The comment Andrew Penns hears most often as he escorts tour groups through Curtis House Cultural Center shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“I didn’t know that,” people say as Penns offers tidbits of information on artifacts, people, places, and events significant in the history of the contributions of Black Abilenians to the city’s development.
Those words have been repeated too many times to count since the center, located at 630 Washington St., opened in 2016 as a project of Interested Citizens of Abilene North (ICAN).
Penns, one of the founders along with other community leaders, of both ICAN and the cultural center, didn’t need an extra hat to wear when he agreed to be director of the center and chief tour guide. He already served as pastor of Valley View Missionary Baptist Church and was heavily involved with the Taylor County Historical Commission, the Texas State Missionary Baptist Convention, Habitat for Humanity, and the Original West Texas Baptist District Association, a historic organization of Black Baptist churches that Penns now serves as moderator. But one inescapable fact drove him to add another time consuming job to his resume.
“Our history is important,” Penns said.
With Black History Month coming in February, Penns expects the cultural center will be bustling with visitors for tours. Like other history museums, Curtis House Cultural Center features exhibits that are educational, interesting, sometimes painful, and sometimes quirky.
The quirky items come courtesy of Earnest Johnson, who will turn 80 in February. His creative mind led to a number of inventions, including some on display at Curtis House such as a truck-like creation that Johnson calls his “third hand.”
“That made me a living for 40 years,” Johnson said in an interview in 2017 for the Abilene Reporter-News.
Perhaps the most painful exhibit in the center is a large jar filled with soil from the site of the shooting death of Grover C. Everett at the old Joe Davis Hotel, which served Blacks before public places were integrated. Everett, who came to Abilene from East Texas to work, was shot to death on September 9, 1922, by “masked and robed men,” according to newspaper accounts at the time.
Soil was collected in a ceremony held April 27, 2019, at the site of the former hotel where the shooting occurred, 341 Ash Street. Two identical jars were filled with soil, one to be displayed at Curtis House Cultural Center and one that was taken to the Equal Justice Initiative Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, as part of a national effort to memorialize Black Americans murdered by vigilante groups.
A more pleasant remembrance is a portrait of Dr. William Butler, Abilene’s first Black physician. Butler and his wife, Beatrice, lived at 701 Mesquite St., where Dr. Butler also had his medical practice. The house today is the headquarters for ICAN. The portrait, by Abilene physician Dr. Gary Goodnight, was presented Aug. 30, 2020, and now hangs in a prominent place in the front room of the center.
Goodnight has lived in Abilene since 1996 and was amazed that he had never heard of Butler until earlier in 2020. After learning about Butler and what he contributed to the history of Abilene, Goodnight was in awe of his perseverance and wanted to honor his memory with the portrait.
“It was an honor to do it,” Goodnight said.
A tour of Curtis House takes visitors through the various rooms of the two-story house. Each room has a theme such as the military room, with photos of Black Abilenians who have served in the military, including some who died in World War II. A display that Penns is especially proud of is a blowup of pages from a book titled, “Taylor County WWII Veterans in Abilene, Texas.”
The five pages contain photos of Black veterans from Taylor County. In the book, the Black veterans were pictured in the back section, separate from the white veterans in the front of the book.
Educational displays dominate another area, with photos and artifacts from the Woodson era before Abilene schools were integrated. A copy of a Texas Historical Commission marker telling the history of Dyess Elementary School – the first school in Abilene to integrate always brings the, “I didn’t know that” comment, Penns said.
A section on the second floor honors Black educators like the late Robert Brewster, who was the last principal at Woodson Elementary School. He was admired and respected–but also had another trait.
“Boy, he would put fear into you,” Penns recalled.
An artifact of special interest is a copy of the Oct. 15, 1998, journal, Black Issues in Higher Education. The cover features James Hill, who was band director at Woodson High School in the 1950s.
Born Aug. 21, 1928, in Austin, Hill was denied admission to the University of Texas after graduating from an all-Black high school in Austin. He later earned a master’s degree and doctorate from UT and became the university’s first Black vice president when he was hired in 1993. Hill died Sept. 2, 2012.
Curtis House Cultural Center is the product of vision and determination on the part of Penns and others who helped establish it. When Interested Citizens of Abilene North was organized, Penns immediately suggested: “Let’s look at the preservation of our history,” said Penns.
Eventually, a decision was made to purchase the Curtis home, which itself is a part of Abilene’s history. There were liens against it and ICAN paid $5,000 in attorney fees to gain the right to purchase the property. After an early proposal for renovating the home and converting it into a cultural center proved to be too expensive, ICAN came up with a workable $35,000 budget. The work was done with the help of volunteer labor, grants and donations.
Artifacts were gathered from the Butler home on Mesquite Street, Frontier Texas, and from individuals. Now, Penns and his board of directors are trying to raise $40,000 for equipment upgrades and property enhancements. The group hopes to purchase the empty lot across the street from the center for a parking lot.
Penns, 72, is hopeful that some younger folks will step up to carry on what he and others started with ICAN and Curtis House Cultural Center. In his younger days, Penns never dreamed he would return to his hometown and become so involved. After graduating from Woodson High School in 1967, he joined the Army and served in Vietnam, where he was wounded on Dec. 8, 1967.
Penns returned to Abilene in 1970 but didn’t like the city’s racial environment at the time and left for Austin, where he worked for Texas Instruments for five years. He also attended the former Draughon School of Business and earned an associate degree from Austin Community College.
As time passed, Penns began thinking about his hometown and decided to move back and become involved in the community, hoping to change what he didn’t like.
“If any difference is going to be made,” he decided, “I’m going to be a part of it.”
In Abilene, he continued working for Texas Instruments and also worked at the former Bible Book Store. His last job before retirement was as a supervisor in Taylor County’s juvenile alternative education program.
Penns has also served as a bivocational minister since he was 32 years old. He started as an assistant to his father at Valley View Missionary Baptist Church for four years and eventually succeeded him as pastor.
Even being part-time pastor of a church is a full-time job, as Penns’ schedule reflects. Funerals, weddings, board meetings, Sunday services–all take up a pastor’s time. Yet Penns still finds time to work on preserving the history of the Black Abilenians whose contributions might otherwise be overlooked.
His work is so significant that he was honored in 2009 with the Maxine Perini Award from the Taylor County Historical Commission. The award “recognizes outstanding service to Taylor County in the preservation of its history and the promotion of historical events.”
Penns is proud of the changes he helped bring about in Abilene since returning to his hometown. He didn’t plan to live here after seeing a bigger world through his Army service. But a desire to make a difference brought him back and has kept him going through the years.
His prayer now is that someone with the vision, heart, and compassion that he feels will step up to take over when he decides to step back. But until that happens, he will be on the job.
“I want to make sure our history is being brought forth,” he said.
CURTIS HOUSE CULTURAL CENTER
- Where: 630 Washington St.
- Tours: Contact Andrew Penns, executive director, 325-701-7804
- History: Center opened in 2016 in the former home of funeral directors Sam and Sammie Curtis. The house was built in 1932 in the historic Carver Neighborhood.
by Loretta Fulton