African-American Heritage Tour

The Soul of Port Arthur

African-American experience is part of Port Arthur’s diverse heritage. We honor music, community, faith and even food in a proud culture. Our “City by the Sea” is  strong, reflecting pride that matters.

Similarly, when you visit Port Arthur, you’ll feel our pride, too. Where to begin? Museum of the Gulf Coast is a motivational first stop. Displays tell stories of nationally-known athletes and performers. For instance, singers from Barbara Lynn to rapper Bun B continue to be popular.

In addition, visit historic churches and sites sure to inspire locals and visitors. Music, food and faith are part of our proud culture.

In this blog, we’ll present some highlights for your tour:

Museum of the Gulf Coast

cj chenier induction at the museum of the gulf coast in port arthur texas

Explore exhibitions and sculptures highlighting musicians, educators, athletes and humanitarians of color honored at Museum of the Gulf Coast.

What will you hear? Contributions from zydeco and blues to soul, rock and rap. Did you know the first over-the-body washboard is a Port Arthur creation? The following personalities have Port Arthur/area ties and are among those the museum features:

Musical Personalities

  • Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown earned a Grammy for “Alright Again!” named Best Traditional Blues Album in 1983. He mastered guitar, fiddle mandolin, guitar, harmonica and drums and synthesized old blues, country, jazz, Cajun and R&B styles.
  • Barbara Lynn is a highly-honored left-hand R&B and electric blues guitarist and Beaumont singer. In 1962 she gives us chart-topping “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” She has recorded in Japan and earned a National Endowment of the Arts honor and is often referred to as the “Empress of Gulf Coast Soul.”
  • Clifton Chenier, The King of Zydeco, and his son, C.J. Chenier, are award-winning accordion masters. They certainly bring Cajun and Creole sounds of zydeco to a greater audience.
  • Clarence “Frogman” Henry of Rhythm and Blues fame croaks “Ain’t Got No Home” in 1956.
  • Cookie & The Cupcakes gives us Swamp Pop hit “Mathilda” in 1956.
  • Ivory Joe Hunter, R&B singer is known as The Baron of the Boogie and The Happiest Man Alive. The record executive had a Beaumont radio program, and a country presence.  Honors include The Monterrey Jazz Festival and Grand Ole Opry rocognition.
  • Blind Willie Johnson, gospel blues singer, guitarist and evangelist, recorded between 1927 and 1930. His “chest voice” and slide guitar style influenced generations.
  • Zachary Breaux, jazz innovator, saved a person from drowning in Italy in 1988. While on vacation with his family in 1997, he attempted to save another swimmer and suffered a fatal heart attack at 36.
  • UGK -Underground Kingz are the hip-hop/rap duo of Bernard Bun B Freeman and the late Chad “Pimp C” Butler.

Port Arthur’s West Side History

history boards in the west side development center

West Side – or Westside – This area, above all, served as a self-sustainable and vibrant African American community. Wallboards share the community’s history before the Civil Rights Act of 1965. With segregation prevalent, the area was home to most black residents before the ’60s. However, schools, doctors’ offices with nursing staff, pharmacies and cafes served residents. In addition, thriving funeral homes, entertainment venues and churches of all denominations flourished.

westside development center in port arthur texas

Pioneers, schools, businesses and social and civic clubs are honored at the West Side Development Center, 601-A Rev. Dr. Ransom Howard Street. The YMCA operates a branch here where photos tell this early Port Arthur story. Carver Elementary Lincoln High and Sacred Heart schools are honored. In conclusion, stop here to appreciate the men and women who served the community as doctors, pharmacists, entrepreneurs, politicians and law enforcers.

Observe Juneteenth

juneteenth celebration in port arthur texas

Jambo! This Swahili greeting often signals Gail Pellum’s Juneteenth activities such as a flag raising, music, a pageant and parade. On June 19, 1865, federal troops arrived in Galveston to ensure all enslaved people were freed. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed two and a half years earlier.  Juneteenth honors the end of slavery in the United States. It is considered the longest-running African American holiday. Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021. In Port Arthur, the African American Cultural Society often celebrates with festival events to convey a sense of history.  The Port Arthur Public Library presents informative displays. Librarian Carolyn M. Thibodeaux says many ceremonies begin with a libation. “Water, poured from the unity cup onto the ground, in remembrance of those who have passed on and who, through their intellect, courage, creativity, devotion and wisdom have strengthened and nourished the race and all humanity.”

