Black woman wasn’t allowed to attend a school she now leads

Brenda Sanders-Wise stands in front of Major Cheney Elementary at South Birdville, now called Cheney Hills Elementary. She petitioned for the school to be named after her great-great-grandfather and Fort Worth settler, Major Cheney, because of the contributions he made to the district.

Brenda Sanders-Wise stands in front of Major Cheney Elementary at South Birdville, now called Cheney Hills Elementary. She petitioned for the school to be named after her great-great-grandfather and Fort Worth settler, Major Cheney, because of the contributions he made to the district.

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A little blue house sits on the corner of Carson Street and Elliott Reeder Road. It’s built on the land where Brenda Sanders-Wise grew up, down the street from a school she wasn’t allowed to attend because of the color of her skin.

Every morning, at 7 a.m., Sanders-Wise would board the bus for a ride that lasted at least an hour.

“We were bused to Riverside Elementary (what is now Versia L. Williams Elementary) and I.M. Terrell High School in Fort Worth, past at least three closer high schools,” Sanders-Wise said. But she said she loved going to I.M. Terrell because it had some of the best teachers.

On May 1, Sanders-Wise became the first African-American school board trustee of Birdville ISD, the very district that made her ride the bus across town to Riverside Elementary and I.M. Terrell, the most famous historic school for Black students in Tarrant County, she said.

“The most important thing that Brenda brings to the board is the heart of a servant,” said Kelvin Dilks, vice president of the Birdville ISD school board and former Birdville educator. “She serves her community, she serves her family. For so many years, she’s been a leading voice in the area to bring about understanding and equality.”

Sanders-Wise said this opportunity gives her the chance to represent more students, to bring awareness that all people can learn and to fulfill a legacy.

“To complete a cycle,” Sanders-Wise said. By becoming a board member, Sanders-Wise is continuing what her great-great-grandfather and Fort Worth settler, Major Cheney, began — a push for all people to have access to an education.

Cheney donated half an acre of his land to open the Birdville Colored School in 1891. While the school closed in 1906, it left an impact.

It was a one-room school house on the corner of Anderson Road and Carson Street. “He believed in education,” Sanders-Wise said. “Our family believes education is the key to anything you want to do.”

As a board member, Sanders-Wise said she is going to focus on the importance of teaching students to read with comprehension.

“Reading is very important to me,” Sanders-Wise said. “Because kids, if they haven’t learned to read with comprehension by the time they’re in the third grade, they tend not to excel in other curriculum.”

Sanders-Wise said if you can’t afford to travel but you learn to read, you can transport yourself anywhere by reading a book.

Sanders-Wise lives in Haltom City, in an area representing the southern part of the district.

“Here I am living in the lower Birdville part of the school district, and I’ve lived here all my life,” Sanders-Wise said. “I was born here. Although we could not go to the schools because of segregation, we were very much aware of the school being there because it was on the same street.”

Sanders-Wise is the only person elected from the southern Haltom/ Fort Worth area of the district in the last 40 years, Dilks said.

“She brings a voice of a woman and of a person who’s lived a lot of her life in the district, a person that understands the importance of opportunity,” Dilks said, adding, “Hopefully she’ll bring her insights and vision and her understanding of the southern part of Haltom City and that small section in Fort Worth.”

Sanders-Wise said she is proud to be on the board because students will not only see a woman serving on the board, but a woman of color.

“Now these people can see, ‘Hey, I can achieve that, too,’” Sanders-Wise said.

The board recruited Sanders-Wise because she represents the minority community, she cares about the community, graduated from Birdville ISD, has deep, family roots in the community, and is willing to serve with an open mind and open heart and do what’s right for kids, said Richard Davis, secretary of Birdville ISD school board.

Birdville ISD was segregated until Sanders-Wise finished her second year of high school. In the fall of ‘65, she was among the first African-American students to attend Haltom High, the former Birdville High which had rejected her and all of her ancestors. She and her cousin were the first Black students to graduate from the school in ‘67.

“It’s incredible that one of the very first two African-American graduates of Birdville ISD is now on the school board,” Dilks said.

A woman of action

Even before becoming a board member, Sanders-Wise had an influence on Birdville ISD. She tirelessly attended school board meetings to make them aware of the contribution Cheney made to the Birdville school district when he donated his land to open a schoolhouse for African-American children in the area. In 2009, an elementary school was named Major Cheney Elementary at South Birdville.

In 2019, the decision was made to merge Major Cheney Elementary at South Birdville and Richland Elementary. Sanders-Wise made sure the name was carried on to the new school, now called Cheney Hills Elementary. The groundbreaking for the new school began in 2020, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled to take place on Aug. 16.

While Sanders-Wise has incited change within the school district, she has also made a big difference in her neighborhood.

Sanders-Wise became an activist for the Garden of Eden neighborhood in 2004 when she moved back to Fort Worth to live on the same land she grew up on, the land her great-great-grandfather had settled.

She founded the Carson Street Historic Preservation Group and Garden of Eden Neighborhood Association and applied for the Garden of Eden to become a historic and cultural landmark district.

“I said this land is historic. We’ve contributed not only to the Birdville school district and Birdville history, but also to Fort Worth history because we’re sitting in between two municipalities,” Sanders-Wise said. “On the east side of Carson Street is Fort Worth and on the west side of Carson Street is Haltom City.”

In 2005 the neighborhood became the first African-American historic and cultural landmark district in Tarrant County.

Sanders-Wise is no longer the president of the neighborhood association, but she is still working to foster change in her neighborhood to make sure people remember its history. She is advocating for Elliott Reeder Road to be repaired and is on a “quest” to rebuild the home of Major and Malinda Cheney, she said.

“Recycled parts places have popped up around the area,” Sanders-Wise said. “All these areas that you see surrounding us used to belong to Major Cheney and his family, so this is all our family’s property and we’re hating to see this happen.”

Sanders-Wise said she hopes rebuilding the home of Major and Malinda Cheney to serve as a “corridor of history” on Carson Street will help remind people of and teach people about the history of the area. The Major and Malinda Cheney Heritage Tourism Center will be a cultural and educational center for both the city of Fort Worth and Haltom City.

Sanders-Wise said change can be done no matter who you are.

“But it takes tenacity and perseverance and you have to do it through adversity,” Sanders-Wise said. “Adversity will happen, but you can’t give up. And that’s where the persevering part comes from. So, if you have a strong will to see change or to even seek change, you have to be willing to witness some ups and downs through the journey.”

As a newly elected school board member to a district that she once wasn’t allowed to attend, Sanders-Wise plans to continue to inspire positive change and teach people the history of the neighborhood.

“When I was sworn in as a school board trustee, the 88-year-old matriarch of the family was there,” who is the sister of Sanders-Wise’s uncle Bob Ray Sanders, a former Star-Telegram editor and columnist.

“She said, ‘Brenda, this is for all of us,’ and I said, ‘Aunt Cindy, you get the whole picture. It’s not just Brenda who’s on the school board, it’s for everybody,’” Sanders-Wise said. “I want to leave a legacy not only for my children, but for the Cheney-Sanders family, period.”

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Haeven Gibbons is a multimedia reporter intern for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Gibbons is currently working toward a BA in journalism with a minor in Spanish at Texas Christian University where she has covered topics such as hunger and homelessness in Tarrant County. She loves learning about other people, issues and cultures.