Historic Black communities in Texas face steep challenges. UT Arlington wants to help.

·8 min read

A historical marker in a Fort Worth park is all that’s left of the original schoolhouse that once stood as a center of community life in Mosier Valley, a freedmen’s town established by formerly enslaved people shortly after the Civil War. Built in 1924, the structure was bought and moved decades ago and now operates as a beauty salon in Bedford.

But the legacy of the all-Black community near Euless, among the first of its kind in Texas, continues to live on through its descendants and the families who call the far east Fort Worth neighborhood home.

The commemoration of Mosier Valley’s rich history won’t be complete until the city finishes building the neighborhood’s four-acre park, which was officially dedicated in 2014, said Benny Tucker, the longtime president of the Mosier Valley Community Association.

“Now more than ever we are trying to protect the legacy of Mosier Valley,” Tucker said. “I can’t think of anything more important than this park, which I think would just be such a huge morale booster for the community, because this is the community’s. Some of our descendants went to school on this land.”

Those living memories, and the current challenges faced by Mosier Valley residents, were what drew a bus tour of University of Texas at Arlington students and faculty to the park on Wednesday — the same day that U.S. House members voted to declare Juneteenth a federal holiday.

President Joe Biden signed the bill into law Thursday in front of a crowd that included Fort Worth activist Opal Lee, cementing June 19 as a national celebration of emancipation from slavery.

“This is a day, in my view, of profound weight and profound power, a day in which to remember the moral stain and the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take,” Biden said during the bill signing.

Students grappled with that toll during conversations with Black community leaders across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex this week.

The tour, guided by UT Arlington architecture professors Diane Jones Allen, Kathryn Holliday and Austin Allen, is part of a year-long effort to develop a “design playbook” that will assist historic Black settlements as they face down dire consequences from rapid population growth and policies that place communities of color closer to industrial pollution sources than their white counterparts.

In March, the trio was awarded a $40,000 grant from the SOM Foundation to create maps of freedmen’s towns along the Trinity River and come up with design guidelines that could be used for Black communities within and outside of Texas, Jones Allen said.

These neighborhoods are facing pressure due to their locations in flood-prone areas, a historic lack of funding for infrastructure projects and the rise of property values stemming from gentrification, she said.

“Dallas-Fort Worth is not an anomaly,” Jones Allen said. “We’re hoping the playbook has a national impact, because there are freedmen’s communities all over the U.S., especially in the South and Southwest.”

Over the course of 11 weeks this summer, students will split into smaller groups to evaluate how six DFW communities are coping with issues surrounding land use, zoning laws, preservation policies and industrial and housing development, according to Holliday. Eventually the students will create “digital essay” videos that can be used as material for a book.

On Wednesday, students and staff boarded a bus to visit four of those neighborhoods: Fort Worth’s Garden of Eden and Mosier Valley, Irving’s Bear Creek and Dallas’ The Bottom.

Students will head to Elm Thicket and Joppa, a South Dallas community that earned national media attention for the impact of illegal industrial pollution on its residents, in the weeks to come. Faculty have partnered with community members and organizations, including the South Central Civic League in Joppa, to ensure their conclusions reflect input from residents.

Together, the class will brainstorm “design interventions” that could improve quality of life when it comes to green space, flooding prevention and more, Holliday said.

“The argument that we’re making is that you can’t do that without looking at the past because it fuels how we should think about decisions for the future,” Holliday said. “My argument as a historian is that in Dallas and Fort Worth, and Fort Worth in particular, we’ve done very, very little thinking about those past dynamics. Other cities have started more, but we have not to the same extent here.”

History of physical and racial divisions in Fort Worth

Students began their day with a visit to UTA’s Fort Worth campus, built within the old Santa Fe Freight Depot and steps away from Central Station. The starting point wasn’t a coincidence, Holliday said.

“The reason we’re starting here is … because the railroad tracks were the dividing line in downtown Fort Worth, from the 19th century through the middle of the 20th century, between white Fort Worth and Black Fort Worth,” she said.

