By Tim Madigan
October 7, 2002
At I.M. Terrell High, the only local school for blacks, devoted teachers opened students' eyes to a better life, including those of Titus Hall, now a retired Air Force major general. But to see his alma mater now is enough to make a grown man cry.
On a Friday evening last May, Titus Hall opened the curtains of his 11th-floor hotel room in downtown Fort Worth and looked down upon the land of his youth. To the south was the gothic old railroad station along Lancaster Avenue, where Hall once loaded and unloaded boxcars. To the north lay the empty hills along the Trinity River, hills long shorn of the tumbledown shacks that were home to him, his mother and thousands of others.
Then he saw it, straight ahead of him in the distance, perched atop the tallest hill like a bull's-eye the familiar, fortresslike building whose yellow-brick walls were ablaze in the fading sun. That was the old I.M. Terrell High School, Hall knew immediately, and when he saw it, the 74-year-old man nearly wept.
He was the grandson of a Texas slave, son of a single mother, a black youngster who grew up poor, hanging with the Ninth Street hustlers during the Jim Crow years in Fort Worth. When he enrolled at Terrell in 1940 as a precocious 11-year-old, he was on the verge of following street-wise buddies into a life of no good. But Hall charted a different course went on to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, then into the Air Force. He served in Korea, became a top navigator on a nuclear bomber in the Strategic Air Command, earned a master's degree in engineering from the University of Southern California, designed electrical systems for the B-1 bomber, and in 1981 was promoted to the rank of major general, becoming the highest-ranking African-American military officer ever to come out of Fort Worth.
It had been a miraculous journey in many respects, and Hall knew he owed so much of his good fortune only to the grace of God. He could never repay the sacrifices of his wife and mother. Air Force supervisors generally steered him straight. But his ascendancy would not have happened without Terrell High, either, without the book knowledge and life lessons he learned from the school's amazing faculty. And now, after all those years, there it was, out past the freeway Mixmaster, Terrell High still shining in the distance like a palace.
A few weeks before that night in the hotel, a Star-Telegram reporter had called Hall with questions about his memories of Terrell, which was closed in 1972 as part of Fort Worth's school integration plan. The major general became so excited during the conversation that he insisted that he and his wife fly from their retirement home in Florida to remember the place in person.
So he and Clarissa Hall came to Fort Worth. They would visit many other old haunts during that May trip, embrace many memories, mourn many missing friends. But the trip would culminate Monday morning when the Terrell doors opened, and Hall could complete his pilgrimage, be back inside those old classrooms for the first time in decades. Standing there in the hotel on that Friday night, looking down at the yellow-brick palace from the 11th floor, a weekend seemed a long time to wait.
For generations they came, by bus or car or any other means they could manage, young people from Fort Worth and Arlington, Roanoke and Lake Como, Bedford, Burleson, Benbrook and as far away as Weatherford, 30 miles east. There were students from 16 North Texas towns and cities in all who attended one black high school in Fort Worth, because during the Jim Crow era, there was no place else.