The African-American community in El Paso traces its ancestry back to the 1500s when Esteban, or “Estevanico,” a black Moor, wandered the southwest. The community began to firmly take hold in the 1880s as different industries and the military brought more black Americans here, some of whom are responsible for establishing the first black school, the first NAACP chapter in the state and many more significant establishments and programs throughout our local history.
While the complete contributions of our black community are too numerous to list, we’ve compiled a group of some exceptionally notable movers and shakers:
Black physician and voting rights pioneer Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon’s contribution to the community is still seen today. He took on the city’s Democratic Party when he was turned away after trying to vote in the party’s primary in 1924. With the help of the NAACP, he challenged the party’s prohibition of black citizens voting in the Democratic primaries. In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled that political parties must allow blacks to vote.
Thelma White led the charge for integration at Texas universities in the 1950s after being denied entrance at Texas Western College (now UTEP). She was the valedictorian of the 1954 graduating class at Douglass and became the first African-American to be admitted to an all-White Texas university.
In 1983, Leona Ford Washington founded the McCall Neighborhood Center, the city’s black cultural and heritage center that remains a living monument to the achievements and contributions of El Paso’s African-American community. She was born in El Paso in 1928 at home and delivered by Dr. Nixon. Because of segregation laws, Washington was forced to attend Douglass school, and later teach there. She was also denied entrance to the Texas School of Mines and Metallurgy (now UTEP), attending instead a university in Houston. The Leona Ford Washington Recreation Center at 3400 E. Missouri Ave. was erected in her honor.
Olalee and Marshall McCall are significant in the telling of the story, as their home was the original site of the McCall Neighborhood Center at 3231 Wyoming Ave. They are each innovators in their own rights as well. Olalee became the first female high school principal for the El Paso Independent School District in 1937 while Marshall was the city’s first black mail carrier.
Mary Webb is credited with establishing the first black recreation center in El Paso. The park at 3401 E. Missouri was dedicated in her honor.
The city’s only African-Americans to serve on city council are Jethro Hills, C.S. “Dusty” Rhodes and Carl Robinson.
Black journalist Archie Waters was also an expert in chess. He wrote a column for the El Paso Times for more than ten years.
World-renowned artist Bob Snead is an accomplished painter, stage actor and decorated military pilot. His painting, “The Errand of Corporal Ross,” was chosen as the Buffalo Soldier Memorial at Fort Bliss. He was inducted into the El Paso International Hall of Fame for Visual Arts in 1999.
The city’s oldest black Baptist church, Second Baptist, was established in 1884 under the direction of Reverend E.M. Griggs. The five founding members of the church are Mr. and Mrs. Joe Pollard, Thomas Gaines, Calvin Neal and George Duval.
From 1866-1901 several Buffalo Soldier regiments were garrisoned at Ft. Bliss. A statue memorializing the units was erected on base. The soldiers were honored in 2016 at Concordia Cemetery, where the remains of more than 40 soldiers are interred.