105 Kim, Del Rio, Texas 78840
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Tarver School (building shown here in 2003) sat on the corner of Ware and Pierce Streets. The wooden addition, which extended to the left (north) no longer exists. Author’s photograph.
During the early twentieth-century, the education of black Del Rioans was of such little concern to the majority of white Del Rioans that black education was barely acknowledged in historical writings on the subject. A 102-page history written during the 1930s spent less than a paragraph worth of sentences on the subject.1 Regardless of the community apathy, the African American families, “the colored people of Del Rio,” organized a school as early as 1901.2 The school remained very small and was closed in the 1920s for non-payment of taxes (something that would never threaten a whites-only school).3
In 1929, the school district proposed building a new school for the black students. With the dissolution of the old school, the 1929-1930 bond proposal to finance lots of new facilities, etc., etc., etc., “and the construction of a one room negro school” at a cost of $3,000, which was one-third the cost of the next least expensive item on the list. A new schoolhouse was built, but it and its students were never a school district priority. “For years the Negro school had been a problem to the superintendents but little progress of any extent had been made in either the facilities or faculty.”4 Even in the 1940s at the new site directly run by the school district, “Breckenridge School [sic] had very few books or other equipment. The textbooks in use were out-of-adoption books. There was no library. In fact, I [Superintendent P.A. Tanksley] hardly see why those children came to school.”5 Brackenridge/Tarver did not have yearbooks or school newspapers or sports facilities or equipment. In response to a question about yearbooks specifically, one Tarver student responded “Lucky we got through school.” Textbooks were repeatedly used and often missing pages. For the most part, each grade included two or three students, though larger classes were not unknown.6
The faculty of the school during the 1940s equaled two, and during the 1950s rose to four: Bert H. Brewer, Principal, and three teachers: Charleston P. Harden, Herbert E. Nesby, Carrie Louise Wilson.7 These new facilities and newly established programs were great and wonderful; they were just established decades after their equivalents in the white school.
In a 1953 interview, Superintendent P.A. Tanksley said “I have done all I could for Tarver School; I have done no less for each of the other schools in the district.”8 The school even received a new building. After Laughlin Army Air Field was closed, the school district bought three buildings; one “was taken to the site of the Negro school and made into an addition there.” This building was partitioned into rooms for junior and senior high grades. The building was placed and oriented as an extension of the existing building. Baseball and basketball were played behind the buildings (to the east) and the outhouse bathroom sat on the northeast corner of the lot.9
But after all the years of negligence, one can wonder if the improvement were made in an effort to honestly education black Del Rio students. A skeptic might say that these improvements were a result of the reactivation of Laughlin Army Air Field in 1953 as an Air Force Base by an Air Force that included a racially diverse population as much as any real respect for equality and the upcoming 1954 Supreme Court decision. Dumping black Air Force children into the existing, pre-1950 schools might bring on the unwelcome attention of the federal government (which eventually happened in 1971 in a court case related to Anglo-Hispanic segregation).
For years, the segregated school (at its old site and new site) was known as Brackenridge School, but the origin of the name has been lost. It is unlikely that it was named for a local person; if it had, that person would be remembered.10 The new schoolhouse (1930s-1950s), located at 216 Ware, on the corner with West Peirce, acquired a new name in the early 1950s while P.A. Tanksley was the district Superintendent.
The colored school was known as Breckenridge [Brackenridge] School when I came here. [W.H.] Tarver was a teacher principal and had been for several years before I came. He had one teacher to help him and there were some 30 pupils. Tarver was a very good man. It was in my third year here [about 1951] that he became ill and died. It was very hard for the colored people for he (Tarver) was well-liked. So at the end of school, I met with the colored people and Tarver’s wife who lives in San Antonio was present, and the name Breckenridge was changed to Tarver.11
Tarver School closed following the 1956-1957 school year.12 The listing for the school appeared in the 1953 Telephone Directory, which, for the first time, records the school as Tarver Colored School. Interestingly, the school was listed as part of the Del Rio Public School District in the yellow pages, but not in the white pages; there it was listed as Tarver as though it were not part the school district.
