“[Black History Month is] about the lived, shared experience of all African Americans, high and low, famous and obscure, and how those experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America. It’s about taking an unvarnished look at the past so we can create a better future. It’s a reminder of where we as a country have been so that we know where we need to go.”
-Barack Obama, February 2016
February is Black History Month, a month-long celebration centered around honoring African Americans and recognizing the contributions they have made to our nation’s history. This blog launches a series of blogs that will explore the history of African Americans in Denton County, as well as celebrate how these citizens have shaped our communities.
Fighting for Freedom
African Americans have played a significant role in the story of Texas since its early beginnings, shaping the state’s land, culture, and identity. However, many of the early African pioneers who inhabited Texas came here as slaves.
The first enslaved Africans came to Denton County in the early 1840’s with the Peters Colony. The Peters Colony was made up of 23 counties in North Texas, created by a colonization contract in 1843 to settle the frontier. By 1850, about ten slaves lived in Denton County. This number continued to grow, reaching nearly 300 by the year 1860. These men and women worked in fields, on ranches, and in homes.
Slavery coming to Texas played a defining role in the creation of the Republic of Texas. In 1836, delegates decided to preserve the institution of slavery when writing the constitution for the Republic of Texas. When Texas joined the United States in 1845, the state’s entire enslaved population had reached 30,000 and was continuing to rise.
The Civil War began in 1861, and President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did not reach the people of Texas until June 19, 1865, when Union Army General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 in Galveston. The order announced the end of slavery, and freedom for all Texans. However, it would take another four years before the Texas Constitution of 1869 formally outlawed slavery in the state.
When the news of General Granger’s announcement spread throughout Texas, the men, women, and children who suffered from the institution of slavery celebrated the opportunity to rebuild their lives. This date is known as Juneteenth, and is now recognized as an annual celebration among African Americans in Texas, and across the country. The holiday commemorates African-American freedom, and emphasizes education and achievement.
Establishing a Community
The population of African Americans in Denton County doubled during the decade following the Civil War. Residents immigrated here from across Texas and other states, with some establishing separate “Freedmen Settlements” in cities and in rural areas.
Some of these communities, like Quakertown, became self-sufficient within larger Denton County towns. Others, such as the St. John’s Community near Pilot Point, consisted of a collection of nearby farms. To learn more about Quakertown, check out one of our past blogs: Remembering Quakertown: A Look Into The Community That Once Was.
Residents in Freedman towns often established churches as their first priority upon settling, and religion became a central role in shaping the lives of the African American citizens. Organized in 1863, County Line Baptist Church in Pilot Point became the first African American church in Denton County. Other churches soon followed, including: Lane Chapel C.M.E. Church in Lewisville, Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Sanger, and St. James AME Church in Denton, which recently celebrated its 140th anniversary in 2015.
Education became just as important as religion. As early as 1876, three African Americans schools existed in the communities of Denton, Lewisville, and Hickory (a community now covered by Lake Lewisville). If there wasn’t a school available, residents often established one nearby. Bob Jones built a school near his home in southwest Denton County, and hired a teacher to educate his children and their neighbors.
By 1886, a total of 19 schools taught African American children throughout Denton County. The area became known for its strong, but still segregated, education system. Many newcomers to the county said they were drawn by the opportunity of having a good education for their children. Denton’s Fred Moore School became known for its excellence through the leadership shaped by Fred Moore, the school’s long-time principal. To learn more about Fred Moore, read one of our past blogs: Who’s Who in Denton County: Fred Moore
Tennyson Miller, one of the Fred Moore School’s teachers, integrated the graduate department of the University of North Texas in 1954, the same year that the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools as unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education.
From Then to Now
Since formal integration of the University of North Texas in 1956 and Texas Woman’s University in 1961, African American students have worked to organize social, cultural, and political groups to promote the interests of the black academic community. Local chapters of the NAACP operate at both of the universities, and throughout Denton County.
The Denton Black Chamber of Commerce promotes African American owned businesses, and black residents celebrate pride in their community with the annual Juneteenth Celebration, Kwanzaa Fest, the Denton Blues Festival and the Black Film Festival.
The African Americans of Denton County have impacted our community in invaluable ways. If you want to take this month as an opportunity to celebrate and learn more about African American history in Denton County, stop by our Quakertown House Museum at the Denton County Historical Park!
Located at 317 West Mulberry St in Denton, the Quakertown House serves as Denton County’s African American Museum. It will soon be joined at the park by the Woods House, believed to be the last remaining Quakertown house from Southeast Denton. To learn more about the Quakertown House, check out one of our past blogs: Historical Park Highlights: The Quakertown House.
All information in this blog was found in the Office of History & Culture and Denton County Historical Commissions’ records.