Garfield Thompson: “All Aboard the Freedom Train”

The ground floor of the Texas & Pacific passenger station consists of three areas. On the north is the eye-popping art deco waiting room. On the south is the white-tiled underpass leading under the railroad tracks to the boarding platforms and parking lot. In between is the concourse, which is cavernous and mostly empty these days. As people hurry through the concourse to and from the TRE and TEXRail trains their footsteps echo off the hard surfaces of the concourse.
Along the west end of the concourse, overlooked by many, are an art installation and two artifacts from the days of racial segregation.

One artifact is a bench from the station’s “colored” waiting room.

The other artifact is one of the station’s “colored” water fountains.

This plan of the station shows the “colored waiting room.”

The art installation is a large mural. Dominating the mural is a tableau: a railroad track upon which three men symbolize stages in the occupational advances made by African Americans. On the left is a manual laborer swinging a sledgehammer. In the middle is a porter carrying baggage. On the right is a professional man carrying a briefcase.

The mural is labeled with a passage from a 1947 poem by Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
Below the railroad track are four bas-reliefs. Three of them are devoted to (1) the role that African Americans historically played in the railroad industry, often working in service occupations such as porter and waiter and (2) the “separate but equal doctrine” that until 1954 allowed segregated public facilities such as the white and “colored” waiting rooms in train stations.

The fourth bas-relief honors Garfield Thompson.
“Who was Garfield Thompson?” you might ask.
He was a man whose life exemplified the advances depicted in the mural.

Garfield William Thompson was born in Grandview in 1916. (Photo from Legislative Reference Library.)

Garfield and his mother Mallener moved to Fort Worth, where Garfield graduated from I. M. Terrell High School in 1934.

By 1935 mother and son were renting a house on New Orleans Street southeast of downtown. (The street was taken by the South Freeway in the early 1950s.)
In the 1940 census Mallener listed herself as a cook for a “private family.” Garfield was a waiter in a hotel.
Of the people enumerated on this sheet, all but seven were African American. Of the African Americans, nine were employed as servant, cook, maid, or yardman for a “private family.”

On his draft card in 1940 Thompson listed his employer as C. B. Ragon, assistant to the vice president of the Fort Worth & Denver railroad. Thompson was still a waiter but now on wheels: in a railroad dining car.
Two months after Pearl Harbor, Thompson enlisted in the Army at Camp Wolters. Staff Sergeant Thompson served twenty months with the Corps of Engineers in Iran and the China-Burma-India theater.
In 1942 he married Dorothy Williams of Fort Worth.

After the war Thompson resumed working as a dining car waiter, this time for the Burlington-Rock Island railroad.
In the 1960s, after more than twenty years as a dining car waiter, Thompson took a job as a custodian.
As a career move the change from waiter to custodian might seem more lateral than vertical. But Thompson’s new job was at the Tarrant County courthouse—the center of local politics.
As Garfield Thompson swept floors and emptied ashtrays at the courthouse he found a higher calling: He became involved in his community: politics, civil rights, labor relations, veterans affairs.
Thompson quickly became a leader. When Vice President Lyndon Johnson passed through town in 1962 Thompson was among the local Democrats he asked to meet.

In 1968 Thompson represented the Democratic Party in Precinct 127. He led a rump delegation that opposed a proposal to send Governor John Connally to the national convention as a “favorite son” candidate for president.
Over the next seventeen years Garfield Thompson would be:

•a member of the Fort Worth Committee on Human Relations, concerned with race relations
•chairman of Neighborhood Action Inc., concerned with aiding minority business ventures
•chairman of the Office of Economic Opportunity of the Central Labor Council
•president of the State and County Municipal Employees Union, Local 125, AFL-CIO
•area coordinator of the Human Resources Development Institute of the AFL-CIO
(By 1976 Thompson was listed in Who’s Who in Labor.)
•precinct chairman of Precinct 127 in southeast Fort Worth
•president of the Tarrant County Precinct Workers Council, a group of African-American Democratic precinct chairpersons
•vice president of the local American Legion’s Central Council

