If you knew Clifton Street as they did

By: John Young, Waco Tribune-Herald

Directions and perceptions being what they are, there’s no changing a few things.

The north part of town will always be East Waco. Elm Avenue will always be called Elm Street. And what so many old-timers called the Old Dallas Highway is now and will always be Clifton Street, or least one special part of it.

Yes, that part was always Clifton Street. But for generations it also was the highway headed north out of town.

Today a person can live a lifetime in Waco and not pass through the part of East Waco Cullen Harris knew so well as a child.

Not only was Clifton Street the way to and from Dallas, it was also the access point to our city for the Interurban train.

With that kind of traffic, you can imagine that Clifton Street was one heck of a lively place.

Too lively sometimes.

"I saw an individual killed in every way you can kill somebody by the time I was 6,” said Harris, a former Waco City Council member and justice of the peace.

The violence he recalls wasn’t because of Harris’ East Waco neighbors. It was because of revelers and travelers, including servicemen who came when their throats were dry.

Much of his childhood was in a shotgun house at 509 Clifton. That is, until the family moved a few blocks to more serene and safe environs just off Elm.

Clifton Street back in the ’40s and ’50s was a veritable entertainment row. Nightclubs like the Golden Lilly, Reed’s Hot Spot and Jack’s Paradise kept customers lubricated. Places like Mary Harrell’s Cafe and Friday’s Cafe kept them fed.

Back then East Waco was racially stratified, but not the way it is now. Hard to believe for some, but in Harris’ memory, and through World War II, East Waco was all-white from the river to Garrison Street. Starting at Garrison and the oldest all-African American college west of the Mississippi, Paul Quinn, it was all-black.

Within this, Clifton Street was a place of more race mixing than most of racially exclusive Waco where black people knew they’d better not be seen after dark.

Ironically, one of the most popular dining places for whites was Mary Harrell’s on Clifton Street. Ironic, because Harrell was black, but served whites only, Harris said.

Back then "there weren’t too many cars in the black community,” he recalled. "But on Fridays there were cars up and down the street” to eat at Mary Harrell’s.

A contrast was the popular Friday’s Cafe, which was black-owned and served everyone.

"Segregation was a one-way street,” Harris said. Most black businesses, he meant, would take anyone’s business.

Still strong in the local consciousness those days were memories of slavery and plantations. In fact, though Harris can’t prove it, one of the most prominent landmarks — the tall stone marker at the "split” between Clifton and Gholson Road — is presumed to demarcate the entrance of an old plantation.

Ancient history, yes. But like a highway, history is a conveyance to destinations.

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