Black lives matter here too: A look back at race relations in Erath County.
By CATHEY HARTMANN
Events of the last few months have caused me to think about my own experience with racial issues.
Growing up in rural Erath County, there were no minorities who lived in our area, so racial intolerance in any form was not something I ever witnessed or gave much thought.
In my family unit, there was no dialog about discrimination, racial injustice, or other issues of race that I can recall because the opportunity just didn’t present itself.
The only black man I ever saw was Carl Phillips who worked at the Stephenville Hospital. He was such a well-liked, respected person so as a child I just thought of him as a person with dark skin but nothing more.
Growing up I had a great aunt who lived in the Camp Bowie section of Fort Worth. When we would visit her we took the city bus downtown to shop at Leonard’s Department Store.
I do recall there were black people at the back of the bus, and at the store there were restrooms and drinking fountains marked “For Black and For White.”
Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t question any of this, but remember I was a child and children tend to accept things the way they are and to trust that adults are in charge so it must be OK.
After I started school, grades 1 through 8 were taught at Bluff Dale, then we attended Stephenville High School for our secondary education.
Since this was in the late 1950s, schools were segregated so there were no black faces walking the halls of SHS.
One day during a FHA (Future Homemakers of America) meeting, it was announced that we would be taking a Better Breakfast program that we had created to the black school.
This was my first realization that there was a black school in Stephenville and I wondered where it was and what it would be like to go there.
The day of the presentation, we were driven to Floral Street where we gave our talk to about a dozen elementary children at the Cornelia Graves School.
I asked one of our teachers where the high school age students were and she answered that they lived with relatives in Dallas.
That was the first time I remember thinking that something was wrong with this picture. I’m sorry I was a Freshman in high school before I figured that out.
By the time my sister, who was 10 years younger, attended Stephenville High School, the school was integrated and there was a young black man who was the drum major although I don’t recall his name.
I remember my father having a few choice words when she announced one day that she thought he was really cute, but it was no big deal.
As an adult I have many good friends of African-American descent. As chairman of the Erath County Historical Commission, it was my pleasure to recruit Thetis Edwards and Jo Ann Phillips (her husband is Carl’s nephew) to the commission and to help them secure historical markers for two sites prominent to the black community of Erath county.
Cornelia Graves was a teacher and principal for 20 years in the only black school in Stephenville, and in 1951 the school on Floral Street was named for her.
Her historical marker is on South College Road near the St. John Baptist Church. Mt. Olive Cemetery, also on South College Road, contains the graves of over 200 African Americans and it still used for burials today.
The cemetery was established in the 1920s when several graves were moved from the West End Cemetery on Washington Street in Stephenville.
We dedicated that marker on Juneteenth 2019 with a good showing of citizens and city leaders taking part in the ceremony.
Thetis and Jo Ann continue to research African American history in the county and I hope more sites will be recognized in the future.
My grandfather was born during the Civil War, and while doing work on my family tree using Ancestry.com, I have found slave owners in my lineage. While I am not proud of this part of my heritage, I have to ask myself if these ancestors were all bad people.
There is no way to justify or defend the institution of slavery, but I like to think they were products of their time. Perhaps like that little girl who didn’t question why some people in Fort Worth had to ride at the back of the bus or use different restrooms or drinking fountains, they were doing the same things as generations before them had done and didn’t dispute it.
My ancestors left the South and moved west to start new lives. Some of them chose Erath County, Texas.
Unfortunately, today, too many people associate the South with slavery while there was a Southern culture that had many attributes.
Having Southern DNA, I enjoy the food, the music, the literature and the relaxed demeanor found only in that part of the country.
It is deplorable that it has taken so many generations to rectify this part of our tarnished history and we still have a long way to go.
I can only hope that the events of this year will unite us and we can move on to create that “more perfect Union” the Constitution promised us.
Cathey Hartmann is a local historian who lives in Bluff Dale, Texas.