1924 Democratic Primary Polling Place / East El Paso Fire Station (No. 5)

2317 Texas Avenue, El Paso, El Paso County

On July 26, 1924, Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon (1883-1966) was denied the right to vote in the Texas Democratic primary because he was black.  He attempted to cast his vote at the East El Paso Fire Station (No. 5), located at 2317 Texas Avenue in El Paso.  This building is still standing, and it should be considered for National Historic Landmark (NHL) designation as it appears to meet the criteria outlined in the Civil Rights in America: Racial Voting Rights theme study (2007).

The East El Paso Fire Station (No. 5) in 1916, eight years after its construction. From El Paso Fire Department: A Pictorial History, 1882-1982 by Louis Lieggi.

Dr. Nixon and the United States Supreme Court

The El Paso chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. brought a successful lawsuit on Dr. Nixon’s behalf, Nixon v. Herndon (1927), in which the United States Supreme Court would ruled that the 1923 Texas law stipulating that “in no event shall a negro be eligible to participate in a Democratic primary election held in the State of Texas” violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

In response to invalidation of the statewide legislative ban, the Texas legislature passed a new law that empowered political parties to independently ban blacks from participating in party primaries.  The following year, on July 28, 1928, Dr. Nixon again tried to vote in the Democratic primary in El Paso and was denied a ballot because he was black (the Precinct No. 9 polling place had been moved in 1928 to Garza Brother’s Grocery Store at 2216 Magoffin Avenue, which is no longer standing). Dr. Nixon returned to the Supreme Court, resulting in a decision in Nixon v. Condon (1932) that ruled that the new version of the state’s discriminatory legislation violated the Constitution.

These two Supreme Court cases were the first of the “White Primary Cases” that laid the legal and political framework for the ultimate repudiation of black disenfranchisement in political primaries through a 1944 Supreme Court case, Smith v. Allwright, that originated in Houston.  And that landmark case, in turn, provided the legal basis for desegregating public schools ten years later in Brown v. Board of Education.  The moral courage of Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and the El Paso N.A.A.C.P. to defend the rights of African-Americans to participate in our democracy is a civil rights legacy of national significance.

In 1999, Congress directed the National Park Service (NPS) to document the national significance of civil rights sites in the United States.  A subsequent National Historic Landmarks (NHL) Theme Study completed in 2007 focused specifically on “Racial Voting Rights.”  The study noted the “opening rounds” of the White Primary legal challenge in El Paso represented by both Nixon v. Herndon and Nixon v. Condon.  The report concluded that sites proposed for NHL designation “Must be acknowledged to be among the nation’s most significant properties associated with the constitutional right to vote between 1865 and 1965 … [and] a direct and meaningful documented association with an event or individual.”  The denial of Dr. Nixon’s right to vote in 1924 and 1928 that precipitated two Supreme Court cases are two such events.

For the period 1900 to 1941, the NPS reiterates the significance of the “prominent legal battle that lasted almost three decades [that] took place between Texas and the U.S. Supreme Court over the ‘white primary,” and that “a property associated with an event from this era may be eligible under Criterion 1 if the event made a significant contribution to … interpreting the constitutionality of restrictions that kept Democratic primaries in the South open only to whites.”  Yet in its discussion of specific sites, the NPS study authors (1) could not identify a polling place associated with a 1915 Oklahoma case from this period; (2) noted that the polling place associated with Smith v. Allwright (1944) had been demolished; and (3) made no reference to polling places in El Paso tied to the two Nixon cases — presumably because it did not know that Dr. Nixon’s 1924 polling place was still standing.

The Fire Station

The East El Paso Fire Station (No. 5) has architectural significance apart from its association with Nixon v. Herndon.  Completed in 1908, Preservation Texas has documented that the station was designed by the leading architectural firm in El Paso at that time, Trost & Trost.   On 31 July 1907, the El Paso Herald reported:

The principle new work undertaken by Trost & Trost was plans for the new fire stations for the El Paso fire departement, one for the hill district and one for East El Paso.  This work is being rushed and as soon as completed bids will be asked for.

By the end of August, the city was considering bids for construction.  The El Paso Herald reported on 29 August 1907:

Five bids from contractors for the erection of fire stations in Sunset Heights and East El Paso were received, but were laid aside until a future meeting, at which time they will be accepted or rejected.  The consensus of opinion among the alderman this morning was that all the bids were too high, the lowest bid being that of J. C. Huff, for $8,464.  The stations are designated as Nos. 4 and 5, No. 4 being in Sunset Heights and No. 5 in East El Paso. 

Early the next year, the El Paso Herald could report on 26 February 1908 that “the East El Paso fire station is practically completed as far as outward appearances go, although the doors and windows are not in yet.”

Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and his second wife, Drusilla Tandy Porter, whom he married in 1935. Texas State Historical Association.

The East El Paso Fire Station (No. 5) is worthy of national recognition for its role in the early Civil Rights movement in Texas and in the United States.

For more information, see Civil Rights in the Texas Borderlands: Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and Black Activism by Will Guzman (2015) and Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon and the White Primary by Conrey Bryson (1992).

Interested in other endangered Civil Rights-era sites in Texas?  See Lions Municipal Golf Course (2017) in Austin and the Woolworth Building (2016) in San Antonio.

Interested in other endangered Henry Trost-designed sites in Texas?  See St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church (2005) in El Paso and The Caples Building (2008) in El Paso.