Bridge Street: 1900-1950

By the opening of the twentieth century a tone was set for Bridge Street that lingered in the memories of Waco's black community long after the district's physical disappearance.

 

Here North Waco, South Waco, and East Waco came together. Saturdays brought rural families from all directions to the city. Here, too, local folks met men of color from all over the nation who were stationed in Waco's military bases during the two world wars. Voices and music mingled with the noise of traffic. Enticing odors wafted from cafe doors.

 

On weekdays, children and teens walked through on their ways to and from North Seventh Street School and A. J. Moore High School. At the corner of Second and Bridge, older students caught the streetcar to East Waco to attend classes at Paul Quinn College. Mornings and evenings, the streetcar carried women to and from their jobs as housekeepers and cooks in Waco homes or in shops and offices on Bridge Street.

 

In its heyday, Bridge Street was the urban hub for Waco's African American people.

 

A place to see and be seen . . .

A long succession of cafes, restaurants, groceries, taverns, social clubs, hotels, and theaters attracted people to Bridge Street in pursuit of good food and good times. Cobblers, tailors, dressmakers, and laundry and dry cleaning shops outfitted customers, and barbers and hairdressers kept them in style.

The 1920s and early 1930s are recalled as the high point for African American activity on Bridge Street. Waco's older citizens might remember these businesses that once served downtown Waco on or near Bridge Street: McMurray and McQuire Barber Shop, H. B. Ellis Grocery, S. A. Randle Real Estate, Liberty Soda Grill, Clint Johnson Restaurant, Gayety Theater, Gill & Gregg Restaurant, William Smith Barber Shop, B. F. Sherrod Restaurant, Counselor Printing Company, Brown Derby Cafe, Manhattan Club, Harlem Grill Cafe, Manhattan Package Store, Kuykendall-Robinson's Cleaners, Wilson Furniture, Ashford's Cafe, Scott's Cafe, and Irene's Cafe.

 

In a second-floor hall on Bridge Street met the Knights & Daughters of Tabor. In the 1930s, space in upstairs halls was also used by African Americans for meetings of labor organizations, by the Waiters and Porters Club, and, following World War I, by the War Camp Community Service. At 127 Bridge Street, on the third floor of the Fridia Building, many fraternal organizations shared a meeting hall. On South Second, the Knights of Pythias met on the top floor of the Conner-Willis Building, joined in later years by the American Woodmen and the Masonic Lodge.

 

PERSONAL GLIMPSES

"[Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Arnold] were the ones who owned the soda grill. . . . The people would go there on Sunday afternoon just to . . . get sodas and like that. Those who wanted food would do the same. But mostly they would go there for the ice-cream sodas. And mind you, the theater was next door, the Gayety Theater." --Fannie Belle Watson
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"I really worked on the corner of Third and the Square for Dr. H. L. Smith as a secretary. There were four of us that worked there. He was the grand secretary of a Negro lodge, Knights and Daughters of Tabor. And we had to come to Bridge Street to catch the streetcar to come home. But now, I worked on Bridge Street on Thursday afternoons for the paper, when we folded the paper to mail it out." -- Lonnie Belle Hodges
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"Everybody from everywhere was on the Square on Saturday . . . buying and selling and visiting. -- Carrie Skipwith Mayfield
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Where news was made . . .

 

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Bridge Street was the center for several African American newspapers in Waco. Beginning in 1897, Helping Handwas published by the Helping Hand Society, the local affiliate of the Farmers Improvement Society. From 1907 to 1910, E. R. Duberry published the semi-monthly Observer from offices at 112 Bridge Street. From 1916 to 1918, during World War I, Duberry also published the Colored Daily Observer from that address. From 1921 to 1932, the Waco Clarion was published weekly, on Saturdays, at 107 1/2 Bridge Street.

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The first offices of the Waco Messenger were at 109 Bridge Avenue, with Smith Printing Company, operated by A. T. Smith and L. J. Rhone. In operation since the late 1920s, the Waco Messenger was published weekly, on Fridays. Baylor professor Vivienne Malone-Mays remembered that, "In those days, everybody wanted to put things in the Messenger. Like if you had a birthday party for your kid or your child, it was in the Messenger. If relatives were visiting you from out of town, you would put it in the Messenger. If you were going on a vacation or someplace, that was in the Messenger." Oral Memoirs of Vivienne Lucille Malone-Mayes, Waco: Baylor University Institute for Oral History, 132.

 

PERSONAL GLIMPSES

"I would go there two or three times a week after work. I helped fold the papers and I helped my husband collect advertisement." -- Lonnie Belle Hodges
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A place to work together . . .

