by Thomas DeShong, Project Archivist
As a student of history and an archivist, I am oftentimes awestruck by the rich and diverse collections I have had the privilege to process at The Texas Collection. During my brief time here, I have worked with materials relating to a wide range of topics including the Branch Davidians, Baylor University presidents, Texas governors, the American Civil War, World War II, and Baptist organizations, just to name a few. Needless to say, I find great satisfaction in my job. I never know what I might encounter on any given day. For instance, just a few months ago, I stumbled upon one of my most exciting finds yet: the Joe Lett Ward, Jr. papers.
Joe Ward, Jr. was known for his involvement in Waco’s city government as well as a number of local board memberships.
Joe Ward, a fifth-generation Wacoan, was known throughout the city for his public service and community involvement. He served four years on the Waco City Council and was later appointed the Mayor of Waco from 1959 to 1960. Despite all of his accolades, however, one of the most fascinating aspects of Joe Ward’s service was also quite secretive.
The Joe Ward papers are not extensive by any means; they are housed in a single document box. Yet the papers within shed light on part of Waco’s history that has long been shrouded in mystery. One-third of Joe Ward’s materials are products of his tenure on the Waco Community Relations Committee and its predecessor, an un-named subcommittee operating under the Committee of Fifty. Initially, this nine-man committee was comprised of some of Waco’s leading entrepreneurs and citizens including Chairman Joe Ward and Baylor University President Abner McCall. They worked in conjunction with the Progressive Community Council, a group of prominent African American leaders led by Reverend Marvin C. Griffin, to integrate Waco’s schools, restaurants, and businesses.
Reverend Marvin Griffin, who formerly served as pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Waco, was esteemed in the community for his Christian service and social activism. Griffin chaired the Progressive Community Council and was one of the leading civil rights leaders in Central Texas.
In the Joe Ward papers, there is a memorandum dated December 23, 1963. It provides a brief history of the interaction between Waco “senior civic leaders” and African American leaders who approached the Chamber of Commerce in December 1961 about the need for desegregation. The letter reveals the existence of a secretive subcommittee operating under the Committee of Fifty. The subcommittee eventually gave way to a more public arm of the Chamber of Commerce, the Community Relations Committee, in 1963.
Perhaps the document most critical to uncovering the activities of this covert subcommittee is the “Annual Report of Community Relations Committee – 1963.” It recounts that race relations had gradually improved in Waco in large part to the activities of its secretive predecessor. The report goes on to review the members’ collective philosophy concerning integration. It mentions their work with the Progressive Community Council and some of the successes it had enjoyed to that point. The report, signed by Chairman Joe L. Ward, Jr, urged the Waco City Council to bolster public support for integration:
“As previously pointed out, the activities of this committee have been limited to advice and persuasion with merchants individually and in groups. The limit of effectiveness of this approach appears for the time being to have been reached. The committee feels that the next step must be the creation of greater public support for the desegregation process, which will require effort on the part of more people than this small group.”
The 1950s and 1960s testified to how difficult and violent integration had the potential to be. The “Little Rock Nine” had to be escorted to school by members of the U.S. military. Non-violent protesters led by Martin Luther King, Jr. were attacked with tear gas and billy clubs in Selma, Alabama. Waco, despite its own history of racial violence, experienced a relatively peaceful integration of its schools and businesses thanks to community leaders such as Joe Ward and Marvin Griffin.
This photograph of Waco’s Pedestrian Mall on Austin Avenue illustrates the changes that men and women, including Ward and Griffin, fought for. Playgrounds and fountains, which at one point would have been segregated, were now fully integrated.