Among countless memories of Juanita Craft, a single evening stands out. It was February 9, 1974, her seventy-second birthday. LeAnn and I sat in the small kitchen of the modest Craft home in South Dallas, as our hostess presided over a pot of turnip greens bubbling on the stove. She reminisced as she cooked, seasoning her recollections with the spice of irony. “For the first half of my life,” she declared, “they wouldn’t let me in the parks. Now they’re naming one after me.”
Mrs. Craft’s observation captured not only her life’s remarkable trajectory but also its contradictions. I could not help but reflect on the sharp contrast between the public accolades she had received and her modest circumstances, between the acceptance she gained and her unrelenting activism. Without muting her advocacy, this civil rights agitator ultimately served two terms on the Dallas City Council and received numerous prestigious awards. That the establishment would honor and embrace her underscores the magnitude of the changes she and others effected.
The next day, February 10, hundreds of people gathered for the dedication of the Juanita Jewel Craft Recreation Center. The scripted proceedings teemed with pomp and protocol. Prayers bracketed the ceremony, and a band serenaded the gathering. Officialdom turned out in force: the mayor and members of the city council, a congressman, state senators and representatives, county commissioners, judges, and other dignitaries. Roy Wilkins, the NAACP’s national leader, sent a message praising Mrs. Craft’s years of dedication to the cause of civil rights and her inspiration and leadership to youth. Senator Oscar Mauzy introduced Juanita Craft.
Although the proceedings adhered to the park board’s bureaucratic protocol, the occasion held a special poignancy for some of those in attendance. The honoree emphasized this fact, noting that the ceremony was “much deeper with me and a few other people present” than for others in the audience. She even singled out several individuals who had shared more challenging times with her. “Tommy! Where are you? Tommy Teal!” Craft shouted, summoning a young man to stand. She then identified him as “the little culprit” who had led the picketing of the segregated state fair—under her direction, of course. Only on “Negro Achievement Day” had African American children been allowed to enjoy the fair. Juanita Craft’s eloquent words about Tommy Teal brought the significance of the dedication into focus: “He spent sixteen years overseas in the service, but he came home to be with his mama today. I’m so proud of him, because it was difficult to tell a young person about this system when it denied him the basic right of riding on a merry-go-round. We’ve changed things, Tommy. Welcome home.”
One late-arriving guest at the dedication required no introduction. As A. Maceo Smith quietly slipped into a seat near the back of the crowded assembly, a collective nodding of heads and shifting of chairs respectfully acknowledged his presence. In 1940, he had set in motion the Texas NAACP’s ten-year attack on the Democratic Party’s white primary election and segregated education. Craft once told me she had thought Maceo was crazy when he unveiled plans for a lawsuit against The University of Texas, but she “followed him blindly” nevertheless. Actually, she did much more than that as the association’s state organizer. She and Lulu B. White, the Texas NAACP’s director of branches, crisscrossed the state for years organizing NAACP branches and raising money to finance the litigation.
In observation of Black History Month, we are featuring the story of one extraordinary woman, Juanita Craft, as recounted in oral history interviews with me in 1974.
Juanita Craft: My grandfather’s name was William Shanks, and he was the son of a slave. My great-grandfather was sold out of the state of Virginia as a slave into Mississippi. He was sold from a wife and ten children, in the state of Mississipi. He was then married to, or bred to, as I’d like to say, a thirteen-year-old woman. He was termed a “breeder.” He was able to get ten more children, of which my grandfather was a son.
Michael L. Gillette: Do you remember the great-grandfather’s name?
Craft: I don't remember his name. The two brothers—my grandfather and his brother, Thorton Shanklin—were sold into Travis County. I was about twelve years old before I knew they were brothers, because one slave master kept the name Shanklin and the other called my grandfather Shanks for short, so I didn't even realize that they were brothers. I just knew that this was my uncle Thorton. The family lived there until the deaths of Uncle Thorton's children, when I was quite young. Then there was another brother called Shanklin who in later years came to Austin. I can remember him, but I don’t remember his first name. He lived very close to the family, and we did get to know him. The strange thing was that my great-grandmother was also sold with her family from the state of Virginia. They came to Texas in 1859.
My grandmother was Amy Black, and of course, she was married to my grandfather William Shanks. On my paternal side, both [grandparents] came from Virginia and on my maternal side, both sides of the family came from the state of Tennessee. In each case I've lost my family, the beginning of the Shanklin family. My mother's father was named James Balfour and [his family] somehow got to Columbus, Texas. We're now negotiating the sale of the old homestead that they bought in 1895.
Gillette: Was James Balfour a slave?
