El Paso, like the rest of the United States and much of the world, is deeply imprinted with a legacy of racist ideology.
Long before a white supremacist marched into a Walmart to massacre innocent people, the worldview and cultural understandings espoused by that shooter had already held strong sway in El Paso, shaping significant periods in our past, and deeply scarring our present.
Racism in El Paso has taken many forms: racial covenants among home owners in Kern Place, bans on interracial dating for UTEP athletes, former Ku Klux Klan members turned city leaders.
This article will explore some of the ways that white supremacist ideology has impacted El Paso throughout the past century. It’s worth mentioning that a historical analysis such as this is necessarily incomplete because, when those in power are white supremacists, that means that white supremacists write the history books. Consequently, many stories of marginalized people get glossed over, dramatically revised, or left out entirely.
The whitewashing of community history is often most apparent in place name geography: the names of schools, public parks, and streets. In response to the police killing of George Floyd, there has been a wave of increased attention to racist figures memorialized in local landmarks, and heightened demand for the removal of names and monuments glorifying individuals who were proponents of white supremacist ideology.
In El Paso, this conversation has heated up, with calls for the removal of the Juan de Oñate statue at the El Paso airport, and a change-of-name effort for Robert E. Lee Elementary School.
I asked El Paso Independent School District Trustee Freddy Klayel-Avalos (who led the effort to rename Lee Elementary) why he thinks that El Paso, a city with a disproportionately Hispanic population, has such a high number of sites named after non-Hispanic white people (men, mostly).
“For a large part of United States history, Anglo-American history was seen as the predominant culture. Anglo-American figures were seen as the predominant figures. El Paso is a microcosm of that,” Klayel-Avalos said. “Because so much of what we consider to be valuable history is based off of Anglo-American history, we have more figures that are Anglo-American that have monuments and schools named after them then we do for Hispanic people.”
The Ku Klux Klan’s impact on El Paso
The Ku Klux Klan’s role in El Paso’s place name geography is significant, and sheds light on how racism shaped the city during the 20th century.
“In the latter part of 1921 a situation developed which bid fare to become the forerunner of disaster,” Owen White wrote in his 1923 book “Out of the Desert: A Historical Romance of El Paso,” discussing the KKK’s rapid rise to power in local affairs. White noted their initial success in “securing control of the school board,” followed by Klan entries into local politics.
Historian and author David Dorado Romo is currently working on a new book that discusses the history of the KKK in El Paso.
“Between 1921 and 1922, the KKK just grew like wildfire. It attracted probably 3,500 El Paso members. Probably the most prominent member was Tom Lea Sr.,” said Romo, noting documentation of the former El Paso mayor’s involvement in the Klan in a seminar paper by Edward F. Sherman.
Lea Sr. also is known for being the instigator of the brutal border quarantine policy that prompted the El Paso Bath Riots, a topic that Romo covered extensively in his book “Ringside Seat to a Revolution.”
Romo said the influence of the KKK was far-reaching among local leaders during this time. “The El Paso Herald was thoroughly infiltrated; 13 members of the editorial and publishing board belonged to the KKK. The police department as well; there were about a dozen policemen that were outed at that time.”
The KKK-controlled school board named six schools in El Paso after men they deemed “Texas Heroes,” Romo said.
“The six schools were Bowie (High School), Rusk (Elementary School), Austin (High School), Burleson (Elementary School — now closed), Crockett (Elementary School), and Fannin (Elementary School). The majority of them were white slave owners. Crockett at the time was commonly referred to as an ‘Indian killer’.”
Davy Crockett fought in the 1813 Tallussahatchee massacre, in which more than 200 Creek Indians died. Discussing the attack, Crockett wrote, “we now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it.”
James Bowie spent some time working as a slave trader, in addition to being a slave owner. In February 1831, he and his brother sold 82 human beings plus landholdings for $90,000. Stephen F. Austin, a slave owner, vigorously argued against ending slavery in Texas, saying that freed slaves would be “vagabonds, a nuisance, and a menace.”
EPISD leaders discuss renaming schools
Voting to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary has re-opened previous conversations about the appropriateness of having schools named for slave owners, Confederates and colonizers.
“In today’s context, I would say with a high degree of certainty that we wouldn’t even consider naming schools after anybody who owned slaves. Removing monuments and renaming schools is related to reparations because we’re addressing the context within which they exist now and finding whether or not it’s appropriate,” Klayel-Avalos said.
He said several people have reached out to him about the possibility of renaming Austin High School.
EPISD spokesperson Gustavo Reveles emphasized that the school district is very willing to engage in discussions about the appropriateness of school names, and leaving it up to the community whether or not names should be changed.
“We’ve been approached about names from Bowie, to Coronado, to Rusk. That doesn’t mean that we’re changing those names, it just means that there are people who have brought up issues that they feel should be considered. We as a district are open to having conversations about the legacy of these names, and whether or not they reflect the values of El Pasoans today,” Reveles said.
Klayel-Avalos made special mention of Coronado High School as a school with it’s name in question, and reminded El Pasoans that atrocities committed against Native Americans are part of the history of white supremacy.
“Coronado and Juan de Oñate (are) associated with the genocide of Native Americans,” Klayel-Avalos. “In a way it’s still white supremacy. White supremacy is a tool that the elites used to stay in control, and that’s exactly what Juan de Oñate did. It’s the same as white supremacy, it just happened to be against native people, not Black people.”
Romo emphasized the role that place names can play in perpetuating racism and white supremacy.
“These names left a psychological legacy, it’s the legacy of colonialism. Our legacy has been erased. Do you know the names of the indigenous people who were here before the Spaniards arrived? What’s in a name? Colonization, mental colonization. This idea that your history has disappeared, it’s not even white washed history, it’s white imposed history,” Romo said.
