Jessie May McGuire Dent, African American educator, civil rights activist, suffragist, and founder of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., was born to Robert McGuire, a city police officer, and Alberta (Mabson) McGuire on March 24, 1891, in Galveston, Texas. The family lived in a house next door to her grandfather, John McGuire, on Avenue R between 27th and 28th Street. The house was a block from the Gulf of Mexico. When she was nine years old, she and her family survived the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Her grandfather and many of the family’s neighbors died. Her and her family’s experience during the storm and its aftermath is unknown.
In 1908 McGuire graduated from Galveston’s segregated Central High School. She attended Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C. On January 13, 1913, she and fellow Texans Myra Davis Hemmings, Zephyr Chisom Carter, and Frederica Chase Dodd were among the twenty-two women at Howard University who founded Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a prominent service organization, which in 2020 had more than 300,000 members and chapters around the world. She served as the first corresponding secretary of its Alpha Chapter. Later she was a charter member of the Gamma Chapter in Galveston.
On March 3, 1913, with encouragement from national civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell, Jessie McGuire and the sorority founders chose as their first political act to march in the woman suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. McGuire and the other seniors wore their caps and gowns and marched with Terrell in the segregated section of the procession. She graduated from Howard the same year. Soon after, she returned to Galveston and was hired to teach English and Latin at Central High School. Her starting pay was $50 a month (see SEGREGATION and EDUCATION FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS.
In 1924 McGuire married Thomas H. Dent, a Galveston civil rights attorney. The couple lived with her widowed mother at 2818 Avenue R. In 1929 the couple had a son, Thomas H. Dent, Jr. She and her husband helped form the Colored Independent Voters’ League in Galveston in 1930. In 1938 the couple divorced, and her mother died. In 1940 Dent experienced a devastating loss with the death of her son.
In her career Dent served as the Dean of Girls for Central High School. She was also active in the Gamma Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Colored Unit of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. She maintained an active leadership role in the Colored Teachers State Association (later Teachers State Association of Texas), and in 1941 she joined its Texas Commission on Democracy in Education. The group’s goal was to promote equality for African American teachers and schools among salaries, funding, course quality, and accreditation.
After teaching at Galveston’s Central High School for thirty years, by 1943 Dent was only receiving $1,548 annually. On March 10, 1943, she filed a petition on behalf of Black teachers, administrators, and secretaries and requested that these individuals receive equal pay to their White counterparts. For some time the Galveston school board paid Black educators twenty percent less than White teachers with the same qualifications. The petition was initially denied, but Dent and her attorney, William J. Durham, persisted. Dent’s petition argued that it was unconstitutional for Black teachers and administrators to make less than White teachers on the basis of race because it violated the Fourteenth Amendment. On June 15, 1943, after an unrelated U. S. Supreme Court decision on pay discrimination and several similar suits in Texas, including one spearheaded by Thelma Page Richardson of Dallas, Judge T. M. Kennerly of the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled in favor of Dent. After negotiations with the court, the school board was given until the fall of 1945 to fully equalize salaries. As a result, the salaries of eighty-four Black educators increased incrementally in 1944 and 1945 until they reached equity with White teachers. Dent continued to fight for equality; she advocated integration in Galveston’s public schools.
On March 12, 1948, Jessie McGuire Dent passed away. With all her family members deceased, her sorority sister, Frederica J. Dodd, was listed as the informant on her death certificate. In 1999 the city of Galveston recognized her activism and civil leadership by naming the McGuire-Dent Recreation Center at Menard Park in Galveston in her and her father’s honor. The park and center, at 2222 28th Street, is located on property her father once owned and a half-block from her home. The Gamma Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority of Galveston honored her by establishing the Jessie McGuire-Dent Scholarship Fund. In January 2021, state legislator Toni Rose introduced a resolution in the Texas House of Representatives to recognize the role of Dent, Carter, Hemmings, and Dodd as Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., founders as well as other prominent sorors Barbara Jordan and Ruth Jones McClendon and the organization’s contributions to the betterment of the state, the United States, and other nations.