A historical marker in William Madison McDonald’s honor says in part that “Throughout his life, McDonald was a leader in the struggle for social justice, advocating persistence and civic and moral responsibility as the steps to equality.”
As he sought power and wealth, becoming the first Black millionaire in Texas, he also helped create opportunities for many Black people around Texas. McDonald found his success largely through banking, entrepreneurship and politics.
Born on June 22, 1866, in Kaufman County, Texas, McDonald’s parents were former slaves who named him after William Shakespeare and James Madison, according to a report by WFAA. A brilliant student, McDonald worked for lawyer and rancher Captain Z.T. Adams after graduating from high school in 1884. Adams taught McDonald almost everything he needed to know about business and law. And these would come in handy for the young Black man.
After later graduating from Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tenn., a historically Black college, McDonald went back to Texas to begin what became a flourishing career. He started off by becoming principal of a segregated Black high school in Forney in the late 1800s, where he met his first wife, Gibson McDonald.
When he was 21, he joined the state’s Republican Party, entering into politics. He helped organize the Republican Party in Kaufman County and was elected to the Republican Party of Texas’ state executive committee in 1892. Nicknamed “Gooseneck Bill, McDonald became a powerful voice in politics and was made leader of the South Republican’s biracial Black-and-Tan Faction, a group that opposed the party’s Lily-white Faction, which was an anti-Black political movement within the Republican Party, as stated by WFAA.
McDonald urged Black people within the party to go out and vote. By 1899, he had become Grand Secretary of the Prince Hall Free and Accepted Masons of Texas. He remained with the fraternal group for almost 50 years and members never disappointed him when it came to voting and financial support. He also worked together with a railroad executive to broker deals that helped McDonald get rich.
While in his 40s in 1906, McDonald moved to Fort Worth’s Terrell Heights neighborhood and built a three-story house. He also opened the Fraternal Bank and Trust Company in 1912, Fort Worth’s first Black-owned bank. He managed it very well to the extent that it became one of the rare banks from its time to survive the Great Depression, according to the account by WFAA.
“He is the one that showed the world – the community – that Black people could be businessmen,” historian Jayn Higgins told CBS DFW. As white banks were refusing to lend money to Black entrepreneurs, McDonald’s bank was there to help. His bank would even save some of these white banks during the Great Depression by giving them loans.
McDonald pursued more wealth and influence by becoming a hotelier. He became the owner of Fort Worth’s first Black-owned hotel, The Jim Hotel, named after his second wife, Jimmie Strickland. The three-story building with 50 rooms was located at 413 East Fifth Street downtown. He entered the hotel business not only for money but to give Black travelers a safe place to stay. That was one of his ways of giving back to his community.
“He literally built this empire of Black-owned businesses,” said Higgins. “And when Black folks drove through that 2-3 block radius, they felt exceedingly proud.”
A report by CBS DFW said McDonald bought and fixed up foreclosed homes and subsequently rented or sold them to Black families. The savvy businessman and hotelier also donated a building to the YMCA. In his last years, he stayed out of politics and “lived a leisurely life” before he passed away on July 5, 1950, in Fort Worth.
To Higgins, it’s not possible to discuss Black history in Fort Worth without highlighting the story of McDonald.
“The manner in which he carried himself was regal,” Higgins said. “He didn’t buy into the concept of being subservient or less than.”
His impact can still be felt today, especially across North Texas through the William M. McDonald YMCA in southeast Fort Worth. A mural on the south side of the Fort Worth Central Station also pays tribute to the millionaire businessman. The Texas Historical Commission and the city of Forney also erected the historical marker in his honor in 2002.