Racism has been a pervasive force in El Paso
Ron Stallworth, author of “Black Klansman”, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado as an undercover detective, grew up in El Paso. Now 67 and retired in El Paso, Stallworth recalled how pervasive racism was in El Paso during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“I was called (the n-word) on many occasions growing up, by white kids and Hispanic kids. I remember one incident in particular, I was on the bus coming from Austin High School heading home. And I was fooling around with some Mexican friends of mine. One girl was brushing her hair. And the Mexican guy took her brush and started brushing his hair, and she and the other girl were laughing. Then the second girl took the brush and started brushing her hair. And then I grabbed the brush and ran it through my hair, and the girl who owned the brush snatched it out of my hand and started speaking Spanish. She called me (a Spanish language racial slur), and said ‘now my brush is dirty.’ Then she opened the window and tossed the brush out the window. I never had anything to do with that girl after that, and up til that point she was considered a friend.”
Stallworth recalled how, in his early childhood, the Plaza Theater was segregated and Black people were supposed to sit in a specified area of the balcony. “Ironically, they thought they were punishing us by putting us in that section, but that’s probably the best seats in the house,” Stallworth said.
On Aug. 10, 2019, a week after the terror attack at the Cielo Vista Walmart, the Spike Lee-directed movie based on Stallworth’s book played at the Plaza Theater. “It was shown in a place that was denying me and others of my kind for so long, and now it was a feature movie, and later became an Academy Award-winning movie, so phooey on them.”
Segregation existed both unofficially and officially in other sectors of society, said Romo, who described racial covenants that existed among homeowners in the Kern Place area, which he said was often the location of KKK initiations.
“Everything south of Overland street in Downtown El Paso was the Mexican section, and everything north of it was the Anglo section. So people who lived in Kern Place would never have seen a Mexican unless they got arrested or got lost. There was very pronounced segregation in El Paso at that time.”
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, segregation was common at El Paso restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters, and it has been reported that Black musicians such as Nat King Cole stayed at hotels in Juárez or at “off-brand hotels” in El Paso when coming through the city.
In 1962, a city ordinance was passed that banned segregation in El Paso, although it was vetoed by former El Paso Mayor Ralph Seitsinger, who said at the time, “The field of integration is one that is quite touchy. I further feel that a legislated act in this field strains a relationship between customer and businessman that is not in the best interest of human relationships.”
The City Council overrode Seitsinger’s veto and El Paso became the first city in a former Confederate state to outlaw discrimination in public places.
Romo emphasized that although some claim the presence of the KKK died down after it’s initial surge in the 1920s, this is false. “The KKK has been around in El Paso even in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The KKK never left really, they just didn’t wear the mask anymore. (Samuel) Isaacks was still winning (political) campaigns,” Romo said of an El Paso lawyer and Klan member who served in the Texas Legislature until 1954. “And the principles that the KKK represented left a deep legacy not only in the geographical landscape but in the political landscape as well.”
“Glory Road” doesn’t tell the whole story
The 2006 film “Glory Road” tells the story of Don Haskins, the white Texas Western College coach who leads the first all-Black college basketball team to NCAA victory in 1966.
The movie depicts racism encountered by the players both at home and on the road, framing the team’s ascent as a triumph of diversity and inclusion led by white-savior Haskins, along with a college administration that begrudgingly comes around to the African-American roster, once they start winning games and bringing in the big bucks. The movie ends with the team returning home to El Paso where an adoring crowd awaits.
An article in a 1968 issue of Sports Illustrated paints a different picture of the homecoming reception to those players.
“After that final game in College Park, Maryland, we came back to the campus and there were 2000 people waiting for us at the airport. They paraded us through town and everybody was going crazy, cheering and hollering. … But that was about the end of it. We were never campus heroes. We were never invited to mixers or anything like that. … When the game’s over they want you to come back to the dormitory and stay out of sight,” said Willie Worsley, a player on the 1966 team.
His teammate Willie Cager said, “The people here don’t come right out and say that they hate your guts and all you can do is play basketball and nothing else, but that is how it shapes up.”
The article includes commentary from UTEP athletic director George McCarty, who defended his frequent use of the n-word, saying “it’s a habit you don’t change overnight.” It also described the university’s efforts to stop interracial dating, and a 1967 sit-in led by Black athletes at UTEP to protest unfair treatment.
We do not live in a post-racial world
While working on this article, I asked most of the people I spoke with whether they’d personally experienced racism growing up in El Paso.
Klayel-Avalos has both Mexican-American and Arab-American ethnic heritage, and was in high school when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks took place. He described that as being the first time he personally experienced prejudicial treatment in El Paso, when he was harassed with prank calls by classmates pretending to be investigating him for terrorism.
Stallworth said that in his youth, racialized personal attacks were commonplace. “Back in those days, when you got into an argument with a Black person, the first thing you did was call them a (n-word).”
Stallworth called it naiveté that some people considered the election of President Obama as evidence that we now live in a post-racial world. “Racism is alive and well all over this country, all over the world. No place is immune from racism, so wherever you go, you’re going to experience it in some shape or form,” Stallworth said.
Klayel-Avalos spoke to an important element of racism: how denial of racism can help it to remain insidious and under-acknowledged in a community.
“Just because (a person has) not personally experienced something, does not mean it doesn’t exist. Brown on brown discrimination exists, brown on Black discrimination exists, and white supremacy is something that exists even if people don’t think that it does. (The question is) how do we fix it?”
Cover photo: The Ku Klux Klan built power in El Paso in the early 1920s, including winning control of the school board, but suffered a major defeat in the 1923 municipal elections.