That changed between the 1930s and 1960s, when urban renewal projects and the construction of highways and additional railroad tracks cleared entire neighborhoods in Fort Worth, Holliday told the students.

The saga is familiar to cities across the country, but the difference in Fort Worth and Dallas is the extent to which Black neighborhoods and downtown areas were demolished, Holliday said.

“In other cities, we get highways cut through neighborhoods and pieces of neighborhoods survived,” she said. “In Dallas-Fort Worth, especially the downtown areas, the removal was almost entirely complete. This is quite different.”

Trinity Metro’s “Historic Wall,” a public art installation at Central Station, pays tribute to the pillars of Fort Worth’s African-American community between 1865 and 1940. Dedicated in 2002, the five-paneled wall commemorates the Black commercial and historic warehouse district that was located at the site during that period, according to Trinity Metro.

The tour group discussed the artwork’s effectiveness in commemorating Black Fort Worth and questioned why the wall’s timeline ended in 1940 without explaining what happened to Black culture and commerce after that period.

“Here’s all this success, but what happened then?” one student asked.

Despite obstacles, freedmen’s towns are ‘not going anywhere’

Later that morning, the group paid a visit to the Garden of Eden neighborhood, originally formed in Birdville and later absorbed into parts of Haltom City and Fort Worth.

Members of the Sanders family have lived in the area for generations and hope to preserve the community’s storied history with a museum near the Valley Baptist Church. That history has already been put into print with the publication of Drew Sanders’ 2015 book titled “The Garden of Eden: The Story of a Freedmen’s Community in Texas.”

Brenda Sanders-Wise, the executive director of the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society as well as a trustee for Birdville Independent School District, said that encroachment by businesses has been a major issue in the Garden of Eden for decades. Heavy traffic flows in and out of Republic Services, a recycling facility just down the road from the church.

“We’ve had to plant trees, put up fences to make it look somewhat decent because we are citizens, we are neighbors, and most of all, we are people,” Sanders-Wise said. “We’ve been living with this most of our lives. Who knows what we’ve been breathing? But we’re still here. We’re not going anywhere.”

Because of her background in public health, UT Arlington graduate student Angelica Villalobos was most interested in seeing how her class could help the freedmen’s communities create more effective green spaces that have tangible benefits for residents. That need was evident in Mosier Valley Park, where a large tree is one of the only places to take shelter from the blazing heat, she said.

“The thing that caught my attention most was bringing more people outdoors because if I was a kid, and I realized there was this big green space, I wouldn’t want to come out here because it’s so hot in the Dallas area,” Villalobos said. “You would like to go to a place where there’s things to do and shady places to cool off.”

Mosier Valley has long been home to industries that produce large amounts of pollution, including gravel companies that left “large, deep, unsightly and dangerous pits next to homes,” according to a 2014 column by Bob Ray Sanders, a former Star-Telegram vice president and a descendant of the family that settled the Garden of Eden.

Despite being annexed by Fort Worth in 1963, Mosier Valley did not receive city services — including water and sewer lines, street lights or garbage collection — until the late 1990s. Residents still feel like their concerns are often overlooked by City Hall, including their desire to see their vision for the park fully realized, according to Tucker, the community association president.

Since peaking at around 300 in the early 1900s, Mosier Valley’s population has dropped to about 60 families, Tucker said. But the neighborhood is still home to celebrations of Black culture, including a Juneteenth celebration in the park this weekend. There are also ongoing efforts to archive grave markers and remove weeds from the historic cemetery, Tucker said.

He encouraged the students to see the possibilities of what could be done for Mosier Valley and the community that remains.

“You couldn’t tell that this is a park, and I would say you need to use your creative minds to think of what else we can do here,” Tucker said. “For our descendants, it’s about: ‘My mother, my grandmother, my grandfather went to school on this property and played on this playground, and now we are sitting in our community park.’ That’s more important than anything.”

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