Celebrating history of Kerrville black community

Clifton Fifer Jr., local community leader, is, among other pursuits, a musician and said he invented the "Ugly Stick," right, as a sort of combined musical instrument for programs about the Black community and cowboys.

Clifton Fifer Jr. said some of the first Black families that came to Kerrville still have descendants here, long after arriving as “property” and slaves.

Those families include the Dimery family – Fifer called them “the first of the first” – Miller, Blanks (Theodore and Isaiah), Hamilton, Bridges, Benson, Fifer, Coleman, Hurst, Hardy, Edmonds, Askey, Thornton, Campbell, Ware and Butler families.

“I’m related by marriage to the Blanks, and the Wares and Thorntons.”

Asked about the story repeated sometimes that the Blanks family got that name by refusing to take their former slave-owner’s surname, Fifer said he’s heard that, too, but couldn’t verify its accuracy.

“Traditionally a freed slave took the owner’s names or chose another if their master was unkind,” Fifer said.

“In about 1984, my dad, Clifton Fifer Sr. started his own sanitation business after working for the city’s sanitation service. He started his own service in the county and picked up at River Hills Mall and in Kerrville South and Ingram and other places,” Clifton Jr. said.

“He also had a junk business and would collect radiators and batteries and other things, for copper. He’d collect it for about six months and stack it next to the house. Then he sold the loads twice a year. It helped pay the bills.”

He said his grandfather worked at the YO Ranch, and his Uncle Lester Fifer also was a cook there.

“Lester wrote a cookbook when he worked there, and I have a copy. But all the recipes were for 100 people or more. In the family he was known for his cinnamon rolls. They melted even before they got in your mouth,” he said.

Fifer also spoke of the portion of the Black community known as “Black Seminole Indians,” descendants of runaway slaves in the south who first lived in Florida among the Seminoles. When that tribe was forced by the U.S. government to march to Oklahoma reservations, some moved to Mexico or worked as scouts and trackers for the U.S. military, fighting other Native American tribes.

“They rode just as hard and subsisted on low rations; and were the best scouts and trackers,” Fifer said.

Their connection to Kerr County came through the “colored troops” after the Civil War, or more famously the Buffalo Soldier regiment. These young men produced four Medal of Honor winners whose descendants are known here, Lillian Warren, Sylvia Lewis and Charlie Payne.

The medal winners were Pvt. Adam Paine; Pvts. Pompey Factor, Isaac Payne and John Ward.

Segregation

Clifton Jr., who is 65 now, experienced in his long residency in Kerrville some of the effects of segregation.

“I remember going to Fredericksburg to the drive-in movie theater. We couldn’t go to the drive-in in Kerrville; but in Fredericksburg, it wasn’t segregated,” he said.

He said Kerrville had developed to the north from the Guadalupe River about to the Home Depot location. “There was a baseball stadium for Little League and a ‘pony league.’ There was no interstate and if you wanted to go to San Antonio I think you took Highway 87 to 27. Junction was north on 27.

“I think Kerrville is about to lose its ‘country feel’ but I reckon that’s progress,” Fifer said.

Entertainment

He said most entertainment was segregated, and in the Black community they owned their own “juke joints” including the Famous Door and Pleasure Garden.

Fifer said the new owners hope to reopen the Famous Door sometime next summer.

Kerrville North was a colorful, lively community with six juke joints in a two-country-block area, he said. They each served food, drinks and all had music, either live or from a jukebox.

The names and locations, in alphabetical order, were: The Cabin owned by Mr. and Mrs. C. W. McCray (Mrs. Carrie) at the end of Barnett Street; the Dream at the corner of Upper Street and Wallace Street owned by several different people at different times; Mrs. Ella Phelps owned and run by Mrs. Ella Phelps (her specialty was soul food) on West Davis Street; the Famous Door on West Barnett Street, run by Mr. Ed Bratcher, known throughout Kerrville for his steaks and fried chicken; and Pennick’s Green Door owned by Mr. John L. and Mrs. Beulah Pennick. First established as a music venue and meeting place for teenagers; they were known for their hamburgers, enchiladas, fries and chitlins.

