The crowd burst into spontaneous applause when Betty Kimble, Ruby Cole, Dorothy Minter and Alma Clark approached the mural of their likenesses.
Foundation of Our History, which depicts Kimble, Cole, Minter, Clark and the late Alice Alexander, was first painted on the exterior of Willie’s Fantastic Sales. When the business’s owner sold the building, the consignment shop and junk hauling operation owner Willie Hudspeth and city officials discussed having it repainted.
Thursday evening, city leaders and locals gathered at the repainted mural under the Union Pacific railroad bridge at Robertson Street and Bell Avenue. The intersection is an entrance to Southeast Denton, the neighborhood where the city’s Black residents settled after they were forcibly expelled from Quakertown, a thriving and middle-class Black neighborhood, in the 1920s.
Clark, Kimble, Cole, Minter and Alexander all bridged the eras of racial segregation and desegregation in Denton.
Minter was a special education administrator for the Denton school district, and Alexander was among Denton teachers who made the transition from segregated to desegregated schools. Denton ISD renamed a school for Alexander.
After having run East McKinney Mini Market with her husband, Cole retired a successful businesswoman. Clark and Kimble were both community activists who spearheaded massive changes for Southeast Denton and beyond.
A different time
The four women have all lived in Denton for decades. Minter, 88, has lived in Denton for 66 years. Kimble is a Denton native, and Cole was born in Denton County and moved to the city of Denton as a child. Clark moved to Denton in 1962.
All the women recall how segregation touched their lives. In school, they used discarded books from white schools. Book covers swung in tatters and pages were missing. The district’s Black school had an ill equipped science room, and Cole still remembers a fetus preserved in formaldehyde on a table.
“We weren’t allowed in the library,” Minter said. “So we had to use whatever books were given to us.”
There was a bookmobile, though, and Kimble said she and her peers flocked to the mobile library to check out as many books as they could.
“In a way, we weren’t really deprived,” Kimble said. “We had good teachers, good nurses and doctors. School was over at the end of the school day. The teachers would come to our homes to see how we were doing, to help us where we needed it.”
The women learned to lend a helping hand early in their lives. Clark, 93, grew up in Lampasas and attended school in a one-room schoolhouse.
“I was a decent reader,” Clark said. “There were students several grades ahead of me who weren’t good readers. The students who were good readers would sit with them and teach them and help them. For me, we had hand-me-down books from working in white people’s homes. Good books, too.”
As teens and young women, they experienced the well-known indignities of segregation — having to enter businesses using side or back doors, and using separate public accommodations.
“At the courthouse here in Denton, we could use the bathroom, but you were only allowed to use one particular stall,” Minter said. “There was always someone in there working to make sure you used the right one.”
There were also practices that many aren’t familiar with.
“You’d go into a dress shop and they wouldn’t let you try on any of the dresses,” Clark said. “They’d measure your shoulders to tell you what size dress you could buy, but you couldn’t try them on. Same with the hats. But you understood about the hats of course, because of the oil in your hair. But the dresses, that didn’t make sense.”
Kimble said Denton’s Black residents found ways to thrive in the face of legal and cultural limitations.
“We succeeded in spite of those things,” Minter said. “In spite of all of that, we made a way for ourselves and our community.”
As they grew up, married and had families, the women found ways to challenge a status quo poisoned by white supremacy. Minter worked in special education for the school district and advocated for students who were left behind or overlooked. Cole and her husband built their business selling groceries and a particular kind of neighborhood welcome.
“We sold these cookies, pretty big cookies for 5 cents,” Cole recalled. “You know, there were some children who didn’t have the money, and we gave them cookies anyway. They would come to the store with their friends. I couldn’t imagine giving one child a cookie and not their friend.”
Southeast Denton shoppers would stop in for necessities and to share news. Cole said the Mini Market was its own kind of community center.
