A significant part of Arlington’s Black history involves The Hill – a historic, five-block area located northwest of the town’s original boundaries. Its location generally included Sanford, West, Prairie, and Taylor streets, forming a rectangle stretching north to south.
The Hill was the largest area designated for Arlington’s Black residents when racially segregated neighborhoods were common. 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 Black 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, implying a continual presence in the area.
During 1890-1950, The Hill experienced its most significant growth and prosperity. In 1907, Arlington resident Edward F. Wilkerson subdivided land that became a substantial part of The Hill, an area known as the Wilkerson Addition. As Arlington’s population grew, so did the Black community. A vibrant community emerged in the years and decades to follow. Homes, schools, and churches co-existed with small businesses and entertainment venues. By the 1930s, it shed its rural character, becoming more densely populated and urban as Arlington expanded.
Yet as Arlington began to change, so did The Hill. The area began to dissolve after World War II. Fewer job opportunities were available for Black men and fewer places for their families to live. Nearby farmland 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 Blacks could live in more places.
The neighborhood’s legacy is complicated and bittersweet. On the one hand, it serves as a proud example for the city’s Black residents. Conversely, it is also a reminder of the nation’s bitter racism and segregation.
Churches were fixtures of The Hill and its community. Three churches that started in the 1890s are still active today. The names may be slightly different, or perhaps they’ve moved to other locations, but their spirit and mission remain much the same. When folks needed guidance, safety, or fellowship, they turned to the church.
Emmanuel Church of God in Christ dates to 1895. It’s had several names over the years, but today, it’s known as the Arlington Church of God in Christ. The church grew in The Hill’s commercial district. According to the Texas Historical Marker on-site: “Elders Garrett and E.W. Battle served as early church leaders of the congregation, which held regular camp meetings for area worshipers. The Holiness philosophy of the church includes an emphasis on Bible-based education, as well as the roles of two spiritual leaders: the pastor and the church mother, who serves as guide and teacher of children and new members.”
Mount Olive Baptist Church began in 1897 on Indiana Street. It moved to West Street during a period of growth for Arlington. It would later occupy another building on the same street. Mount Olive was often considered the community church because of its size. The church would continue to grow and move to larger facilities through the decades, with the first service in its current facility on W. Sanford Street held in 1989. The church now has several buildings, many with cornerstones and plaques honoring its history. Today, the church is still going strong and is one of the largest in Arlington. The church has prided itself on an active outreach program in the community.
Pastor Dr. Norman L. Robinson (1921-2017) served the Mount Olive Baptist Church for over 50 years. While he became pastor after The Hill’s primary period of prosperity, his impact is no less significant. His leadership after 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 community. There’s a plaque at Mount Olive Baptist Church honoring Pastor Robinson.
Armstrong African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is known today as Armstrong Chapel AME. It’s a smaller church dating back to 1898 and associated with the Masonic Lodge. While there isn’t a Texas Historical Marker on site, the building has a cornerstone engraved with the 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.”
Schools and Educators
Schools are a complicated part of Black history. They offered education, but segregation and other racial divides were common obstacles. Arlington’s first Black school existed by the 1890s. The Arlington Independent School District (AISD) was formed in 1902, and the school joined the district.
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 Black schools – one of which was built on the same site as the 1953 school. The school initially had eight classrooms, an administrative office, and a cafeteria, later adding a gymnasium. It was for students in the first through eighth grades. AISD did not provide secondary education for Black students until laws made it mandatory, which resulted in fewer Black students continuing their education past the 8th grade. However, some students went to Terrell High School in Fort Worth to finish their studies.
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 after Brown v. Board of Education, closing in 1965 when Arlington began desegregating its schools.
An often overlooked or unknown aspect of segregation involved the educators. As schools became integrated with students, integration also included the staff. As such, predominantly white schools often acquired Black educators who were invested in their students and cared about their future. In turn, the primarily Black schools were usually sent white teachers who weren’t as invested in their students. It was another obstacle that made education difficult for Black students.
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. The school was a vital institution in the city.
Notable educators in The Hill included George Stevens, Richard Simpson, and Gloria Echols.
George Stevens served as Principal of Booker T. Washington School (and its precursors) for over 20 years, from 1941 to 1965. The school tripled in size during his tenure. He worked with the United Community Progress Association, the first Black neighborhood association of The Hill. He was active in his community, serving on boards and various groups. As a tribute to his impact and leadership, George Stevens Park opened around 1957. A Texas Historical Marker stands there today for The Hill, along with information about George Stevens.
Richard Simpson was an accomplished educator in Arlington and Fort Worth. He served as Principal at Booker T. Washington School. Later, Mr. Simpson became the first agriculture teacher in Texas. He also headed the Agricultural Department at the “Fort Worth Colored High School” – renamed I.M. Terrell High School with other name changes over the years. Mr. Simpson was also a founding member of the Colored Teacher’s Institute in Tarrant County and a founding officer of the Mosier Valley Lodge #103.
Gloria Echols moved to Arlington in 1946. She taught in Fort Worth and Arlington school districts for 39 years, with nearly 20 years teaching in The Hill. While working in Arlington, she was one of the few women professionals who lived and worked in The Hill – most lived in Fort Worth instead. 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. Mrs. Echols was also a Sunday school teacher and church choir member.
The Hill – Today
Today, The Hill is primarily a residential area, just like it was in the past. However, few people (if any) still refer to it as The Hill. Former residents sometimes affectionately referred to it as “L.A.” – or Little Arlington – but those days are long gone. Nonetheless, Arlington memorializes The Hill and some of its prominent residents in Texas Historical Markers, street names, churches, and a park. The area is undoubtedly worthy of being designated as a historic district.
The Hill – and other parts of Arlington’s Black history – often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Yet, a group of people is working to change that. A documentary called “Echoes From The Hill” recently premiered its first episode, with four more episodes planned for a future release. It’s an essential step to telling the story of this neighborhood before it gets forgotten by history. (More about the documentary coming soon.)
While The Hill was Arlington’s largest and most significant Black community, it wasn’t the only one. Others included Roger’s Pasture and To’liver’s Acres. The Hill was similar to other Black communities in North Texas: Mosier Valley (Euless), Bear Creek (Irving), Stop Six and Como (Fort Worth), South Dalworth Park (Grand Prairie), and many others. These communities were interconnected and often depended on each other for support and resources. The Hill has a prominent place in Arlington’s history, and its story needs to be told.
Blog post and photos by Jason S. Sullivan, 07-17-22
I wrote most of this content for the Arlington Historical Society newsletters, especially the June/July 2021, February 2022, and June 2022 issues.