A corner of the East Waco Library might seem a small space to tell the big story of African-Americans in Waco.

Black Wacoans have helped build the city and its economy for 170 years. They have founded schools and businesses and earned glory in politics, sports, music and warfare.

But backers of the new rotating exhibit at the East Waco Library at 901 Elm Ave. hope to tell those stories in coming years a little at a time.

“We’re not opposed to starting small at all,” said Don Wright, chairman of the Central Texas African American Heritage Foundation, which worked with library officials to start the display. “Sometimes a grassroots effort like that is what ultimately pays off.”

The group, which is affiliated with Cultural Arts of Waco, formed in 2012 and worked with Historic Waco Foundation to put on a temporary exhibit on black history at the Fort House in downtown.

Some of those materials are now on display again at the East Waco Library. The display case includes a 19th-century Bible from Second Missionary Baptist Church, a yearbook from the old Paul Quinn College, and an early 20th century photo of Waco’s Robert Lloyd Smith with Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington.

Smith served in the Texas Legislature and founded the Farmer’s Home Improvement Society, which aimed to bring financial independence to rural blacks.

As a nod to more recent times, the showcase also contains an album by the 1990s R&B band Hi-Five, which started in Waco.

Future exhibits will be arranged around themes, including business, sports, religion, education, military, arts and entertainment and social organizations. As the collection grows, foundation members are hoping the space for it will also grow and perhaps evolve into a museum.

“Our ultimate goal is to someday have something like that, but that’s still a ways off,” said Wright, who works as a psychiatric nurse at Waco Center for Youth. “In the meantime, we’d like to do the best we can to be a model of that vision. … We plan to use our platform to present lectures on these various subjects. We have a perfect venue right here in this library.”

Foundation board members said they hope telling stories of Waco’s African-American community will be an inspiration for the next generation.

Van Allen, 91, a sharecropper’s son who became an administrator of Paul Quinn College, said young people should be inspired by the story of that college, which was in Waco from 1877 to 1990.

“When you consider that a bunch of circuit-riding black preachers decided we’re going to start an educational institution, one aspect of that story is, what did they have to start it with?” Allen said. “Our children haven’t been told that story. We haven’t told it.”

Gigi Green-Bowie said her grandfather was part of the hard work of building the college’s William Decker Johnson Hall.

“People bought bricks, five cents a brick,” Ggreen-Bowie said. “My grandfather had a mule freight wagon and did all the hauling for Decker Hall.”

Foundation member Lorea Johnson, a longtime Waco schoolteacher, said he only recently learned about Paul Quinn’s training of black soldiers for World War I.

“It’s not something people know about, not something I knew about it until I started researching it at the Texas Collection,” Johnson said.

Wright said he is excited about showcasing the musical achievements of Waco’s African-American community. That includes everything from the “iconic” Broadway star Jules Bledsoe to modern blues guitarist Classie Ballou.

And Wright said he would like to collect and preserve the lore of the legendary Walker’s Auditorium on Gholson Road, which hosted touring acts such as B.B. King and Ike Turner.

“Walker’s was a central hub on what was called the ‘chitlin circuit,’ ” he said. “All we have left of it are some cinder blocks.”

The group presented its vision to the Waco City Council on Tuesday and got an enthusiastic response, especially from District 1 Councilman Noah Jackson.

“I can appreciate what you are doing, because I know about all of it,” Jackson said. “We played baseball championships in Katy Park. I have trophies (from A.J. Moore High School) that you might want to put in. … I’ll be going off the council soon, but I will be available for you guys.”

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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