“I remember a lady telling me she couldn’t drive down McKinney Street with her little boy in his seat, because he’d kick his legs and holler ‘Let’s go see Johnny! I want to see Johnny!’” Cole said. Johnny was her husband and business partner.
The women said a longtime local university professor, Roosevelt Washington, told them he was troubled by Black students who weren’t quite ready for college coursework. Clark and her church friends found out “by word of mouth” which students from their neighborhood needed tutoring, and they organized tutoring for them.
Minter worked with students who were far behind their grade level, using her special education training to benefit them.
“You feel really proud when you see a young person succeed. I worked with a young lady who was really struggling. She was reading on a third grade level. I took her back to the first grade level and we worked together. She graduated high school and went to college,” Minter said. “Sometimes, what a young person needs is for someone to stand up for them and their parents.”
Clark and Kimble worked with the Denton Christian Women’s Interracial Fellowship to pave the roads in Southeast Denton.
“We walked all of these streets, the muddy streets,” Clark said. “We walked all of these streets, and I wore galoshes. I still have those galoshes.”
Clark also worked to bring city services to the neighborhood.
“I was so shocked that in 1962 the men had a burn bin for trash,” Clark said.
Kimble recalls venturing to the Holiday Inn dining room with the late mayor Euline Brock, when they worked with the Fellowship to desegregate dining rooms and restaurants.
“I was so nervous,” Kimble said. “But they were very kind to us, and they did serve us.”
Cole, Clark, Kimble and Minter all worked on a campaign to clean up the neighborhood and Fred Moore Park, which in the late 1970s was littered with trash and broken glass. They worked with a beloved police chief and the interracial fellowship to clean up parts of their neighborhood each Saturday.
“The attorney, L.A. Nelson, really helped us, and his wife [the late Martha Len Nelson] and her mother would come and set out food for us all as we cleaned.”
The efforts to improve the neighborhood eventually led to Denton winning a national award for community policing. They were about to board a plane to New Orleans to accept their award when the airline reminded the police that they couldn’t board with their firearms unless they were traveling with someone they’d apprehended.
“I told the chief to go ahead and put the cuffs on me,” Cole said.
Humbled and honored
The women said they were surprised to learn that local educator Margaret Neale and longtime Denton businessman and activist Willie Hudspeth had lobbied to put them on a mural. Minter admitted that it took her a few months to go see the first mural when it was completed. Kimble had forgotten about it when it was first painted in 2019.
“People kept telling me ‘I saw your picture over on Willie’s place.’ And I was like ‘Picture? What picture?’” Kimble said.
All the women said they were most pleased to see Alice Alexander’s image on the mural. Cole said that when she was growing up, Alexander was every neighborhood child’s first grade teacher.
“She was such a kind woman,” Cole said. “She used to pick me and my brother up and take us to her house on the weekends. We’d stay all weekend.”
“She was the kindest woman all of us knew,” Clark said.
“She was like a mother to so many,” Minter said.
Minter said the women don’t consider themselves exemplary.
“All these ladies are good friends,” she said. “They are good to their families, good to the community and they’re all Christian women.”
“I’ve helped people all my life because I love doing it,” Kimble said. “It’s who I am. Who we all are, I think.”
When the women walked toward the bridge on Thursday, each lifted a hand and bowed their head to the applauding crowd. They sat together and listened to Mayor Gerard Hudspeth, Police Chief Frank Dixon and Willie Hudspeth list their “unsung” commitment to their community.
Rev. Cedric Chambers, pastor of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, said he learned that the four women and Alexander had paid a debt past repayment for their city.
“When I listened to these women talk abut the things they’ve lived through, I thought they reminded me of redwood trees,” Chambers said. “You see, the things that burn up other trees make a redwood tree stronger. When a redwood tree catches on fire, something happens. They release seeds to the ground.
“These women have been through the fire,” Chambers said. “The fire didn’t destroy them. They released their seeds down to the ground. You are the people who have caught those seeds. They are the redwood trees, and the fire didn’t burn them up.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at