Juanita J. Craft fought tirelessly for desegregation, especially in schools. Her battle to ensure every Black person had the same rights as the rest of the country proves she’s more than deserving of the title heroine.
By Jess Bugg, Photos courtesy of the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House
Celebrating women of color and the contributions they have made to this country should be a year-round endeavor. However, Februay offers us a designated moment of reflection. We celebrate Juanita J. Craft, a legend of Black History Month and heroine of Texas.
Juanita Craft was born Juanita Jewel Shanks in 1902 in Round Rock, Texas. She was the granddaughter of slaves and the only child of educators David Sylvestus and Eliza Balfour Shanks. In 1919, she attended Prairie View A&M University where she studied sewing and hat-making before eventually moving to Austin where she received her teaching certificate from Samuel Huston College. In the years that followed, Craft worked as a maid at a hotel and as a seamstress.
According to Women in Texas History, the death of her mother greatly affected Craft. Her mother’s suffered from tuberculosis, but in the deeply segregated Texas, she was refused hospital treatment. In 1935 Craft joined the NAACP and in 1942 became the Dallas NAACP membership chairman. She eventually became the Texas NAACP field organizer and for 11 years, organized dozens of branches of the NAACP. She also organized the Dallas NAACP Youth Council and was the first Black woman to vote in Dallas County.
Juanita Craft Civil Rights House
In 1950 Craft moved to an area of Dallas where racial tension was high. (There were 11 bombings in the surrounding area during a single year.) Despite this, her home became a meeting place for Black youth. Craft offered guidance and education on civil rights issues. Supreme Court Justice and civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall and the likes of Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, among others visited her home.
Craft was a tireless advocate for desegregation. In 1955 she organized a protest of the Texas State Fair. She fought against its policy of only allowing Black patrons on “Negro Achievement Day.”
She was involved in protests against segregated colleges, lunch counters, theaters and public transportation and also helped open the University of Texas and North Texas State College to Black students. Craft became a monumental figure in the Civil Rights Movement. She served two terms on the Dallas City Council and held leadership positions in local, state and national civil rights organizations. Craft also received many honors during her life. Among them, the prestigious Linz Award in 1969 for ending fraudulent recruiting by Dallas trade schools and the NAACP Golden Heritage Life Membership Award in 1978. Shortly before her passing in 1985, she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award.
The home she once lived in, located in South Dallas, is now the Juanita J. Craft Civil Rights House & Museum and is part of Dallas’ Wheatley Place Historic District. A recreation center, a city park as well as a U.S. Post office were all named in her honor.