, who now serves as the only Black county commissioner, said he supports the police chief.
“I know Greg Allen, he’s an outstanding chief of police,” Robinson said. “We have been one of the top cities in the nation as far as public safety.”
Last summer, groups of mostly young, racially diverse El Pasoans organized a series of protests calling for local and national police reform. The protests coincided with larger Black Lives Matter demonstrations. One of the local protests was organized by the Brown Berets del Chuco as a show of alliance between the Latino and Black communities. The largest El Paso protest attracted between 500 and 600 people.
Roneice Hines, 27, a native of Birmingham who moved to El Paso in 2018, was moved by the show of unity.
“I appreciate the community of El Paso being willing to put their voice out there for matters like this. It definitely allowed us to see like, ‘Hey we’re in this together’,” she said. Hines is the photo director for El Paso Young Black Leaders, a networking organization that supports Black businesses.
A new generation of leaders
The military continues to draw in new generations of Black El Pasoans. Two of these newcomers are now big names in the music and sports worlds.
Khalid Robinson came to El Paso just before starting his high school senior year. Before that, his family had circled the globe: New York, Germany, Italy, Russia. His mother, Sgt. 1st Class Linda Wolfe, sang in the Army band; music was the one constant in the family’s life.
“I had never been to Texas before. I was lonely, but I turned that loneliness into a spur to creativity,” Robinson told Texas Monthly in 2017. “I was so inspired by El Paso and by the geography. I started writing out all of my feelings.”
Those journals turned into songs and those songs turned into a record deal and chart-topping hits. Mere months after graduating from America’s High School, Robinson became famous on a first-name basis. Khalid’s debut album, American Teen, debuted at No. 9 on Billboard’s 200.
After the attack at the El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019, Khalid called his mother who was busy filling backpacks with school supplies to donate to local kids. Once he knew his family was safe, he began thinking about how to respond to the tragedy.
“He wanted to do something for the community,” Wolfe said. “We talked about what we could do. And the best thing was healing, he wanted to heal El Paso. So, he threw a concert. We invited all of the victims and the victims’ families. We raised $500,000 for their children.”
Wolfe is now executive director of the Great Khalid Foundation, which supports the arts in schools and gives scholarships to high school seniors who pursue performing arts in college.
“Music is therapy,” Wolfe said. “It has a lot of power and it’s self-expression. It helps you get through the hard times, especially this year. A lot of kids, a lot of adults chose music to lighten that mental load.”
Fort Bliss is also why NFL running-back Aaron Jones calls El Paso home. His parents were stationed there while he and his twin brother Alvin went to Burgess High School. Jones later became a star on the UTEP football team and fell in love with a nursing student. The couple welcomed their first child last spring.
Fatherhood made Jones reflect on racial injustice. As protests against police brutality broke out last summer, Jones wrote the following in The Players Tribune:
“The sad fact is, of course, that sometimes hard work is not enough. That’s where it becomes difficult to be African American. In America, it’s like you’re born at a disadvantage if you’re Black. And that’s sad. This is a great country — I’ve seen it. My parents each served it for more than 30 years. They fought for it. And I know we can do better.”
The Jones family also started it’s own charitable foundation last October which provides meals and clothes to low-income families.
Local leaders like Grady and Stallworth firmly believe that to advance civil rights for all El Pasoans, minority and underrepresented communities must come together as they did during last summer’s protests.
“It makes no sense that El Paso is a predominately Mexican American community and yet the politics has always been centered around the white community,” Stallworth said. “There’s issues of concern to the Black community that aren’t being addressed. We don’t have the numbers to force an agenda, which is why it’s imperative that we link with the Hispanic community. Our political clout would be greatly intensified.”
Grady would like to see more Black El Pasoans involved in civic life. He half jokes that real estate agents immediately take newly arrived Black military families to the Northeast where they settle into a bubble.
“They get their house, their little picket fence and they don’t get a connection to, ‘Who’s in charge. Who’s the sheriff out here? How do I touch base with the community? I’m not involved in the school board.’ It takes you mostly to a place that’s easy, that’s comfortable and you never try to go against the grain,” Grady said.
Segundo Barrio legends advocate unity
A little-known El Paso civil rights pioneer, Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon, is an example of someone who lived that very cooperation. Nixon was an African American medical doctor fluent in Spanish who frequently treated Mexican American patients and advocated for their inclusion in everyday life. He also fought against the exclusion of Black voters in the Democratic primary elections, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court twice. Both times, in 1927 and 1932, the court ruled in his favor.
Nixon lived and worked in Segundo Barrio, not far from where El Paso basketball legend Nolan Richardson grew up in the 40s and 50s. Richardson, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame honoree, is the only basketball coach to have won junior college, National Invitation Tournament and NCAA titles. In college, he played for Don Haskins three years before Haskins would make history winning the 1966 NCAA championship with an all-Black starting lineup.
Sports were a passport to a life Richardson would’ve otherwise been denied. He played baseball, football and basketball as a kid. He was raised on Ladrillo Place by his grandmother who told him, “You let your baseball bat do the talking.”
Ricardson quickly learned, “They can take a lot from you, but they can’t take your talent. They can’t take away the knowledge that you acquire.”
As a teenager, he remembers tasting the freedoms he was refused in El Paso across the border. In Juárez, he could go to the movies, swim in a public pool and skate in the skating rink.
“I think you have to continue to fight for equality,” he said. “When they say that all men are created equal— well some are— but if we can get us close to being equal then what a magnificent move we’ll have made in this country. We’ve got to do it as a group. An individual fight is not going to win the battle.”
This article draws on the scholarly work by Dr. Will Guzmán of Prairie View A&M University and Dr. Miguel Juárez of the University of Texas at El Paso.
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