Cary, Reby (1920–2018)

By: Justin Jolly

Type: Biography

Published: May 20, 2020

Updated: April 28, 2021

Reby Cary, civic leader, civil rights activist, historian, educator, and state legislator, was the son of Smith Cary and Maggie Blanche (Alexander) Cary. He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on September 9, 1920. Cary grew up attending his father’s Fort Worth church, the Rising Star Baptist Church, which the elder Cary founded on September 13, 1931, and pastored until his death on January 6, 1969. Reby Cary credited his experiences in his father’s church and his religious upbringing for “any blessings that came his way.” He remained a devout member of the church throughout his life and served often as a deacon and trustee.

Cary graduated from I. M. Terrell High School in 1937 and attended Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University), where he earned his bachelor of arts in history and political science in 1941 and began work on a master’s degree. In 1942, prior to finishing his M.S. degree, Cary enlisted in the United States Coast Guard, where he became the one of the first African American apprentice seamen and was the third African American admitted into the Coast Guard’s radio school. He served in the Pacific Theater of Operations on the USS Cambria during World War II. While stationed in the Pacific, Cary took part in troop extraction operations on Guadalcanal and was involved in the invasion of Saipan, the battle of Tinian, the battle of Luzon, and the climactic battle of Okinawa. In all of these engagements his ship came under enemy fire, but Cary contended that the heaviest fighting he witnessed was during the invasion of Okinawa due to a combination of heavy enemy fire and severe storms that ravaged U.S. naval forces. Cary achieved the rank of radioman first class in the U. S. Coast Guard before he left the service.

After being discharged from the Coast Guard in 1945, Cary married his sweetheart Nadine Lois Spencer on May 19, 1945. Nadine and Cary were married until her death in 2003. The couple had a daughter, Faith. After the war Cary returned to Prairie View College and obtained his master of science in history in 1948. He then did graduate work in education and history at Texas Christian University and North Texas State College (now University of North Texas), although he did not complete a degree at either institution.

After returning to Fort Worth, Cary noticed that the trade schools for returning veterans were limited to Whites only. To rectify this situation, he helped establish the McDonald College of Industrial Arts, a trade school for African American veterans, in 1946. The college was located in the Riverside area of Fort Worth; its name was later changed to the Southwestern College of Industrial Arts.

Between 1952 and 1967 Reby Cary taught history and government and served as a counselor at Dunbar High School. When Tarrant County Junior College (TCJC) opened its doors in 1967, at what later became the TCC South campus, he accepted a position as an assistant professor of history. While at TCJC, Cary was given the opportunity to speak at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). In his speech he criticized the city of Arlington for its racist housing policies and broached the subject of recent African American protests over the Confederate rebel mascot at UTA. Chastising the students, he stated that the only way they could make a profound change was through their academic schoolwork. A few days after his presentation, UTA approached Cary about joining the faculty in the university’s history department. He was apprehensive about making the move to UTA, which had a reputation for being a racist institution. Determined to bring Cary on as its first African American faculty member, UTA’s administration offered to almost double his TCJC salary and make him associate dean of student life in addition to an assistant professor of history. Cary accepted the position, thus in 1969 he became the university’s first African American professor.

Once at UTA, Cary was very active in creating change on the campus. In 1972 he opened the Minorities Cultural Center, one of the first of its kind in the Southwest. His objective was to teach Caucasian students the impact minorities have had on American history while at the same time helping minority students “develop a sense of identity.” The center made it possible for students to graduate with a B.A. in history with a minority studies option at UTA.

After having a profound impact on UTA, Cary then turned his attention to the city of Fort Worth. In 1974 he ran for a seat on the Fort Worth school board. Many did not expect him to win, as the school board had always been all-White. Cary, however, was able to garner citywide support from teachers, which helped him gain votes in crucial Caucasian neighborhoods. He was also able to gain support from the Tarrant County Labor Council, the county association of the AFL-CIO unions, not so much because labor supported Cary, but because it staunchly opposed his rival, Bobby Brumer. Regardless of labor’s motivations, the coalition between African American voters, teachers, and labor insured Cary’s victory and made him the first African American to serve on the Fort Worth school board.

