Saturday, February 28, 2015

Kerr County's African-American heritage deep and proud

Click on image to enlarge
A very rare photograph of Kerrville's Cabbage Hill School
Photo from the Ralph and Irene Harmon collection,
Logan Library Special Collections, Schreiner University
Kerr county, in its long history, has rarely been exemplary in its treatment and respect of its black citizens.  With very few exceptions, especially in the early days of the county, inequality was the only story here.  
Yet despite these drawbacks, generations of African-American families have called this river valley home, and have thrived here.
The first black people who arrived here came as slaves, and the first slave family was the Blanks, who arrived around 1856.
The 1860 census tallied 49 slaves in Kerr county, about half of whom were owned by one family near present-day Center Point.   Almost all of the rest were owned around Kerrville and Center Point; very very few were in the far eastern part of the county, near Comfort.  Comfort was founded by German immigrants who, for the most part, were strongly against slavery.
Of those 49 counted in the 1860 census, 40 percent were aged 10 and younger, meaning they were still children when freedom finally came to Texas in June, 1865.
Some families chose to stay here in Kerr county.  Bob Bennett's history of the county counts members of the Blanks, Hamilton, Bridges, Benson, Fifer, Coleman, Hurst, Hardy, Edmonds, Askey, Thornton, Campell, Ware, and Butler families as those who stayed.  Many of those families are still here.
The education of black children in our county was neglected for far too long.  The black children living in Kerrville finally got a school around the turn of the last century, the Cabbage Hill school.  One of the people most interested in educating was Anna Doyle, for whom the Doyle School was named.
Ms. Doyle and her husband, Henry, came to Kerrville because he was ill with tuberculosis.  In those days many came to Kerrville seeking health.
She was a teacher, and he was a pastor, and they both were well-educated; Henry had a doctorate and Annie was a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute.
Soon after their arrival here, "she collected money and purchased three lots...and persuaded the members of the school board to donate an old school building for the purpose of establishing a school.  She was the only teacher at the school, and served as principal for more than 25 years," according to the Kerrville Mountain Sun.
After Henry Doyle died in 1913, Annie stayed on and continued to teach.  She was paid $85 per month to be the sole teacher at the school, which was considerably less than other teachers in the Kerrville school district made at the time.
She passed away in 1937, and in 1940 a married couple, B. T. and Itasco Wilson arrived in Kerrville to teach at the "Kerrville Colored School."  One of the first things the Wilsons did was change the name to the Doyle School, in honor of Annie Doyle.
There are still many people in Kerrville who attended the Doyle School when it was under the leadership of B. T. and Itasco Wilson.  When I attended the funeral of Mrs. Wilson last year, it was wonderful listening to their former students talk about the school, and of the influence of the Wilsons and the other teachers there.
The Kerrville Independent School District honored B. T. Wilson by naming a district campus in his honor, the B. T. Wilson 6th Grade campus.
I recently enjoyed a great conversation with Clifton Fifer, a retired Kerrville educator, about the Doyle School and his memories of growing up in Kerrville.  Fifer was born in the early 1950s, and was a student at Doyle before integration of all students; when integration took place, he was transferred from Doyle and graduated from Tivy High School, followed by college.
According to Fifer, there were four especially great things about growing up in Kerrville's black community: the people, the churches, the school, and the businesses in the neighborhood.
The people were "a friendly parental community," Fifer said.  Everyone knew each other, and visited frequently as people walked in the neighborhood, leaning over fences to talk.  Fifer remembers his childhood as one of safety and love from his neighbors.
The churches, too, played a role: both Mt. Olive Baptist and Barnett Chapel Methodist were actively involved in the community, especially with the young people of the neighborhood.
And, of course, the Doyle School was so important, too.  Besides the Wilsons, Fifer fondly remembered teachers such as Mr. Theodore Martin, Mrs. Walker (who later became Mrs. Griffin), Mrs. Nellie Crayton, and Lou Ella Cheeks (who had a doctorate).
Fifer remembered times when B.T. Wilson, who was the principal at the Doyle School, would come by Fifer's own classroom when Fifer was a teacher.  "He'd ask what I was teaching my students, and I'd go into a long presentation of the lessons I was giving.  When I finished, he'd simply say 'You've got to teach them how to learn!'"
And then there were the social places in the community -- the six or so "jute" joints which provided entertainment there, all in two-block area.  The included the Famous Door, the Cabin, the Dream, Ella Phelps' place, the Green Door (which catered to kids), and the Pleasure Garden.
The Green Door served no alcohol, and attracted not only the neighborhood youth, but also families. The Pleasure Garden was famous for its barbecue.
Big acts came to these venues, including Gatemouth Brown, Big Momma Thornton, and the Ink Spots.  Because some of these artists played at venues where Fifer's parents forbade him to go, sometimes Fifer and his friends would climb the chinaberry trees which were outside the surrounding fence, just to see the shows.  "I only did it once -- that was off-limits to all kids."
Listening to Clifton Fifer tell the story of his childhood here made me wish he'd write a book.
In conclusion, the story of black history in our community is the story of people overcoming the injustices they faced, while building a strong community.  Many of the earliest black families still have descendents living in the area, and, like those who've gone before, each has made a special contribution to this place we call home.

This story originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times February 21, 2015.


  1. Thank-you so much for this incredible article about my great-great-great grandparents, Henry Sebastian and Annie Doyle! My grandmother was named Were you able to determine what the signs indicate that the children are holding in the picture of the Cabbage Hill School? I am looking forward to purchasing your books about the history of Kerrville! Thank-you! Genie Sloan-Pena

    1. The slates have the name of the individual student holding the tablet. It also says what grade they represent.


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