The Hill: Arlington's Historic African American Community
This is the first time the AHS newsletter has featured an article about The Hill.
Background and History
"The Hill" is a historic, five-block area of Arlington. It was the only area designated for the city's African American residents when racially segregated neighborhoods were the norm. Located northwest of the town's original boundaries, its area included Sanford, West, Prairie, and Taylor streets.
For much of its history, The Hill was segregated from the rest of Arlington – both socially and physically. In the 1880 census records, only three African American families lived within the Arlington townsite. Although there aren't official records available for 1890, some of the same family names also appeared in the 1900 census, which indicates their continual presence in the area.
As Arlington's population began to grow, so did the African American community. During the period 1890-1950, The Hill experienced its most significant growth and prosperity. In 1907, Arlington resident Edward F. Wilkerson subdivided land that became a major part of The Hill, and known as the Wilkerson Addition.
A vibrant community emerged in the years to follow. Homes, schools, and churches led to grocery stores, clubs, and restaurants in the 1920s. By this time, the neighborhood contained 28 homes with 100 residents, although less than 25% of the adults could read and write. By the 1930s, it shed its rural character becoming more densely populated and urban as Arlington expanded.
Yet as the town began to change, so did The Hill. The area began to dissolve afer World War II. There were fewer job opportunities available for African American men and fewer places for their families to live. This began to change when the General Motors plant opened in 1953 and employed many African Americans. Farmland near the site was subdivided for housing, enticing some residents of The Hill to pursue other housing opportunities. Desegregation also led residents to other areas, both in and out of Arlington, as African Americans could live in more places.
Arlington's first African American school existed by the 1890s. The Arlington Independent School District (AISD) formed in 1902, and the school joined the district. Prominent educators included George Stevens and Gloria Echols. Both lived and worked in The Hill and had an impact on education in the community.
The last segregated school in The Hill was built in 1953 and opened the following year. The school was named for Booker T. Washington and evolved from Arlington's previous African American schools. It initially had eight classrooms, an administrative office, and a cafeteria, with a gymnasium added later.
In 1954, the monumental "Brown v. Board of Education" Supreme Court case reached a verdict. The case determined that "racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional." It was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, although desegregation and equality would not come easily – or quickly.
It wasn't until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that desegregation would hasten, especially in the South. Notably, the Booker T. Washington School stayed segregated for another decade afer Brown v. Board of Education, closing in 1965 when Arlington began to desegregate its schools. AISD did not provide secondary education for its African American students until laws made it mandatory. This resulted in fewer African American students continuing their education past the 8th grade. However, some students went to Terrell High School in Fort Worth to finish their studies.
Today, the former Booker T. Washington School building still stands at 500 Houston Street, although it's undergone a few name changes over the years. There is a Texas Historical Marker for the school and its impact.
Churches were fixtures of The Hill and its community. Three churches that started in the 1890s are still active today.
The Emmanuel Church of God in Christ dates back to 1895. It's known today as the Arlington Church of God in Christ. A Texas Historical Marker at this site explains, "The congregation grew in The Hill's commercial district alongside neighborhood grocery stores, restaurants, and night clubs, as well as schools, residences, and other churches.”
Mount Olive Baptist Church started in 1897 on Indiana Street. It later moved to West Street in 1966 during a period of growth for Arlington. (The year 1966 would also coincide with Reverend Norman L. Robinson's arrival; more on him in a moment.) The church would continue to grow and move to larger facilities. The church has had steady growth and prided itself on an active outreach program in the community. Both churches have Texas Historical Markers onsite to help illustrate their significance.
A third church in the area is smaller, and its history was more challenging to uncover. It began as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church but is known today as Armstrong Chapel AME. It dates back to 1898 and seems to be associated with the Masonic Lodge. While there isn't a Texas Historical Marker onsite, there is a cornerstone on the building engraved with names of prominent people and the year 1898. Surrounding the cornerstone is a plaque referencing F & AM (Free and Accepted Masons) and "Pride of the South Lodge No. 324."
While the community had many worthy citizens throughout its history, three deserve special recognition for their impact and service.
George Stevens served as Principal of Booker T. Washington School (and its precursors) for more than 20 years. The school tripled in size during his tenure. As a tribute to his impact, George Stevens Park opened in 1957. A Texas Historical Marker stands there today for The Hill, along with information about George Stevens.
Gloria Echols taught school in The Hill community for almost 20 years. She was one of the few women professionals who lived and worked in The Hill. Her contributions and teaching had a profound effect on the community. She lived on Watson Street, but the street was later renamed Echols Street in her honor.
Reverend Dr. Norman L. Robinson (1921-2017) served the Mount Olive Baptist Church for more than 50 years. While he became pastor afer The Hill's main period of prosperity, his impact is no less significant. His leadership afer desegregation and through the Civil Rights movement cannot be understated. He became pastor of the church in 1966, serving its 16 members. Under his leadership, the congregation grew to more than 10,000 people in 30 years. The church grew – not only in numbers but also in the services it offered the community. A section of West Street near the church property was renamed N.L. Robinson Drive by the city in 1992. It's a testament to his impact on the African American community and Arlington.
Significance and Impact
The neighborhood's legacy is complicated and bittersweet. On the one hand, it serves as a proud example for the city's African American residents. On the other, it is also a reminder of the nation's racism and segregation.
Today, the community memorializes The Hill in Texas Historical Markers, street names, churches, and a park. The Hill has a prominent place in Arlington's history.
Final Thoughts and Looking to the Future
The research for this article was challenging. Readily available information was incomplete and sometimes contradictory. It's a reminder that we have much to learn and document about Arlington's African American history. As Arlington's Historical Society, it's up to us to locate this information, preserve it, and make it available for current and future generations. It doesn't begin and end with The Hill, though. Many other prominent people, events, places, and stories need to be remembered.
We'd like to invite comments, feedback, and input from the community, especially from folks outside of the historical society. What does The Hill mean to you? What other African American topics would you want to see in our articles or on display at the Fielder Museum?
For More Information
The Fielder Museum currently has an exhibit about The Hill. Photos and stories are on display about some of the residents and other African Americans throughout Arlington's history.
Links to additional reading:
- Preserving Arlington: Past Visions, Future Realities
- The Hill - Arlington's Historic African American Community - Story Map by the Arlington Landmark Preservation Commission
- Mount Olive Baptist Church - Dr. Norman Lee Robinson
- George Stevens Park - Park signage
- The Hill - Historical Marker text
- Booker T. Washington School - Historical Marker text
- Emmanuel Church of God in Christ - Historical Marker text
- Mount Olive Baptist Church - Historical Marker text