Craft: Yes. My grandmother also came from Tennessee and again, I have very little facts how her family came to Texas. I do know how many children there were. They were a very badly mixed family. I was a great big kid before I knew my grandmother’s oldest sister wasn’t white. The next sister was all Indian: the high cheekbones, the features were there. The next sister was extremely dark, and then my grandmother was medium brown. So the four sisters portrayed a lot of mixture. The one brother who came and lived here in Fort Worth–I remember him. I remember all of them, but not as vividly as I remember my father's side.
My grandfather was one of those progressive types, and he finally bought more than three hundred acres of land for himself. He paid more than a dollar an acre for it, but that was in that day. He was a progressive farmer and had all these “hands,” as they called them, that were brought out from Austin to work on the farm.
Gillette: What were your parents like?
Craft: They were very devoted to me, and responsible parents who were interested in my welfare, and thoroughly together on anything that involved me. They wanted the best for me, but not one minute was spent in spoiling me. They were disciplinarians to the nth degree. My mother died when I was sixteen. She didn't believe in a person sitting around being idle, and could always find something to do. If I had swept my bedroom the day before, she would say to go and see if there's anything else out of order. Of course, that part of her training I don't think I have maintained, as you can see. But she always believed in doing something with a needle. At a very early age she taught me to embroider, to crochet, and to knit. I still have a piece of work she did the year that I was born. Beautiful. She made all of our clothing, my father's shirts and all of my clothing until I was thirteen. At thirteen, I took over the chore myself and I've been making my clothing all of my life. After her death, when I entered school, it was my greatest desire to make my father's shirts. It took me about a year to really produce one that he could wear publicly, but the rest of his life I took care of his shirts. I entered into the same procedure with my husband by making his shorts, his shirts, and ties, and bathrobes and things that he wore.
Gillette: This is a long time back and it's a difficult question to remember, but do you recall as a youngster first becoming aware that you were being treated as a second-class citizen, or did your parents ever give you any advice or counsel about that?
Craft: I was brought up in a home that believed in the dignity of man and this is all I've ever known. My parents taught me if I went to a grocery store to never divulge their first names. In other words, my father used his initials, D. S. Shanks. Oft times people would ask me what the D. S. stood for. I would say, "I don't know. D. S. Shanks." My mother used her initials, E. L. Shanks, Eliza Lydia Shanks. But again, I only knew to say I didn't know because at that time there was no way that a title would have been given either one of them. It was the practice in the community for those persons to attempt to find out your first name. I realized at an early age that there was something wrong, having heard of slave stories and so forth and things that had happened in the community. I think I was about fifteen years old, or maybe sixteen, when we were having riots and burnings and lynchings of people, and you would hear the common expression, "Well, did you hear about the lynching last night?" as if they were talking about an ill neighbor. Naturally, that caused me to have some inner feelings. I couldn't understand the meaning of lynchings and burnings and how you could take a human being and torture him, drag him down the street burning.
In 1919, we had race riots in several parts of the country. Now, the riots that occurred in the early existence of the NAACP—I don't remember them as such, but my parents—we've always had newspapers in our home and I remember the one at Paris. I don't remember the year, but I remember problems in Waco especially. There were just different parts of the state that were worse than the others. But in 1919, I think it was, we had the riot in Houston. One of my teachers wrote an article, which was published in a newspaper, because she had been insulted on a street car. She said that she wished she had had someone to take her position as this group had done in Houston, protecting a woman there. That woman [my teacher] was arrested and tried and she nearly spent some time in a mental hospital because they said the article was inciting a riot. So it was difficult for people to speak out or to express themselves in any fashion.
It was in 1919 that John R. Shillady, the national secretary of the NAACP, was beaten up in Austin and at that time it frightened a lot of people. People felt they should not speak out about things they knew were unjust or were not right. It was then that I started wondering about the Constitution of this country. I'd gotten old enough then to have studied the Constitution protecting the rights of people. The more I looked into it, the more I saw that the justice I thought I was entitled to was not given to my people. I then started reading more about the NAACP and the Urban League and [other] organizations. There were a few people who spoke out. We had a man by the name of Kelly Miller who was quite a writer and so forth and Dean Pickens and so forth. . . I finally started reading articles about Walter White as I grew older, and somehow I was very much impressed that somebody was trying to do something to correct some of these evils.
Gillette: Was your family a religious family?
Craft: Very much so. This is a thing that I have often wondered [about], because today you don't find educators or school-oriented people active in churches as they were back then. In my father and my mother's lifetime there was no Sunday we didn't go to church. We were members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which still exists there.
Gillette: Now, did you go to school in Austin originally?
