A longtime Italy resident has taken steps to restore the "Colored City Hall" building that shuttered in 1965.
Elmerine Allen Bell was most recently granted a historical marker from the Texas Historical Commission through the Untold Stories program.
Bell sat at a small wooden table at the S.M. Dunlap Library in Italy with "Daily Light" newspaper clippings and a distressed "Ebony" magazine as she detailed the history of the Colored City Hall and the reason behind the establishment of the Italy Colored Council.
She began with a photo captured by Dallas photographer R.C. Hickman who was present at the dedication of the Italy “Colored City Hall” in 1953.
Hickman, who worked for "The Star-Post" Dallas newspaper, described the assignment he received via telegram and wrote, “This colored city hall was out in a field in the Black community. No paved streets, just in a field,” according to the history of Jim Crow website.
That lack of infrastructure was, coincidentally, the reason behind the establishment of the Italy Colored Council.
Bell is a former activist for equal rights, a historian and preservationist who was raised in Italy. She later graduated from Stafford School in 1963 before integration occurred. Bell conducted research that found the Colored City Hall conjured because the Black community felt it had been overlooked by the mayor and city council. A group of Black leaders formed and met with the then-all-white city council, which led to the establishment of the Colored City Hall on Poplar Street.
“A group of African American gentlemen, some who could trace their families ties and names to Ellis County plantations of the 1850s and 1860s, met in a small building on Poplar Street to strategize how to present their requests to Italy city leaders,” Bell said.
The Black community of Italy consisted of Hardeman, Williams and Harris Streets and the southern half of Poplar and Clark Streets. Bell said this area had been dubbed, “The Hill.” Residents in this area did not have running water, a sewage system, nor available street lighting.
“We didn’t get plumbing until 1961 until they built the school,” Bell elaborated. “I went and used an outhouse until I was 16 years old.”
Elections for both city councils were held at the same time, and all residents could vote on both ballots. In the first election for a colored city council, the people elected John Henry Farrow as mayor, Nelton Tarrant as secretary, and James “Jim” Hardeman, Matthew Sweatt, Walter Smith, Edd Lee Lewis and William Costonia Jennings as aldermen.
"Ebony," a monthly magazine marketed toward the Black market has printed since 1945 and reported 1,000 white people and 400 Black people comprised the City of Italy in 1951. A cutline under the building where black city council meetings were held read, “Negro council meeting are held in this small 8 feet by 12 feet building in the center of the colored section of Italy. Of Italy’s colored population of 400, some 95 percent are homeowners and 60 percent pay poll taxes so that they can vote.”
The Black mayor, John Farrow, along with six councilmen were featured in the March 1951 edition of Ebony magazine under the headline, “Texas’ First Negro Mayor.”
In 1953, the City of Italy constructed a building on Williams Street with a sign, which read, “Colored City Hall.” It was Hickman who captured the dedication ceremony of this building that later became obsolete around 1965.
The Texas Historical Commission granted Bell a historical marker, which was received in November 2018 that has been stored at the Italy Public Works building until it can be adequately installed this summer.
“The City of Italy needs some partners," Bell said. "We are a small municipality, and we need some help in getting this building restored. All we are doing is trying to add a bathroom to the back. We aren’t trying to make it any bigger.”
The building will have to be removed from the foundation so it can be elevated to prevent flooding. The plan is to transform it into a museum to highlight the men who lived in Italy on “The Hill.”
"In order to restore the original 1953 building and create a museum in which to share documents, memorabilia, photos and oral histories, requires up to $50,000," Bell explained.
Donations to the Italy Colored City Hall Restoration Project can be sent to the City of Italy, Texas, 161 West Main St., P.O. Box 840, Italy, Texas 76651.
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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450