But it was, and in 1954 and 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two rulings requiring desegregation of the public schools. The case, commonly known as Brown v. Board of Education, and case decisions, Brown I and Brown II, said that racial segregation in the schools was constitutionally impermissible. Superintendent Tanksley described Del Rio ISD’s integration process as orderly and non-violent.
Desegregation of Negroes following the Supreme Court decision of 1954, was anticlimactic. The futility of supporting extreme racist views, so inimical to the community’s well being, was recognized. Although ardent champions for immediate desegregation of the Negro school may have been few, there was not a single voice to provide the harangue needed for resistance. People seemed to be weary of such matters; in some instances, they were, perhaps, a little ashamed. Then there was the matter of economics. The dollar, more than likely, was the most significant force for an early and orderly change. The Negro school, with grades one through twelve, had four teachers teaching fifty-six children. Maintaining a separate school with four teachers for fifty-six children required a per capita cost more than double the expenditure for the education of the white child. This was an example of discrimination in reverse.13
It is interesting that the school district’s leader would argue that Black Del Rioans were getting preferential treatment in the school district, especially when that very same superintendent in the very same speech, acknowledged wholesale institutional and instructional failure—that the segregated school was unable to keep educational standards of the rest of the district, and that all of the black students (and only the black students) would have to undergo special review and testing.
In the spring of 1956, a supervisor of instruction and the director of testing spent a week in the Negro school. Conferences were held with the principal of the school and with each child’s teacher. Each pupil was given an achievement test and a psychological test. Data concerning the family background and a history of the child’s progress in school was secured. The test findings and other pertinent data were used to establish a cumulative folder for each child. The two workers, upon completion of their assignment in the Negro school conferred with the principals of the schools where the children were to be transferred. Since the achievement level of these children was a year or more below their grade level assignment, there was some hesitancy in placing them according to their grade assignment at the Negro school. The small number, about forty, and their ages were factors which finally determined that they should be placed, in most instances, with their age peers in lower sections of the grade. Although their progress was below the general average of their grade, there are now indications that the disparity between their rate of growth and that of the others has been lessened.14
Considering that Tanksley elsewhere admitted inferior facilities and resources (for example, “All necessary textbooks” not available until the 1950s), it seems preposterous to think that the so-called “double expenditure” for the segregated school would make the school attractive enough to cause the white students to want to transfer there.
Still, in the end, integration was completed.
Through integration the entire Negro school population could be absorbed by the existing schools without the addition of a single teacher. The cost of operation of the Negro school could be used to enrich the program in the schools of the district. So, in the spring of 1956, a plan to integrate the pupils of grades one through eight at the beginning of the fall term was approved. The first two grades of high school were to be integrated in 1957, and with the integration of the last two grades in 1958, desegregation could be complete! The plan worked so well during 1956 that the entire high school was integrated in September, 1957.15
The integration happened without great violence or protests, but it seems that the old bugbear of integration of schools, or any part of society, leading to black men going after white women was still around. Tanksley bragged that integration throughout all school activities, but it seems that he is unable or willing end the statement without making clear that miscegenation was not happening.
Integration has been as broad as the school’s offering. They have used all facilities, including the cafeteria; they have attended social functions, and they have participated in band and musical activities, as well as athletics. Sports, perhaps, has been the area of their most notable achievements. Earning letter awards, and in some instances, being recognized as captain by their teammates during interscholastic events suggest the effectiveness of integration in this area. At game parties and dances, only a few have attended. When they have, were there has been any intimate social activity, they have participated with a partner of their own race. Although there have been incidents of conflict between whites and Negroes. The origins of the provocation have not been related to a latent racial animosity.16
Most in the Del Rio community have forgotten the 1950s Tarver School, particularly in the shadow of the 1970s Anglo/Hispanic school issues. The property itself, including the old schoolhouse, is up for sale. The current property owner has granted permission to place a marker. The Val Verde County Historical Commission hopes a marker will encourage a new owner to keep and reuse the building, but even if the schoolhouse were to be demolished, a THC subject marker will remind the community of this very important part of Del Rio’s educational history.
