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Douglass School Served Black Community Well
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Alan A. Johnson, Dora Madrid, Susana Fernandez, Veronica Herrera and Nathan Ballard
Like a tree, we all need a place to grow and branch out," said Sallie Berry Johnson recently, referring to Douglass School, the only school she and other blacks could attend in El Paso until the mid-1950s.
The first school for blacks had only seven students and was opened in March 1883 in the home of John Smith. Andrew Morelock was both principal and teacher. The school was given the name of "Douglass School" in tribute to Frederick Douglass, a well respected statesman and orator and one of the country's strongest abolitionist.
Douglass School at Fourth and Kansas. Photo courtesy of McCall Neighborhood Center.
After two and a half years, this small school closed down after encountering financial problems, but in the spring of 1886, the trustees of the public school of El Paso broadened their educational program to include black children. The board made plans to construct a four-room brick building at Fourth Street and Kansas.
In order for the children to start school on time, an adobe shack on Second and Oregon Street was used. Although this temporary site featured only rough chairs and tables, the atmosphere did not affect the attitudes of the black children towards school. Children learned reading, writing and arithmetic.
In 1889, the more permanent site had been adopted by the city's school system and officially named Douglass School. The school served as an elementary school until a secondary component was added in 1895-96. By 1909, the student population had grown to 260.
In 1920, the school found yet another home, a larger building at its present location, 101 Eucalyptus street in Central El Paso. The new school had 10 rooms and an auditorium. In 1944, the school was enlarged to include a gymnasium and a homemaking department. It also provided care for the small children of working mothers, the first and only school in the South to offer such program.
The school offered classes such as reading, spelling, literature, mathematics, chemistry, physical education, sports, band, choir, home economics and manual training. Douglass also offered a night school so ex-students could finish their high school work and graduate. However, the school was still not part of the Texas school system because segregation remained legal.
Besides academic subjects, sports and music, Douglass stressed and instilled discipline in its children. Wilma Johnson, a 1949 Douglass graduate, says, "Anything you did wrong, not only did the teachers punish you, your parents got you too." John C. Fullmore, in his book The Dragon: History of Douglass School, writes that strict order was kept at all time and the children were punished for breaking the rules.
Douglass School student body. Photo courtesy of McCall Neighborhood Center.
Donna DeLoach, a Douglass student for eleven years, remembers that the school was one big family. "You gave the teachers the same respect you gave your parents," she says. By 1954, the school had an enrollment of 549 in a building that was built to accommodate 250 pupils. Many of these children were from Fort Bliss.
Some of the parents of children at Fort Bliss had begun to protest officially against segregation. An October 1952 El Paso Herald-Post article describes one such protest. A letter written by Clarence Mitchell, Director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP, to Defense Secretary Robert A. Lovett, charged that black children could not attend the schools at Forth Bliss and had to be bused to Douglass. However, whites were allowed to send their children to school on post. Moreover, segregation had been abolished on military posts in other states.
But it was not until May 1954 that the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education that maintaining racially segregated public schools was a violation of the Constitution. Schools were required to show good faith compliance at the earliest practical date. For El Paso and Douglass School, that date was September of 1955. Black students had a choice of attending Douglass, Bowie, Jefferson or Austin schools during the 1955-56 year.
DeLoach, a high school senior at Douglass, chose to go to Jefferson High School. "Not because I didn't appreciate Douglass, but I knew what I wanted." She was determined to exercise her new found freedom and take advantage of the court decision. DeLoach says, "More than a half of the students chose to stay at Douglass because they had grown attached to the teachers." DeLoach adds that she did not find integration a problem because most of the students she went to school with lived in her neighborhood.
According to Arnold Williams, currently a biology teacher for the Socorro Independent School District, when Douglass closed, "Many students were upset at the fact they had to leave…They got used to the idea of being isolated from almost everything in society. They felt like a big part of their life was being shut out and a new door was opening." Williams says some students were intimidated by society and the new surroundings, for Douglass had always been their home.
Douglass students succeeded in diverse careers. Among nationally know figures are Henry Thomas, who acted in many popular films, including "Gone With the Wind;" William Roseborough, who played professional basketball for Harlem Globetrotters; and Nolan Richardson, who coaches basketball for the University of Arkansas. In 1955, Thelma White made history by suing the University of Texas system to become the first black student to be admitted to an all white Texas college (see related story).
El Pasoan Sallie Berry Johnson went on to Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Colorado after graduating from Douglass. She worked for the El Paso City-County Health Department for 24 years as a nursing manager. Johnson is now retired and is a volunteer for several organizations.
Leona Ford Washington, a Douglass student and later a teacher for 20 years at the school, founded the McCall Center, composed El Paso's official song "The City of El Paso," and is involved in numerous civic organizations. She taught for the El Paso Independent School District for 39 years, retiring in 1989.
Washington and Johnson agree that attending Douglass was rewarding because it made them survivors, and they felt that anything could be done if they set their minds to it. Douglass School indeed provided a place for El Paso's black children to branch out, grow, and blossom.