Past Treasure of the Month – June 2019
During the month of June, Rosenberg Library exhibited items related to Jessie McGuire Dent, a Galveston educator and civil rights activist. From the late 19th century until the mid-20th century, Galveston’s public schools were racially segregated. It was standard practice to pay African-American teachers 20% less than white teachers with the same qualifications and experience. In June 1943, Jessie McGuire Dent won a lawsuit against the Galveston School Board of Trustees to end the practice of unequal pay for teachers based on their race.
Jessie May McGuire was born in Galveston in 1892 to Robert McGuire and Alberta (Mabson) McGuire. Her father was a police officer, and the family lived at 2720 Avenue R. She attended Central High School, the first high school for African Americans in the state of Texas (established in 1885 in Galveston). After graduating in 1909, she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. There, she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s first sorority for African-American women. When members of AKA had an internal dispute over participation in the Suffragette Movement, a separate sorority – Delta Sigma Theta – was created. Jessie McGuire was one of the founding members of that group.
After graduating from Howard University, Jessie McGuire returned to Galveston and was hired to teach English and Latin at Central High School in 1913. In 1924, she married Galveston attorney Thomas Dent. They had one son, Thomas Dent, Jr., born in 1929. By 1934, the couple had divorced, and Jessie McGuire Dent lived with her son at 2818 Avenue R. She served as the Dean of Girls for Central High and was active in various community groups including the Colored Unit of the Women’s Christian Temperance League, the N.A.A.C.P., and the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Tragically, Thomas Dent, Jr. died in 1940. Despite her devastating loss, Jessie McGuire Dent maintained an active leadership role in the Colored Teachers State Association and joined its Texas Commission on Democracy in Education in March 1941. The group’s goal was to promote equality for African-American teachers and schools in terms of salaries, funding, course equality, administrative positions, and accreditation.
On March 10, 1943, Jessie McGuire Dent filed a petition on behalf of African-American teachers, administrators, and secretaries requesting that these individuals receive pay equal to that of their white counterparts in the Galveston public school system. The petition was initially denied, but eventually the School Board and its attorney agreed to enter negotiations with Ms. Dent and her attorney.
Ms. Dent argued that the constitutional rights of African-American educators had been violated by the school district’s practice of paying black teachers less than white teachers for no reason other than their race. On June 15, 1943, Judge T.M. Kennely of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled in favor of Ms. Dent. Local schools were given until the Fall of 1945 to come into full compliance with the decision.
As a result, the salaries of eighty-four African-American educators were increased by 20%, making their pay equal to that of white teachers with comparable positions and experience. Jessie McGuire Dent continued to fight for racial equality, advocating for the integration of Galveston’s public schools. She died in 1948.
In 2009, the City of Galveston recognized the significant contributions made by Ms. Dent by naming a new recreation center in her honor. It is located near her family’s residence on the 2800 block of Avenue R.
Rosenberg Library gives special thanks to Fay Williams for contributing research materials related to Jessie McGuire Dent. To learn more, please visit the Galveston and Texas History Center on the 4th floor of Rosenberg Library. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm.