Alma Clark describes her 1962 move to Southeast Denton with husband William McKinley Clark as a total culture shock.
"I was ready to return to Austin. I thought I had gone to a Third World country. The streets weren't paved, and you had to switch the street lamps on and off. We had to spray water on the streets just to keep the dust down, and when it rained, you had to wear galoshes to church to keep your shoes from getting ruined by mud."
People burned trash because the city didn't pick up garbage in Southeast Denton, she added.
Clark, who is black, is a living civil rights pioneer and is one of the women who formed a biracial group to foster integration in Denton during the 1960s. She just celebrated her 90th birthday with the help of more than 200 friends.
Alma volunteers regularly at Denton's American Legion Senior Center, whose director, Betty Kimble, describes her as "my go-to person when I need a volunteer." Alma also volunteers with the Denton County Office of History and Culture, and she sings in the Denton Senior Chorus.
Alma shows grace to a city that didn't show her much grace when she arrived.
She was William Clark's third wife. His first two predeceased him. Born in 1900, William was 21 years old when Denton city leaders decided to move residents of Quakertown, a vibrant African-American community, to build a city park where their houses stood. Most of Quakertown's houses were moved to what is now Southeast Denton.
William Clark helped his parents move, and then he, like most residents of Quakertown, moved away, where he got a good job with the city of Detroit's motor pool. According to Alma, Quakertown residents also moved to Kansas, California and the Carolinas.
William didn't return to Denton until his mother's health declined in 1940. He served as a minister at the Sanger African Methodist Episcopal Church until his mother died in 1945.
After his parents' deaths, William moved to Austin, where he served as a minister at the St. John AME Church. He and Alma met by chance at an Austin restaurant in 1955. She thought he was an insurance salesman because he and his two male companions wore suits.
William asked for her phone number, and she forgot about their encounter until he called her two days later to ask her out. They married in 1958.
The Clarks had three children. "After the children came, I asked Willie if we could move to Denton since his parents' house was there," Alma recalled. Once they moved to Denton, his stories about Quakertown became more frequent.
"It put a bitter taste in his mouth," Alma said.
Although the former site of Quakertown was less than a mile from their house, he wouldn't go near the park - known as Civic Center Park until 2006, when it was renamed Quakertown Park.
"He never got over it," she said.
When Denton built the current City Hall in 1966 on land that used to border Quakertown, residents had to go there to pay their utility bills, and it was a chore William dreaded. "When the Civic Center Pool was built, he refused to go there, and he wouldn't go to the Senior Center because his memories were not good," Alma said.
Although the original homeowners were forced to vacate Quakertown by 1924, the land wasn't usable until the 1940s when the Works Progress Administration built infrastructure to contain the creek and prevent frequent floods.
In the bond issue that narrowly passed, voters were promised tennis courts and a beautifully landscaped park complete with a rose garden. The buildings that were eventually built included the City Hall designed by O'Neil Ford, the Civic Center, the Post Office and the Denton Senior Center. They were vastly different from promises made many years earlier.
Quakertown's removal deeply damaged Denton's black community. Most families left, which was especially tragic because so many of them were connected through marriage. The businesses that served Quakertown's residents, including a doctor's office, a funeral home, a dry goods store and a restaurant, didn't survive.
According to the Handbook of Texas Online, the Ku Klux Klan was so active in Texas in the early 1920s, it was in firm control of city governments in Dallas, Fort Worth and Wichita Falls. The Klan's popularity declined sharply after Dallas KKK member Felix D. Robertson lost his bid for governor to Miriam "Ma" Ferguson in 1924.
One of William Clark's stories was about an evening in 1922 as he and his brother prepared for the move away from Quakertown by clearing new home sites purchased from "Old Man Miles." Three Klansmen appeared and said, "OK, boys. Get your guns and get behind the law."
The land in Southeast Denton was near Denton's open sewer. When winds blew sewer gases in in their direction, residents would say, "Cessie has her skirt up."
Things weren't much better in the 1960s. Denton's population in 1960 was 26,844, but it grew to 39,874 in 1970.
In 1967, a group calling itself "By the People" elected Cecil "Zeke" Martin, J.T. Jones and Marvin Loveless to the five-person City Council. The new council chose Martin as mayor. During that two-year term, the Denton Record Chronicle often criticized the "Big Three" voting block for an "iron-fisted attitude" and for being "petulant when people tried to iron out their mistakes." They also were criticized for a lack of transparency for having secret meetings at Jones' bank in violation of the open meetings act passed in the Texas Legislature's previous session.
Zeke Martin was a controversial character. He was a much-loved Denton High School football standout and a talented quarterback at North Texas State College (now UNT) who founded Martin Eagle Oil Co. in 1963. During Martin's two-year term as mayor, he also served on the Chamber of Commerce board of directors. However, Alma reports her husband believed Martin, who owned rental property, treated Southeast Denton renters badly.
According to the Handbook of Texas, Klan activity in Texas increased in the 1960s in the wake of social changes accompanying the civil rights movement, but the Klan held little power because of new laws designed to protect civil rights, including the protection of blacks provided by the FBI.
Alma recalls attending a NAACP banquet in 1965 at Denton's Civic Center. The building sat on land that used to be on the edge of Quakertown. The banquet was attended by "lots of out-of-town guests. Someone came in and said the Klan was outside and that we should stay inside until the police arrived. Everyone was able to leave without incident, but it was scary," Alma said.
When the city paved Southeast Denton streets in the late 1960s, homeowners had to pay per square foot of frontage for the street paving. Alma says her husband wasn't happy because their house sat on the corner of Wood and East Hickory streets, and they had to pay for street paving on two streets. "After that," Alma said, "Willie never regained his trust in the city."
Alma and William Clark were married for 34 years. He died in 1991, but his memories of Denton's uprooted black settlement stayed with his wife.
"Any time we went in that direction, he began to tell me stories about Quakertown," Alma said. "They were proud people. Most owned their own homes. They worked hard and took care of each other. They cared about the community they built."
Southeast Denton streets - including those bearing the names Maddox, Smith, Crawford, Skinner and Wood - were named for Quakertown families.
Alma credits her faith for helping her get through the transition to Denton. African-American churches - St. Emanuel, Pleasant Grove and St. James - were the only institutions that survived the relocation from Quakertown, and they were also instrumental in helping displaced residents heal.
A group of black and white women who formed the Denton Christian Women's Interracial Fellowship in the late 1960s provided the catalyst for change in the city. The women got together to ease the desegregation of Denton's schools.
They did something radical; they talked to each other and they listened to each other.
The women shared meals, involving their husbands and eventually their children. Slowly, things changed for the better. Roads got paved, and the women lobbied City Council for other needed improvements.
Alma didn't attend until the group's third meeting, and she developed lifelong friendships. The group still meets at various churches every fifth Tuesday.
Kimble said Alma's recent birthday party was a big event.
"Let me tell you, they had a fabulous birthday party at the Gateway Center and they had over 200 people there and she was queen for a day," Kimble said. "We all look up to Alma. She teaches our Bible study."
Sheryl English, who visits the American Legion Senior Center, agreed.
"Alma is a very strong and proud woman, and she didn't let any of her early experiences in Denton stop her," English said. "We're grateful that Alma had the longevity to tell her story."
ANNETTA RAMSAY, Ph.D., has lived and worked in Denton for many years. She is an OpEd Thought Voices Fellow.