Women’s History Month may be an annual event, but in Denton it’s a more or less daily occurrence to recognize outstanding ladies who are getting’ stuff done. We’ve profiled many a Denton trailblazer, but there are endless more tales to be told! This month we’ll introduce you to TWU’s Space Doctors, an African-American pioneer, and a couple of beauty queens who were far more than a pretty face.
NASA figured out early on that if they were going to be blasting astronauts into outer space, then maybe they needed researchers to study the effects of space travel on the human body. One of these research pioneers was Dr. Pauline Beery Mack, who specialized in bone density research while also serving as Director for TWU’s Research Institute. It was pretty darned unusual for women to become prominent experts back in the 1960s, much less spearhead major scientific studies, but Dr. Mack clearly had the right stuff. Kimberly Johnson, director of special collections for TWU’s Blagg-Huey Library, wrote an amazing article on Dr. Mack’s NASA studies and career as well as the obstacles faced because of her gender. “Known for wearing a mink stole and white tennis shoes no matter the occasion,” Johnson notes, “Mack served as a mentor to future female scientists during a time when there were few women in the field.” One of her students was Dr. Betty Alford, who went on to become Chair of TWU’s Nutrition Department after her NASA-funded doctoral research into astronaut diets. I can’t help but wonder if Dr. Alford played a role introducing TANG for space missions, and whether she agrees with legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s frank assessment that “Tang sucks.” Maybe we can get those burning questions answered when Kim Johnson wows us with their stories during Nerd Nite at The Bearded Monk on Tuesday, March 28th!
If you asked most Dentonites to name their favorite Denton starlet, chances are they’d invoke the infamous “Oomph Girl” Ann Sheridan (who we seriously adore). You’d likely have to reach way back to recall the pre-Hayes Code Hollywood actress Joan Blondell, who was burning up the silver screen in the 1930s. Counted as one of Denton’s first stars, Joan “Rosebud” Blondell was born in NYC but spent her childhood travelling the world with her family’s vaudeville troupe before they settled here in Denton. According to UNT Libraries, Joan Blondell’s family lived on Oakland Avenue and her parents opened a dress shop “La Mode” while her mother acted in Denton Little Theater productions, a passion that Joan followed. Enrolling in North Texas State Teacher’s College from 1926-27 and active in Dramatic Club, Joan “faked a Southern dialect and invented a Texas ancestry so that she could compete in the 1926 Miss Dallas pageant. After winning the title of Miss Dallas, she placed fourth in the 1926 Miss America Pageant. In November 1926 she was crowned Queen of the A&M College Rodeo and Pageant where she was escorted by 2,000 cadets.” O nce she broke into Hollywood films, Blondell was making as many as 10 films a year for Warner Brothers, which launched a long career that included an Academy Award nomination and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Die-hard fans can likely point out her final acting appearance in the 1978 film Grease.
Another history-making beauty queen is Rosalind Johnson, who was crowned as the 1973 North Texas State University Homecoming Queen. The cheerleader and band majorette was the first African-American elected to the title, graduating in 1975 with a Bachelors of Science in Elementary Education and Special Education. Today, Rosalind teaches in Lancaster TX and proudly declares: “I am little in stature, but I am a giant in my belief to do all I can to help children become strong and successful citizens.” But Johnson also followed in the trailblazing footsteps of Nicki Wilson, the first NTSU Yucca Beauty in 1969, and the far less well-known Mable Raws of Denton County, who was a runner-up for Queen of the 1911 “Negro State Fair” held at the old Fannin County Fairgrounds just north of Bonham.
It’s a pretty well-known fact that we love us some stories of fierce pioneer women who kicked up a little Texas red dirt, which definitely describes Denton County legend Almeady Chisum Jones. Her story is the stuff of movies, since she may or may not have been the mixed-race daughter of the legendary Cattle Baron John S. Chisum (whose cattle kingdom started here in Denton) and his slave Jensie. Rumors aside, when Chisum moved his operations further West in 1863, he freed his slaves and left Jensie and the 6-year old Almeady with the house and property in Bonham TX. It was there during one of their famous hootenanny dances in the early 1870s that Almeady met John Dolford “Bob” Jones, himself an ambitious freedman rancher who would go on to become one of Denton County’s largest landowners with over 2,500 acres along Denton Creek. Their sparkin’ soon turned to marryin’ and before long they had 10 children together.
Almeady valued education very highly, having been taught to read and write despite Texas law forbidding such a practice, so when her youngsters hit school age she sent them to the Frederick Douglass School in Denton’s Quakertown district. Between planting seasons, Almeady and her children lived in a Denton house during the school sessions, at least until the children became old enough to be indispensable farm hands. At Almeady’s urging, around 1920 when the Quakertown district faced turmoil, Bob Jones donated an acre to establish the Walnut Grove School to benefit their grandchildren as well as the other families in their growing neck of the woods. Today that area is the Bob Jones Nature Center and Preserve, a lovely park in Southlake near what is now Lake Grapevine, an enduring legacy to their family’s community spirit and goodwill.
That there is this month’s tales, but you can sure find out more about the amazing women of Denton – both past and present – by keeping up with events at the Denton County Office of History & Culture. Also be sure to tag Instagram pics of your travels with #WDDI so we can follow your exploits!
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.