Juanita Craft, civil rights activist, was born on February 9, 1902, the only child of David and Eliza (Balfour) Shanks, in Round Rock, Texas. Her grandparents had been slaves; her father was a high school principal, and her mother was a teacher and seamstress. After completing high school in Austin, Juanita attended Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) and received a certificate in dressmaking and millinery in 1921. Later she received a teaching certificate from Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson College) in Austin. After briefly teaching kindergarten in Columbus, she moved to Galveston in 1922. She married and worked as a drugstore clerk in Galveston for three years. When her marriage ended, she moved to Dallas, where she was employed as a maid at the Adolphus Hotel from 1925 to 1934. She subsequently worked as a dressmaker until her marriage to Johnny Edward Craft on October 2, 1937. He died in 1950.
Joining the Dallas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1935 marked the beginning of Mrs. Craft's long service as a civil rights activist. A dynamic force in the organization and throughout the state during the 1940s, she was appointed Dallas NAACP membership chairman in 1942 and in 1946 was promoted to Texas NAACP field organizer. She and Lulu Belle White of Houston organized 182 branches of the NAACP in Texas over a period of eleven years. Following the Smith v. Allwright U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in 1944 she became the first Black woman in Dallas County to vote in the Democratic Party primary. In 1946 she was the first Black woman deputized in the state to collect the poll tax.
She emerged as a leader in the civil rights movement in Dallas after her appointment as Youth Council advisor of the Dallas NAACP in 1946. Her work with the youth unit became a prototype for other NAACP youth groups throughout the country. In 1955 she attempted to enroll the first Black student at North Texas State College (now North Texas State University), thus precipitating a battle that was eventually won through litigation. That same year her youth group spearheaded the picketing of the State Fair of Texas to protest the policy of admitting Blacks only on Negro Achievement Day. From 1961 through 1964 she led the Youth Council in picketing lunch counters, restaurants, theaters, and public transportation to protest segregation. In 1967 she initiated an investigation of fraudulent trade-school practices in Black communities in Dallas; it resulted in the passage of legislation establishing rules for such schools.
Juanita Craft was a Democratic precinct chairman from 1952 to 1975 and served two terms on the Dallas City Council between 1975 and 1979. She was a member of the Munger Avenue Baptist Church, the Democratic Women's Club, the YWCA, the League of Women Voters, and the National Council of Negro Women. She participated on numerous local, state, and national boards, including those of the Urban League of Greater Dallas, Goals for Dallas, Dallas United Nations, the Governor's Human Relations Committee, and the NAACP. During her fifty years of public service she received the Linz Award, Dallas's highest civic award (1969), the NAACP Golden Heritage Life Membership Award (1978), and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for public service (1984). In 1985 the NAACP recognized her fifty years of service to the organization. She visited the White House on invitations from presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter, the last of whom later called her "a living treasure." In 1985 she was one of seventy-two Black women featured in Women of Courage, a traveling photographic exhibit sponsored by the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College. The Dallas Parks and Recreation Department dedicated the Juanita Jewel Craft Recreation Center to celebrate Mrs. Craft's seventy-second birthday in 1974. The Juanita Craft Foundation was established in 1985 to further her ideals. She died on August 6, 1985, and was buried in Austin. The Craft Foundation donated her home to the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. She had no children but claimed to have "adopted the world."