Starting January 1, my friend Bessie Jackson starts reminding me that February is Black History Month. I get it; with less than 150 African Americans in Burnet County, I don’t blame her for thinking no one will remember.
I met Bessie in the 1980s when I was working on a Thanksgiving drama for a Marble Falls ecumenical church service. I liked her immediately. I soon learned that every February, organizations all over the county invite Bessie to talk about Black history. (To this day, if I come across a fact concerning an accomplishment by a person of color, I still email her.)
I just read Bessie’s letter in The Highlander in which she says we need an African American museum. I called her to find out more.
Bessie educated me about the struggles persons of color have endured in our country and our county in the past and that they still endure today.
For instance, when she moved to Marble Falls years ago, she tried to find employment in the area. She had graduated from a two-year business college and had two years’ college credit at Dallas Baptist College. She’d also been employed as a secretary. But the Marble Falls employment agency took one look at her and said they had no openings – though she might be interested in being the salad cook at Meadowlakes Kitchen!
“If it’s not lettuce and tomato, I don’t know anything about salads,” Bessie told them. She’s a forthright and funny woman. Fortunately, she ended up having good jobs – and lucky for me, one of them was at HEB Pharmacy where I was a pharmacist. We worked together for 15 years and had the best time!
Here’s another horrifying story: Back then, it was illegal for a person of color to try on clothes in a store and to return any clothes they’d purchased if they tried them on at home. She has lots of stories like these, little injustices that add up over time.
I would’ve thought things would be better for her kids, but I was wrong. Bessie’s daughter had been a straight-A student when the family moved here in the 1980s but not here in Burnet County. Bessie asked the principal what her daughter could do to improve her grades.
“That’s just the way it is here,” they said.
That’s when Bessie knew she’d have to advocate for her kids because no one else would.
The second time her daughter was refused a spot on the high school drill team after being obviously qualified, and after the school principal said her only recourse was to appeal to the school board, Bessie did them one better: She ran for school board and won! Her daughter had a successful year on the drill team, and the school board had an effective, beloved member for the next seven years. I’m proud to say that in that capacity, she handed both of my sons their high school diplomas.
After that, she got the political bug again, ran for Granite Shoals City Council and served for 10 years.
She’s been involved in so many things in our community. I asked her if she has any concerns with racism in this area today. She said she still must visit schoolteachers and principals occasionally. She advocates for her grandkids now but the reasons are still the same: kids of color are taunted about their hair or even called derogatory, disgusting names.
She challenges everyone to follow the adage: Don’t judge me until you walk a mile in my shoes.
My dear friend’s dream is to build an African American museum in this county. Its purpose will be to educate families about the cultures and contributions to local history of people who are Black, Native American and Latino. She envisions a library and a classroom for learning, too.
You can support this idea by attending a fundraising event on Black History Day, Feb. 26, with a free lunch at 11:30 a.m. at St. Fredericks Baptist Church, 301 Ave N, Marble Falls. You can also mail checks payable to St. Frederick’s African American Museum to P.O. Box 812, Marble Falls, TX 78654.
I support such a museum. We all must learn the stories of the quiet strength of these heroes of our past. When Bessie heard “that’s just the way it is here” years ago, she responded by working to make things change for the better. That can only happen when we learn from our past. That education is called history, and it is appropriate because, after all, this is Black History Month.
Pictured: Bessie Jackson, left; BJ Henry, author and BDCD president, right.