Urban renewal programs swept across the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Funded by the federal government, cities throughout the country sought to improve local architecture and expand residential areas by purchasing and decimating pre-existing neighborhoods, a process often referred to as “slum clearance.” The City of Waco conducted the largest urban renewal program in the state of Texas. Intending to redesign and improve city infrastructure, local government officials formed the Waco Urban Renewal Agency. Launched in 1957, the first project was a partnership with Baylor University and focused on the renewal of land adjacent to the school’s campus.
In the summer of 1958, Waco and Baylor declared the homes, businesses, churches, and other buildings near the Brazos River as “slums” in need of clearance. City planner E. H. Lovelace of Harland Bartholomew & Associates, an urban planning firm, affirmed Waco’s first project location as ideal for urban renewal. The city held a vote in June for the Baylor University Project, which received a resounding vote of approval—2,133 yeas to 293 nays. Notably, the City of Waco changed voting requirements on voting day, declaring only property owners as eligible voters. Seventy percent of residents in the area deemed a slum rented their homes.
After the election, Waco and Baylor planned to construct a park, residential housing, highways, and expand Baylor’s campus in the area. Most of the homes within the approved urban renewal area belonged to Black Wacoans. Residents appeared before the city council on October 13, 1958, to protest the confiscation of their homes. The expansion of Baylor University, which still refused Black students’ entry, remained central to their objections. Eighty property owners from the area signed a petition to maintain ownership of their homes.
Waco and Baylor ignored residential complaints and moved forward with urban renewal. In January 1959, they received federal approval of $67,474 for the 85-acre project. Once the Texas Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of federal aid for local urban renewal projects, Waco and Baylor established the official bounds of their first urban renewal project: the area confined by Fourth and First Streets and Jones and Leila Avenues. Waco’s urban renewal committee members—including real estate agent Hank L. Corwin, former mayor Truett Smith, Baylor Trustee Hilton E. Howell, and Baylor Executive Vice President Abner McCall—cheered federal and state approval, declaring the decision a victory for Waco and Baylor.
The city and university planned to remove 187 homes from the area, resulting in the relocation of 209 families and 50 individuals, the majority of whom were people of color. Residents and advocates for those within the bounds of Waco’s first urban renewal project gathered to protest once more on November 24, 1959.
Overflowing into the corridors, hundreds of urban renewal protestors blocked the entrance of city hall. Church members objected to the movement of their congregational spaces. Property owners resisted the seizure of their homes. Fred Finch, a prominent NAACP lawyer, objected to the area’s classification as a “slum” and noted that many residents would never be able to purchase another home. Resident after resident objected to their relocation. Waco Reverend J. L. Carter of 1621 South Third Street also rose to protest. If removed, he declared that he would not be able to buy another home or send his four daughters to college, especially since they could not attend segregated Baylor University. “In the event that this plan should pass and all the people are moved out, I believe you will cause a number of crimes,” Carter stated, “and I am a minister.”
Despite extraordinary opposition, Waco and Baylor began to relocate residents and knock down structures in January 1960. By 1963, the Waco Urban Renewal Agency had removed all residents from the Baylor University Project area and demolished all 272 structures within its bounds.
Waco and Baylor completed the Baylor University Project, or Baylor 1A, in July 1964, the first urban renewal project completed in the state of Texas, and soon completed another project, Riverside 1 Baylor. With federal funds, Waco purchased land from local residents, often at lower rates than market value, and sold the property to the private university. Baylor eventually bought 163 acres and constructed new classroom buildings, dormitories, and faculty housing. The university’s campus, which grew by fifty acres during this time, remains on urban renewal land today.
Several additional urban renewal projects ran in Waco throughout the mid- to late twentieth century. In 1960, they began the next initiative in Calle Dos near St. Francis Catholic Church and Sandtown. Over the next ten years, Waco purchased and renewed over 2,100 acres of land. By the late 1970s, Waco had completed ten urban renewal projects, more than any other city in Texas, permanently shifting the structure of the city and the residents within its bounds.