By Chris Florance, THC Public Information and Education Division Director
February is African American History Month, a meaningful time to explore the real places and real stories of the Texans of African descent who greatly influenced the development of the Lone Star State through numerous political, economic, and cultural contributions.
Many significant African American historic sites are located in or around Texas’ larger cities, providing easy access for a lot of people. But the history of African Americans in Texas impacted the entire state, and there’s likely an important and interesting site near you—for more information and statewide resources, visit www.AfricanAmericansinTexas.com.
Known as the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin has been an important place for African American music. The Victory Grill is one of the oldest blues venues in the state, was part of the influential “Chitlin Circuit,” and hosted music legends such as B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Big Joe Williams. Located in the East 11th Street District, the Victory Grill is surrounded by some of the most popular restaurants in the city.
Near the Victory Grill is the George Washington Carver Branch Library and Museum, which started as one of the first library buildings in Austin and was later the “colored branch” of the Austin Public Library System. It was rededicated in 1979 as the first known African American neighborhood museum in Texas. In 2005, a new museum and cultural facility was added, featuring exhibits on Juneteenth, an artists’ gallery, and a children’s exhibit on black scientists and inventors.
Dallas is home to the Deep Ellum Historic District, another key location for African American musicians and a prominent cultural destination in its own right. Deep Ellum hosted iconic musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins. Deep Ellum was a hub of African American commerce during segregation, and is also the home of the Knights of Pythias Temple, one of the most distinctive buildings in the district designed by William Sidney Pittman, a renowned African American architect.
The Juanita J. Craft Civil Rights House in Dallas honors a leading civil rights reformer and Dallas city council member. Craft organized hundreds of civil rights groups and youth councils across the state and led desegregation efforts at Texas universities and the state fair. Dallas has named a number of municipal sites after this pioneer in the Texas civil rights movement.
In Fort Worth, the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum pays homage to the history of Texas and its integrated cowboys, one-third of whom were African American, Hispanic, or Native American. The museum celebrates the accomplishments of prominent African American groups such as the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen. The hall of fame recognizes giants of Western history such as Bill Pickett and Bose Ikard.
The Buffalo Soldier Memorial of El Paso honors the iconic African American cavalry units, many of whom were garrisoned at Fort Bliss, a compelling tourist destination in its own right. The memorial, “The Errand of Corporal Ross,” is an epic and moving commemoration of a vital part of Texas’ military history.
El Paso’s Memorial Gymnasium on the University of Texas-El Paso campus is a great destination for basketball fans and heritage tourists alike to pay homage to the 1966 Texas Western College (TWC) team, the first to start a squad of African Americans in a championship basketball game. TWC’s (which became UTEP) victory over Kentucky in the national championship game truly broke the color barrier in college sports.
While many places in Texas honor the famous Buffalo Soldiers, Houston’s Buffalo Soldiers National Museum promotes the history and traditions of all African Americans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. It has one of the world’s largest collections of African American military memorabilia dating from 1770–2000.
Near Houston in West Columbia is the THC’s Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site, a former plantation where African American slaves labored to process sugarcane for molasses. The site’s majestic plantation house, pecan orchards, and sugarcane mill ruins are an evocative reminder of the nature of many African Americans’ first role in the history of Texas. In nearby Galveston, an official State Historic Marker commemorates “Juneteenth” at the corner of 22nd Street and The Strand.
You’ve probably heard of one of San Antonio’s key sites for African American history—the Alamo. African Americans played a vital role in in the Texas Revolution, and at the Alamo, William B. Travis’ slave, Joe, fought in the battle. After the fall of the Alamo, Gen. Santa Anna spared Joe so he would tell the story of how the Mexican Army had crushed the Alamo defenders. Instead of demoralizing Texas, Joe’s account galvanized the Texians into action against Santa Anna’s armies. You can visit the Alamo, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the nation, and the many downtown San Antonio destinations, or learn more about Joe’s account of the battle online at www.thealamo.org.
These are just a few of the hundreds of compelling African American heritage sites in Texas. For more, download or order your free copy of the THC’s African Americans in Texas: A Lasting Legacy. The free guide contains a map and information about the real places and real stories that make African Americans in Texas one of the key cultural groups that shaped the Lone Star State. You can also build your own itinerary of destinations at www.TexasTimeTravel.com.