Military influence has driven both diversity in population and the advancement of equal rights for African-Americans in Killeen since its founding in as a railroad town in 1882.
The town was named for Frank P. Killeen — a railroad official who served as assistant general manager in Galveston, according to the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce website. It is unknown whether Killeen ever set foot in the town that was named for him.
By 1886 the population reached 300, according to the chamber website, and slow but steady growth continued in Killeen throughout the next 50 years with the population reaching 1,265 by 1940.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 drove the need to develop Camp Hood as a military post to train soldiers in tank destroyer tactics, according to the chamber website.
Camp Hood, named for Confederate General John Bell Hood, covered 160,000 acres west and north of Killeen, causing many homesteaders to relocate because the post consumed so much farmland.
The Department of the Army declared Camp Hood a permanent military installation in 1950, when it became formally known as Fort Hood.
“From that day forward, the desire was to make Killeen the best town in the nation for military families to live,” states the chamber website. “This was done by developing the infrastructure of the community while encompassing the military as part of the Killeen family.”
Killeen saw a boost in population with the military presence and its numbers nearly quadrupled, reaching 7,045 by 1950 — but only 32 documented African-American residents.
The 761st Tank Battalion was stationed at Camp Hood, now known as Fort Hood, around 1942. They were comprised of six Caucasian officers and 30 African-American officers, and 676 enlisted soldiers, according to Army historical records.
But soldiers living on the military installation would not have been counted as residents of Killeen in the 1950 census, according to Sharon Lacey, chief historian at the census bureau.
Additionally, prior to 1980, Hispanic residents were counted as “white,” she said.
“In general, Hispanics and Middle Eastern Indian were all counted as ‘white’—it was up to the enumerator to make the determination,” Lacey said. “The options for the enumerator to select in 1950 were White, Black, American Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or other.”
While some door-to-door enumerators asked individuals to self-identify the race of the residents in the home, Lacey said there are some reports of enumerators making inaccurate assumptions — particularly in the case of multiracial families.
“In one instance I heard of, the enumerator assumed an entire family was black because the first person they spoke to was black,” Lacey said. “But the next time the census was collected, the same family was counted as white, because their spouse answered the door.”
The census has been updated to allow for people to self-identify and to identify as more than one race, Lacey said.
The census reports that in the year 2000, the population of Killeen had reached 91,016. By then, the number of African-American residents in Killeen was 29,109 or 33.49 percent, with 46.56 percent Caucasian and 17.69 percent Hispanic.
Most recently, the U.S. Census Bureau report from July 1, 2017, places the city’s population at about 140,513, with 37.1 percent African-American, 44.4 percent Caucasian residents, and 25.6 percent Hispanic.
An early African-American resident of Killeen, Melba Olean Davis, recalled the township was known as a “white man’s town.”
Othella Flake was the first African-American resident not affiliated with the military to move to Killeen in 1943, her niece Melba Olean Davis previously told the Herald.
Flake’s sister and brother-in-law, Osia and Richard Maze, followed two years later in 1945.
As a teenager, Davis moved from Rosebud to Killeen to work as a housekeeper for 50 cents an hour in 1947. She died in Killeen on Feb. 28, 2017, at the age of 88.
“When I came to Killeen, you couldn’t buy any food at the restaurants,” Davis recalled in a 2016 Herald article. “At the bus station, it said, ‘white’ and ‘color.’”
The Voting Rights Act was not yet passed and legal segregation still existed.
“Fort Hood was the only reason why I think blacks came to Killeen,” Davis said. “The soldiers used to go to Rosebud and Temple for entertainment. There was no blacks allowed in Killeen.”
The military presence is credited with the early swell in population in Killeen, and today, it is still the driving force for commerce and industry.
Along with the surge in minority presence that came with the military installation came the fight for equal treatment for African-American soldiers in Killeen.
Before his famed baseball career, Jackie Robinson fought to be treated fairly while serving in the Army, and faced court-martial in 1944.
In spite of his bachelor’s degree and outstanding record, Robinson had to fight to be accepted into Officer Candidate School. At that time, officers were predominately white: black soldiers were generally assigned to drive trucks or load cargo ships.
The second duty station of the newly commissioned Robinson was with the 761st Tank Battalion at Camp Hood in Killeen, where in addition to the unfriendly tone of the town, the climate between military police and African-American soldiers was known to be hostile.
Soldiers faced segregation on interstate buses operating on post as well as in post facilities and theaters, according to an article previously published in the Herald.
