For about two years, Denton City Council member Paul Meltzer has been involved in an initiative to honor the achievements of the Black community in Southeast Denton after residents were displaced from Quakertown and endured the civil rights movement in a segregated city.
“Somewhere around 2012, I had recently retired, and the chair of the Historical Landmark Commission was following up on a suggestion … about whether I would be interested in a project to create historical markers along the rail trail,” Meltzer said.
Meltzer walked the roughly mile-long A-train Rail Trail on Denton County Transportation Authority property along and near East Prairie Street and came away with “three large themes.”
“It was wheat, railroad and race relations,” he said. “Later, we get [the University of North Texas], and the Quaker population growth.”
In a Denton Record-Chronicle essay published in February 2019, Annetta Ramsay wrote that Quakertown was a “vibrant” Black community in the center of town — home to 60 families and several businesses. It was adjacent to what is now Texas Woman’s University.”
But in 1914, a movement started by College of Industrial Arts President F.M. Bralley “gained traction from the Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, Denton County’s Livestock Association and business leaders, who donated 67 acres and money to the college.”
Ultimately, Ramsay wrote, Quakertown residents were pressured to move because Bralley believed “they were a danger to the young women attending the College of Industrial Arts,” now TWU. The site became a city park in 1921, and its residents were forced to move to Southeast Denton.
“They literally moved to the other side of the tracks,” Meltzer said. “I researched and wrote up markers telling those stories. I took my work to the Southeast Denton Neighborhood Association to get opinion about it.”
His research was well received, Meltzer said.
“But while I had general approval, I also heard very strongly — and in an eye-opening way — that in many ways African American history in Southeast Denton didn’t stop with the move [from] Quakertown.”
So Meltzer continued his work.
“I have met many fascinating people … in the neighborhood who could tell me about life in Southeast Denton and how Prairie Street was the commercial center for Black-owned businesses, segregation in movie theaters and the process of desegregation in Denton.”
According to one of the markers for the Denton Branch Rail Trail, “job discrimination limited African-Americans largely to manual labor and domestic service roles. Blacks could walk from the muddy, unpaved streets of Southeast Denton to work in restaurant and soda fountain kitchens downtown, but as customers they could only order food through back doors, without being seated.
“Of Denton’s three downtown movie theaters, only Dreamland allowed blacks, and that was only through a back door up to a narrow balcony or to the midnight show on Saturday nights. The drinking fountains at the Confederate soldier monument on the Square were off limits, as were the first floor restrooms at the courthouse; so African-American children learned to go directly to the unkempt rest rooms in the basement. Segregated schools managed without books or lab equipment of any kind.”
Mayor Gerard Hudspeth has praised the project.
“It is … great,” he said. It “honors Denton’s diverse history.”
Randy Hunt, president of Historic Denton and Ramsay’s husband, said he aided Meltzer in his research.
“We first began our relationship with the Southeast Denton Neighborhood Association in our attempts to gain firsthand information about what happened at Quaker,” Hunt said. “We were tired of having ‘white-splaining’ and wanted to hear from people who actually experienced reality.”
Through that work, Hunt and Ramsay met Alma Clark and Betty Kimble.
“Alma Clark described her 1962 move to Southeast Denton with husband, William McKinley Clark, as ‘a total culture shock,’” Ramsay wrote in her essay for the Record-Chronicle in 2019. She said Clark referred to Southeast Denton as a “third-world country” after moving here from Austin.
“The streets weren’t paved, and you had to switch the streetlamps on and off,” she told Ramsay. “We had to spray water on the streets just to keep the dust down, and when it rained, you had to wear galoshes to church to keep your shoes from getting ruined by mud.”
Also, residents burned trash because no sanitation service was available to Southeast Denton.
Clark is one of the women who formed the Denton Women’s Interracial Fellowship — a group central to breaking racial barriers.
“It was a very original chapter in the civil rights movement,” Meltzer said. “About 10 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, Denton’s schools were not desegregated.”
To ease tension between white and Black students, their parents often arranged social events together.
“They started getting together,” Meltzer said. “They celebrated holidays together. Eventually, they learned about some of the challenges that Black people of Southeast Denton faced — street issues, employment discrimination, humiliation of segregated lunch counters.”
But one by one, Meltzer said, members of the fellowship took on those issues together.
“They would go out in pairs — one white woman and one Black woman — and sit down at the lunch counter,” Meltzer said. “They did that not knowing what would happen next. Eventually, the tension broke, and they were served and segregation ended.”
“It’s not about individuals but about the women acting as a group and making social change in the community,” Meltzer said. “So I wanted to make sure every person involved in that is acknowledged and the story is told.”
Eight signs have been designed for the rail trail, and others are being planned.
“I’m learning about the many social and cultural institutions of Southeast Denton, the churches and organizations,” Meltzer said. “I’m learning about when Southeast Denton emerged into the mainstream of Denton political life. I’m really enjoying it.”
PAUL BRYANT can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @paulbryant_DRC.
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