In 1907, the Farmer's Improvement Society (FIS) bought the two-story building at 109 Bridge Street. The FIS was founded in 1890 in Colorado County by Robert Lloyd Smith to help black tenant farmers escape the debilitating cycle of credit and poverty inherent in the crop-lien system. In 1908, on the first floor of the Bridge Street building, Smith opened the Farmer's Improvement Society Bank to provide FIS members a source of low interest loans. The society offices operated from the second floor. Like other banks across town, the FIS bank succumbed in 1930, as farmers, facing total crop failure after years of drought, joined the bank panic that followed the 1929 stock market crash.

 

PERSONAL GLIMPSES

"He would go on meeting all over the state of Texas, giving information about the society that was attached to the FIS Bank." -- Carrie Skipwith Mayfield
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In sickness and in health . . .

Serving the health needs of Waco's black citizens from offices on Bridge Street were physicians and dentists. The office of Dr. Monroe A. Majors, who moved to Waco in 1893, was at 117 Bridge Street and then at 511 South Second.

 

Other doctors and dentists with offices on Bridge Street down the years included Drs. James Vandavell, John Russell, T. A. Gordon, J. S. Jacques, W. D. Mitchell, Lee Roy Adams, and W. G. Sorrelle. Dr. C. H. Lyons, a dentist, and many other African American professionals maintained offices in the Conner Building, at South Second and Franklin.

 

From 1898 to 1933, Dr. John Walter Fridia practiced medicine on Bridge Street. In 1901, his office was at 116 Bridge. A few years later, he owned a three-story building bearing his name at the corner of Bridge and North Second Street. On the first floor of the Fridia Building, he opened the Mecca Drug Store, which he later sold to pharmacist Ewell Everett Clemons Sr. Clemons operated the popular drug store and soda fountain until 1968. Dr. Fridia became a specialist in eye, ear, and throat diseases and opened the Mecca Clinic on the Fridia Building's second floor, where physicians Thomas A. Webster, I. A. Gordon, and W. G. Sorrelle had offices down the years, along with Richard D. Evans, a lawyer, and the American Mutual Benefit Association.

 

PERSONAL GLIMPSES

"When the customer hits the front door, you hit your feet and got up and met the customer. And this is the way I have been on every job that I've ever had. It's just a part of my life that my father taught me and he taught everybody that worked for him. . . . It was like a central community meeting place. And this is the reason he named it Mecca." -- Kneeland H. Clemons
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In 1902, 108 Bridge Street became home to the city's first black-owned funeral home, White & Patterson. Other funeral homes that operated along the street down through the years included the John C. Patterson Funeral Home, Lone Star Undertaking Company (W. S. Willis and A. S. Jackson), Estelle & Dixon (J. Lawrence Estelle and Harvey A. Dixon), Porter Funeral Home, C. F. Cooke and B. G. Ashford, and Dennis & Boykins Funeral Home

 

PERSONAL GLIMPSES

"He just had an inner desire to help and to give. He didn't seem to want too much for himself. The more he could serve people, if they could pay or if they could not pay, that's what he did." -- Marjorie Pryor
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A place apart . . .

Not too long ago black men and women and their sons and daughters lived under legalized racism. Segregated places and separated lives prevented blacks from entering the economic, political, and social mainstream.

 

In Waco, black children learned at an early age where they could and could not walk safely in downtown Waco. Not only were certain white-owned shops and eating places closed to them, certain streets and sidewalks were equally off-limits. Black people had to sit or stand at the back of the streetcar even when seats in the white section were empty. They could get a drink of water only at fountains marked "Colored" and there were no public restroom facilities available to them. In movie theaters, blacks could sit only in the upstairs balcony, often entering on separate staircases outside the theater building. The Ku Klux Klan paraded on downtown streets, and stories of mob violence, unexplained murders, unprovoked beatings, and other injustices passed from generation to generation.

 

Even Bridge Street was not always a safe place to be, especially after dark, especially on Saturdays. Saloons and gambling halls attracted a rough nighttime crowd. The alley behind the south side of Bridge Street, once called Bankers Alley, became known as Death Alley because so many stabbings, beatings, and murders occurred there.

 

 

PERSONAL GLIMPSES

"This is a part of history that we don't even like to think about nor talk about, but it's still history, yes." --Kneeland Hilburn Clemons
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Learn more about racial crimes in Waco and the response of the black and white communities to the violence in William D. Carrigan, The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas 1836-1916(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

 

 

The story continues . . . Bridge Street: 1950-1968