Race riots may be coming to Weatherford.
That was the talk around town. Images of angry police dogs, fire hoses and bloodied protestors across the Deep South paraded across Parker County TV sets in the early 1960s. Some feared a repeat performance here.
When Weatherford schools opened that first 1963 day of integration, all was quiet. The reasons are both simple, and complex.
Our mystery begins in church. Two years after the Civil War ended, blacks organized the Prince Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on Oak Street. This oldest “still in business” church in Weatherford was named after the Rev. A. Bartlett “Bart” Prince, its first elder (as is Prince Street, near the first black public school). The church’s building went up in 1871, and was modified in 1912.
The “CME” sign in front meant “Colored Methodist Episcopal” until the 1960s, when it changed to Christian Methodist Church. It’s believed to be the second oldest CME church in the nation. There’s no Texas Historical Marker here.
Within this pioneer church’s walls, black students received their first education, until the county built them a schoolhouse. Smythe’s 1877 “Historical Sketch of Parker County” lists thirty-seven county schools that year, each tied to a geographic “community”, save one: School No. 33 – The Weatherford Colored School. Seymour Simpkins taught thirty-nine “colored” students. Prince Memorial pillars Willis Pickard, Rev. Henry Johnson and Rev. Prince served as trustees.
The “Colored School” gets mentioned in the newspaper off and on down through the years. In 1887, land just south of West Oak and west of Prince was purchased for $200, its schoolhouse built in 1917. A brick school house replaced that structure in 1927. Today that forgotten brick schoolhouse stands proudly among the weeds.
The September 8, 1933 Weatherford Democrat lists five ward schools that year, plus the “Colored School”. Tillie Woods was principal and Ella Varnel was the teacher. The “Colored School” taught Cub Young, who pitched against Satchell Paige in the Negro Baseball League. Weatherford’s Negro League team played where Weatherford High School is now.
Leonard Smith entered first grade at Mount Pleasant in 1939, three years after it was renamed the Mount Pleasant School. The school’s two classrooms taught nine grades then.
Most black students walked to Mount Pleasant from four Weatherford neighborhoods – The Flat (First Monday Trade Day Grounds area), The Hill (West Oak Street area), Sand Town (near Akard & Sloan) and The Neck (near Cherry Park).
Black and white kids played baseball together, had rock fights, and cut up like children still do. Raymond George and some of his white friends walked to school together in the late 1940s. When they reached the Stanley School, the white boys went inside. Raymond kept walking.
“That’s just the way it was,” he said.
Mount Pleasant was a two room school, several grades in each classroom. Florine Roddy taught in the southern room, when Raymond was a student. The northern classroom was Lucille Rucker’s. Outside sat two outhouses and a water well whose pipe led over a trough. “One kid pumped while another drank,” Raymond told me.
Raymond remembers there being about fifty students, though that number swelled when migratory families came to town with the railroad or picking cotton. Raymond’s teachers (1946-1953) included Ella Varnell, Lucille Rucker and Mrs. Roddy.
“Lucille Rucker built the foundation beneath those black kids’ sense of respect,” Raymond said, “respect for others and for themselves.” Not only was she a good teacher, she was highly regarded by whites and blacks alike. Rucker made the boys play out back and the girls play out front during recess. “She taught us to treat the girls like ladies. Because of her, my generation of students stayed married, kept one job our whole lives, and successfully retired from those same jobs.” Still, when Mount Pleasant closed, Mrs. Rucker was forced to do odd jobs to survive. “She wasn’t taken care of,” he reflected sadly.
Wilson Hall was added to the northwest edge of the Mount Pleasant campus around 1944. Named after Superintendent Leonard B. Wilson, it was a barracks-like building used for classes and assemblies, with a stage on its west side.
Mount Pleasant sits high atop the western skyline of Weatherford, looking down on the Courthouse to its east. Below its majestic perch, blight stares back from where working black families once raised families. “Wood-burning stoves sat in the corners of each classroom,” Charlie Simmons told me, “replaced by gas heaters.” Flue holes still puncture the school’s two chimneys.
