For Bennett Curtis, black history mattered, too.
She was “the keeper of the clippings” who generously shared her priceless collection of Bell County’s African-Americans — history that will live long after her.
Curtis, who died June 11 at age 88, left scrapbooks and memorabilia to the Temple Public Library and the Bell County Museum — a treasure trove of undertold and long-forgotten history.
Former museum director Stephanie Turnham was saddened to learn of Curtis’ death.
“She was known as the ‘Keeper of Temple’s Black History.’ I think Bennett's love for history — black businesses, churches, schools and families — was a testament to her desire to fiercely protect the memory of Temple's black citizens for future generations in a rapidly changing world,” Turnham said. “She wanted to make sure that present and future people knew about the accomplishments of individuals and organizations that some might have considered marginalized.”
Curtis became a living encyclopedia of Temple’s diverse and vibrant African-American community. The back room of her modest, neatly kept home on South 28th Street was filled memorabilia from the glory days of Temple’s all-black Dunbar High School. Three-ring binders were thick with newspaper clippings, vintage photographs and lists of people who all influenced the black culture in Temple.
Over the years, Curtis’ collection expanded to trophies from the all-black Dunbar High School, printed materials and photographs of Temple’s diverse black culture and its notable personages — such as businesswoman Cora Anderson, football standout Charles E. “Mean Joe” Greene, legendary high school football coach Curtis B. Elliott and physician Thomas Edison Dixon.
Curtis emphasized that Temple nurtured and developed many blacks who went on to accomplish much — professors, generals, national leaders, educators, physicians. Many of their stories were lost over time.
“I wanted to preserve the accomplishments African-Americans made under the segregated system,” she said in a 2012 interview.
While she continued to collect materials, Curtis graciously had opened her home to researchers and archivists. She also assisted with the creation of several Temple Public Library displays and a 2005 exhibit of Temple’s black business community at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum.
She began in July 2011 the arduous task of copying and organizing her mountains of materials with the help of Beatrice Kinard, a 1961 Dunbar graduate. Together they culled six scrapbooks full of priceless memorabilia — diplomas, newspaper clippings and football and reunion programs. The project started after Kinard and her grandson could not find information about Dunbar at the library in preparation for a reunion.
Finally, when Curtis turned 81, she said the time had come to make it available to all by donating her collection to the library and museum.
Current Bell County Museum Executive Director Coleman Hampton said her collection continues to be a valuable resource.
“Bennett Curtis served on the Bell County Museum Collections Committee for years and made numerous artifact donations in that time,” he said. “She donated 20 artifacts to the museum, including a football used at Temple Dunbar in the 1950s, and seven binders of research material for our museum library. Her passion for history and generous spirit will be missed.”
Bennett Vivian Bonner was the ninth of 10 children born to a rural farm family in 1931. Her mother died in 1938, when Bennett was nine years old. The family moved to Temple, where her father, an experienced carpenter, found work. The move opened up opportunities she would not have had in their farm community, especially when she enrolled in Dunbar High School, a well-regarded school.
Bell County, as was the rest of Texas, was tightly segregated as she vividly described “whites only” signs and segregated quarters. Her Dunbar teachers inspired her to push forward.
“We learned from our teachers that who you’re sitting with is not important. It’s the material you’re studying,” she said. “We had encouragement from each other and our teachers. They had the determination.”
She married Henry Lee Curtis (1928-2004) in 1950 and settled down to raise four children, but she still strived for more.
When Mary Hardin-Baylor College began accepting black students in 1965, she enrolled, eventually earning a sociology degree. She worked with the public school system before becoming an assistant manager at Sears, where she stayed for 14 years. There she formed lifelong friendships with co-workers of all racial backgrounds. They frequently gathered for visits even after her retirement.
She frequently quoted Booker T. Washington as she describes how Central Texas blacks struggled to succeed: train the head, the hands and the heart — meaning education would be the key to unlocking closed doors.
Curtis began collecting after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 spurred her to action. Her tools of choice became scissors and paste.
Deeply affected by JFK’s death, she started scrapbooks — first, stories about the events surrounding those terrible days. She then began preserving stories about all aspects of the Temple-area black community — businesses, schools, social clubs and prominent citizens. She tried to preserve precious memories that had been lost over time, partly because of black migration and desegregation.
Turnham believes the Curtis collection dispels common myths about Temple’s black community.
“Bennett’s collection proves that Temple’s African-American community was a thriving, vibrant one in which its members were close, protective, and productive,” Turnham said. “School teachers, principals, coaches and students at Dunbar, for example, enjoyed close relationships where character building and success were of utmost importance. Bennett knew this, and sought to protect that memory.”