Denton, Diversity and MLK

Published on: Sun, Jan 18, 2015

The most popular documentary screened in last year’s Thin Line Festival was Denton’s own David Barrow’s “When We Were All Broncos.” The film tells the story of racial desegregation through the microcosm of Denton High School between 1968 and 1973, and more specifically through the eyes and experience of Barrow and his fellow teammates on the Denton Broncos football team. The film offers a captivating, first-hand account through which we come to understand the tumultuous era on a national scale, its impact on Denton, and our emergence as the richly diverse, original and independent culture we treasure in Denton today.

Lately I’ve reflected on the insights I took away from Barrow’s film. Tomorrow our nation will honor Dr. Martin Luter King Jr.’s work and influence that overhauled the American paradigm for how we would see one another going forward, as people of equal value and potential regardless of skin color.   In his famous 17-minute speech in 1963, King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”   He moved America’s heart and lead a no-going-back change in America’s fabric of life. We all know the story and its grievous outcome. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, TN on April 4, 1968. That same year, Denton’s schools desegregated and “When We Were All Broncos” unfolded.

American culture before the Civil Rights movement left blights all over local history nation-wide, Denton included. In 2013, our city placed a historical marker in Quakertown Park to remember the black community that thrived on that spot in the late 1800s.

Just to the north of Quakertown, Texas Woman’s University (then The Girls Industrial College) opened its doors in 1901. In short order, the new university and Denton’s leaders determined it was problematic and inappropriate for the all white female students to have to pass through Quakertown to and from the city center. Their solution to the quandary was to relocate Quakertown to the east side of Denton. The entire community – homes, businesses, families, the doctor – was literally moved out of the way, clearing the path between the campus and town.

The historical marker reminds us of the important lesson learned through the bad decisions made at that time. Mark Burroughs, Mayor of Denton at the time of the marker’s placement, said, “I think that’s what Quakertown stands for. When you look at Quakertown Park now, it stands for peace, tranquility, friendship, family — all of the good things a healthy community has, including diversity. It allows us today to reflect sometimes on how far we have come as a community, and I am proud of that.”

TWU has come a long way too. The university integrated in 1961, and according to their website, as of 2014, more than 20 percent of the student body of 15,000 is African American. In fact more than half of TWU’s population today are ethnicities other than white. UNT (then NTSU) integrated in 1956, including the football team a decade before the Southwest Conference formally desegregated college football. “When We Were All Broncos” features a segment on the bigotry the team faced at away games when motels refused them lodging, mobs attacked their buses, and some teams even refused to allow the biracial team on the field.

I agree with Mr. Burroughs. We have come a long way.

Before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s revival for change, I believe many mistakes like Quakertown were committed out of ignorance and fear. What I most respect in our Quakertown story is Denton’s open acknowledgement of the wrong. Now, more than 100 years later, the sad episode is history. It undeniably occurred, and time long ago marched over any opportunity to correct that wrong. But the marker in Quakertown Park says that this generation owns the error made then, and we vow never to go there again. To learn more, I encourage a visit to the African American Museum in our Denton County Historical Park where the Quakertown story and its characters are beautifully preserved.

“I have a dream,” Reverend King said. America painfully began building that dream nearly 50 years ago. Are we finished? In my opinion, hopefully never. In King’s day, it was black and white. Today a racial melting pot, opposing religions and differing lifestyles are among too much divisive, prejudice-growing fodder. Will we in Denton keep the dream moving forward, embrace the reality that our differences make us stronger and keep us original and independent?

I choose yes.

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