WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — Once upon a time the East Side of Wichita Falls was a center of prosperity. Equipped with its own grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and businesses, all the things you would expect to find in a community you call home.
The East Side looks drastically different these days, leaving some residents to question how do we get the area back to the way it once was?
“When we grew up of course it was a place where there was a lot of hope a lot of joy, and the people were very protective of one another,” East Side Resident Angus Thompson said.
“Growing up for me the East side was like a big family like everybody looked out for each other. Like if I got in trouble before I got home my mom knew it. I walked through the door I’m already in trouble. A lot of things have changed since the 90s. I guess, yeah since the 90s,” Wichita Falls Barber Academy Owner Byron Lacy said.
“We could see store owners, everywhere was as [a] store owner. You could see barbershops, you could see beauty shops, you could see grocery stores,” Dr. Anngienetta Johnson said.
“It was a vibrant, very vibrant community and it really took the whole village to raise one child and the people of the community really did that,” East Side resident Brenda Jarrett said.
“You name it we had it on the Eastside back in those days,” Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Pastor Robert Castle said.
In the 1950s, the East side of Wichita Falls is in its prime! Businesses were booming, the neighborhood school Booker T. Washington was prosperous, graduating notable alumni year after year. Life was good.
“The teachers and the churches, they tried to maintain a community and tried to elevate life despite of the segregation that existed around us,” Thompson said.
If you ask Reverend Thompson, he refers to it as the good ole days
“I remember East Side as being self-contained. As a matter of fact, we had grocery stores, drug stores,” Thompson said.
Thompson is one of many elders who got to see the East Side in its heyday, but perhaps who those prosperous times had an even bigger impact on was the youth.
“East Side was self-contained. You didn’t have to leave. We had restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, the farthest we had to go was downtown. If you wanted to go shopping for some clothes you just cross over the tracks and come right back,” Lacy said.
For Byron Lacy, it was the success he saw center stage coming up that inspired him to open up his own business, a Barber Academy to be exact.
“This was always my ultimate goal. You know when I stepped into a barber school it was like a light switch like somebody flipped a switch like, oh this is what I wanna do, this is something that my people needed so if it fails, it fails if not, at least I tried,” Lacy said.
For Lacy, he’s making his and other barbers’ dreams come true.
“This is the first Black-owned school here and I looked at it from that point of view too. I didn’t want to ride the wave but I just wanted to be a part of history,” a Barber Academy student said.
But of course, the laughs and heart-to-heart talks we see at the academy now couldn’t have been possible without the sacrifices made by those before him.
“There was a barber school downtown on Ohio, and at that time that was during segregation. So black people couldn’t go to school there so they’d have to leave and go off somewhere to get their barber license,” Lacy said.
Throughout the 40s and 50s much of the South was still segregated and racial discrimination was everywhere and Wichita Falls was no exception.
“I had to deal with racism riding the bus to Midwestern. What I would do is sit in the middle of the bus, not in the back, I would sit in the middle and the bus driver would look back and give a signal like go to the back. So I would sit in the middle near the window and I’d look at him like if you stop this bus you’ll have to come back here but I refuse to move any further,” Thompson recalls.
Thompson said across the tracks was a different world back then, but on the East Side, there was one place that brought everyone, and I mean everyone together.
“If we didn’t have Booker T., I don’t think we would’ve had anything because it definitely was the heartbeat of the community,” Jarrett said.
“Part of the happy parts the joy was being a Booker T. Washington Leopard and I say, this once a Leopard, always a Leopard. We will die with Leopard blood flowing through our brains,” Thompson said.
The school was the neighborhood focal point, businesses developed around it, further cementing its place at the center of Wichita Falls’ African American community.
“Booker T. still means something to us,” Jarrett said.
In 1969, a shift would come in the form of integration.
“In ’54, they had passed Brown versus the Board of Education and I remember sitting there one day in the classroom wondering what it would be like when we go to school together. I didn’t know what Old High was. I’d never been to that part of our city,” Thompson said.
In 1969, Booker T. Washington students would have to go to one of the other high schools. The school that graduated notable alum like Arthur Bea Williams, Charlye Ola Farris and even a current U.S. Congressman, Emanuel Cleaver, would be no more.
For the students, this transition was everything but easy.
“It was horror, it was horror. We heard they weren’t received as well as they should’ve been,” Jarrett said.
When Booker T. Washington High School closed, the heart of the East Side community beat a little slower.
“The heart and soul of the community was sucked out and it’s hard to live without a heart,” Thompson said.
What once was a vibrant part of town where African Americans could go, began to fade.
“To see a lot of that stuff not there anymore is like a big wakeup call. It’s like, what do we do now to get all this stuff back? How do we bring that family-oriented atmosphere that community back together?” Lacy asked.
It’s now a smaller shell of what it once was, but residents like Jarrett said they won’t give up on their home.
“The community was self-sufficient and it still is. It’s a little ragged and it’s because of the war or things that they are going through,” Jarrett said.
But if we all come together, great things can be done.
“We gotta come back together. We’ve gotta figure out a way to come back together, pull our resources together because we do have the resources. The resources are here now, it’s just I feel like we gotta set our pride aside. Everyone wants to feel like it was I get that but if we put that aside and come together to pull the resources together, we could do it. I think a lot of that stuff we can get it back to what it once was. We had movie theaters, we had everything on the East Side. We didn’t have to leave, and I think we need to get back to that,” Lacy said.
Each one, teach one. Get involved in your community, think of fun and exciting things you’d like to see there, and put some action behind it.
“We must unite, we must show love, if we can do those two things we’re home free. I just see a very bright future for the East Side community. It is a representative of me so I’m involved in whatever I can be to make sure it gets to the level that we know it can. Miracles happen when you act with love and unity,” Jarrett said.
We have the potential to do anything we put our minds to and the resilience of our people is something to admire. Plus, a community with rich Black history like this one, deserves to live on.
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