Barnett, Ruby L. and Rachal L. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” Sul Ross State University, Research Paper, May 1953. Bass, James, longtime Del Rio resident, to author, February 17, 2006.
Del Rio City Directories, [various years], noted as City Directories.
Jordan, Joni, a graduate of the Tarver School and lifelong Del Rio resident, to author, January 30, 2006.
Ladino, Robyn Duff, Desegregating Texas Schools: Eisenhower, Shivers, and the Crisis at Mansfield High, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.
Lewis, Leonard, “A History of the Del Rio Public Schools,” University of Texas Master’s Thesis, June 1938.
Prewitt, Steven, “‘We Didn’t Ask to Come to This Party’ Self Determination Collides with the Federal Government in the Public Schools of Del Rio, Texas, 1890-1971,” University of Houston Dissertation, 2000.
Tanksley, P.A., Superintendent, Del Rio ISD, “A History of Desegregation in the Public Schools, Del Rio, Texas, ” transcription of speech to the Second Annual Conference of The Commission on Civil Rights, Folder 3, Box 5, Jacob Rodriguez Collection, LULAC Collection, Benson Latin American Collection.
Val Verde County Deed Records, [various citations], noted as Deed Records.
Warrior, Ethel, descendant of Seminole Scouts, leader of the Black Seminoles and longtime Brackettville and Del Rio resident, to author, February 17, 2006.
Warrior, William, descendant of Seminole Scouts and longtime Brackettville and Del Rio resident, to author, February 17, 2006.
1. Leonard Lewis, “A History of the Del Rio Public Schools,” University of Texas Master’s Thesis, June 1938, pages 37-38, 52, 73.
2. Val Verde County Deed Records, Vol. 9, page 240. This 1901 purchase took place a year after the 1900 Muenzberger booklet referencing a school at or near the same location.
3. Deed Records, Vol. 79, page 299; page 325; page 326.
4. Ruby L. Barnett and Rachal L. Moore, “A History of the Del Rio Independent School District, 1890-1953,” pages 140-141, 160.
5. Barnett and Moore, page 160.
6. James Bass and Ethel Warrior to the author. The specific response was spoken by Ms. Warrior as they and William Warrior laughed. Bass and the Warriors attended Tarver School.
7. Barnett and Moore, pages 146, 255.
8. Barnett and Moore, pages 160-161; James Bass to the author. The Colored School in Mansfield, Texas also received significant improvements in the early 1950s: a waterwell, a school bus, chalkboards, and doors with locks. If Del Rio and Mansfield were part of a larger pattern, one might speculate that the new resources were an attempt to undermine potential legal challenges that were emerging in scattered jurisdictions elsewhere around the country. Preparing argue the Brown case in front of the Supreme Court, the NAACP adopted a policy rejecting gradualism. Robyn Duff Ladino, Desegregating Texas Schools: Eisenhower, Shivers, and the Crisis at Mansfield High, pages 7, 16.
9. Joni Jordan, another Tarver student, to the author; James Bass to the author. Prior to this addition in grades and facilities, Black students wanting to attend high school had to leave town, generally to Brackettville. Steven Prewitt, “‘We Didn’t Ask to Come to This Party,’ Self Determination Collides with the Federal Government in the Public Schools of Del Rio, Texas, 1890-1971,” page 122.
10. James Bass, Ethel and William Warrior to the author.
11. Barnett and Moore, page 160. W.H. Tarver was listed as principal in the 1948 City Directory; B.H. Brewer was listed as principal in the 1951 City Directory.
12. Joni Jordon to the author.
13. P.A. Tanksley, “A History of Desegregation in the Public Schools, Del Rio, Texas,” pages 4-5.
14. Tanksley, “A History of Desegregation in the Public Schools, Del Rio, Texas,” page 5.
15. Tanksley, “A History of Desegregation in the Public Schools, Del Rio, Texas,” page 5.
16. Tanksley, “A History of Desegregation in the Public Schools, Del Rio, Texas,” page 5.