With the second-largest African American population in Texas, Dallas became a regional center for black political and cultural activism. African Americans made up a significant percentage of the population and even under segregation wielded clout. In 1900, African Americans accounted for 21 percent of Dallas's residents. In the 1920s, the black population dropped to 11 percent due to increasing white migration into Dallas. It was not until the 1970s that African Americans again made up more than 20 percent of the city's population. During that decade, black residents accounted for nearly 30 percent of the population, largely due to white suburban flight.
Women provided leadership for some of the earliest African American civic organizations, which often aimed at racial uplift and promoted cultural refinement rather than explicit political activism. In 1911, black women organized the Priscilla Art Club under the slogan “Art and Beauty, Home and Duty.” Leaders of such clubs typically were the wives of political, religious, or business leaders who brought a well-educated, middle-class sensibility to their volunteer work. Sometimes condescending, the membership acted as cultural missionaries to the poor. Nevertheless, they served as a bridge between economic classes and helped build a more unified African American community during the civil rights struggle between the 1930s and the 1970s.
Active church members, such as Barbara M. James, played key roles in bringing the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) to African American neighborhoods. Founded in 1928, Dallas's segregated YWCA chapter provided classes in domestic engineering, English, home nursing, and sex education. The YWCA served as a social hub, one of the few places black girls could hold meetings or social events. The segregated Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), founded in 1930, offered similar programs for the city's black men and boys and, during the Great Depression, provided job registration and employment services.
More explicit political activism was needed, however, by the early and mid-1920s, when a revived Ku Klux Klan took over city and county government. A Dallas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formed at the end of World War I but declined in the 1920s from an enrollment of one thousand in 1919. Black political activism revived during the late 1930s, largely due to the efforts of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce.
The Negro Chamber of Commerce was founded in November 1926, after the Dallas chapter of Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League (NNBL), originally formed in 1904, split from the national organization. Criticizing the NNBL for lack of leadership, one hundred black Dallasites launched the Chamber of Commerce. By the late 1930s, the Chamber evolved into a major force in municipal politics.
A. Maceo Smith, a Texarkana, Texas, native who moved to Dallas in 1933, led this transformation. Between 1933 and 1939, Smith served as executive secretary of the Negro Chamber of Commerce, expanding the groups membership. Smith urged African American voters to pay poll taxes and supported voter registration to increase black influence in local elections.
Under the leadership of Smith, the Negro Chamber of Commerce organized an “Education for Citizenship” week that resulted in the formation of the Progressive Citizens' League (PCL) in 1934. The PCL mobilized the
Dallas: Civic, literary, and Mutual Aid Associations