EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – For many who grew up in the African American community in the Segundo Barrio in South El Paso, life was good.
Pastor Amelia Elmore has fond memories of the neighborhood.
“This is what I know,” Elmore said. “This is comfortable to me. We were never treated any differently in this neighborhood.”
Elmore now leads Second Baptist Church, one of the oldest African American churches in El Paso.
“We were just like one community down here,” she said.
Second Baptist Church was established in 1884, but African Americans were part of the community long before.
According to historians, black slaves and servants were in the expedition of conquistador Juan de Onate,
which famously crossed the Rio Grande in 1598. The City of El Paso was established in 1873, and the four wards, including the Segundo Barrio, were created in 1885.
Starting in the early 1880s, many blacks came to work in El Paso in the railyards or at the local smelter. Others worked as laborers or cooks. Many ran small businesses and quite a few were “buffalo soldiers”
and served with distinction in the U.S. Army throughout the region.
By 1900, most of the city’s 204 African Americans of El Paso lived in this neighborhood where Second Baptist Church would be built.
Elmore attended the church even before she was born.
“My mother was pregnant with me here at this church,” she said. “My earliest memories were running up and down the stairs and playing in the basement. (I also) remember my spiritual teachings.”
Originally established in a small adobe at S. Station St. in 1884, the church, now on S. Virginia St.
cost $25,000 to build.
“There’s no other black church in El Paso that looks like this church,” Elmore said.
The church was built of bricks in the gothic style, which developed in medieval France almost 900 years ago. It has pointed arches, a steeply pitched roof, and bell towers with tall spires.
“I love this church,” Elmore said. “I love the way it looks, I love the way it smells, and as a little girl, this church just fascinated me.”
Frances Hills, 96, also attended the church and can still remember spending her days there.
“My mother took me there in her arms,” she said. “(The church) is very important. It’s where I learned about the Lord and where I learned to pray.”
Hills grew up nearby on S. Park St, she said, and smiles when she thinks about herself as a little girl, playing with all of her friends.
“All my friends were Hispanic,” she said. “I enjoyed playing with them. My mother was a Spanish teacher and I knew Spanish.”
Hills said she is a retired mathematician, but said her roots run deep in the barrio.
One of her favorite memories was watching movies at El Colon Theater. At that time, most theaters did not allow African American patrons, or forced them to be seated separately, but not at El Colon.
Segundo Barrio is home to some of the most notable African American historic landmarks.
The Orizaba Hotel was built in 1883 and is the oldest standing building in the neighborhood. It was a solely an African American hotel, and in the 1910s, home to Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point Academy.
Another is Frederick Douglass School, originally at Stanton St., it was relocated to S. Kansas St. in 1891. Its style is an eclectic combination of Romanesque and Victorian. Generations of African American schoolchildren were educated there.
Yet another interesting relic of African American history is found just east of the neighborhood.
A building designed by Henry C. Trost: Fire Station Number Five.
The two-story brick structure has three arched openings at ground level, and Italian renaissance features.
It’s the place where Dr. Lawrence Nixon, a charter member of the El Paso branch of the NAACP, who was famously denied the right to vote on July 26, 1924. As a result, he brought three cases to the Supreme Court,
helping to set in motion a chain of events that enfranchised African Americans in Texas.
Despite the racist Jim Crow laws in Texas at that time, for Pastor Elmore and Hills, life in the Segundo Barrio was generally inclusive.
“I grew up going to quinceaneras,” Elmore said. “First Holy Communions, I grew up being incorporated in the community”
By the end of segregation in the 1956, many had moved out of the barrio and into other parts of the city,
but landmarks like the Second Baptist Church serve as reminders of the proud history of the African Americans of El Paso, and the hardships they endured and overcame.
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