Trail of History: Historic black schools, heritage trail recognized

Published on Thursday, 27 February 2014 22:47 - Written by Betty Waters

A celebration of African American history spotlighted the history and legacies of three Tyler educational institutions Thursday at Liberty Hall in observance of Black History Month.

The city also unveiled a brochure providing a guide to the new African American Heritage Trail.

Giving opening and closing remarks for the program, Mayor Barbara Bass said the program was the first in what organizers hope will be an annual event.

“We know that if we don’t remember where we came from, we can certainly not know where we’re going,” Mayor Bass said. “As a community, for us to grow and become the greater Tyler of the future, we must continue to embrace each other’s differences and appreciate what we all bring to the table.”

Short documentary films on Texas College, Butler College and Emmett Scott High School were shown and also a film of remembrances and reminiscences by former students and educators.

City Council Member Darryl Bowdre pointed out that Tyler’s 24.8 percent African-American population puts the city among major Texas cities with the largest black population.

Thanking the city staff, mayor and council for supporting the event and a committee that organized it, Bowdre said the program and heritage trail were intended to share history with not only the audience but also future generations.

“It was important to dig into the history of African Americans in Tyler/Smith County but to recognize it, preserve it and put it out there for the world to see,” Bowdre said.

The program included performances by the Texas College Choir, vocalist Virlinda Stanton and a group from Starrville CME Church.

A brochure for the African American Heritage Trail contains a map showing 21 landmarks, subject markers and Half Mile of History markers honoring the major roles played by African Americans and African American institutions in enriching the history of Tyler.

The brochure states, “We know that our diversity contributes to our great community.” It urges trail followers to “remember the incalculable contributions made by the African American community to our heritage.”

Among sites on the trail are Bethlehem First Baptist Church, built in 1891 on West Front Street, and the first brick church built in Texas by African Americans. Another marker is for Saint James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on North Border Avenue, an example of American Georgian architecture.

On the trail are markers recognizing contributions of individuals, such as Willie Lee Glass, who earned a master’s degree, reputedly a rare accomplishment for an African American woman in the 1930s, who married Professor D. R. Glass, who became president of Texas College.

Another African American honored on the trail is Charles Evan Coleman, Tyler’s first licensed African American attorney, who with others organized the North Tyler Voter’s League, which promoted registering African Americans to vote.

Butler College and Emmett J. Scott High School are gone but were remembered on videos, along with the still thriving Texas College during the celebration of black history.

At the urging of the Rev. Cornelius M. Butler, a former slave with a passion for education, Butler College was started by the East Texas Baptist Association in 1905 as the East Texas Baptist Academy.

He served as the first principal. It was renamed Butler College in 1924 in his honor and accredited in 1949. The college closed in 1971.

Academic successes of Butler College, its students and its founder were hailed. Butler, born in Alabama before the turn of the century, was freed from slavery at the age of 17 and later learned from his wife how to read and write. He went on to strive to create educational opportunities for other black citizens.

Emmett J. Scott High School’s beginnings date back to 1888 in a four-room structure housing first through 10th grades. The building burned in 1921, but a new building was constructed on Border Street in 1923 and renamed Emmett Scott Junior High School.

Emmett Scott Senior High School was built in 1949 at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Englewood Avenue, including 26 classrooms, an administrative suite, library, cafeteria, shop, auditorium, gymnasium and band hall.

The school closed under an integration order in 1970 and the structure was torn down in 2006.

Texas College on North Grand Avenue, the oldest institution of higher education in Tyler, was founded in 1894 by a group of ministers and laity as part of the educational ministry of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, then known as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.

Texas College President Dr. Dwight Fennell noted that the college celebrated its 120th anniversary on Jan. 9 and is one of the historically black colleges in the nation.

Historically black colleges began at a time when blacks were a disenfranchised community and it was believed an educated public was an equalizer of men and women, Fennell said.

He thanked the Tyler community for providing student internships, employment opportunities and allowing the college administration to work well with other entities in the area.

Texas College in the beginning educated the children of former slaves and prepared them for a new life following emancipation. Initially, Texas College was devoted to elementary, agricultural, mechanical and normal courses. It received its charter in 1907.

Under the presidency of the late Dominion R. Glass from 1931 to 1961, Texas College experienced academic growth and physical expansion.

It was accredited in 1932 by the Texas Department of Education as a senior college. A year later, the college was granted a “B” rating by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. That was upgraded to an “A” rating in 1948.

During the Glass administration, Texas College became one of the first members of the United Negro College Fund. In subsequent years, the college experienced growth and troubles, losing and then regaining its accreditation and moving from the brink of demise to recovery.

Today, Texas College has programs in teacher education and liberal arts, business, computer science, social work, art, social sciences and other subjects. It offers a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of science and an associate of arts degrees.