Leona Ford Washington spent years scouring junk sales, garage sales and estate sales looking for glimpses into El Paso’s Black history.

Over time she amassed an expansive and captivating collection of more than 800 photos documenting the lives of Black El Pasoans across 100 years, which Washington donated to the Special Collections Department at the University of Texas at El Paso library in 1991.

“She was very interested in Black history being preserved in El Paso,” said Claudia Rivers, head of Special Collections. Rivers met with Washington several times following the donation of her photo collection. 

With photos dating back to 1870, the collection includes staid portraits in formal attire, candid moments with laughing children, notable historical events and intimate scenes of daily life in El Paso during the 20th century.

YouTube video

Washington was born in El Paso in 1928 and was active as a local community leader until her death in 2007. She grew up in what was then known as the “Second Ward” (the Segundo Barrio neighborhood), and attended Douglass Grammar and High School, where she would later work as a teacher.

Douglass School was segregated and was the only school that Black El Pasoans could attend until 1956. Washington’s photo collection includes many scenes from the school, some from her time there and others that she discovered through her research.

“A lot of the photos are not identified,” Rivers said of the collection. “I think it’s an important piece of El Paso history, and I’m very appreciative of the effort she went to to build this collection.”

Washington founded the McCall Neighborhood Center in 1983, which works to preserve El Paso Black history and serves as a gathering place for local community activities and organizations. She also penned the song “The City of El Paso,” which the city adopted as its official song in the 1980s. 

In 1985, Washington was interviewed by Charlotte Ivy for the UTEP Institute of Oral History about the Black community in El Paso. When Ivy asked what she would like to see included in a project covering the history of Black El Paso, Washington reflected thoughtfully.  

“I would like to see the contributions that Blacks have made in building El Paso and the unique gifts that they have really given El Paso,” she said. 

UTEP Special Collections is currently digitizing Washington’s entire photo collection, and it will be available online soon. 

Feature photo from Leona Ford Washington’s photo collection, courtesy UTEP Library Special Collections. Audio excerpts from the Leona Ford Washington oral history, used with permission from the UTEP Institute of Oral History. 

Leona Ford Washington interview by Charlotte Ivy on Nov. 2, 1985. Interview No. 762, Institute of Oral History, University of Texas at El Paso.

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.