Craft: I stayed with my parents; [my father] was teaching at a little place near Austin called Round Rock. He also taught at another place near Austin called Pflugerville. My elementary training I got under my father. In fact, we had our home in Austin but I was actually born in Round Rock, which was just an accident, you might say. Then when I got to high school I came into Austin to attend the high school there. I stayed with my grandparents. My father never wanted to teach in a big city school. He was sort of an individualist and he felt like that being the principal was what he wanted and that was what he did for forty years. He was called from one place to the other. Pflugerville, Round Rock, Rockdale, and Columbus, Texas. Those four places.
Gillette: When he was in Columbus, did the family move to Columbus, or did he just commute back and forth?
Craft: That was the interesting part of my life, because when we detected my mother's illness, he was elected that year to go to Columbus to teach. I was going to stay with my mother at home. When we saw her weakening, she wanted to go and visit him, and I took her to Columbus nine days before her death. When she walked into the house she said, "I was born in this house and I came back to die." And she did. She lived nine days.
Gillette: What did your mother die of?
Craft: Tuberculosis. I had carried her out to San Angelo, Texas, where we didn't have use of their sanatorium and the facilities. We lived in a tent with her for two months that summer to try to give her a little relief. The doctors said she needed to be in a high, dry place. We detected it only four months prior to her death. My father was very much concerned about me then because I took care of her. I did the laundry, and everything had to be boiled. Carbolic acid was the main disinfectant, and we bought it by the pint size, and we had to use every dish that she touched. He was very much concerned about me, and after her burial he took me for a thorough examination, and I came out with flying colors. That's the only incidence of tuberculosis that we have found in our family so I don't know what happened. She died at the early age of thirty-eight.
Juanita Craft attended Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College, where she earned a certificate in dressmaking and millinery in 1921.
Gillette: Tell me about your experiences at Prairie View.
Craft: Well, number one, my experiences at Prairie View were interesting because there were seven of us who were friends in Austin who went together, and we shared rooms together. They included Mrs. Arthur DeWitty, Mrs. Strong, and another young lady by the name of Ewing, Maudee White, Alma Bells. We called ourselves the seven sisters and we were perfect nuisances on the Prairie View campus. We had a singing group. We had a lot of fun. We felt like if we weren't consulted in many areas of concern in our dorm then things just didn't go because we stuck together pretty thoroughly.
Gillette: Was there much consciousness at Prairie View at the time with regard to racial injustice?
Craft: Not too much with the student body. The main thing that the student body was interested in was the conditions at Prairie View. We realized they certainly weren't adequate, nor were they equal. There was an appropriation being made that was not meaningful. When I was there, the rooms were not even steam-heated. We carried wood up three flights of stairs to make fires, and oft times, the food was not available because it was brought to Prairie View by a train. Then from there it had to be carried to the campus, which was more than a mile away. It was an island because everything had to be carried there. I remember when the roads—I won't say streets—were so muddy that they could not even bring the food to the campus. Of course the complaints came from that source: the wood and the coal and the things that we needed. Professor Pratt at that time was over the dining room, and my group composed these little verses that we used to sing. "Prairie View, Texas, on Osmond Street"—Osmond was the principal—"Pratt Hotel but nothing to eat." We had a lot of fun by posting that kind of thing around the campus and so forth but it really wasn't funny. Parents sent food and sent boxes to us and friends would just send a cake or something of that sort, which was almost a necessity back there—you still couldn't get it because it was difficult to get it out there.
Gillette: Well, now, before we leave the early days, were there any specific incidents of discrimination or racial abuse that were branded on your memory that made you determined to do something about it?
Craft: That's what we're talking about. When I realized that here we were, supposedly an equal educational facility, down here in the rurals, and when you said Prairie View, you were right. You had a prairie to view, because the trees that are on the campus now, if you've ever been there, were put there by an alumni association. They started that program about 1927. And of course you saw nothing, and still there was no equality. At that time maybe—I don't remember just what year—the oil at Santa Rita came in, but we didn't get the benefit of it.
Gillette: Well, these are more or less impersonal forms of discrimination where it's not one human being telling you you can't ride on the front of the bus, that you can't eat at this—
Craft: But I was told that before I went to Prairie View. That I couldn't go to The University of Texas.
Gillette: Tell me about that. You've often said that your father was very indignant about the fact you lived so close to the university [but couldn’t attend.]
Craft: Our home was at the intersection of 18th and what is now [IH-35]. We were just across the plaza—they had plazas in the middle of the street—to what is now the extension department of The University of Texas, which meant that I could have walked straight down 18th Street to Congress Avenue and turned right one block under the university campus. There was also Samuel Huston College, going down East Avenue, or what is now [IH-35], to 12th Street. Tillotson was further but The University of Texas was a state school when Samuel Huston was a private school. Of course, my father even could not further his education because of that situation. . . In the University of Texas area, a Negro could hardly walk across the campus at that time. It was just that segregated. Only if you were working out there did you have access to anything there. Of course, this is something that is building up in you all the time: why should this kind of situation be? I'm still basing all of my thinking on this thing that they were teaching me in school, that the Constitution of this country protects people from this kind of discrimination. And there I was, I had my father to talk to, that was all, because the average person would say, "Oh, well, there's nothing you can do about it," and they were very discouraging and not trying to better themselves.
