A baptismal font from Waco’s St. James United Methodist Church. Yearbooks from high schools and colleges long closed. A Kermit Oliver painting. An oversized wooden paddle emblazoned with Kappa Kappa Psi. Dog tags of an Army soldier awarded the Bronze Star. A football from the 1964 state championship game that Moore High School won over Houston Yates.

These items and many more represent a cross section of black life and culture highlighted in the Historic Waco Foundation exhibit “Footprints of African Americans in McLennan County,” which ends its four-month run at Fort House on Feb. 28.

The exhibit, curated by Paige Davis, fills a second-floor room in Historic Waco Foundation’s Fort House, the contents of its display cases drawn from Waco homes, churches and schools.

Don Wright, one of the exhibit’s organizers and a Historic Waco Foundation board member, said that while “Footprints” has a broad reach in what’s on display, it’s largely a sampling.

After it opened in the fall, Wright and others fielded calls from county residents who said they have other items that might be of interest.

“We just barely touched the surface. … It gave us an idea of the potential of what we can do,” he said.

Historic Waco Foundation executive director Don Davis approached Wright, a member of the Central Texas African American Heritage Foundation, and suggested the contributions of blacks in McLennan County as a subject for one of the foundation’s temporary exhibits in the Fort House.

Wright and the heritage foundation agreed and, aided by Paige Davis, then part of the Historic Waco Foundation staff, started to collect materials in six subject areas: education, religion, community service, the arts, sports and the military.

While the lives and achievements of such Waco residents as World War II hero Doris Miller and stage singer Jules Bledsoe are well known, “Footprints” unveils stories perhaps less familiar:

  • The importance of Waco’s black churches.
  • Colleges such as Paul Quinn College and Howard Institute, founded in 1865 by the Freedman’s Aid Society.
  • Wealth of service organizations, sororities and fraternities.
  • Black participation in the military, including a tribute to 11 servicemen who died in the Vietnam War.
  • Negro League left-handed pitcher Andy Cooper, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I’m proud of what we were able to do. This was a real labor of love,” Wright said.

Some items could find their way to a similar exhibit of local black history being discussed for the East Waco Library.

“Footprints” benefited from its location at Fort House, whose proximity to downtown’s Magnolia Market at the Silos has made it a stopping place for some of the thousands of visitors drawn to the silos each week.

“That house has probably four times the number of visitors of any of our houses,” Don Davis said.

The exhibit’s items will be returned to their owners after it closes this month. The Fort House’s next temporary exhibit, “Uniting the Homefront: Waco in World War I,” opens April 6 with a look at Waco and the impact of the Great War, Camp MacArthur, Rich Field, and local and Texas history during the war years.

“Footprints of African Americans in McLennan County” will run through Feb. 28 at Fort House, 503 S. Fourth St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor

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