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The rich history of El Paso’s African American community

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Each February, El Pasoans participate in Black History Month events like parades, art events, and much more. But many don’t know the long and rich history of El Paso’s African American community.

From Buffalo Soldiers to civil rights leaders, African Americans have contributed a great deal to shaping the community of El Paso, despite only constituting 4% of the city’s population

Did you know that a Black El Pasoan was integral in the fight against racist voter suppression in Texas in the early 20th century, or that a Black El Pasoan wrote the official song for the city of El Paso? 

Learn more about key moments in El Paso African American history through this timeline which, although not exhaustive, shows the profound impact El Paso’s African American community has had on the city.  

1877: Buffalo Soldiers arrive in El Paso

In 1877, El Paso became a hub for Buffalo Soldiers, the African American men who served in the Army during its western expansion efforts after the Civil War. 

“The Errand of Corporal Ross,” featuring a Buffalo Soldier in battle with the Apache, is perhaps the best known painting by the late El Paso artist Bob Snead. It served as a model for Fort Bliss’s Buffalo Soldier Memorial. (Photo courtesy of Snead family).

An 1866 Act of Congress created six all-Black peacetime Army regiments, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, who were tasked with protecting settlers, building roads and infrastructure, and guarding the U.S. mail at points throughout the American West. They often faced extreme racism within the Army, although part of the intention of the regiments had been a post-Civil War push toward equality. 

Concordia village, now known as Lincoln Park, was one of the first neighborhoods that African Americans settled in El Paso. Part of the village was leased to the U.S. Army and became Camp Concordia. Soon after, several troops of Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at this Army post. 

“Many (Black) military persons retired in El Paso because they found the city as an accepting place,” Miguel Juárez said in a research study of the Lincoln Park African American community. 

“In El Paso, you did not have the Black-white binary which occurs in other larger cities,” he said, referring to the city’s large Mexican American population.

1881: The railroads bring a population boom

The arrival of the railroads in 1881 introduced a new source of work for El Paso African Americans. During this time, El Paso’s African American population grew significantly. 

The more that El Paso grew as a center for transportation, the more jobs African Americans were able to fulfill, not only directly for the railroad but in varied service positions, and in the subsequent growth in mining and smelter jobs. 

El Paso was a boomtown during this period, growing to more than 10,000 residents by 1890

1891: Jim Crow laws shape the racial dynamic of El Paso

Jim Crow laws codified racism against African Americans in El Paso, beginning in the late 1800s and well into the 20th century. 

State and local laws that enforced racial segregation (termed Jim Crow laws) were implemented following the Civil War, bolstered by a United States Supreme Court decision that affirmed the separate but equal legal doctrine in 1896.

The Douglass Grammar and High School, built in 1891 specifically for African Americans, was established to comply with the laws of segregation at the time. Named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the school was significant as an educational institution for Black children in El Paso, even though it remained segregated until 1956. 

Douglass School was attended by Black children for decades when El Paso schools were segregated. This photo is from the 1940s. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso Library Special Collections Department)

Many churches specifically for Black El Pasoans were also established in the Lincoln Park Community during this time, including Mount Zion Baptist Church and Philip’s Chapel. 

State laws and de facto local segregation efforts shaped housing patterns in the borderlands.

“As a result of economic segregation and racial covenants which prevented Anglos from selling or renting their homes to people of color in some of El Paso’s white neighborhoods, African Americans could only live were Mexican Americans or Chinese Americans lived,” border historian David Romo said. 

Because of this, de facto alliances formed between El Paso’s Mexican American and African American communities. Mexican Americans supported African American efforts and even contributed to organizations such as the El Paso chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“There was this kind of amalgamation between the Mexican and Black community here,” Romo said. “There was already integration here in that community, but it wasn’t seen as a big deal — it just seemed kind of natural.”

In addition to living alongside each other, Romo said many interracial couples emerged in El Paso during this time. Because Mexican Americans were classified as “white,” these interracial marriages were barred as miscegenation under Texas state law. 

1914: First Texas NAACP chapter founded in El Paso

El Paso was the first Texan city to found a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1914 (though some sources place the date as 1912 or 1915). 

The chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in El Paso began in 1914. The plaque lies in the McCall Neighborhood Center. (Nicole Lopez/El Paso Matters)

This was driven in large part by high levels of racial discrimination in El Paso, where African Americans were barred from entering restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, swimming pools and other facilities. At the time, the NAACP was considered a fairly radical civil rights organization, and the founding of a local chapter signaled an ideological shift among many in El Paso’s African American community. 

As the 20th century progressed, many leaders and activists, including W. E. B. Dubois and James Weldon Johnson, held El Paso in high regard when it came to building a progressive community for African Americans. 

1927: El Pasoan fights voter suppression in Texas

Voting rights for African Americans in Texas took a significant turn when Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon, a prominent Black physician, challenged a racist Texas law that banned Black people from voting in Democratic primary elections. 

Dr. Lawrence Nixon

In the early 20th century, Texas used both poll taxes and all-white primaries as ways to suppress African American and Mexican American votes. 

Nixon originally moved to El Paso after witnessing the lynching of a Black man; he came to West Texas to escape the violent racism he had experienced growing up in East Texas. In 1924, he was denied the right to vote during a Democratic party primary election, after having paid the poll tax. He filed a suit in the federal district court which eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court. 

In both Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Nixon v. Condon (1932), the Supreme Court found Texas’ racially discriminatory voting rules to be unconstitutional, a violation of the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause. 

Nixon’s tireless efforts marked a major advancement for voting rights in Texas, setting precedents that would then be upheld in the 1944 Supreme Court case Smith v. Allwright. 

1955: UTEP is the first desegregated undergraduate institution in Texas

In desegregation efforts following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, El Paso educational institutions were credited with desegregating faster than any other educational institutions in Texas, or the South for that matter. 

The University of Texas at El Paso — then called Texas Western College — was the first desegregated undergraduate institution in Texas, admitting its first Black students in the fall of 1955. 

Some of the first African-American students at Texas Western College walk on campus after freshmen orientation in September 1955. They are, from left, William Milner, Marcellus Fulmore, John English, Mabel Butler, Clarence Stevens, Margaret Jackson and Sandra Campbell. (Photo courtesy of UTEP)

The NAACP was highly active in El Paso at the time: when the first Black students arrived on campus, members from the NAACP were there to provide their support. 

NAACP members helped these students become more familiar with the community by showing them where they could shop and eat. They also provided transportation to make sure they left and returned home safely. 

One of the first 12 Black students to enroll at Texas Western was Mildred Parish Massey. Her daughter, Barbara Lee, now is a congresswoman from California. 

Although desegregation was implemented in educational spaces in the 1950s, segregation and race-based discrimination were still omnipresent in El Paso.

1959: More Black-owned businesses open

In the 1940s and 1950s, increasing numbers of Black-owned businesses opened in El Paso. Restaurants, theatres, barbershops, and salons were among the new businesses run by members of the African American community.

At this time, Black ministers in El Paso took it upon themselves to engage with white city leaders to discuss changes in employment and policies, seeking to benefit the African American community. 

One of the most successful Black-owned businesses to emerge during this period was Estine Davis’ East Side Barber Shop. The famed “Miss Estine” has been cutting hair in El Paso for nearly 70 years, and she began working at the location that would eventually become her own shop in 1959. 

Davis has been active community member: she sponsored Miss Black El Paso pageants, and her barbershop has become a staple of El Paso’s African American community.

After celebrating her 88th birthday in December, Estine Davis returns to cutting hair in her barber shop. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

1967: Black UTEP football players stage a sit-in for equality

Although athletics at the University of Texas at El Paso were lauded for racial integration following the success of “Glory Road” — the 1966 NCAA champion basketball team that made history as the first team with five African American starting players — this did not mean that racial intolerance was absent from the campus of UTEP. 

In 1967, tensions fomented as a result of a university policy forbidding Black students from interracial dating, prompting a sit-in demonstration by Black UTEP football players and other students to demand a change in the racist policy. 

“I remember seeing (a young Black woman) on the cover of the El Paso Times, being dragged out by police because she would not move,” recalled Ron Stallworth, El Paso native and author of “Black Klansman.”  

“That was their philosophy. That was a civil rights demonstration right there,” he said. 