There was always a great big school over here for the white students, and over there just a little shack of three rooms or four rooms. I think at Columbus there were about ten rooms. I think at Rockdale there were ten or twelve rooms. But regardless of where a child lived, he had to come way across [town] to that one school. This is why it's amusing to me to think of this outcry against bussing when this is all we've ever known, get there the best way you can. And I've seen kids walk five, six, and seven miles just getting there. Kids would come in cold, and I know my father used to say to me, "Oh, how can you be cold? You say you're cold? Look at this young boy. Look how far he's walked." I've thought a lot of times about those who persevered to come to school, hands and feet cold, walking through water. There were days that really, they could have stayed at home, but they came. But when they got there what did they have? A second rate school, because I'm saying that all of our educational facilities were not first class. They were always second rate. . .
Craft: On March 22, 1925, I became a Dallasite. . .On December 5, 1925, the man who lived next door, who worked at the Adolphus Hotel as bell captain said, "We're going to put women on. Do you want a job?" I said yes. Of course my aunt, my father, everybody almost died that I was going to work in a hotel. I said to them, "If I want to be a woman, I can be a woman anywhere. The hotel won't mean a thing to me." I went down and was employed at the Adolphus Hotel as a bell woman.
Gillette: Is that right? That's wonderful.
Craft: That is the thing that made a woman out of me. I saw America as it is. I saw the politicians. I saw the corruption. I saw the drunkards. I saw how people lived in their homes by how they lived in hotels. I saw the life of the prostitute. I saw the girls who left home with promises of the great white way and things of that sort and turned to prostitution. I’ve had whiskey thrown at me. I’ve had people offer it to me in any quantity you can dream of, but I’ve never touched it yet. So I give that job credit for keeping me as a person I wanted to be.
When [Charles] Lindbergh came back from his trip to Paris and was entertained at the Adolphus Hotel, I was standing less than two feet from him when he entered the door. Sonja Henie, I remember when she first made her reputation as a skater, and Esther Williams, the swimmer, came to the Adolphus Hotel. But I also knew the side of the football games because I knew what the young people were doing, and I could not see how I could be branded immoral and so forth merely because of the color of my skin when I know what has gone on.
Gillette: You did have a job during the Depression then.
Craft: That's the joke. Because I saw at the Adolphus Hotel persons who were millionaires go broke, and it was a tipping job. We only got two dollars and fifty cents a week cash, and we depended on the guests, their tips. Those who had [money] didn't have it during the Depression. And of course, that was the thing that made me finally give it up, because I some days wouldn't make my cab fare down there. . .
Lulu B. White was the executive secretary of the Houston NAACP and the director of branches for the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches.
Gillette: When did you first become a participant in the NAACP?
Craft: I first paid my membership in the early thirties because job discrimination was a thing I was interested in then.
Gillette: Who sold you the membership, do you remember?
Craft: Oh, it was a meeting. It was held at one of the churches here. I went to the meeting and paid the dollar membership. That's what it was, a dollar a year. In 1938, when Mr. [George F.] Porter was thrown out of the courthouse I said I would keep my membership current, but I still didn't really get involved until the forties. In the local branch, in 1942, I went to a meeting and they were selling some little buttons, ten cents each, just raising funds. This is why this whole program has been to me almost a god-sent thing, because with of little things that we've done. Well that one day, with one day's effort I sold about twelve dollars worth of buttons at ten cents each. And Mr. Porter said, if you're that kind of person, you need to be on the executive committee working with us. It was 1942 when I really became active.
Gillette: When did you first have contact with the people in the NAACP state hierarchy, Maceo Smith and Lulu White, and when did you realize they were organizing the whole state drive?
Craft: It was in the early forties, because after I started getting some memberships in, I began to think maybe they'd notice me a little bit. Of course, meetings. There was Carter Wesley, and [W. J.] Durham, and Maceo, and Dent, and Dr. Franklin, who passed since then, and John J. Jones, and J. J. Rhodes, and all of that group back there. They would have meetings and I was always included. After I had read so much about Lulu, that she lived in the southern part of the state and if I could reach her height in development, well maybe we'd have a balance with Dallas and Houston. So I got on a train and went to Houston.
Gillette: You had not met her or seen her before?
