Black History Month is approaching. The annual celebration and commemoration of the contributions of black Americans will get underway throughout the city.
In El Paso, the African-American community has been firmly rooted in the city beginning in the 1880s. While the pangs of slavery, segregation and racism were auspiciously wiped away with the passage of many integration laws in the 1950s, the reality for black Americans contradicted what legislation dictated.
Some local African-Americans said that while El Paso has been seen as a place of tolerance and acceptance for black people, that was not always the case.
For Juliet Hart, the historian for community group McCall Neighborhood Center, the move towards integration is ongoing.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.
Hart has witnessed varying levels of racism throughout her life, having been born and raised in Alabama until she was 16, then moving to California, Alaska and finally to El Paso. She said that while the lines between races were blurred, they weren’t completely erased.
“Integration was slow, as were the feelings of acceptance and tolerance and the awareness of who we are and what we could accomplish,” she said.
“There was a level of cooperation here, but there was still that, ‘This is ours, that is yours’ feeling,” she said.
She did note, however, the existence of Fort Bliss likely adds a level of tolerance in El Paso, as the base hosts soldiers of various ethnicities.
Greg Davis, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a veteran who was stationed at Fort Bliss, echoed her sentiment.
“When you’re in the military, you have to learn to adapt to different diversities,” he said.
For him, heading the oldest chapter of the NAACP in the state of Texas is not just a matter of elevating equality for African-Americans, but for all Americans. However, the bulk of discrimination complaints “unfortunately involve black folks” and are related to pay inequality and a few allegations of police brutality cases.
He said when compared to other parts of the country, particularly the south and even many parts of Texas, El Paso is pretty unprejudiced towards the black community.
“We have our share of police brutality complaints, but I have to say, they’re on a much smaller scale than other Texas cities,” he said. “But it’s not absolutely extinct either.”
He said that part of the reason for such a low number may be due to the fact the local police force mirrors the makeup of the city, with Latinos, who are considered minorities, making up the majority officers.
Actress and author Kathryn Smith-McGlynn co-authored the book “African-Americans in El Paso” with Cecilia Gutierrez Venable and the late Dr. Maceo Dailey, Jr., who used to head up UTEP’s African-American Studies department.
“When you think of the history of blacks in the U.S., especially in the South, you think of lynchings,” she said. “El Paso didn’t have as much violence, but it was just as controversial in terms of the lives of black Americans.”
She said El Paso was “segregated just like the rest of the states.”
Indeed, before desegregation laws went into effect, African-Americans in El Paso were forced to remain “separate” from white people, including in schools.
Douglass Grammar and High School at 101 S. Eucalyptus St., designated as an all-black school, was established in 1891 and remained operational until 1956.
“It was the only school for blacks,” Hart said.
Institutes for higher learning were not exempt from segregation.
Smith-McGlynn cited the federal lawsuit filed by Thelma White in 1955 after being denied entrance to Texas Western College, UTEP’s former name.
A federal judge deemed state laws requiring segregation invalid, effectively forcing all UT system schools to revamp their admittance policies for black applicants. White became the first black student admitted to an all-white Texas university.
Smith-McGlynn also said El Paso was a transition point for people traveling from different parts of the country by railroad, effectively magnifying or erasing the lines between blacks and whites
“People would come from California to El Paso, and if you were black, you had to go to the back of the train,” she said. “If you were traveling from the East coming to the West, once you were at the changeover, you were treated as a human being. That says a lot about the region.”
While El Paso has not been exempt from the scourge of discrimination, overall, the city has been a place for African-Americans to achieve their dreams and goals, Smith-McGlynn added.
“Relative to other parts of the country it’s been a place where blacks could go and thrive and be successful,” she said