Juanita Jewell Shanks Craft
Juanita Jewell Shanks Craft was born in 1902 in Round Rock. Both of her parents were teachers and her father became the high school principal in Columbus, Texas.
She and her mother moved to Austin where she attended Anderson High School until she had to put her education on hold when her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis but was unable to be admitted to the state sanitarium in San Angelo due to discriminatory policies. They lived in a tent near the hospital while Juanita pleaded with the staff to treat her, but her mother passed. At that point she went to live with her father in Columbus and graduated in 1919.
She then attended Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M) where she earned her certificate in millinery and dressmaking.
She returned to Austin and earned her teaching certificate at Sam Huston College, returning to Columbus to teach kindergarten.
She moved to Dallas after divorcing her first husband, and she initially worked as a maid at the Adolphus Hotel and was later able to rent out her home to boarders. Working in the hotel let her meet famous people, one of the most notable being Eleanor Roosevelt. They became friends, and it was actually Eleanor who encouraged Juanita to become politically active.
Remembering how her mother had been denied medical care drove her to ensure that others would have the rights they deserved.
In 1935 she joined the Dallas NAACP. She helped to sign up new members and was appointed membership chairman in 1942. As the Dallas branch had over 7,000 members by 1946, it’s easy to see how she impressed the state leaders and was appointed organizer for the entire state.
This was also the same time she became the first African American woman in Dallas to vote in the Democratic primary and was the first African American woman in Texas to be deputized to collect poll taxes.
She was also appointed advisor to the Dallas NAACP Youth Council. Her work with children to encourage their parents to register to vote became the model for the whole country.
The 1950s brought political and social changes for Dallas and Texas. There was only one day that Black people were allowed to go to the State Fair called Negro Achievement Day. For twelve years, from 1955 to 1967, she worked with Dallas youth to boycott that day and not attend the fair except to march and picket. Eventually desegregation allowed them to attend the fair any day they wished.
She took on school desegregation in 1956 where Thurgood Marshall was co-counsel. Joe L. Atkins wanted to attend college at North Texas State, but was denied and she encouraged him to file a suit. While his case was in court, Joe became the first African American to attend college at Texas Western in El Paso. Even though he won his lawsuit, he never attended North Texas State and continued his education at Texas Western.
That same year, Texas NAACP’s very existence was threatened. The Attorney General wanted to close it down, but was fought in court. The trial was held in Tyler, about 100 miles from where Juanita was living. The issue was that there weren’t any hotels for their attorneys to stay in, as the hotels in Tyler were still segregated. So, she drove the NAACP attorneys back and forth to Tyler every day. 200 miles each day.
She then worked through the 1960’s to help desegregate theaters, restaurants, city buses and even lunch counters by getting youth groups involved and picketing those places.
In 1963 she went to the White House to meet President Kennedy in order for him to acknowledge her work with the NAACP. She was invited back by President Johnson in 1966 for a civil rights conference and then in 1970 President Nixon invited her there for a third time to attend the White House Conference for Children.
Juanita Craft was a Democratic precinct chairman from 1952 to 1975 and served two terms on the Dallas City Council between 1975 and 1979. She was a member of the Munger Avenue Baptist Church, the Democratic Women's Club, the YWCA, the League of Women Voters, and the National Council of Negro Women. She participated on numerous local, state, and national boards, including those of the Urban League of Greater Dallas, Goals for Dallas, Dallas United Nations, the Governor's Human Relations Committee, and the NAACP. During her fifty years of public service she received the Linz Award, Dallas's highest civic award, the NAACP Golden Heritage Life Membership Award.
She became more involved in politics when she ran for the vacated seat in District 6 seat in Dallas City County at the age of 73, then the next year she ran and won a full term, serving until 1978.
She received many honors in the last decade of her life. Dallas named the Juanita Jewel Craft Park & Recreation Center for her. She also received the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for public service.
The Juanita Craft Foundation was created the last year of her life and when she passed in 1985 the foundation donated her small home on Warren Street to the Dallas Parks & Recreation Department. Then, ten years after her death, her house became part of the Wheatley Place Historic District and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1985 the NAACP also recognized her fifty years of service to the organization.