Each large classroom had wood floors and large windows along two walls. One can see daylight looking up through fourteen foot ceilings to the sky. “These classrooms were filled with little desks,” Charlie told me. “There were kids everywhere.”
“Every morning all the kids would walk out here, to the flag pole,” he said. “Say their Pledge of Allegiance and sing a patriotic song.” The flag pole base remains. He showed me where the swings were, the slide, the concrete front porch to Wilson Hall. “We had more fun than you can shake a stick at.”
The schoolhouse road entered from Prince Street, rising up the hill then circling the school. The old schoolhouse sits on private property, contiguous to Love Street Park on its west.
This was a time of separate white and black drinking fountains in our city. Blacks couldn’t enter white restaurants (unless they worked there) or attend most theaters. Blacks could buy Texas Theater tickets, as long as they sat in the balcony. Raymond remembers walking through the Texas Café to the kitchen out back as a little boy, wanting to spin the bar stools around. He couldn’t since the place was whites only.
Weatherford had black churches, a black tabernacle, and a two-story black Masonic Lodge on Fort Worth Highway, east of the courthouse. There were few black businesses.
If black students aspired to go to high school, they were on their own. Raymond and Leonard went to Fort Worth’s I. M. Terrell High School. Most of these kids didn’t have bikes, much less cars to make the thirty-one mile journey each way.
Raymond’s dad John Lorenzo “J. L.” George stepped up between 1953 – 1963. He left his upholstery shop twice a day to drive black students to Cowtown in his Ford station wagon at his own expense. Local businessmen later chipped in to buy gas. When J. L’s car got too crowded, a bus was finally supplied. J. L. spent five hours a day toting school kids, losing this time at his store.
Mitchell Rucker was another pillar of the black community here, born in 1899. “He was respected by the white community,” Raymond told me, “but held at a distance.” In the white community, Rucker was employed at the M & F Bank as a janitor. In the black community, he was superintendent at Prince Memorial for over fifty years, taught classes to Senior Citizens for the WPA in 1944, taught soldiers at Camp Wolters and was a board member at Texas College in Tyler for forty years. Rucker was one of the main conduits between Weatherford’s white and black communities.
“Pappa Ike” Simmons was another black leader. He attended school at Prince Memorial, before Mount Pleasant was built. “Pappa Ike was more of a politician – he knew everybody, running that mouth 100 miles an hour,” Charlie told me. Ike and brother “Uncle Charlie Simmons” each raised families off shining shoes at the Palace or Texas theaters and at barber shops.
Many prominent white families had black nannies, butlers, and groundskeepers. There was a parallel but unseen black society here, one from which trusted black men like Rucker, Pappa Ike and J. L. George could communicate informally with the white establishment.
Equally important, several white leaders reached out to the black community – Jack Borden, Borden Seaberry, the Cotton Family, and James and Dorothy Doss, among a few others. Respected whites and blacks interacted, albeit at a distance. Though not treated equally by any means, attacking one group would’ve meant attacking their own.
Mary Kemp remembers when the integration meetings took place in the third floor study hall of the old Weatherford High School. “It was a great time for all, very peaceful. I remember thinking, ‘This is a great historical time.”
Charlie Simmons was one of the first black students at Weatherford High School in 1963. He did well, as hundreds of other black students had before, riding atop the shoulders of Mount Pleasant’s teachers and black leaders. “It was a simple transition,” he said. “Nothing happened.”
This would be another “happily ever after” Weatherford story, save one omission. Unlike so much of this great town’s heritage, the Mount Pleasant School hasn’t been added to the roll call of hallowed historic touchstone sites in our town.
Raymond George tried to ignite a movement to get Mount Pleasant a historical marker some years back, maybe have the site turned into a museum or park. The Mount Pleasant School site and several surrounding acres can be accessed from the city’s Love Street Park and four city streets. The old school’s roof stopped turning back the rain many years ago. This historic place is not long for the world.
The Mount Pleasant School marks a chapter in Weatherford’s history where two communities became one. Unlike much of the South, this town pulled it off peacefully and with respect. As I put my camera back in its case, I noticed graffiti on the wall of Miss Rucker’s last classroom:
cuz you never know when you’ll lose them.”