Cross the soaring Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge

Martin Luther King Bridge in Port Arthur Texas

This soaring bridge is the crossover to Pleasure Island and the essential Port of Port Arthur. Originally known as Gulfgate Bridge, it spans 5,032 feet. Catch views 138 feet above the Sabine-Neches Canal. Renamed to honor the civil rights leader, workers completed the MLK bridge in August of 1970 at $1,540 per foot. Enjoy a day birding, playing disc golf or fishing on the island. Stroll the boardwalk and visit Walter Umphrey State Park. The bridge also connects us to our neighbors in Louisiana.

Historic Churches

In Port Arthur, we worship and praise. Sanctuaries safeguard stories and soul. Pay respects at some of these sites:

  • First Sixth Street Baptist Church. 548 Abe Lincoln Ave. See the 1910 marker and travel nearby  Rev. Ransom Howard Street.
  • Rock Island Baptist Church evolved from a rented house and a group of “progressive” ideas in 1922. They then created the city’s first kindergarten at a black church. The church is at 549 W. 11th Street.
    See the Texas Historical Marker at Israel Chapel A.M.E. Church. Created in 1902, it is the home of the area’s African American public school. See it at 948 Texas Avenue.

Middle Passage

Middle Passage Marker at "Popeye" Holmes Park is one of only two in Texas
Photo by Mary Meaux of Port Arthur News

The Sabine River and Sabine Lake regions where captive African children, women and men first disembarked after the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean is known as the Middle Passage. A marker at Popeye Holmes Park joins one in Galveston, the Texas markers of this type.

The African American Cultural Society presented events in December to promote this observance, including recognition at Israel Chapel AME Church. For more information, call Gail Pellum at (409) 332-1709.

A “Texas Monthly” magazine reference to the marker is here.  More on local history regarding marker is here.

Fish, bird and walk Pleasure Island Pier

Watch for sailboats and birds or cast a line from Pleasure Island Pier overlooking Sabine Lake. It’s a beauty stretching 275 feet. Cross MLK Jr. bridge to get to the island. Then find the pier at 3947 Martin Luther King Drive. Enjoy a view of vessels at Pleasure Island Marina. Next get a scenic workout on a nearby boardwalk at 600 Pleasure Pier Boulevard. Marsh grasses rustle as you power walk by.

Lap Barbara Jacket Park, honor an Olympic Coach


This family-friendly park honors Olympic track coach Barbara Jacket. Visit at 100 Gilham Circle. Start with a picnic and then follow up with a playground and spray park break. Score with baseball and softball areas and a basketball court.  Why does this park honor the 1954 Lincoln High graduate? Because she coached the 1992 U.S. Women’s Olympic Track Team. Jacket mentored long jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee and sprinters Gwen Torrance, Gail Devers and Evelyn Ashford. As a result, the Women’s team won 4 Gold Medals, 3 Silver Medals and 3 Bronze Medals.   Jacket worked at Prairie View A&M University for more than 30 years. Jacket died in January of 2022.

Keep it Trill

Bun B Museum of the Gulf Coast

“Trill” is a combo of “true” and “real,” associated with rapper Bun B. Bernard “Bun B” Freeman and Chad Pimp C” Butler. In the ’80s their influential rap music from PA spread to Houston and the nation. They formed UGK and their self-titled Underground Kingz debuts  at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in August of 2007. Bun B tells National Public Radio “Being trill really just means being true to who you are.”

UGK public art mural in port arthur texas

Elias Cabrera and Armando Garcia recreated a mural recognizing the group in their own style. It’s on a building on 17th Street, visible from Woodworth Boulevard.

Wanted: Trail Riders

Horses, and the people who love them, join Wanted Riders. This Port Arthur area group is into riding with friends and family. Find them on the trail or at their Zydeco concerts. Members award thousands of dollars for scholarships and community groups.   Wanted Riders wants riders. Saddle up with a call to (409) 960-1657.

Colorful Tribute

colorful mural in port arthur texas

Can we ever thank our teachers enough?  Educator Linda Griffin-Lucas influenced countless Memorial High School students. Her image is depicted in a colorful mural at Karson’s Snack Shack, 730 West 10th Street. Linda’s Lighthouse honors her giving spirit with back-to-school events.  Call the shack at (409) 683-6049.