Craft: Just read about her. I think I'd seen her in one meeting but didn't even get a chance to meet her. I told her I'd like very much to work with her. . . Well I went down, and I knew where the office was. I went and introduced myself, and I told her I'd like to work with her. She was serving at that time as director of branches, which is modeled after the national program. There was no constitutional provision for the office that I held. I was an appointed officer. That was in 1946, that I was made the state organizer, which meant that I would go and try as much as possible to organize a new branch or to stimulate the activities in an old branch. You don't have a lot of leadership in a small town. The minister, who possibly would be one of the best persons there as far as leadership is concerned, would possibly be a migrant minister. And of course when he's gone you had nothing. You didn't have people there with the expertise to reorganize or get somebody else in office, so this is what I would do. This turned out to be interesting because it was during that time that I became a real Texan. I learned the beauty of the state, the magnitude of the state as far as size was concerned because I was traveling by train, and Lulu and I went together a lot by car. If we went together she furnished the transportation, or her husband did at least, and we both drove and we even got so that we even dressed alike a lot, but it was quite interesting to see us at work together.
Gillette: Well tell me about Lulu White. She used to say she was related to James Madison. You know, her maiden name was Madison and—
Craft: I have heard her make that statement numerous times. As we often say, every Negro family also had a white family. In other words, there was always this dual system. Lulu was born right out here near Terrell in a place called Elmo. I've been with her out there numerous times. She was raised on a farm and so forth. There was quite a nice sized family. . . Lulu was the type of person who had courage that the average woman just doesn't possess. If there was a way to get it done legally or otherwise, Lulu was the one who said, "Well, let's do it." Even Maceo and Carter Wesley and all of that group, they listened to Lulu. And of course they knew again that Lulu's husband was behind her in whatever she undertook. She was an asset to any group that she was involved with. We have gone on trips together. She would take the branch and the policy of NAACP part. I was the rabble-rouser. In other words, she would lay out what a branch was supposed to do and how to keep a branch alive and so forth, things that you could do to raise money, encouraging ministerial groups to come in with a group of people at their fingertips to participate in the NAACP program. She was a type of person who was full of fun. She was a type that attracted people. Then when this thing would get so heavy on her, you could hardly stay around her.
Gillette: Why was that?
Craft: It depressed her so to see what some conditions were like and to see how some people weren't trying to help. . . I remember once we had the trip from San Antonio to Houston. We made [it to] Seguin together. Then I dropped on the bus and the train and she stayed in the car. We made the trip to Houston, took us a week to get there, through Gonzales and Hallettsville or Sealy, Texas, and Giddings, Texas. She was in the car and I got those [towns] that I could get to on the train.
She got to Houston before I did and I never shall forget when my last stop was Hallettsville. That's the night I darn near froze to death, March 11, 1948, because the woman [I stayed with] didn't have any cover on the bed and the weather just dropped to bitter freezing that late. She lived across the street from the railroad station; her house faced the railroad. It was a matter of coming diagonally across the street to the railroad station. But I was foolish enough and I still am. There's some things I refuse to pay for, and I refuse to pay for Jim Crow services.
Well, I was cold all night and got up that morning and there wasn't even water. Everything was too frozen to wash up. Then I walked across that street. Walking on the ice, my feet had gotten cold. When I got to that railroad station and bought my ticket, no fire in the room here but under the window there was a screen where some fire from the other side, you might warm up a little bit over there. I got the ticket, but I'd sworn I'd never sit down in a Jim Crow railroad station. I went outside and stood. When that train came, when I got on it, it was a mixed train, one of those old-fashioned [trains] with one passenger car and that car must have been, good Lord, out of another century, because it had a big-bellied stove and the porter was putting coal in it. There were pipes that ran down the side of the coach that furnished the steam to heat that coach. Instead of going to get a seat, I went to that stove and my hands just were numb. This is a thing that I worry about a little bit, how much some of us have put into this thing for so many other people to get so much out of and then they don't even know what's going on.
In 1951 we went to Atlanta. I know I went on the train because that's a time I had the experience on the train refusing to accept a Jim Crow seat.
These are the kinds of things that really bring back memories, because [Lulu] may have driven to Atlanta in 1951, but I went on the train, because I know I went from here to Memphis, and I wanted to get out of Texas to get—I remember that I bought a seat and when I got there it was not in the segregated car. But when I went in and took the seat, the man who was in the seat next to me had a lot of things in the seat. The porter told him, "This seat belongs to this lady, here." When I sat down, he jumped up and went up and stood. He was not going to sit by me. Finally, there was a young man who came in who had been in school out in California. He came in and nobody was sitting there, and he took the seat. This, to me, was such a horrible thing to have to face. This was the way it was all along. I've had three experiences on trains. That one, and the one coming from St. Louis one year, and one coming out of Denver once.
