Though not uncommon to late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century cities, red-light districts were regarded as areas of ill repute where madams and prostitutes worked outside the law. Yet in 1889, Waco—a city lauded for its multitude of educational institutions and churches—became only the second city in the United States to legalize such an area. This district, known as the Reservation, or sometimes as Two-Street, brought in thousands of dollars of revenue to the city while serving as a source of controversy for many years.
Waco’s 1871 charter differed slightly from that of most Texas cities. Rather than completely outlawing prostitution, the Waco charter included a provision for the city government to suppress or regulate bordellos. For many years, government officials attempted to control prostitution and, in 1884, implemented laws to completely suppress it. However, these actions proved in vain, and after just five years of attempting to eliminate prostitution, the city of Waco did a complete about-face on its strategy.
The new policy legalized prostitution in a small area just off of downtown between Washington Avenue, North Third Street, Jefferson Avenue, and the Brazos River, providing the city with more control over where and when such actions could take place. The policy also segregated the area by race, and prohibited drinking within its limits. Prostitutes were required to sign the Bawdy House Register and pay a $10 licensing fee every three months. Each woman also had to pay to be examined by a city doctor twice a month. Madams paid fees for each bedroom of the house they ran, as well as additional fees for each resident of the house. Any woman recorded on the Bawdy House Register seen outside of the Reservation could be charged with vagrancy and fined up to $200.
Though legal, the Reservation and its occupants were looked upon with disdain by the rest of Waco. Since the women could not walk to the city to shop for fear of being charged with vagrancy, they traveled in enclosed carriages directly to the stores, where a clerk either met them at the curb with the goods they required or sent them to the back of the store to keep them out of public sight. Children of prostitutes were shunned as well. In 1893, a city wide vote banned children born of women listed on the Bawdy House Register from Waco’s public schools. Itinerant evangelists often spoke against the evils of prostitution in Waco but rarely reached out to help the actual women themselves. For instance, when J. T. Upchurch established a rescue society to aid prostitutes in Waco, the local Methodist church kicked him out of the congregation.
Abandonment and financial desperation led many women to the Reservation. In the nineteenth century, a divorced or pregnant-out-of-wedlock woman struggled to find a career and often was abandoned by her family and friends. As many as one hundred women worked in the Reservation during its heyday. Some, such as renowned Waco madam Mollie Adams, became enormously wealthy and successful. In one case, a madam named Della Smith even left the Reservation, married a grocer, and lived the rest of her life in respectable society. Yet for many of these women, life in the Reservation ended in drugs, alcohol, and violence.
By some estimates, the city made up to $12,000 of revenue per year from the licensing and regulatory fees. Yet when the federal government sent a message to the city council in 1917 warning the city to shut down the vice district, the decision to do so was made quickly. With the inevitability of the US entering the Great War looming ahead, Waco could either close the Reservation or pass up on the possibility of gaining a military base.
Despite the construction of Camp MacArthur, traces of the Reservation—which in many ways distinguished Waco from other cities—remained. However, the remnants of the district slowly whittled away in the 1920s as bordellos closed, economic interests shifted elsewhere, and immigrants fleeing violence at the Texas-Mexico border moved into the neighborhood to fill the emptied houses. That transition marked the unofficial end of the contentious vice district which once brought both controversy and economic profit to the city.