Beyond “The Umbrella Academy”: The Real Life Heroine Behind Desegregation in Dallas

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For fans of the popular Netflix series and comic book adaptation, The Umbrella Academy, season two, finds the Hargreeves children in an entirely different time and place since time-traveler Number Five used his powers to save them from an impending apocalypse. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that the Hargreeves are now living in the early 1960s in Dallas, Texas.

For one of the characters, Allison, who is a Black woman, the change is deeply traumatic, as illustrated by her entrance into a whites-only restaurant in downtown Dallas. Eventually she finds her way to a Black-owned beauty salon and becomes a civil rights activist. A sit-in protesting segregation at that same Dallas restaurant becomes a major plot point throughout the season.

Though The Umbrella Academy takes place at a particular slice of time just ahead of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, organized demonstrations against segregation had been taking place in Dallas and the rest of the country for years. After four Black college students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat at a whites-only lunch counter in a Woolworth’s in Greensboro on February 1, 1960, organized restaurant sit-ins staged by high school and college students occurred throughout the country.  

For those looking to learn more about Dallas and desegregation, one of its most impactful figures was Juanita Craft. A granddaughter of slaves, she went on to become a trailblazing figure in Dallas history before being elected to the city council in the 1970s.

Juanita Shanks was born in Round Rock, Texas in 1902, the only child of David Sylvestus Shanks and Eliza Balfour Shanks. Her parents were teachers, and her father would ultimately become a principal. When she was just sixteen, her mother died from tuberculosis after a hospital in San Angelo, Texas refused to provide medical treatment because of her race.

Craft attended Prairie View College and Samuel Houston College, and would later teach kindergarten and work as a drugstore clerk at a pharmacy in Galveston. She moved to Dallas in 1925. Though college-educated, she had to take a job as a maid at the Adolphus Hotel. She married Johnnie Edward Craft in 1937.

The trajectory of Craft’s life, and that of Dallas, changed when she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1935. Craft held a number of positions with the organization: membership chair, field organizer, and Dallas NAACP youth advisor. The Dallas youth council would serve as a foundation nationwide for other chapters.

Through her activism in the NAACP, Craft began fighting for a more equitable Dallas. Though the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which provided women the right to vote in 1920, is celebrated this year, it did not provide the same right to vote for many Black, Brown and Indigenous women, who were prevented from voting by local laws. For example, in Texas, the Democratic Party required all voters in its primary to be white. A Black dentist, Dr. Lonnie Smith, sued the election official of Harris County for this discriminatory policy. 

The case Smith v. Allwright was argued in the Supreme Court in 1944 by then NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Executive Director Thurgood Marshall. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that the Texas Democratic Party’s discrimination against Black voters violated both the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. 

In Dallas and elsewhere in Texas, organizers like Craft went to work. According to the NAACP, the number of Black Americans who registered to vote in the South increased to over 700,000 in 1948, and then passed one million in 1952. Juanita Craft became the first Black woman to vote in Dallas County in 1944.

When Johnnie Craft passed away in 1950. Juanita moved to a small home in south Dallas. To make ends meet she worked as a seamstress. Even after enduring personal hardship, she never left the civil rights movement in Dallas.

One of her biggest contributions to Dallas involved desegregating The State Fair of Texas. Since 1889, the popular annual fair, which attracts visitors throughout the country, designated only one day of the weeks-long festival as “Negro Day.” Starting in 1955, Craft worked with the NAACP youth council to stage peaceful protests around the fairgrounds, located not far from her home in south Dallas.

On the designated “Negro Day,” students arrived with picket signs. Ultimately the event was scrapped in 1961. The Texas State Fair was fully desegregated in 1967. When Craft died in 1985, her memorial service was held at the prestigious Hall of State at Fair Park.

Craft’s work with the youth council continued past the State Fair as more institutions around Dallas began dismantling their segregationist policies. As scenes from The Umbrella Academy capture, that process was often violent and harrowing.

Throughout her life, Craft maintained a steadfast commitment to civic engagement. She helped lead the NAACP youth council through sit-ins at Dallas restaurants and at North Texas State University (now known as The University of North Texas). Craft also served as a Democratic precinct chair for over twenty years. In 1975, when she was 72, Craft won a local election to serve on the Dallas City Council. She was re-elected in 1977.

The Juanita Craft Home in south Dallas was designated a Dallas landmark in 1999. Both Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. visited her there. It is just one of three public museum houses dedicated to female civil rights leaders in our country. Maintained by the National Park Service, it’s normally open by appointment, but COVID-19 has circumvented those procedures.

The Dallas Public Library maintains an immersive collection of Craft’s personal items, including a memory book from Prairie View College and a delegate listing from the 1976 DNC Convention, where Craft served as a delegate.

Unlike Allison Hargreeves, Juanita Craft had no superpowers. But she was an enormously influential figure in Dallas history. The legacy she left for Dallas is undeniable, and fans of The Umbrella Academy can now appreciate a real-life heroine and activist who lived in Dallas.

Photo: Schlesinger Library/Wikimedia Commons

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