This is a reprint of an article that was in the
Sunday, February 6, 2005 edition of the Amarillo Globe News.
Amarilloans recall their struggle for equal rights
Most folks will admit Amarillo is a great place to live and raise a family.
But in the not too distant past, the vile treatment of a segment of its population tarnished the crown of the Golden Spread, some of its residents say.
Life now is better for Amarillo’s black residents but could be so much more if Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream for all Americans is to be realized, Iris Lawrence said.
“We’ve come a long way since the 1920s,” she said. “But we still don’t have a color-blind society.”
Lawrence’s comments were made during a round-table discussion Tuesday at the Black Historical Culture Center on the first day of Black History Month.
From almost the beginning of the city’s history in the late 1800s, people in the black community lived under restrictive laws limiting their movements, their shopping habits, their everyday lives, the group remembered.
The mistreatment went on for years without much opposition, but in the 1950s, things began to change.
Black servicemen returning from World War II saw the injustice of fighting for freedom in Europe and the Pacific, yet be denied those same freedoms at home once the shooting stopped.
“The (civil rights) movement was a postwar effort,” said Charles Warford. Before then, “If you tried to break (segregation) back then you endangered yourself.”
Prenis Williams, president of the Amarillo United Citizens Forum, said the struggle to obtain civil rights took hold “when people were trying to go about their business and couldn’t.”
Black Amarilloans oftentimes lived under harsh conditions. Evelyn Moore remembered that back in the late 1920s, “There was a fence on 12th Avenue north of Ong Street and we couldn’t cross that fence. If we did, all these white folks would show up.”
And Cloteal Young said black Amarilloans could not use the public parks.
“We couldn’t go through the parks; couldn’t go through Ellwood Park,” she said. “There were signs that said: ‘No niggers or dogs.’ ”
Restriction of movement was just one liberty denied to this portion of the city’s population. The pursuit of happiness was another.
“The Liberty Theater was the only theater blacks could go to in the 1920s,” said Eddie Moore.
By the 1940s, pursuit of the dollar caused white merchants to loosen their strictures, allowing blacks into some formerly whites-only movie theaters, but still retaining separation of the races.
“We could go to the midnight shows at the Paramount,” Moore said. “We never could set foot in the daytime.”
Warford said he remembers going to see “Gone With the Wind,” the two-minutes shy of four-hour movie, starting at midnight – sitting in the balcony, the only section black Amarilloans were allowed. But even segregating them to the balcony wasn’t enough for theater owners. Young remembered a barrier owners put up in the balconies.
“We were at the theater and some boys were (horsing around) and a hat got knocked off and fell on the white section,” she said. “The next day they had put up chicken wire to keep things from falling on the white folks.”
Willetta Jackson said chicken wire was also used to separate the seating sections for whites, blacks and Latinos.
Moore said blacks were allowed to see movies at the Trail Drive-In, “but we couldn’t get out of our car and go to the concessions.”
By the early 1960s, more black Amarilloans were going off to college, seeing the world outside the Panhandle, and coming home demanding changes be made in Amarillo society.
“In the summer of 1961, we came back home from college and decided we wanted to go the movies,” said Lawrence. “We wanted to go to the State Theater. The State did not allowed blacks at all.”
The young blacks were ready to force the issue, supported by a community increasingly chafing under the restrictions of a segregated Southwest.
They tried to buy tickets into the State Theater, Lawrence said, and were refused, as was the status quo. But, unlike the past, these young people refused to leave.
“The police took us to jail but didn’t hold us,” she said. “It came out in the newspaper that a bunch of outsiders had come to Amarillo to agitate. We had just come home from college!”
The teenagers didn’t protest their arrests, resulting in much easier handling by police, Lawrence said.
“They weren’t rough with us because they knew we had community support,” she said.
But the Rev. Vurn Martin said police restraint came because of the students’ demeanor.
“They weren’t rough unless you resisted,” he said.