Just one month after the Army had desegregated its buses, Robinson refused to move to the back of the bus in response to a demand from the bus driver during a bus ride for a medical checkup at McCloskey Army Hospital in Temple.
The driver repeated his order for Robinson to move to the back of the bus.
“Listen, you,” he shouted, “I said get to the back of the bus where colored people belong.”
“Now you listen to me,” Robinson replied. “You just drive the bus, and I’ll sit where I please.”
The renowned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later said of Robinson, “Jackie Robinson was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
At the post gate, the driver called for military police, who escorted Robinson to see a captain. The captain reportedly called Robinson a “n ——” and the argument escalated.
Robinson threatened to “break in two” anyone who used that word — regardless of their rank.
For his actions, Robinson was confined to quarters at McCloskey Hospital in Temple, charged with insubordination and subject to a general court-martial.
Thirteen separate dispositions attested to Robinson’s “gross misbehavior,” but because he believed the situation to be racially charged, Robinson and others reached out to both the NAACP and the Negro press.
An Army directive dated two days after Robinson’s bus incident emerged clarifying that no discrimination on the basis of race was allowed in regard to use of recreational facilities, theaters and transportation.
Robinson’s trial lasted a little more than four hours. His Army-appointed defense attorney — a white captain from Texas — brought out inconsistencies in the prosecution witnesses’ accounts, including a denial by one prosecution witness that he had called Robinson the “n” word when another MP acknowledged he had indeed done so.
Robinson was acquitted.
“How he handled the military encounter was actually truer to the way the future Dodger approached life’s challenges than was understood to be the case during his first years within organized baseball,” wrote John Vernon, former history professor at Tuskegee Institute who documented the trial for the National Archives.
But the quality of life did not instantly improve for African-American residents with Robinson’s acquittal.
When Melba Olean Davis moved to Killeen in 1947, she joined her sister, brother-in-law, aunt and uncle, all living in one of 10 small shacks near the railroad — which had no running water and were condemned by the city two years later in 1949.
Davis’ husband, Sam Stacy, whom she later met, was encouraged by his employer to go to the Lone Star community to speak to William “Bill” Simmons about a place to live.
Simmons provided the family with a small trailer, Davis said.
One night during a storm, Simmons allowed the family to sleep on a screened-in porch with a day bed.
“He said ‘my dad was a Baptist preacher and he loved everybody.’ He loved Negroes. He loved whites. He helped everybody,” Davis said. “He said ’till the storm blows, y’all come in and stay on the back porch.’”
They weren’t allowed in the house, though, because Simmons’ wife didn’t approve, Davis recalled.
Simmons later received old barracks from the post and set them up for about five to six families to live in the Lone Star community.
“Later on, it was annexed to Killeen and named Simmonsville,” Davis said.
Simmons donated land in 1951 for Baptist preacher, the Rev. A.R.D. Hubbard, to start a church.
There are no living members remaining from Killeen’s oldest African-American-organized church, now known as Simmonsville Missionary Baptist Church.
Today, home ownership among minorities still significantly lags behind that of Caucasians across America, according to a study done by Urban Institute in February 2018. The study cites this as a key contributor to the racial wealth gap.
“Not one of the 100 cities with the largest black populations has a black homeownership rate close to the white homeownership rate,” the study states. “Even in places where black households are the majority, like Albany, Georgia, the gap persists.”
However the study states that Killeen is the city with the smallest disparity between percentage of African-American residents and percentage of African American homeowners.
Urban Institute reports Caucasian home ownership accounts for 63 percent and African American home ownership 48.5 percent —just a 14.5 percent gap.
The widest gap is reportedly in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the gap is reportedly at 50 percent.
Changes did not happen overnight. The Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Ten years later, the Civil Rights act of 1964 outlawed segregation nationwide.
Rosa Hereford was an African American teacher at Fairway Junior High in the late 1960s when the Killeen Independent School District integrated.
She was later elected to Killeen’s City Council in 1984 — the first woman of any non-Caucasian race to serve.
Hereford said she is grateful for the opportunity to have served the city and help residents.
“When people came to speak to the council, it could be very nerve-wracking,” she said. “I would tell people to look at me when speaking so they would feel comfort since I would always smile back. I would tell them, ‘look at me and you’ll get through this and afterward, we will make a decision.’”
Hereford ended up becoming the longest serving council member, serving a total of 12 years (six terms).
Although she has embraced her legacy and the impact of being the first African-American woman to serve on the City Council, she was driven by her desire to make a difference, she told the Herald in a previous article.