“Probably the most famous of the juke joints was the Pleasure Garden run by Hilly Frazier on Webster Street. The infamous slab is still there today. ‘Uncle Hilly’ served the best barbecue in the county. Folks came from all around just to partake of his ribs, brisket, chicken and sausage. The people raved over his sauce.”

The Pleasure Garden was nothing like the name sounds, Fifer said. There was a small building housing the BBQ pit on a 9x15 slab, an old wooden building about 9x15 feet, and a huge concrete slab 54x39 feet.

During the time of segregation, he said, there were no recreation places for Black kids in Kerrville outside their community, as it was in most small Texas towns. So the people, businesses, schools and churches in the community provided entertainment for the kids.

“One of the places I remember was the Pleasure Garden. At 2 o’clock on Wednesdays, Uncle Hilly would allow kids to come in and skate on that huge slab for about an hour.

“What about the rhythm and blues scene at Pleasure Garden? Kerrville was the largest rural town in the region, and it was known for its juke joints and local bands. Even though the juke joints’ heydays were during segregation, that never stopped the juke joints from being integrated,” Fifer said. “The music, the culture, the good times seemed to draw all people together.”

Professor B.T. Wilson was not only the principal of Doyle High School, he was a musician, entertainer and songwriter along with other men here.

Timeline

The following timeline of events in the life of Kerrville’s Black community is drawn from local history books including “Kerr County, Texas 1856-1976” by Clara Watkins, and the “Kerr County Album” by the Kerr County Historical Commission, with added information from Kerrville residents:

• 1852 – Mrs. Thomas Denton arrives in what would become Kerr County with her family and four slaves.

• 1854 – Dr. J. C. Ridley moved to the area, bringing slaves the Edmond family, and also owned Jack Hardy (1858-1907) who was captured by Indians in the winter of 1873.

• 1856 – Kerr County was formally established.

• 1856-59 – Dr. Charles de Ganahl moved to eastern Kerr County with his family and slaves, counting 21 of them by 1861. They included Theodore Blanks and his son Isaiah who helped found “The Settlement” in “Kerrsville.” Isaiah Blanks was employed by Capt. Charles Schreiner after 1865.

• 1867 – Negro resident Mike Hines appointed as a Kerr County commissioner by military authorities after the Civil War.

• 1887 – San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad began rail service once a day to and from San Antonio.

• 1893 – Willie Fifer worked for Capt. Schreiner and for Mrs. A.C. Schreiner.

• 1897 – John Fifer helped establish Barnett Chapel United Methodist Church with four families, the Buckners, Robinsons, Butlers and Blanks.

• About 1900 – several Black families moved to Kerr County from Bandera County due to a rabies scare in “panthers” or cougars in the area.

• September 1902 – Mount Olive Baptist Church was organized.

• 1910 – population of Kerrville listed at about 1,850 by Census.

• Born April 1924 – Vesta Fifer attended Doyle School when it opened.

• Summer 1933 – Ida V. Nealy Mosby arrived to work as private practical nurse at Dr. Samuel Thompson’s tuberculosis sanitorium during the summers. She moved here fulltime in 1936.

• About 1935 – First community school grades one through seven offered for Black residents, called “Cabbage Hill,” on block where Buzzie’s BBQ is now.

• 1940-42 – Mrs. A. W. Doyle donated land for Black school and it was named for her.

• August 1940 – B. T. and Itasco Wilson arrive to interview as teachers for Doyle School. They were hired in 1941.

• 1941 – Ida Mosby became a nurse at Secor Hospital (Kerrville General Hospital), its first Black nurse; then back to the now-State Hospital.

• 1948 – Clifton Fifer Sr. played baseball with an all-white minor league team for one season; and coached the Black Kerrville All-Stars.

• 1949 – Ida Mosby employed on staff of the new Sid Peterson Memorial Hospital.

• 1949-50 – Doyle School rebuilt after a fire in the building, according to longtime residents.

• September 1966 – Kerrville ISD fully integrated; Doyle School closed, and most teachers reassigned to other schools.

• 1973 – B. T. “Prof” Wilson retired from Tivy High School, KISD, after 33 years. He died in 1998.

• 1975 – Itasco Wilson retired from teaching in middle school after 34 years in KISD.

(4) comments

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