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Courthouse Work Opens Doors on Painful Past

September 14, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

PAMPA, Texas — For Willie Nickelberry, a black man who came of age during the 1950s, segregation was once a fact of life. But at age 65, living in a tidy wood-frame house in an integrated neighborhood here in the Texas Panhandle, Nickelberry thought the days of Jim Crow were well behind him. So it was a shock when he recently toured the newly restored Gray County Courthouse and saw two restroom doors bearing the freshly painted words "Colored Men" and "Colored Women," plain as day.

To the Texas Historical Commission, which restored the doors during a $5-million renovation of the old courthouse, the lettering was part of their history, reminders of a past that should never be repeated. To Nickelberry, they were a slap in the face. "Anyone who endured segregation doesn't need to be reminded of it, especially in a public building like a courthouse," he said. "If it's history, put it in a museum."

Facing increasing pressure from Pampa's black community, the county removed the lettering last week, hoping to wipe out the controversy with a rag soaked with paint remover. But for older black residents, an unsettled feeling remained, the memory of past wrongs and the old, familiar sting of humiliation. "It was terrible that they put up those signs," said 82-year-old Earsell Hopkins. "Why bring all of that up now?"

No one intended to dredge up painful memories for residents, said Gray County Commissioner Joe Wheeley. Three years ago, the commissioners had a simple idea: Apply for state grant money to help restore the graceful Beaux-arts-style courthouse, which was badly in need of repairs.

Completed in 1930, its walls hid a hazardous maze of frayed wiring and creaky plumbing. Computers and copy machines regularly overloaded the circuits. On the county's wish list was central air conditioning that would replace 23 window units installed through the years against the harsh Texas sun; and a central heating system to replace the sputtering steam boiler in the basement.

Under a program created in 1999 to help preserve 225 Texas courthouses, the state Historical Commission agreed to provide $3.8 million to Gray County's renovation effort. The county would contribute $1.5 million. In came an army of architects, who marveled at the ornate molding and carved rosettes hidden under multiple layers of paint. Out went 70 years of quick, cheap fixes. Skilled craftsmen patiently replicated period woodwork while construction crews replastered the deteriorating walls.

Wheeley was with an architect when he stepped behind a stairwell one day to examine two doors that had hung, nearly hidden, since 1930. The doors opened into what had once been men's and women's bathrooms, but which now serve as a storage room and tiny office for the maintenance staff. The architect smoothed a hand over the cracked and faded lettering and made out the words "Colored Men" and "Colored Women."

"He was all excited and said, 'That's history right here,' " recalled Wheeley. "He said, 'We've got to preserve that.' No one really remembered it was there because it was behind the stairs."

Alongside the repainted black lettering, the state commission planned to place an "interpretive plaque" to explain the historic significance of the doors. But the plaque was not yet mounted this summer when residents toured the refurbished building. A black resident noticed the writing, and in this small farming community it didn't take long for word to spread. At a county commissioners' meeting this month, a handful of residents asked that the signs be removed.

"They said it reminded them of the days where black people weren't treated like white people," said County Commissioner Gerald Wright. "Since it offended people and the courthouse belongs to the people, then we thought maybe the best thing to do is remove it, but it wasn't our call."

Commissioners ordered that the signs be covered with paper until the Texas Historical Commission decided what to do. Days before another county meeting, which residents had planned to swarm with protesters, the state responded.

"The original signs were important artifacts, reminders of the past whether or not they were pleasant, and can be used to constructively teach future generations valuable lessons about civil rights and social progress," Historical Commission spokeswoman Heather McBride said Thursday. However, she said that in this situation the commission was deferring to the judgment of Gray County officials.

Though the lettering is gone now, "it's not a victory for either side. It never should have been done in the first place," said Bea Taylor, 55, who was one of the first black students to attend Pampa High School.

"When they thought about restoring the courthouse, they didn't think about the emotional consequences of what they were doing. With something so sensitive, you should be careful, especially in a public place, especially in a small town. You may think it's history, but to us it's hurtful."

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