When Juanita Craft bought her little white bungalow on Warren Avenue between Atlanta and Myrtle streets, South Dallas was in turmoil. It was 1950, and the city was changing. The blocks around her house, now known as the Wheatley Place Historic District, had been a Black settlement since the nineteenth century; the community was a freedman’s farming colony before the streetcar turned it into a bona fide suburb. But in the years after World War II, the city’s African American population was expanding beyond Wheatley’s borders. Black families were moving into white neighborhoods just to the south, prompting a familiarly violent backlash. There were eleven bombings in South Dallas between 1949 and 1951, and six “mysterious fires.” No one was killed, but roofs were blown off homes and at least four businesses were destroyed. One victim later said the blast was so strong it knocked the wallpaper off the walls.
The violence was almost predictable, Craft remembered in an interview thirty years later. In her recollection, it was not unusual for the purchase of a new home by a Black family to prompt a hate crime. “If you went down there and signed the paper and everything, that house would be bombed or burned that night,” she recalled from her Wheatley Place living room. “There was one bombed right over here the next block over.”
Juanita Craft witnessed it all from that bungalow, and not just because the house was in the center of the action, but because she was. Craft was a towering figure in Dallas’s African American community, a major player in local efforts to desegregate the city and establish civil rights. She was a high-ranking figure in the local NAACP, joining in 1935 and remaining an active member until her death fifty years later. She helped establish 182 NAACP chapters across the state. Craft also spearheaded a boycott against the State Fair—which since 1936 had allowed Black Dallasites to attend only on what was called “Negro Achievement Day”—via the Dallas Youth Council, which she had helped organize and which would become the model for youth organizations in NAACP chapters around the country. Her Wheatley Place home was a community hub for decades. That little three-bedroom house hosted everyone from the neighborhood kids to Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and LBJ.
Born Juanita Jewel Shanks in the Austin suburb of Round Rock in 1902, Craft first got to Dallas in the mid-twenties. Though she had earned a teaching certificate from Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University), the only work she could find was as a bell maid at the Adolphus Hotel. At the time, the Aldophus was one of the most distinguished spots in town, and Craft often found herself in the presence of powerful people, including Eleanor Roosevelt and aviator Charles Lindbergh. Accounts of Craft’s life often suggest that the hotel is where the seeds of her political activism were sown, but that’s not the full story. She had been civic-minded since her early childhood in the Austin area, where her mother once took her to see then-president Teddy Roosevelt parade down Congress Avenue. (For the rest of her life, Craft made a point to at least lay eyes on any president who was passing through town. She’d eventually see nine of them, and was invited to the White House four times.)
Craft stayed at the Adolphus for nine years, later crediting her time there as a formative experience: “I saw America as it is. I saw the politicians. I saw the corruption. I saw the drunkards. … I saw the girls who left home with promises of the Great White Way and things of that sort and turned to prostitution. I’ve had whiskey thrown at me. I’ve had people offer it to me in any quantity you can dream of, but I’ve never touched it yet. So I give that job credit for keeping me as a person I wanted to be.” She left the hotel in 1934, during the height of the Depression, after which she made a living by taking in boarders at her home and working as a seamstress. She joined the NAACP as a volunteer the following year, and when she married salesman Johnny Edward Craft in 1937, her husband’s steady income allowed her to devote herself even further to the organization. (All of her work with the NAACP would be unpaid, though some lawmakers and the FBI would try to prove that Craft and other members drew salaries, in an effort to discredit and/or dismantle the organization for allegedly defrauding the IRS.)
For the next five decades, Craft fought on behalf of Black Texans in some of the state’s biggest civil rights cases. There was the 1938 case of G.F. Porter, who had been thrown down the steps of the Dallas County courthouse after refusing to leave when he was “excused” from his jury summons because he was Black. He went blind as a result of his injuries, and Thurgood Marshall (then chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) traveled to Dallas to investigate; while there he was repeatedly threatened by the Dallas police chief, and he escaped injury only because then–attorney general James Allred had assigned a single Texas Ranger for his protection. The national attention did effect change: Black citizens were serving on Dallas juries by the end of that year.
Craft was also involved in the NAACP’s efforts to give African Americans in Texas the right to vote in Democratic primaries, raising money to fund litigation. As was the case in many Southern states, Democrats controlled Texas politics, and so almost all elections were determined at the primary level. By denying minority voters the right to participate in the primary, the Democratic party effectively disenfranchised them. The NAACP started challenging this in 1927, but the fight took almost two decades. “We won it before the Supreme Court. But Texas didn’t believe it, so they ignored it,” Craft remembered during a 1979 interview. The Supreme Court’s 1932 ruling that Texas Democrats could not exclude Black voters wasn’t enforced until twelve years later. “The third time we went back to the Supreme Court they gave up. This time we got the decision: April 4th, 1944,” she added, referring to the historic Smith v. Allwright case from Harris County.
That same year, Craft made history of her own, becoming the first Black woman in Dallas to vote in a public election. Two years later, she became the first Black woman to be deputized as a poll tax collector, which allowed her to register new voters (from 1902 until 1966, Texans had to pay a poll tax in order to be eligible to vote). Craft worked feverishly. “I used to take my book and go into the pool halls and the restaurants and the sorority meetings and fraternity meetings, wherever I thought I could find a person who was breathing, I would try and sell him a poll tax receipt,” she recalled. She joined demonstrations against the segregation of the University of Texas Law School, as well as at what was then North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas). During this time Craft also served as an NAACP field organizer, and began traveling across the state, and even into Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Craft bought the Wheatley Place bungalow after her husband died in 1950, and she continued her activism there. By then she had organized the Youth Council, and had established herself as someone who worked well with young people, which she would do for the rest of her life. In 1954 she talked a local high school graduate named Joe Atkins into applying to North Texas State College; when he was denied admission because of his race, the NAACP sued, which led to the school’s desegregation in 1955. That same year, Craft organized the boycott against the State Fair of Texas (though it took eleven years of picketing before the fair would desegregate itself), and helped organize protests against whites-only restaurants and businesses around town. She served as a precinct chairman for the Democratic party for 23 years, starting in 1952. In the 1960s, she helped dismantle fraudulent trade schools that were exploiting Black youth, for which she became the first Black woman to receive Dallas’s prestigious Linz Award. She was invited to the White House twice by Kennedy, once by Johnson, and once, in 1975, by Richard Nixon, so she could receive an award from the National Association of Retired Persons, though at 73 she showed little sign of slowing down. A few weeks later she announced her candidacy for Dallas City Council, and served two terms before retiring in 1979, citing arthritis. “I would feel embarrassed if I had to start out of the city council chambers sometime and couldn’t make it out,” she told interviewers that year.
She continued to work as a community leader into her eighties, serving on various boards and committees, giving lectures, and keeping her Wheatley Place home always open as a haven for young people until her death in 1985. “This is a very humble house, but there are a lot of people in this city who have been to this house,” Craft told interviewers in 1979. “Now I meet grown women with children [who say], ‘Mrs. Craft, do you remember when we used to have parties in your backyard?’”
Craft’s legacy in Dallas looms large. Two miles from her home are a park and recreation center named in her honor, with a post office not far from that. Her Wheatley Place bungalow was eventually designated a historic landmark by the National Park Service. Since then it has served as a museum, which is undergoing an extensive $1.4 million renovation, with much-needed repairs to the nearly 100-year-old structure, and an expansion of the educational and community programs. Fund-raising efforts and construction are still underway, but the hope is that within a couple of years the house will once again serve as a community hub—and a celebration of Dallas’s contributions to the national civil rights movement.