A small but growing number of black women are slowly being recognized for their contributions to the “long” civil rights movement, the nearly century-long struggle by African Americans against all forms of racial discrimination. In the account below University of Texas-El Paso historian Cecilia Gutierrez Venable describes Juanita Jewel Shanks Craft, one of the most important of these activists in 20th Century Texas history.
Juanita Jewel Shanks was a pivotal local, state, and regional organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the campaign for racial justice in Texas as she confronted the state’s segregationist practices from the 1930s to the 1980s. Shanks, the only child of educators David Sylvestus and Eliza Balfour Shanks, was born on February 9, 1902 in Round Rock, Texas. Both her parents taught school, and her father would later become a principal. The young Shanks went to Austin’s segregated Anderson High School, but after a couple of years her mother Eliza Shanks fell ill with tuberculosis and Juanita accompanied her to San Angelo state sanitarium. They were refused admission because of their race and this experience of pleading with hospital officials to care for her mother and living in a tent during the rainy season near the hospital for months was one of the seminal experiences Juanita Shanks carried with her throughout her life.
Eliza Shanks died in 1918, and the sixteen-year-old Juanita Shanks joined her father in Columbus, Texas and later graduated high school in 1919. Juanita Shanks moved to Prairie View and studied sewing and millinery at Prairie View Industrial School (now University) but returned to Austin and graduated from Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University) where she received her teaching certificate. She briefly taught in 1921, but—that same year—left the profession to marry an old boyfriend, Charles Floyd Langham, who was a tailor in Galveston.
In 1925, Juanita moved to Dallas with her aunt, and the couple