Once on the school board, Cary fought for equality in Fort Worth public schools, which were still largely segregated despite federal laws and court rulings to the contrary. For example, members of the Fort Worth school board could not agree on the implementation of busing. White members Bill Elliot and Stan Herold argued that money used on busing could be better spent elsewhere. Both contended that the city’s heavily Black and heavily White schools were equal. Cary, on the other hand, argued that not enforcing federal busing policies was inherently racist and that busing, along with the hiring of more African American faculty, was necessary to provide a truly equal education for all children.

In order to circumvent the busing issue, Cary’s opponents attempted to push an initiative called the “Freedom of Choice” plan. Under this plan the students would get to choose which public school they attended. Cary saw this plan as a way to keep White children in predominantly White schools, instead of forced integration. He asserted that the plan was racially motivated to keep “Blacks in ‘holding pens’ such as...Dunbar middle and high schools.” As a result, the board attempted to institute the “magnet school plan,” which, if passed, would have seen the establishment of central campuses where Black and White students would be bused in order to take a few classes together. After the classes concluded, the Black and White students would then be bused backed to their respective schools. Cary again assailed this plan and argued that, like the “Freedom of Choice” plan, this would not fix the problem of segregation but rather maintain the status quo. Nevertheless, the school board did pass the magnet school plan in June 1975.

After four years on the Fort Worth school board, Cary resigned and ran for state office as the representative for House District 32B in the Sixty-sixth Texas Legislature. He defeated incumbent Leonard Briscoe (the first African American to serve in the Tarrant County legislative delegation) in the Democratic primary in June 1978 and ran unopposed in the general election. As a legislator, Cary served on several house committees, including the County Affairs Subcommittee on Budget and Oversight, the Rules and Resolutions Committee, and the Government Organization Committee. He also authored numerous house bills that related to racial equality and education. For example, in his first term he authored several house bills, including HB 764, relating to competency tests in schools; HB 1052, relating to prevention and redress of discrimination; and HB1191, relating to certification of teachers. During the Sixty-seventh legislature he chaired the Regions, Compacts, and Districts Committee as well as its Subcommittee on Budget and Oversight. Cary served as representative until January 1985. He had started his political career as a Democrat but changed his allegiance to the Republican party and charged that the state Democratic party, dominated by White conservatives, was still holding on to its racist pro-slavery roots. After leaving the Texas House, Cary founded the Frederick Douglass Republicans of Tarrant County and was very active with the Tarrant County Republicans. He served as president of the Black Republicans Council of Texas.

Throughout his long career of service, Cary also held a real estate license and worked in that business. He remained active with community organizations such as the American Legion, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Boy Scouts, Fort Worth Minority Leaders and Citizens’ Council, and the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce. Cary also authored several books on the history of African Americans in North Texas, including A Magnified Princes Shall Come Out of Egypt, Texas, & Fort Worth (2002) and A Step Up: The Way Makers (2010).

Reby Cary died on December 7, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. He was ninety-eight years old. He was buried in Skyvue Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Fort Worth. Groundbreaking for the Reby Cary Youth Library in Fort Worth was planned for 2020.

"Becoming a Professor at UTA," from Reby Cary oral history interview with Miles Davison, March 4, 2013, Fort Worth, Texas, Civil Rights in Black and Brown Interview Database (, accessed October 20, 2019.  Reby Cary Papers, Fort Worth Library. Dallas Morning News, July 31, 1969; September 11, 1972; April 8, 1974; May 2, 1974; December 12, 1974; June 26, 1975; June 6, 1978. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 23, 1974; December 16, 2018. Gayle W. Hanson, “Reby Cary (1920–2018),” (, accessed October 3, 2019. Interview with Reby Cary [02/27/2007], Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress (, accessed August 25, 2019. Legislative Reference Library of Texas: Reby Cary (, accessed August 29, 2019. “Mr. Reby Cary,” The Frederick Douglass Republicans of Tarrant County (, accessed August 25, 2019. 

  • Education
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Advocates
  • Board Members
  • Educators
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Authors and Writers
  • Activists
  • Civic Leaders
  • Politics and Government
  • Sixty-sixth Legislature (1979)
  • Sixty-seventh Legislature (1981-1982)
  • Sixty-eighth Legislature (1983-1984)
  • House
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Justin Jolly, “Cary, Reby,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022,

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May 20, 2020
April 28, 2021

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