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Growing up in El Paso, Karen Cooper Linen learned about prejudice and segregation even though her father was one of the few Black Army officers stationed at Fort Bliss in 1957.
“This city was primarily a white city back then,” Cooper Linen said. “I experienced prejudice, like every other Black person. My white friend was asked to take her ‘Negro’ friend out of a private community pool in the late ’60s. At the time, we were renting while my father was serving overseas.”
After hearing about the incident when he returned, her father turned that negative experience into a positive by creating a gathering place for the children in her neighborhood. He bought a home with her mother in 1969 and built a swimming pool in the backyard.
“Needless to say, we were one of the few Black folks in that neighborhood, and our house was the gathering place of the neighborhood friends,” she said. “Even though we grew up knowing we had more than most, we were taught to treat everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of their socioeconomic status.”
Black history and stories like this in El Paso span hundreds of years – as far back as the 1800s when Buffalo Soldiers arrived in El Paso after the Civil War to 1955 when Texas Western College (now UTEP) became the first desegregated undergraduate university in Texas. Later in 1966, Texas Western became the first to win an NCAA basketball championship with an all-Black starting lineup.
Over the years, the military continued to play a large role in the region’s Black history, with the growing Fort Bliss Army post helping Black soldiers make El Paso their home.
Today, El Paso’s population is about 4% African American.
“The percentages, in the end, don’t matter because their stories are important, too,” said El Paso Museum of History Director Erica Marin. “For many of our family members, we always grew up next to Black people in spaces like Segundo Barrio, and their stories are just as important.”
Several events are planned in the city to honor that heritage and showcase some of the impacts that African Americans had on the community.
“El Paso, like many other cities, like Tulsa, Oklahoma, also had its own Black Wall Street that had its own thriving hub of the Black community,” Marin said. “That started way before when we started looking at settlements in the late 19th century.”
Settlers moved into areas such as Segundo Barrio in South El Paso, where Mexican and Chinese migrants found places to live.
“Segundo Barrio was a very mixed place,” Marin said. “Everyone lived together. Everyone lived in the poorer areas, and little by little, people started moving eastward.”
The history museum is showcasing the yearlong exhibit, “Still We Rise: El Paso’s Black Experience,” starting Saturday.
The exhibit aims to showcase El Paso’s Black experience and highlight local businesses like Estine Davis’ Eastside Barber Shop, the last among a once vibrant Black business district in the border city.
“We basically cold-called the community and told them that we were interested in the history for an exhibition,” Marin said. “This was almost two years’ worth of work. I think it’s really powerful when you continue those relationships even after these exhibitions (close).”
One of the groups that helped with the exhibit was the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, an international service organization founded at Howard University in 1908 by African American college-educated women.
“It is important – no, essential – that this story be told in El Paso because there are some significant stories and events that transpired here that are a part of the African American story,” AKA member Karen Beamon said.
AKA donated a scrapbook depicting the first 10 years of Eta Pi Omega, a chapter of the organization chartered in El Paso in 1961.
“The importance of showcasing the Black experience in El Paso is to show how our people were instrumental in fighting for our rights like Dr. Lawrence Nixon did for our voting rights, as Blacks were not allowed to vote in the El Paso Democratic primary in 1924,” Cooper Linen said.
“He, along with the local NAACP – the first chapter in Texas – challenged that denial all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, in 1944, he was allowed to vote, paving the way for other Blacks,” she said.
The 1,200-square-foot exhibition will feature written content, listening stations with oral histories, and slideshows.
“I think oftentimes a lot like the history of Chicanos or the history of the Chinese population here, the story goes untold, or the stories are told from a purely academic standpoint that really doesn’t get to be shown to the rest of the public,” Marin said. “Our mission here is to continue to elevate the stories of every single community here in El Paso.”
A part of Central El Paso around Alameda and Piedras streets was once the city’s East Side before the city started expanding in all directions. Many businesses thrived in that neighborhood and were bought and sold from owner to owner, keeping the identity intact until most moved out of the area.
“We found out that there were so many businesses, and (the community) wanted to know about this lost history,” Marin said. “That’s when my team and I started researching to find samples of oral histories.”
A red-line map — charts once used by mortgage lenders that delineated areas with large Black populations and where white people wanted to live — was created for the exhibit to retain some of that lost history. The map showcases the Alameda Avenue corridor.
“That’s where the concentration of ‘others’ was,” Marin said. “This was where these thriving, very close-knit communities and businesses were. One of the most beautiful things that we realized was that more than one business existed at that location at various times.”
There are 53 identifiers on the map, with more being added daily. The map will go in the gallery until it finds its permanent home at a prominent place yet to be determined.
“This is currently a work in progress,” Marin said. “Like all of our exhibitions, they don’t end because people’s stories are so vast. The subject matter doesn’t (end), and there’s still always more to add to the story.”
The museum worked with the McCall Neighborhood Community Center and Estine Davis, a renowned barber in El Paso who retired in 2022 after 70 years of cutting hair.
“What interests us more is the public history that comes from ‘abajo’ (from the bottom up),” Marin said.
The exhibit will continue to live digitally after it closes at the museum in January 2024.
Black History Month Events
- ‘Still We Rise: El Paso’s Black Experience,‘ an exhibit at the El Paso Museum of History, 510 N. Santa Fe St., Saturday through Jan. 13, 2024. The exhibit’s grand opening celebration is 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free.
- The Black History Month Parade is at 10 a.m. Saturday from Montana Avenue to Pershing Drive, ending at Mary Webb Park, 3401 E. Missouri Ave.
- The Estine Eastside Barber Shop will be open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the shop, 106 N. Piedras St.
- ‘From Selma to El Paso‘ is a Black History Month lecture by retired Army 1st Sgt. Dan Webb aboard the El Paso Streetcar at 4 p.m. Saturday. Boarding is at Cleveland Square Park, 510 N. Santa Fe St. Webb will talk about growing up during the civil rights movement, his time in the military and living in El Paso. Admission is free, but RSVPs are encouraged.
- The El Paso Museum of Art is exhibiting ‘There is A Woman in Every Color: Black Women in Art‘ through May 14 at the museum’s Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Gallery, 1 Arts Festival Plaza.
This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.