What tells a high school’s story? Its building? Student achievements? Successful graduates? Photos and books? Living memories?
That was the challenge for members of the Central Texas African-American Heritage Foundation and A.J. Moore High School graduates in creating an exhibit on the school that’s currently on display at the East Waco Library.
“The Legacy of A.J. Moore High School,” contained largely in a glass-topped display table and a large wall panel near a corner of the library, touches on all of the above elements in telling the story of Waco’s black high school, which educated more than 4,000 students over nearly a century before closing its doors in 1971.
It’s part of a series of exhibits the CTAAHF plans for the East Waco Library over the next two years as part of the organization’s efforts to make Waco more aware of its African-American history and culture, said foundation chair Don Wright. “Our mission is to get this history out to the people,” he said.
Members of the heritage organization previously worked with the Historic Waco Foundation in its 2017 exhibit “Footprints of African Americans in McLennan County.” That wide-ranging project touched on subjects that the CTAAHF wants to explore in the future.
First comes the story of Waco’s A.J. Moore High School, long a touchstone in the black community. Distinguished graduates, state championships, community respect and the affection of former students for the school’s leadership — all were part of the story organizers wanted to tell. “We wanted to show the impact of A.J. Moore on people’s lives,” explained retired educator and Moore High grad Lorea Johnson, 70.
City officials readily agreed to the CTAAHF’s proposal to showcase parts of Waco’s black history and Wright said an important question about city liability for displayed objects was resolved when the library secured the display table being used for the “Legacy” exhibit. Library director Essy Day gladly welcomed the chance to show the exhibits. “We are so happy to partner with this group. It’s all about education,” she said.
A.J. Moore High School took its name from Waco educator Alexander James Moore, who started a school for Waco’s black population in his home in 1875. In 1881, enrollment was large enough to move to a building at Clay Avenue and River Street, then called Second District Negro School. Moore served as principal until 1905.
The school building burned down in 1921, and a new school built two years later at 600 S. First St. opened with Moore’s name in tribute to his work. That school housed grades kindergarten through 12 from 1923 to 1952, when it became a high school with grades seven through 12.
It closed in 1971 due to school desegregation and urban renewal, and was torn down. The Moore name continued to live on in Jefferson-Moore High School, the current location of Indian Spring Middle school. After Jefferson-Moore High School was closed in a Waco Independent School District consolidation in 1987, the name lived on at A.J. Moore Academy, which is now within University High School. Moore High’s lion mascot also became the mascot for today’s Waco High.
There’s a state historical marker about A.J. Moore High School at the former Waco Downtown Farmers Market location off University Parks Drive, but little from the high school remains outside of artifacts and memories.
“If you know the history of African-Americans in Waco, you know that almost all of our cornerstones and buildings of our history are gone. That is very painful,” said Beulah Barksdale, 86, a 1948 Moore High graduate who helped organize the “Legacy” exhibit.
Paige Davis, collections manager for the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, also helped with the Moore High School project and found a familiar challenge: A lot of the artifacts desired to tell a full story are lost to history.
Still, a web of Moore High alumni responded to the call for items — two of the lion sculptures come from Barksdale’s celebrated doll collection as well as several of her yearbooks — and Wright pointed out that the current “Legacy” exhibit couldn’t hold all the items donated. As a result, it will be refreshed every few weeks with new items.
Notable Moore High grads recognized in the library exhibit include World War II naval hero Doris Miller; U.S. District 30 Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas); Vivienne Malone-Mayes, Baylor University’s first black teacher; Negro League baseball pitcher Andy Cooper, Waco’s only member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame; Rayford Wilkins Jr., former CEO of telecommunications company Southwestern Bell; the Rev. Robert Gilbert, first black graduate (with Barbara Walker) of Baylor University; James A. Harris, a member of the nuclear physics team that discovered two elements; Marilyn Jones, first black Waco City Council member; Dalton Gooden, first black Waco firefighter; and Henrietta Napier, first black nurse for the Waco-McLennan County Health Department.
Photos, yearbooks and class reunion commemoration books show Moore High’s wide class offerings in science, welding, beautician training, band and choir. Sports also are represented with the school fielding teams in football (state champions in 1964), baseball and golf.
The “Legacy” exhibit also has link to an audio clip from Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History, a memory from an interview by Waco resident Robert Aguilar, who recalled seeing Moore students walk by Waco High on their way to school and wondering why. (The answer: racially segregated schools.)
Objects only go so far in carrying a school’s history, and often it’s an intangible human quality like pride, respect or compassion that can’t be captured under glass. Johnson recalled how the high school anchored community celebrations, from elementary school students attending presentations to the high school’s annual Christmas program.
“There was a lot of pride at Moore High,” he recalled. “Mr. (J.J.) Wilson was my principal, and he instilled in us that he wanted us to do well. There was a solid push from everybody, from the principal to the teachers, to do that.”
Barksdale, who walked with her brother five blocks to a south Waco bus stop each morning to get to school, had similar fond memories of what Moore teachers and administrators provided, not only in quality of instruction, but in inspiration and motivation to succeed.
“I can say this: We couldn’t have had a better school,” she said. Barksdale graduated from Moore High at age 16 and attended Fisk University in Nashville, with a summer spent at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, both schools of considerable reputation. “When we went to college, we were not behind,” she said.
Her years at college with students from across the country also revealed another of Moore High’s intangibles: adults who cared. “We knew we were loved and students from the North were tolerated,” Barksdale said.