Book the Basics: Port Arthur Public Library

Port Arthur Public Library features seasonal cultural displays. It also serves as a source for genealogical and historical research. The book  “Port Arthur Centennial History 1898-1998″ offers area background. Looking Glass Media and the Port Arthur Historical Society cooperated on the source. For instance, it recounts a lunch counter integration from the late ‘60s.  In the story, management refuses service to a group of students. A young man fakes fainting and a manager brings him water. After drinking it, the boy returns the glass with a smile and the counter is integrated.  Other notes:

  • Israel Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church  organizes the first school for African-Americans in Port Arthur in 1905.
  • The Lincoln School for Blacks opens on Jan. 1, 1921, which evolving into the beloved Lincoln High School, boasting Bumblebee pride.
  • Mack Hannah Jr. is considered the first African-American millionaire in Texas. In Houston he becomes president of his own life insurance company. He creates Gulf Western Mortgage Company and Standard Savings and Loan Association. He directs Homestead Bank. A hall at Texas Southern University bears his name.

Sing along: “The City by the Sea”

Dwight Wagner loves Port Arthur enough to sing about it.  He’s got a lot to say:

“I love the city of Port Arthur because of its diversity, charm, history, coastal atmosphere, Cajun influence, restaurants, views of joggers on the seawall, huge floating tankers in the intracoastal canal, education system, places of worship, north side shopping district, promise of a restored downtown area, but most of all, the people,” Wagner says.

A beloved educator/principal, he’s a song leader at Christian Fellowship Baptist Church and also uses music to put “hope in the heart and joy in the soul.” Here’s some lyrics to the city song he wrote, which we feel is best sung while ship-gazing along the seawall.

“The City by the Sea”

The sun’s coming up, how beautiful it seems, stretching forth her rays, down on Lake Sabine
Feel the breeze, whisking through your hair, as you gaze at seagulls, flying in the air

Ships arrive, refinery whistles blow, friendly faces, everywhere you go
Tip your hat to, tip your hat to, The City by the Sea

Here’s to Port Arthur, the city we adore
Here’s to Port Arthur, no one could love you more
Out of all the places, we choose to be
None can compare to the city by the sea

Honor a soldier

At 26, Lt. Adam Earnest Simpson Jr. became the first Port Arthur resident to die in Vietnam. The Marine is also considered as possibly “the best” drum major to march at Lincoln High School. In conclusion, he is honored with a plaque at the Port Arthur Pavilion, 600 Procter Street in downtown Port Arthur.

Reunite with National Association of  Port Arthurans

Since 1981 form residents who have moved from this area gather to catch up and reminisce on their past, celebrate the now and plan their future. The reunion is every other year, sometimes in Port Arthur. The group of hundreds has met in California, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago. Ties to Port Arthur remain strong. It’s the city they call home. For information, call Carolyn Gunner at (409) 543-2061.

Have faith in Kwanzaa

How do you celebrate this “first fruits” season? In addition to Juneteenth activities, Gail Pellum also organizes city-wide Kwanzaa activities from Dec. 26-Jan.1 The Port Arthur Public Library features educational displays during this season explaining the seven principals of Kwanzaa, such Umoja for unity and Imani for faith.

Honor Exie Simon

In the 1980s Exie Simon spearheaded the Triangle Soup Kitchen, Triangle Community Food Bank and Changed Life Center. Simon’s generosity deserves to be remembered, therefore her portrait is displayed on the 5th floor of Port Arthur’s City Hall. A Simon bust is also on site.

Give The Breeze Radio a Listen

a man at the radio station in port arthur

KSAP – 96.9 FM/ LP,  “The Breeze Radio” serves a culturally diverse audience with locally produced programming that addresses self-esteem and community awareness. Also, the station plays a variety of music including Gospel, Jazz, R&B, Latin and Vietnamese songs daily. Talk-back programs are designed to inform, educate, entertain and engage our worldwide audience while promoting youth in the music industry. Stephen A. Mosely is president and Chief Operations Officer.

Remember Mr. Leon

Leon Jenkins, the porter with the “sweet, sweet spirit,” refused to retire. At 102 he still proudly greeted politicians and business leaders at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport. He died in 2007 and some recall him and his red suit and hats, as early as 1956. His silhouette, featuring his famous garb and accoutrement fills a memorial doorframe at the airport’s Jerry Ware Terminal, along with a framed Houston Chronicle feature on his life.

We’re Still Creating

family enjoying the ocean view in port arthur texas

Finally, know that the stories of African-American influence in Port Arthur expand every day! Come and make your own stories that just may include family fun on the shores of Sea Rim State Park and McFaddin Beach.