Memory can be a wonderful thing.
It glosses over the hard times, the pain and suffering, and lends a golden patina to times and people long gone.
Last Saturday, on the east side of the railroad tracks in Decatur, memory became history.
As they’ve done for many years, Decatur’s East Side Alumni held a Juneteenth parade and a celebration at Lou Ida Willis Park. But this year, they also dedicated a historical marker at the site of the original East Side school – a reminder of an era that, while painful, still holds precious memories for many in Decatur’s African-American community.
The marker is at 604 Newark Street, just off U.S. 380, in front of Cornerstone Apostolic Church. The small, white frame church building holds a wealth of memories for many of Decatur’s older African-American residents.
“We all had fond memories of the school back in the day,” said Donna Williams, whose efforts were a key to getting the marker placed. “That was our school.
“I was so emotional about it,” she continued. “When you think about all the people that gathered in and was in there – and then the people who had died and gone on who were inspirational to me…”
The building was originally built as a church in 1882. It also served as a school, where generations of Decatur’s African-American children attended through the eighth-grade before having to go to either Denton or Fort Worth to finish high school.
In the 1940s, it was moved up the hill to its present site, and classes met there until a two-room brick building was erected in 1954.
The church/school was then moved across town to Decatur High School, where it was used as a band hall. Sometime after that, when the school didn’t need it anymore, the late Bob Holloway, who served as Wise County Judge, bought the building and moved it to his farm where it was used as a barn.
But Judge Holloway gave it back to the community, and in 1985 it was moved back to the site and restored by East Side graduates and church members – both living in this area and those who had moved away.
“Mr. Holloway, had he not saved that barn that was our school building, there wouldn’t have been no history,” Williams said. “He could have taken that barn and demolished it.”
The segregated school closed in 1965.
It was at a 2007 reunion that Williams printed a little yearbook with some history on the school for the benefit of those who came each year.
“It dawned on me that, you know, as a young girl you would think there’s going to be something about your history somewhere,” she said. “But at that time there wasn’t.”
She showed the yearbook to Rosalie Gregg of the Wise County Historical Society. Gregg encouraged her to submit information for a historical marker, and Kerry Clower helped guide her through the process.
“The third year, I guess, they approved of it,” Williams said. “He [Clower] came back and told me and I was so overjoyed I didn’t know what to do.”
So they scheduled the dedication of the marker to coincide with the annual parade and Juneteenth celebration – a fitting tribute to the building that provided the glue to hold a community together during troubled times.
Williams’ mother, Lou Ida “Big Mama” Willis, was the driving force behind getting a park created in the East Side neighborhood in 2006. At age 88 and suffering from Alzheimer’s she was unable to attend this year’s reunion and celebration.
Maude Alice Buckley, 85, was the oldest East Side alumnus at the gathering.
“My mother was kind of like the backbone of the community,” Williams said. “She has been through a lot in her life. It made me really feel good that when they dedicated the park in her name and honor she was still living.”
“She loved that park. When the 19th of June come, she’d be up there cutting a rug. I missed that this year because she wasn’t able to,” Williams said.
As for this year’s reunion – the dedication of the marker made it stand out, but it was the people who came who made it special – just like they do every year.
“It was really fun, even though I was emotional,” Williams said. “Everybody was so glad to see each other.”
EAST SIDE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Wise and several surrounding counties had few African-American citizens. Yet regulations at the time required separate facilities for African-Americans. Most African-American families in Decatur lived in a neighborhood east of the Fort Worth and Denver Railway tracks. In 1882, they established East Side Elementary School, which was the only school for African-American students in Wise County. The original building was a one-room frame structure built near the residence of Mrs. Missouri Brown. Initially the facility also served as a church. It had a pot-bellied stove that the boys gathered wood for from the nearby creek. A water well was abandoned in the 1930s when it was discovered to be contaminated with oil.
“East Side Elementary School often inherited discarded furnishings and textbooks from Decatur’s white schools. Students who completed eighth grade had to travel to Fort Worth’s I.M. Terrell High School (45 miles) or Denton’s Fred Moore High School (30 miles)to continue their education. In 1954, the school was replaced by a two-classroom brick building and the old frame building was used as a band hall at Decatur High School. Later, the former school served as a barn and then was moved back of its historic neighborhood. East Side Elementary School operated until segregation ended in 1965 and all students attended the same schools. Little documentation exists for Decatur’s African-American community. The stories of East Side Elementary School serve as reminders of the struggles and triumphs of a different time in our nation’s past.”