In 1972 Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dolph Briscoe voted for Alabama Governor George Wallace for president during the roll call of states at the nominating session of the Democratic National Convention. Thompson, chairman of Precinct 127, reacted by saying that come Election Day in November he might just cast a fishing line rather than cast a vote for Briscoe.
Also in 1972 Dunbar High School began presenting the annual Garfield Thompson Award to the senior student with the best grades in government class.
After seven years as a custodian at the courthouse Thompson traded the pushbroom for the briefcase and became president of the Tarrant County Employees Union of the AFL-CIO.
After seven years with the AFL-CIO Thompson retired. But his Freedom Train had a clear track ahead. Rather than take a seat in a rocking chair, Thompson took a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

In 1983 Thompson announced that he would challenge incumbent state Representative Reby Carey in House District 95, which encompassed southeast Fort Worth and Forest Hill and was the county’s only black-majority district.
Carey in 1974 had been the first African American elected to the Fort Worth school board.

In addition to Thompson, two other Democrats challenged Carey in the primary.

Thompson’s political ad took a swipe at Carey’s campaign slogan, “Carey Cares.”

Thompson defeated Carey in a runoff and faced no Republican opponent in the general election.
Freshman state Representative Garfield Thompson took the oath of office on January 8, 1985, and Secretary of State Myra McDaniel gaveled the House to order, becoming the first African-American woman to perform that ceremony in Texas.
Thompson was sixty-eight years old when he took office. But he was not the delegation’s eldest member. Representative Doyle Willis was seventy-six.
Thompson was the only African American in Tarrant County’s twelve-member legislative delegation.

Thompson’s mother, who forty-five years earlier had worked as a cook for a “private family” while her son worked as a hotel waiter, died three days after seeing her son become “state Representative Garfield Thompson.”
In Austin Thompson considered himself a “yellow-dog” (staunch) Democrat but made friends on both sides of the political aisle.
He served on committees for appropriations, transportation, pricing and marketing practices of petroleum products, child abuse and pornography, health care services for low-income Texans, labor and employment relations, and liquor regulation.

Thompson won re-election to the Texas House four times.
But late in 1993 Thompson announced that he would not seek a sixth term in 1994. He would retire, citing his age and the failing health of his wife Dorothy, seventy.
“I regret having to do it, but I’m just getting too old,” Thompson said. “Driving those highways every weekend became a real chore instead of a pleasure.”
During his tenure in Austin, Thompson had supported legislation that extended child-support payments until a child graduates from high school.
On the other hand, he said he was disappointed that he had been unable to win approval of a state income tax. The tax would have applied to people earning $50,000 or more a year, and most of the constituents in his district would not have been affected.
At age seven-seven, Garfield Thompson was finally ready for a rocking chair. And his son Sidney had one ready. Sidney, justice of the peace in Precinct 8, carried a rocker into his father’s district office, where the elder Thompson was surrounded by photos from the legislature and Garfield the cat memorabilia.
The younger Thompson said, “I never had to go outside the home to find a role model. He’s a wonderful man.”
The elder Thompson laughed and sat down and began rocking.
“The old rocking chair has got me,” he said.
Thompson ended his legislative career as he had begun it—as the only African American in Tarrant County’s legislative delegation.

Garfield William Thompson died in 2005 at age eighty-nine.
Fellow lawmakers paid tributes:
State Representative Marc Veasey, a first-term Fort Worth Democrat, said, “Garfield was very well respected in our community and a beacon during the many civil rights struggles. Garfield and his late wife Dorothy, also a lifelong Democrat, worked on the front lines and paved the way for individuals like me to have a better future.”
Governor Rick Perry, a Republican by 2005, had entered the Texas House with Thompson in 1985 as a Democrat.
Perry said: “Garfield was considered the grandfather of our class because of the admiration and respect each of us had for him.” Thompson, Perry added, was “a gentleman in every sense of the word, and he will be deeply missed.”
Fellow Democrat Doyle Willis, ninety-eight in 2005, who served in the state Senate and House, said, “Garfield Thompson was one of the greatest legislators I ever served with. He was kind and never vindictive to those who opposed him.”
And former U.S. Representative Martin Frost, a Democrat who represented much of southeast and east Tarrant County, called Thompson a “true public servant who never lost sight of the people he represented.”

A Star-Telegram editorial eulogized Thompson as a “gentle warrior.”

Garfield William Thompson, who rode the Freedom Train from the basement of the courthouse to the dome of the state Capitol, is buried in Skyvue Memorial Gardens in Mansfield.

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