William Madison McDonald is far from a household name these days, but he was a legend in his day. Born 150 years ago, McDonald is widely believed to have been the first black millionaire in Texas.
The son of a former slave, McDonald became an influential banker and a political force who helped shape Fort Worth at the turn of the 20th century, using his wealth and connections to help lift up his city’s African-American community.
“When I was young growing up, Bill McDonald was a mythical character. But we knew he was real … we knew he was buried, for example. We knew he had lived and been buried. But he was larger than life,” said Bob Ray Sanders, a retired Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist and former KERA newsman.
When Sanders was growing up in the 1950s and early ‘60s, the east side of Fort Worth’s downtown was the place to be. The intersection of Jones Street and Ninth Street, Sanders said, was the heart of a thriving black business district in the still-segregated city that thronged with African-American-owned restaurants, hotels, night clubs, shops and even a hospital.
“From the Convention Center almost to the Court House, these were black businesses,” Sanders recalled. “It was here, and it was vibrant.”
Lifting the community
A bank stood at the center of all that activity. Sanders said that so much of the city’s black business class was tied in one way or another to Fraternal Bank and Trust. Historians say it was the first black-owned bank in Texas. Its founder was William Madison McDonald.
“From basically the beginning of the 20th century, Bill McDonald’s imprint was on Fort Worth,” Sanders said. “He made his mark, and he kept making his mark, until the day he died.”
Before he came to Fort Worth, McDonald lived in Kaufman County. Born in 1866, his father was a freed slave, a man who had been owned by the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard. At just 8 years old, McDonald went to work for a white lawyer, a man who eventually helped him to go to college.
McDonald studied religion, ran a school and organized a state fair to show off the accomplishments of black farmers; all before he turned 21.
“Anything that he took his hand to prospered. And he was showing others that you can do this too,” said Opal Lee, who helped launch Fort Worth’s black genealogical and historical society.
Lee is 90 years old now, but she grew up seeing McDonald. It was at the end of his life, at the beginning of hers. Lee remembers walking past the millionaire’s massive mansion on Terrell Avenue on her way to the movie theater.
“He’d be sitting out sunning: A little, old man. And I wanted so much to say something to him, but I was afraid. I never spoke to him,” she said
McDonald left Kaufman County in 1906 for Fort Worth, and quickly became a revered leader in his adopted city. He bought a handful of businesses, built several buildings, and opened the Fraternal Bank and Trust. Opal Lee had an account there.
McDonald’s bank was a simple place, Lee said. No fancy vault, just few desks and an ornate cage where the money was locked away.
Still, it was a thriving financial institution. It not only survived the Great Depression, but was reported to have bailed out struggling white-owned banks. Originally the repository for the wealth of black Masons, Fraternal Bank and Trust served the city’s African-Americans when white banks weren’t open to them. Access to capital, Lee said, helped the community lift itself up.
“He helped a lot of young black entrepreneurs get started in business,” he said.
A political kingmaker
Before he became a banker, though, McDonald was active in politics. And at that, too, he excelled. He was a close ally of Col. Ned Green, a massively wealthy white railroad and banking magnate, and the two established themselves as a political power brokers.
“Green and McDonald teamed up, and they ran the Republican Party in Texas,” he said
In the decades that followed the end of slavery, a biracial coalition dominated the state Republican Party. McDonald became a shot caller in that so-called Black and Tan faction – and served as a delegate at state and national conventions. Reby Cary, a historian, educator and civil rights leader, said that African Americans at that time almost exclusively backed Republicans.
“That party freed us. It was Abraham Lincoln,” Cary said. “We got freed because the Republicans freed us,” he said
Cary, now in his 90s, grew up four blocks from McDonald. He said McDonald promoted a philosophy of black self-reliance, challenging African Americans to build their own institutions and businesses. A lifelong Republican, Cary said McDonald’s message shaped his own thinking, and is still relevant today.
“In the first place, he used to tell us, he said, if blacks want your own business, you set it up. If you want your own newspaper, you set it up,” he said.
A fading legacy
McDonald died in 1950. He left no heirs – his only son died while away at college. His grave in the Old Trinity Cemetery in Fort Worth is marked by a huge obelisk, and a historic marker recalling his influence.
In the decades since his death, many of the buildings McDonald owned and built have disappeared. The bank was torn down. The Jim Hotel – where legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie stayed and played – is gone. Both his mansion and a sprawling masonic temple he built were demolished.
At the train station in downtown Fort Worth, at the intersection where McDonald’s bank once stood, there’s a mural that celebrates the city’s black history.
Bob Ray Sanders said the mural makes clear how much William McDonald’s story is woven throughout the history of Fort Worth’s African-American community at the beginning of the last century.
“Bill McDonald was a way maker, for a lot of people. Including me,” Sanders said. “He paved the way for a lot of people. He certainly wasn’t the only one, but he was a major figure in our history, and we shouldn’t forget that.”
Sanders said that when he was a kid, you couldn’t grow up black in Fort Worth without hearing about William McDonald. Today, he said, young people don’t learn a lot of local black history.
So while McDonald’s buildings are gone, Sanders said it’s on us to decide if his memory lives on.