One of the most exciting experiences that I remember during my groundwork with the NAACP was coming across state lines on trains. The law had been passed that you could ride intrastate—you'd have to cross the line—before you could ride without Jim Crow. My first experience, I think, was coming out of St. Louis. I sat with a white seatmate all the way until we got almost to Texarkana. I had tried to cultivate her friendship so that if I needed a witness, she would be on my side. All night, neither one of us slept very much. We talked, and she seemed to have been very much impressed with me as a person.
When we got near Texarkana, or maybe before then, the conductor came in and asked me to move into the back coach. I told him I was very comfortable where I was sitting; that was all right. He went on taking tickets on further in the car, and then he looked back and saw that I had not moved. He came back and touched me on the back of my shoulder. He said to me, "I told you to move into the colored coach in the back of the car." I said to him the color of the coach didn't mean anything to me; that was all right; I was very comfortable. I proceeded to sit there. When we got to Texarkana they changed conductors. When he got on he was very rough, but he didn't touch me. But he threatened that when we got to Marshall or Longview, he would have a sheriff there drag me off the train. That was a pretty difficult thing for me to do, to still sit there, but I did. My seatmate was bewildered. She couldn't understand why they would keep harassing me. We'd been together all night. I asked her if they arrested me whether would she serve as a witness. She said that would and gave me her address. She lived in Corrigan, Texas. I've never heard from her since. When I got to Dallas I called Maceo. We wrote a letter and asked that this conductor be removed because of his treatment of a passenger. Of course, he denied all of it and that was the last of it. But somebody had to sit in those seats for us to ever change the thing.
Gillette: Did people call [Lulu White] and threaten her, anything like that?
Craft: Yes, there were some calls that went to Lulu's house. It was on one occasion that it just so happened that [her husband] Julius answered the phone and after he got through cussing over the telephone, I don't think there was anybody on the other end to hear what he'd said because that was — listen, he would cuss up a streak about things he didn't like. And that was it. We played those calls lightly, and I still have, because I figured that a coward who would threaten somebody over the telephone, he's not going to do much anyhow. It's a different day now; you don't trust anybody.
Lulu's death was a shock to everybody, because no one realized the end was so near. We were getting ready to go to Detroit that year for the national convention and she wasn't feeling well. She went to the doctor and he would not let her go back home. He sent her immediately to the hospital. We had discussed issues, national and so forth, at length, and I promised her that I would be down there to visit with her as soon as I got back from Detroit. When I returned home—we missed her sorely down there. She was a cheerleader, she sang beautifully, and everybody missed her. When we got back here, I called and I told her, I said, "I'll get some clean clothes, and I'll be down there tomorrow." Early the next morning Julius called me that she had gone. This was one of the hardest things for me to bear because I'd just gotten in one day and she died the next. We didn't get to talk. But I immediately came on down there and stayed with Julius all during the preparation and everything for the funeral and through the funeral. There's no way of describing the flowers that came to that church. There's no way of describing the activity around the home during that time. People from all over, white, Negro, and everybody—it wasn't popular to be involved then. Thurgood [Marshall] came and he gave the eulogy. There was some representation there from every branch, everywhere. Truthfully speaking, I have not been the same since, because of times I have been baffled about the problems that we're having and how to best tackle them, I don't know.
In 1946, Juanita Craft became the state organizer for the Texas NAACP in addition to her duties as the Dallas chapter's membership chairman.
Gillette: As state organizer you traveled all over.
Craft: Yes. This was interesting because there were no funds. I would leave home on my own and make some contacts in the town, maybe forty, fifty, sixty miles away. From that meeting, an offering would be had which would pay my expenses to the next town. From there the same thing was done until I would get back home. Sometimes I even had enough money when I got back home to have my clothing cleaned or to buy an item that I needed but most times I didn't have enough. There was very little money, as far as individuals ever used. . .
Gillette: You would go into one of these towns. What would you do after you got there?
Craft: Usually, I tried to reach the minister or some person of leadership ability. The ministers were invaluable, but they were also destructive, because they were mostly migrant ministers who maybe the next year wouldn't even be there. So if you make them president of the branch you've lost your branch [once they leave]. We tried to find people who were politically mature and knew how to hold meetings and so forth to make them [branch] presidents. We held mass meetings where we'd invite the public out. Well, some of the meetings at that time were better than they are now in big cities because people in the rurals didn't have anywhere to go in the first place. They would come and bring their young people, because young people sort of went with families at that time. And with a dollar membership, it was amazing how people flocked to meetings.
Gillette: You would hold the meeting, say, in a church?
Craft: Most times in a church. There were times they had recreation centers and things like that.
Gillette: And then you would give a speech. Is that right?
