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Changing her community for the better: Juanita Craft's life-long fight for equality left an impact on Dallas

Juanita Craft was the first Black woman to vote in a public election in Dallas County and served more than 50 years with the Dallas chapter of the NAACP.
Credit: Dallas Municipal Archives

DALLAS — No matter the roadblocks or reasons she shouldn't have been able to, Juanita Craft lived a life built around bringing equality for the Black community in Dallas.

Craft was not only the first Black woman in Dallas County to vote in a public election, but she also served more than 50 years with the Dallas chapter of the NAACP.

Early life

Juanita Jewel Shanks Craft was born in February of 1902.

While she was a granddaughter of slaves, Craft was an only child of schoolteachers David Sylvestus and Eliza Balfour Shanks.

Credit: Juanita Craft

Her mother, Shanks, died from tuberculosis after being refused treatment because there were no state hospitals for Black Texans.

Even after getting her teaching certificate from Samuel Huston College, now known as Huston-Tillotson University, Craft had to work as a maid at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas and later as a seamstress.

However, it didn't take long for things to change not only for Craft but for the city she called home.

Changing Dallas for the better

In 1935, Craft joined the Dallas chapter of the NAACP. It only took her seven years to become the chapter's membership chair.

By the 1940s, Craft was organizing multiple branches of the NAACP and had created the Dallas NAACP Youth Council, which became a model for chapters across the country.

After the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Craft tried to enroll Black students at both the University of Texas and the North Texas State College (now North Texas State University). This sparked a battle inevitably won in court.

Craft also led a group of youth council members who formed a picket line, protesting segregation at the State Fair of Texas. She wanted African Americans to be able to fully participate in the fair for more than one day.

Credit: Juanita Craft Papers, the R.C. Hickman Photographic Archive, and the Briscoe Center
Members of the NAACP Youth Council picket in front of the State Fair of Texas in October 1955.

It didn't stop at the fair, as Craft took part in sit-ins at many establishments and pushed back in places where she knew she wouldn’t be served.

Craft was a two-term Dallas City Councilwoman in the 1970s, spending much of her time fighting for equal rights for Hispanics and Native Americans.

She received many awards for her efforts in the Civil Rights Movement, including the NAACP Golden Heritage Life Membership Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award.

Credit: Dallas Municipal Archives

In 1985, the NAACP national chapter awarded Craft for serving fifty years with the organization.

That same year, at the age 83, Craft passed away in Dallas and was buried in Austin.

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Craft's legacy in North Texas

After Craft's death in 1985, the Juanita Craft Foundation was created to sustain her ideas and beliefs. 

Craft's name can be found throughout Dallas. There is a U.S. post office in southeast Dallas as well as a recreation center in East Dallas.

Craft's home on Warren Avenue in South Dallas is now the Juanita J. Craft Civil Rights House, where you can learn about her life-long fight to bring equality to her community.