“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner hauntingly reminds us of the South, “It’s not even past.” Black History Month is an important time for reflecting upon our past and present, dedicating time to explore aspects of Denton history both praiseworthy and shameful as we together strive towards the betterment of our community. Yet remembrance and public memory are never without struggle, which has been true since back in the day...
We have written of the troublesome legacy of Quakertown, our storied African-American community that also faced forced relocation in the 1920s. We’ve also shared tales of Quakertown’s resilient White Lilacs as well as the heroic Mavens of 1960s Integration who spurred racial desegregation in our city. More recently, the Confederate Soldier Memorial on the Denton Courthouse Square has drawn heated debate, but also sparked a community effort to preserve a lost African-American cemetery and commemorate an almost-forgotten legacy. But it was a recent political kerfluffle over Frederick Douglass and a wonderful photo essay from Chuck with Denton Public Libraries on Denton’s infamous Frederick Douglass School that got my gears a’turning and led to some new history that challenges cherished narratives.
Following the Civil War and 1865 Juneteenth Emancipation here in Texas, freedom for African-Americans was true in principle but most definitely far less realized in practice. The 1876 charter of a “Free Colored School” in Denton at the corner of Terry and Holt Streets next to Pecan Creek (close to where the current Civic Center sits) is therefore pretty remarkable as the impetus for the formation of Quakertown, since the schoolhouse was one of its first buildings. Many narratives hold that the school subscribed to the self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington, but maybe we should take more seriously the obvious fact that they named themselves after the former slave and political firebrand Frederick Douglass.
The first principal of Denton’s Frederick Douglass School, Henry C. Bell, certainly shared its namesake’s belief that education was essential for any pathway to freedom. By its first day of classes in 1895, over 20 years after its founding, the school started with 162 students since it was the only African-American school in Denton County. Bell, who would pen a powerful call to help those displaced by the disastrous 1900 Galveston hurricane even as he also adopted one as his son, was elected as Texas Grand Master to the “colored order of Grand United Odd Fellows” more than five times. Professor Bell was an influential voice in a community that, politically disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws, exercised leadership and agency through churches, schools, and civic organizations. When the Frederick Douglass School mysteriously burned down the night before its first days of classes in September 1913, Quakertown buzzed with rumors of arson. The school would eventually be rebuilt, but miles away in Southeast Denton where many Quakertown residents would eventually move with the forced relocation in 1922. Amidst intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan and unjust treatment in what could be fairly described as ethnic cleansing, Denton’s African-American school persevered as the county’s primary educational institution (renamed Fred Moore School in 1949 after Principle Frederick Douglass Moore) well through desegregation initiatives in 1967.
Families from all over the county were eager to take advantage of the precious opportunity for education, one of them being the Bob Jones family. John Dolford ‘Bob’ Jones was born into slavery but after the Civil War started his own cattle and farming operation near Denton Creek on the Tarrant-Denton County line. Jones eventually became one of Denton’s largest landowners, overseeing close to 2,500 acres. He married Almeady Chisum – scion to the infamous Cattle King Jim Chisum – in 1875, and together they had 10 children.
When the Jones children grew into school age, Almeady would rent a home in Denton so they could attend the Frederick Douglass School between farming seasons. Eventually, Bob and Almeady would hire teachers to tutor the children once they were old enough to be valuable ranch hands themselves, but around 1820 Jones donated property for building the Walnut Grove School for his grandchildren and growing community to attend. Today, Southlake has a park and the Bob Jones Nature Center named in honor of his lasting influence.
So how does the education legacy of Frederick Douglass and Quakertown continue to effect Denton? Put bluntly, continuing inequality when it comes to the ghosts of homelessness and poverty that continue to haunt Denton. The Denton County Homeless Coalition and the City of Denton offer somber statistics on the families and children impacted. Becoming involved in local groups like Mentor Denton just may play a crucial role in whether or not hundreds of kids receive an education.
"Education…means emancipation," Douglass insisted; "It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free. To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature."
Be sure you check out these Black History Month exhibits or events at our amazing Denton Courthouse on the Square Museum, and you can also hear about the history of Denton’s African-American Quakertown district at Nerd Nite Denton on Tuesday February 28! Be sure to tag your Twitter and Instagram photos with #WDDI so we can see all the nifty sights as you adventure around Denton!
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past. Be sure to check out our local museums curated by the fine folks at the Denton County Office of History & Culture, and follow @Dentonaut on Twitter for local happenings.