Craft: Yes. I'm supposed to be one of the rabble-rousers as far as speaking is concerned. I could always portray our getting out of this rut. We've got to get out, but we've got to do it together and whatever the program was, fund raising or whatever it was, [I would ask,] "How much will you pledge to raise here in this city by a certain length of time?" and so forth and that way they set their own quotas. If they wanted to get out there and do it. You could always talk about anti-lynching, you could talk about schools and opportunities, educational opportunities. I remember one subject I used to use. I'd find myself a subject and develop it. One that I used to use was after a song, “Cross Over the Bridge.” And I'm saying "cross over the bridge to equality of opportunity, to voting rights," and "cross over the bridge to a decent job and a decent home," but I had them always crossing the bridge. But the bridge was the NAACP, because this was what was going to the courts and so forth, and it was holding you up and helping you to get across to these opportunities. . . They’ve had some discrimination in every area, you couldn't miss them. . .
Gillette: Were they pretty much impromptu? You wouldn't have any written speech, would you?
Craft: Never had one. I'd like to say that this is when I became a real Texan because having gone from Pampa up in the Panhandle on down to El Paso from that direction. I didn't get in the Uvalde area because we didn't have very many Negroes in that area. But the whole of West Texas: Spur, Floydada, Midland, Big Spring, Odessa. Well you see, you'd just have a one night stand in all those places, taking about two or three weeks to get back home. But I found again my desire was building higher when I got into Dickens County and saw Negro children picking cotton and white children being bussed to school. This happened. The Negro schools were not even open during cotton-picking time and things of that sort, which made me even feel bitter toward parents. How can you do this to your child? And then to think of the powers that be that would take advantage of your child. Your child needs to get a job picking cotton while the other children are getting an education. So these are the things that kept me alive, kept me determined to be a part of whatever force that we could use to destroy that kind of system.
In the late 1940s, the Texas NAACP began challenging the doctrine of "separate but equal" as it applied to graduate education. Heman Sweatt's suit against The University of Texas Law School resulted in the Supreme Court case Sweatt v. Painter (1950), which successfully challenged the notion that the state could create an "equal" law school for blacks. Numerous registration attempts and lawsuits supported by the NAACP demonstrated to The University of Texas that the creation of a separate system of graduate education for African Americans would prove prohibitively expensive, as in the case of a separate medical school with only one student. In 1949, thirty-five students denied registration forms at the University's graduate, medical, and dental schools led a peaceful demonstration by marching across the Forty Acres to the Capitol.
Craft: Oh, Mike, it was a beautiful thing. When those kids came down and made—they were trying to get their application blanks and they refused. In that time, in 1949, Beauford Jester was Governor. The statement made by [Bishop College student Sheffield] Quarles, I will never forget when he asked him, "If we build you a law school, an exact replica of the one that we have at the University of Texas, would you accept it?" This boy said, "Governor, under segregation, no." He said, "Not if you build it brick by brick, even the blades of grass, under segregation, no."
Juanita Craft was also the NAACP's Dallas youth organizer. Under her leadership, the Youth Council successfully challenged segregation at theaters, lunch counters, and the Dallas State Fair through nonviolent demonstration.
Gillette: Were you involved with the lunch counters?
Craft: Oh, Lord yes. Durham helped us figure it out. We picketed the state fair in the fall of 1955. We picketed the Melba Theater in the spring of 1955. We picketed the Majestic Theater beginning in 1955. Just all along every week we had a protest line. SMU students began to move in and help there, and we had a situation worked out by Mr. Durham that was really interesting. Because as long as they don't put up a sign saying, "Negroes not served here," we had a right to go in there. What we would do in trying to purchase tickets, we formed a circle. The first youth would go up, "One ticket, please." "We can't sell you a ticket." "Thank you." He’d walk right on back and get at the foot of the line. Sometimes we had maybe a hundred kids just keep going there asking to [buy a] ticket. And the agent would say, "I've told you once we cannot sell you a ticket." "Oh. I thought maybe you'd changed your mind." And go right on back.
The [sit-ins] at the dime stores and lunch counters, they were most fascinating because those kids really worked. But there was no sign out saying you can't go in. Why would you serve someone in one part of your store and then wouldn't serve them in another part? We would always instruct the kids to buy something that would have the wrapper or the paper bag. H. L. Green, for instance, that was one we gave the devil. They would buy something big so it could be easily seen, like maybe drawing paper or something that would be wrapped or in a big bag. Then, they'd go from there to the lunch counter and order a Coke but the—
Gillette: And they wouldn't be served?
Craft: No. But the law says the manager has a right to tell you why. So then the kid would ask to speak to the manager. Well, while that kid was—two, there was two together for witnesses—they'd be talking to the manager. There are two more coming in from outside with that big bunch of drawing paper or something similar, be headed to the lunch counter. Well he'd get rid of those two, here's two more coming in. In the meantime, I had three or four telephones set up with kids talking over the phone. They would call, "May I speak to the manager please? Do you serve people of color?" We tried not to use, "Will you serve Negroes?" "Will you serve people of color?" And of course all he could say is, "No." We were taking his time.