Through the efforts of the civil rights movement, African Americans in El Paso increasingly attained positions of leadership in El Paso during the late 1960s. African Americans held prominent positions in the El Paso Police Department, City Council, and the local branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during this time. 

1970: Long John Hunter becomes an El Paso blues legend

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the influence of African American music was massive throughout the borderlands. Bluesman and guitarist Long John Hunter became famous for the raucous all-night shows he played in Ciudad Juárez, at venues including Lobby Bar, Bar 77 and Don Felix. Hunter’s music was strongly influenced by the border, and he released numerous albums and songs touting his bordertown pride.

1984: Increased Black leadership leads to growing community resources

A boom in black leadership led to more welfare-based organizations for the African American community, including the McCall Neighborhood Center.

The center helps African Americans gain educational and professional opportunities, and was established in 1984.

“We’ve been able to feed the elderly thanks to all the support and recognition we receive,” said Greg Davis, current president of the McCall Neighborhood Center. 

The McCall Neighborhood Center was built around the home to Olalee and Marshall McCall, which was donated to the city in 1985. (Photo courtesy of the McCall Neighborhood Center)

Founded by local leader, educator and community activist Leona Ford Washington, the McCall Neighborhood Center has been a hub for El Paso’s African American community, and is home to a library of local Black history, largely compiled by Washington. 

In the 1980s Washington also penned the song “The City of El Paso,” which was adopted as the official song of the city by then-Mayor Jonathan Rogers. 

1995: El Paso Police Department hires Zina Silva

Zina Silva currently is the highest-ranked woman on El Paso’s police force. Hired in 1995, Silva is the EPPD’s first female Mexican American and African American assistant police chief.

Silva was also the EPPD’s first female Black detective. 

Assistant Police Chief Zina Silva, center, has been with the El Paso Police Department since 1995. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Police Department)

But Silva said there is more work to be done in terms of increasing the diversity of the El Paso police force though, particularly when it comes to gender.

“It’s very difficult to get people to think differently and say, you know, anybody can do this job: it’s a male job, it’s a female job, any gender can be successful. We haven’t quite tipped the scale on getting more women to join,” she said.

Silva has also gained prominence as a competitive bodybuilder and is a world-class powerlifter. 

Present day: El Paso’s African American community has growing sense of unity

The African American community in El Paso is noteworthy for remarkable unity, said “Black Klansman” author Ron Stallworth, who grew up in El Paso and returned a few years ago after retiring from a law-enforcement career. 

“I knew at all times that if anything happened, and I needed to reach someplace to get help, or if there was no food in the house and that I needed to go get a meal, I could go to any one of those houses and they would take care of me,” Stallworth said, referring to his experience growing up in El Paso. 

“That’s the type of community it was back then. El Paso has grown so much since then,” he said.

Ron Stallworth, second from right, spoke at a screening of “BlackKklansman,” the Academy Award-winning film based on his book, at the Plaza Theater on Aug. 10, 2019. He appeared with the movie’s producer and screenwriters. As a child in the 1950s, Stallworth was restricted to the theater’s balcony because he was Black. Among those attending the screening was his childhood friend Barbara Lee, now a congresswoman from California. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

The city’s historic Black neighborhood, near Downtown, was largely demolished by construction of Interstate 10 in the 1960s. 

Efforts like the El Paso Black Pages, a Black-owned business directory, help to enable El Pasoans to support and uplift Black-owned enterprises. Monica Tucker, founder of Black El Paso Voice (which created El Paso Black Pages), is dedicated to helping other Black-owned businesses grow. 

Monica Tucker owns MOCHA Enterprises in El Paso.

“Many people have been able to say that they’ve started businesses here,” Tucker said. “But the question is how else can they grow? That’s what we’re focusing on right now.”

Tucker, an entrepreneur herself, considers these efforts key when it comes to giving African Americans a say in El Paso’s future. 

“We have a voice here,” Tucker said. “We want to be able to connect with other people and have other people understand our history here.” 

Cover photo: The Douglass School was an all-Black school for decades. Pictured is the graduating class of 1949. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso Library Special Collections Department)

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Nicole Lopez

Nicole Lopez is studying multimedia journalism at the University of Texas at El Paso and does freelance writing. Nicole is interested in covering a wide array of topics and issues in the borderland.

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