Roxy Harriette Grove papers, 1906-1953, undated: Grove was chair of the Baylor School of Music from 1926 to 1943, when Baylor became the first school in Texas to attain membership in the National Association of Schools of Music. Her papers consist of correspondence, literary productions, financial papers, and teaching materials.
Frances Cobb Todd papers, 1899-1990, undated: The Todd papers represent the third generation of Smith-Cobb-Bledsoe family heritage and New Hope Baptist Church materials at The Texas Collection. The collection contains items from Todd’s life and work in Waco and New Hope Baptist Church.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many members of the African-American community in Waco preserved memories of family, friends, and community by donating collections of letters, photos, financial documents, and more to The Texas Collection. While the collections may have arrived separately, the stories they tell often overlap and provide various perspectives on the same people and events. With items dating from 1861-1991, these collections cover many important events in the life of the African-American community in Waco and the story of Waco.
One family in particular, the Cobb family, has brought three generations of family materials to be preserved and made accessible to researchers at The Texas Collection. These items contribute to many record groups documenting the African-American experience in Waco for 130 years. Learn more about these historic figures in the paragraphs below—every hyperlink represents a collection.
Stephen Cobb, representing the first generation of Cobb materials in The Texas Collection, helped found one of the oldest African-American churches in Waco, New Hope Baptist Church. He also served as the first pastor of the church. Through two marriages, Cobb had thirteen children, eleven of whom lived to adulthood.
Many of Stephen Cobb’s children and relatives became prominent in the Waco black community—see the Smith-Cobb family collection to learn more. Several became schoolteachers, one daughter taught music, and another daughter married the noted Texas educator Robert Lloyd Smith. A protégé of Booker T. Washington, Smith served two terms in the Texas Legislature and founded a society to help black sharecroppers in the early 1900s. This society, called the Farmers Improvement Society, had 12,000 members in 800 branches across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas at its high point in 1911.
One of Stephen Cobb’s daughters, Jessie, married Henry Bledsoe. Their son, Julius Bledsoe, or Jules Bledsoe as he was popularly known, was an international opera star in the 1920s-1940s. He sang for audiences around the world, wrote music, and performed in plays, radio, and television. His most famous piece was “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Showboat,” though he also sang many other songs and spirituals. After a career of 22 years, Bledsoe died in Hollywood in 1943.
At least one generation later, Irene Cobb was also active in the Waco area. A schoolteacher for 31 years at various schools around Waco, Cobb was also active at New Hope Baptist Church. By this time, she was at least the third generation of Cobb family members to attend New Hope.
Irene Cobb’s daughter, Frances Cobb Todd, continued the family tradition of activity at New Hope, and followed her mother’s career path and became a teacher in the Waco Independent School District. Frances Todd was one of several New Hope members to take an interest in preserving historical documents important to the Waco African-American community, and she helped bring several New Hope-related collections to The Texas Collection.
Resources such as historic photographs, music, letters, financial documents, programs, and many other materials are available for research in our African-American collections. If you are interested in donating materials documenting the African-American experience in Waco or Texas, we would love to talk with you!
Love the photos above? Check out our Flickr set below to view a few more from these collections (click on the crosshairs in the bottom right corner to make it full-screen). And then set up a visit to The Texas Collection to see even more great documentation of the African-American community in Waco.
Texas has changed quite a bit over the years, as is readily seen in our vast photograph collection. To help bring some of those changes to life, we’ve created a “Texas over Time” series of gifs that will illustrate the construction and renovations of buildings, changing aerial views, and more. Our collections are especially strong on Waco and Baylor images, but look for some views beyond the Heart of Texas, too.
Austin Avenue: 1906, 1908, 1914, 1940s, 1950s
On May 11, 1953, a F5 tornado hit downtown Waco. The damages were severe: 196 businesses and factories were destroyed, 217 sustained major damage, and 179 sustained lesser damages. Over half of the 114 people who died were in a single city block bordered by Austin and Franklin Avenues and 4th and 5th Streets. Read more here and here.
In 1970, Austin Avenue was remodeled to serve as a pedestrian mall. It was not a success, and in 1985, the mall sidewalk was ripped up and two-way traffic was restored to downtown. One can still see remnants of the mall downtown and can feel the difference in the road going down Austin Avenue.
The ALICO building, which was built in 1910 off Austin Avenue, was once the tallest building in the Southwest. The ALICO building is still open today and holds the headquarters for the American-Amicable Life Insurance Company of Texas and houses many other tenants.
By popular demand, here is a Flickr set of the individual images used to create this animation. We’ll include this in each future “Texas over Time” post.
By Brian Simmons, Archival Assistant and Digital Input Specialist
Baylor University’s Waco roots are tied to the somewhat short lived Waco University. Originally founded as an all-male high school in 1857, the institution eventually came under the control of the Waco Baptist Association, which gave it the name Waco Classical School. In the 1860s, amid internal administrative issues, school management decided to seek new leadership to take the school in a new direction. The trustees offered then current Baylor University President, Rufus C. Burleson, control of the institution. Burleson, who at the time was clashing with faculty in Independence, accepted the offer from the Waco Classical School. He resigned from Baylor in the spring of 1861 and moved to Waco, taking with him many Baylor professors and students.
With Burleson as President, the Waco Classical School was transformed into Waco University over the summer of 1861. The University officially opened as an all-male institution on September 2 of the same year. The venture was moderately successful, but the momentum of the Civil War took a toll on the development of the fledgling university. Although it remained open throughout the war, Waco University faced budget shortfalls and periods of low enrollment.
After the war, the University began to flourish with increased matriculation and an expanded curriculum. The creation of the female department in 1866 made Waco University among the first coeducational universities in the United States. Although men and women attended the same university and were taught by the same professors, gender segregation was not uncommon.
As Waco University matured, it began to compete with Baylor for potential students. This complication was further compounded by the fact that two different Baptist organizations supported the universities. Both universities existed alongside each other for a number of years. The arrival of train service to Waco would be the beginning of the end for Baylor in Independence. Without a major source of transportation, Baylor began to decline. Later in 1885, the two Baptist organizations that supported the universities joined together and decided to support only one university. It was decided that the organization would consolidate both universities to form Baylor University at Waco. Waco University’s Board of Trustees held their final meetings in 1887 to transfer all assets to Baylor.
Waco University ceased operations at the end of the spring 1886 term. Baylor University at Waco was not much of a change for students of the defunct university. The same curriculum, faculty, facilities, and polices were retained for the first few years. That would soon end as Baylor gradually shifted away from what was established at Waco University. Baylor began to build new buildings to the south and altered the curriculum. After the completion of buildings on the new campus, the remaining Waco University structure became the Maggie Houston Hall dormitory before eventually being phased out. Waco University was Baylor’s entry to Waco, but it is more than just a footnote in Baylor’s history. Visit the Texas Collection to view the Waco University collection and see its digitized catalogs to explore this institution’s own rich history.