Over the Generations: Documenting Waco's African-American Community through the Eyes of the Cobb Family

By Paul Fisher, Processing Archivist

Bosqueville School women's basketball, Central Texas champions, 1948
Bosqueville School women’s basketball, Central Texas champions, 1948. Frances Cobb Todd papers #2960, box 5, folder 12.

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.

Reverend Stephen Cobb, first pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, Waco, Texas
Reverend Stephen Cobb, first pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, Waco, Texas. Irene Cobb papers #2918, box 6, folder 17.

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.

Jules Bledsoe, preparing for his role in "Showboat"
Jules Bledsoe, preparing for his role in “Showboat.” Jules Bledsoe collection #2086, box 10, folder 8.

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.

Prom night for A.J. Moore High School at the Blue Triangle YWCA, 1948.
Prom night for A.J. Moore High School at the Blue Triangle YWCA, 1948. Frances Cobb Todd papers #2960, box 6, folder 15.

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.

Other African-American record groups at The Texas Collection include the papers of Vivienne Malone-Mayes, the first African-American professor to teach at Baylor University, and of Oscar “Doc” Norbert and Mary “Kitty” Jacques Du Congé—Oscar was the first African-American mayor of Waco. Several of the people in these collections also were interviewed for oral histories that can be found in the digital collections of the Baylor Institute for Oral History.

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.

 

Research Ready: October 2012

Each month, we post a processing update to notify our readers about the latest collections that have finding aids online and are primed for research. Here’s the scoop for October:

Mary and Oscar Du Congé at work
Mary and Oscar Du Congé at work. Their papers document their work, family, and social life in Waco, Texas.
Bolt Family Homestead and Legion Valley massacre scrapbook photo, 1985
Dr. Johnie Reeves at a vista overlooking the Colorado River and the Comanches’ route after the Legion Valley massacre of 1868. Legion Valley is on the other side of the Cedar Mountains in the distance.
  • William Carley Family Collection, 1834-1936, undated: Documenting the Carley family from 1836-1936, this collection includes records about William Carley’s experiences moving to Texas in 1836, his service in the United States-Mexican War, and other events in the life of the family.
  • Oscar “Doc” Norbert and Mary “Kitty” Jacques Du Congé Papers, 1908-1987: This archives consists of manuscripts pertaining to the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Du Congé. Oscar  was the first African-American Mayor of Waco, and his wife, Mary, was a schoolteacher and secretary who was a leader in the community, a socialite, and a volunteer member of many Catholic religious organizations.
  • Wilhelm Esch Collection, 1870-1943: This collection contains certificates of  appointment and of honorable discharge for German-American soldier Wilhelm Esch, photographs and books concerning military life in World War I, items related to the Order of the Elks and miscellaneous WWII items including ration books.
  • Guyler (Lydia Ann English) [Mrs. William] Papers, 1860:  A correspondence between
    Mrs. Lydia A. Guyler (Mrs. William) from General Sam Houston, in response to Mrs. Guyler’s request for Houston to name her daughter.
  • Adolf Hitler Papers, 1938-1943: Our Hitler Papers contain two documents signed by the Chancellor of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler.
  • Benjamin Judson Johnson Papers, 1942-1960: These papers include correspondence, legal documents, literary productions, and artifacts relating to Benjamin’s experience in the U.S. Naval Air Force during World War II.
  • Jones Family Papers, 1857-1867, 1920, undated: The Jones family records consist of correspondence, legal, and financial documents, including fourteen Civil War letters from family members in the 10th Texas Infantry.
  • Luper Family Papers, 1909-1990: The Luper Family Papers are comprised of correspondence, literary productions, and other materials pertaining to a Baptist missionary family and their experiences during the mid-1900s in Portugal, Brazil, and central Texas. (This finding aid is updated with additional materials that came to The Texas Collection after we initially announced the finding aid in June 2012.)
  • Harry Hall Womack, Jr. Papers, 1940-1948: Womack’s papers consist of correspondence and literary productions relating to his experiences in the 1940s. These include medical school, a tour as a doctor in the Army during World War II, and the beginnings of his marriage and family.