Gillette: Why did you try not to use Negro? So it could be any race?
Craft: There's a joke. "Do you serve Negroes?" "No, we serve hamburgers." See, there was a joke that they made out of "No, we don't serve Negroes."
Gillette: Oh, I see.
Craft: But the whole thing was interesting because to see in this country, like Barbara Posey said when she first started the first sit-in, that, "I'm going to sit here until America decides to sell me a ten-cent Coke."
Gillette: What started these sit-ins here? Where did you get the ideas to do this?
Craft: This Barbara Posey, a little fourteen-year-old in Oklahoma City. She's the one who started it. And of course it didn't catch fire that year. That was in 1958. Wichita, Kansas did it that same year because those two cities were kind of close together. But it was in 1960, when it happened at Greesnboro, North Carolina, that it went wild. White kids and people from all over came and helped.
We got [an NAACP award for] the state fair. Just to think of kids walking around there in Dallas who could not go to the state fair except for that one day. They tried to have some little private affairs out there the nineteenth of June, which did not work. We broke those up. That was interesting because the fair day picket lines were not common in Dallas, and the news media, by noon, you had people down from all over the United States. The only way we could think of then since so many people were chartering a bus. The bus driver didn't care about the picket line. He drove on across and took them inside. Then we had to figure out a way to get them out of there before they spent a lot of money. It was interesting because maybe I'd walk up to you, never seen you before, but, "Hello there. Jim? Your name is Jim isn't it?" And of course the person said, "No, I'm not." "You look just like a friend of mine named Jim Davis from Longview, Texas. Well I was kind of upset, I'm looking to get my group out of here. You see that picket line out there? Well they tell me that they're going to start some trouble here. I'm going to get my group together and get out of here." By three o'clock we had as many buses getting out of there as they had gotten in there. . .
Those kids—we made signs all that weekend and on Monday the kids went to the starting point at Lincoln High School and boarded the floats right along with the queens and everybody else and rode down the streets saying, "Stay out. Don't sell your pride for a segregated ride," meaning the hobby horses and so forth out there. The kids were on top of people's houses along the route of the parade with megaphones telling about the segregated policy out there and to stay out. Well, it was a shame how much money was spent there ever year by people from all over the state, the football games and everything. But then your dignity had to be reckoned with. "Why would I come here this day and give every penny that I have to this concern who won't let me come back tomorrow?" So the moral issue was what we were fighting.
The little girl who led that thing that year, she was a cheerleader at Lincoln High School. That band marched right up to the gate. When they got to the gate, but before the first float started in, somebody slipped her this placard saying, "Staying out." And she pointed and turned that whole parade, it didn't go into the fair. These are the kind of things that interest me. We didn't have a single youth get arrested or a single youth get hurt. They were hurt in a different manner.
Now the second part of the protest that year, because we'd gone out there. We had $350 to test the places out there and you'd give them so much money and maybe six or seven would go to this place, and eight or ten would run over here. They just couldn't get anything, not even a bottle of Coke. This is not your day. Okay. Then we had a bunch of white boys from Hillcrest High come, and they were just so incensed over the situation when they knew what we were trying to do. They got for us some tickets, only about thirty five, to the fair on high school day. See, we had to go Negro day, but the high school day, they don't care what you were, you went on that one day. So when they brought us the tickets, about thirty-five, we distributed them at Lincoln High School to a group of our kids. Some of the kids got mad that we were giving free tickets to the fair, we were all going to fair that day. We took 1,052 kids out of school to go to the fair on thirty-five tickets. 352 out of Booker T. Washington School, they just had the two high schools there. Well now the trouble was that Monday getting them back. I shall never forgive W. T. White for what he did to the kids.
Gillette: What did he do?
Craft: When he found the leaders he would not let any senior graduate with honors. The boy I introduced that Sunday at the dedication of the park, Tommy [Teal]—all right, Tommy was the president of the group. He was the colonel in ROTC. They broke him down to buck private. . . That boy, listen. He and his wife, if they were my own children I couldn't think any more of them because he stood up under it. . .
Juanita Craft was awarded the city of Dallas's highest civic honor, the Linz Award, in 1969. She also received the NAACP Golden Heritage Life Membership Award in 1978 and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award in 1984. Mrs. Craft served two terms on the Dallas City Council between 1975 and 1979. The NAACP recognized her for her fifty years of service shortly before her passing, on August 6, 1985.
The one-story frame house where Juanita Craft lived for fifty years is located in Dallas's Wheatley Place Historic District. It is open to visitors by appointment. For information please call the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs at 214-670-3687.