On March 1, 1849, when the original settlers bought the first lots in Waco Village, Armstead Ross was there to haul the logs and raise the walls of the first cabin in town while Lucinda Ross worked over an open fire to cook meals of buffalo, deer, bear, and wild turkey. Slaves of ferry operator Shapley P. Ross, Armstead and Lucinda gave their minds, backs, and hearts to the effort of building a community along the dusty road between the river and the public square. Their work and that of other slaves, though undocumented in most historical records, was essential to the creation of the rough frontier village that became Waco.(1)
Following the Civil War, hundreds of freedpeople came to Waco looking for a better life. Former slave Becky Evans and her mother walked from Walker County, Texas, to Waco with their few belongings. Evans remembered that to get to town, "We had to come across the Brazos in boats and swim across just any way." Once across the river, she said, "there was only one store, and that was on First Street . . . There was a hotel there too. There was an old log jail where the City Hall is now [in the town square]. Sangers store [on Austin Avenue] was nothing but woods, full of post-oak and mesquite trees.(2)
In the first decade after emancipation, African Americans in Waco hired themselves out for work according to their skills and experience. In 1876, when the first city directory appeared, the two jobs most often filled by black people were laborer and servant, but the black community also furnished barbers, blacksmiths, brick masons, butchers, carpenters, cooks, engineers, farmers, planers, plasterers, porters, preachers, school teachers, shoemakers, teamsters, wagoners, waiters, and washer women. There was also an African American coachman, a bill poster, and a well digger, as well as a fireman employed by the Waco City Mills. Others held occupations that are unfamiliar today but were important then, including drayman, a driver of horsedrawn wagons carrying heavy loads; gas lighter, who lit the town's gas street lights; hod carrier, who carried buckets of supplies by poles across his back for bricklayers or plasterers; stoker, who fed boilers and furnaces for industrial plants; and hostler, who helped service locomotives or move them in and out of the roundhouse.
Most likely, during Waco's early years African Americans were more familiar with the backs than the fronts of Bridge Street businesses. In 1876, African Americans worked as cooks, waiters, and chambermaids in Sturgis House, a hotel on the corner of Bridge and South First Street. At 12 Bridge Street, the Waco House employed a black porter, and at 14 Bridge Street, black barber Charles W. Hubbard worked with white barber Fred Johnson.(3) The next year, blacks continued to work as waiters and chambermaids in the city's hotels and cooks in the town's best restaurants, including Strugis House, Lehmann's, and McClelland House. Several black women bent their backs to particularly difficult work at Arnold and Hayden, a soap manufacturer, laundry, and bath house at the corner of South First and Bridge Streets. In the 1878-1879 city directory, which was actually printed in 1877, two listings for black business owners appear. They were Asbury B. Wesley, who operated a barber and shoemaker shop at the corner of South Second on the southside of the square, and Thomas Townsend, who operated a barber shop at 22 Austin Avenue.(4)
By 1880, in the Waco city directory, evidence begins to emerge that a few African Americans owned and operated their own businesses near the center of downtown. At 14 Austin Avenue, C. M. Thompson ran a barber shop, and up the street, at 22 Austin Avenue, Thomas Townsend operated the O. K. Shop, offering barber and bath services. A. B. Wesley was another downtown barber, with a shop on South Second Street that also sold groceries and provisions. M. Montgomery and S. Willis were blacksmiths near the Suspension Bridge, and J. Hines offered groceries and provisions on the east side of the river near the railroad. At No. 7 Bridge Street, in a second-floor meeting hall, African American men assembled for meetings of the Mount Mariah Lodge No. 6 A.F. & A.M. (Ancient Free and Accepted Masons). Other African American lodges met in Alexander's Hall, either on Bridge Street or Austin Avenue, including the Ragusa Lodge No. 1957 I.O.O.F. (Independent Order of Odd Fellows), Excelsior Lodge No. 2 I. O. of G. S. and D. S.(Independent Order of Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria), and the Hubbard Rifles.(5)
By the time the 1886-1887 Waco directory appeared, African Americans had made visible progress in downtown Waco, where five barbers, four blacksmiths, one boot maker, a shoemaker, and a tailor did business. Robert Bird operated a restaurant with his barber shop at 188 South Second, and B. Moorehead ran a boarding house on Jackson Street. Highly significant was the fact that in the 1886 city directory the first listing appears for a black physician. Dr. J. M. Vandavell's office that year was shown to be at 509 Austin Avenue.(6)
(1) Read about Armstead Ross in Dayton Kelley, ed., Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1972), 232; and in Patricia Ward Wallace, Waco: Texas Crossroads (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor, 1983), 20.
(2) Becky Evans's story is presented in "Ex-slaves in Waco," a sixteen-page typewritten manuscript housed among the rare books in Baylor's Texas Collection. The undated, unpaginated paper, possibly written in the period between the two world wars by unidentified students for a sociology class project, contains narratives based upon interviews with former slaves living in Waco. Also included in the manuscript are photographs of some of the people the students interviewed.
(3) John Sleeper and J. C. Hutchins, Waco and McLennan County, Texas: Containing a City Directory of Waco, reprint of 1876 edition (Waco: Dayton Kelley, 1966).
(4) C. D. Morrison, General Directory of the City of Waco, for 1878-79 (Waco: Job Office of the Examiner, 1877). A compilation of occupants of the town square from 1876 to 1951, including the racial or ethnic background of occupants (up to 1936), is available in Margaret Logue Sudderth, "The Life of a Square: Highlights in the Evolution of Waco's Town Square" (M.A. thesis, Baylor University, 1994), 164-93.
(5) Morrison & Fourmy's General Directory of the City of Waco for 1880-81 (Waco: Examiner Steam Printing, 1880).
(6) Morrison & Fourmy's General Directory of the City of Waco for 1886-87 (Galveston: Morrison & Fourmy, 1886).