McLennan County was established in 1850 by the Texas Legislature. Waco village was its largest community and the county seat. The majority of McLennan County’s settlers before the Civil War were from the southern United States, or other regions of Texas. They brought their culture, community, and slavery with them. After the war, some freedmen moved to the city to find work, and several Freedmen communities like the Harrison Switch and Downsville were established. By 1867 black voters were the majority in McLennan County, and they elected Shepard Mullins, an ex-slave, to the Texas Legislature.
Two notable African-Americans were born in Waco. Julius (Jules) Bledsoe, a talented baritone singer and composer, became famous when he was cast as Joe in the movie “Show Boat” and sang the song “Ol’ Man River.” The part of Joe was specifically created for Bledsoe and he helped make the song an American classic. Bledsoe continued to make history as the first African-American artist to be continuously employed by a Broadway theater and the first African-American to sing in the Metropolitan Opera House. He was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery in Waco.
Doris Miller was also a native of the Waco area. He was serving as a mess attendant at Pearl Harbor aboard the battleship West Virginia on December 7, 1941. The Japanese surprise attack caught the Pacific Fleet at anchor and left it in smoldering ruins. After carrying his mortally wounded captain to safety, Miller manned a .50 caliber machine gun, which he had never been trained to use, and commenced firing at the attacking Japanese planes. Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for “valor beyond his training and assignment.”
Paul Quinn College holds the distinction of being the oldest historically-black college west of the Mississippi River. The school’s original purpose was to educate freed slaves and their children. The college was founded in 1872 in Austin, Texas by a small group of African Methodist Episcopal preachers. It moved to Waco in 1877. Classes were held in a modest one-building trade school where freedmen were taught the skills of blacksmithing, carpentry, tanning, and saddle work. Over the years, the college grew and was expanded. It received accreditation in 1972 with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and moved to Dallas in 1990.
African-American cemeteries in the area include Cobbs-Walker Cemetery, Doris Miller Memorial Cemetery and Bosqueville Cemetery, all of which Texas Historical Commission markers. Notable African-American churches with historic markers include Toliver Chapel Baptist Church, Saint James United Methodist Church, Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, Saint Luke AME Church, and New Hope Baptist Church. Some of these churches moved locations during their history in Waco as they outgrew their original building.
Oscar Du Conge, Waco’s first African-American mayor, was elected in 1974.
Waco’s own Kermit Oliver, the first American artist to design for Hermès, is featured in exhibitions periodically at Art Center Waco. He was also the first African-American artist in Houston represented by a commercial gallery. Terrance Corbin is another African-American artist hailing from Waco.
Michael Johnson, winner of five gold Olympic medals, trained at Baylor University under famed track coach Clyde Hart.
Baylor University’s star quarterback, Robert Griffin III. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2011, becoming the first player from Baylor to win it.
Looking to the future, the Central Texas African-American Heritage Foundation is one group working to fill the need for an organization dedicated to the African American experience in Central Texas. More information can be found at Cultural Arts of Waco. Other projects related to the African-American experience in Waco are also in the works.
For more information, please visit the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce.
“Historic McLennan County: An Illustrated History,” ed. by Sharon Bracken. Chapter on Waco by Michael L. Toon. Chapter on Julius Bledsoe by Lauren D. Mickens.
Wikipedia entry for Paul Quinn College
Wikipedia entry for Robert Griffin III