Lenora Butler Rolla, teacher, journalist, political activist, community leader, and humanitarian, was born on March 4, 1904, in Palestine, Texas. She was the daughter of Richard and Amanda Butler. The granddaughter of slaves, Lenora grew up in a poor working-class household without indoor plumbing in Anderson County and faced the challenges of poverty, disfranchisement, and racial segregation. Her father was a laborer, and when Lenora was five, her mother moved to Fort Worth to find domestic work for a white family. Lenora Butler subsequently spent summers with her mother in Fort Worth until she permanently moved there when she was a teenager and attended Fort Worth Colored High School (now I.M. Terrell High School), from which she graduated in 1921. She studied at Bishop College and then took correspondence courses at Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) while working as a substitute teacher at her alma mater. She also took extension courses at Texas Christian University and Purdue University.
Throughout her life, she explored a variety of occupations. Just after World War I she worked as a proofreader for the Black newspaper Fort Worth News. While in her twenties, she worked at Southern Christian Institute in Edwards, Mississippi, but most of her early career was spent working, for twenty years, at her uncle’s insurance business in Fort Worth. The insurance industry offered opportunities for upward mobility for African American entrepreneurs.
Lenora’s interest in politics inspired her to move to Washington, D.C., in 1936 in order to work for Mary McLeod Bethune. Franklin D. Roosevelt had just appointed Bethune to run the “Negro Affairs” division of the National Youth Administration. When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Lenora Butler stayed in D.C. to work for the U.S. Maritime Commission, for which she received a War Service Certificate. She also took classes at Howard University during this time.
While visiting her home in Fort Worth, Lenora Butler fell in love with railroad worker Jacob Rolla. Although he initially followed her to Washington, D.C., the couple moved back to Fort Worth shortly after marrying on June 22, 1945. They remained together until he died in 1984. Though they had no children of their own, Lenora helped raise her husband’s children from a previous marriage. As the newlyweds settled in Fort Worth, Lenora Rolla continued experimenting with different career paths. She taught high school for some time before becoming a funeral director in 1948 at the Hardee-Adams Funeral Home. In 1951, after she passed the federal civil service exam, she became Fort Worth’s first Black female postal clerk.
Lenora Rolla also excelled as a political journalist and editor covering the emerging civil rights movement. In 1952 she became managing editor for the African American newspaper the Dallas Express and reported on political events of national significance, including the 1952 Texas Republican Convention in Mineral Wells and the 1955 bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama. She served as managing editor of the Dallas Express until 1956. She became dean of women at Jarvis Christian College, a historically Black institution in Wood County, Texas, in 1955 and served until 1958.
While in Chicago in 1963 for the Urban Training Center, Lenora Rolla heard about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “March on Washington” and took a train to Washington, D.C., to participate. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech inspired her to bring the fight for civil rights back to Fort Worth. Rolla had long been an active community leader in Fort Worth, especially in matters pertaining to the Stop Six neighborhood where she resided. Since the 1940s, she had been a member of the Tarrant County Precinct and Workers Council, where she advocated employment opportunities, decent housing for African Americans, and eliminating the poll tax. She also organized boycotts against Fort Worth businesses that refused to hire Blacks. In addition, Rolla worked hard to revitalize predominantly African American neighborhoods and construct historical markers for Black landmarks in the city.
Local Black history preservation became one of Rolla’s most enduring legacies through the founding of the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society 1974. The organization aimed to celebrate the undervalued history of local Black leaders, landmarks, and businesses by encouraging residents to donate their personal collections of pictures, documents, and newspaper clippings for archival preservation. The organization also hosted events, including Martin Luther King’s birthday and Juneteenth. Initially opened to the public at Rolla’s private residence in 1977, the society moved to its permanent home in the historic A. L. Boone house on East Humboldt Street in the 1980s. They had 200 members by 1984. The society moved a large portion of their collections to the Fort Worth Public Library in 1996 while the A. L. Boone house underwent renovations. The Lenora Rolla Heritage Center Museum and research facility reopened at the restored historic residence in 2011.
Lenora Rolla was also a respected religious leader in her community. She spoke at the World Convention of the United Christian Missionary Society in 1953 and served as president of the Christian Women’s Fellowship the following year. She also helped found the local Community Christian Church, where she actively participated for more than seventy-five years, and became the first female elder. Rolla also served on the board of the Fort Worth Area Council of Churches. A devout humanitarian, she operated the East Hattie Street Haven when it opened in 1968. The facility provided food and clothing to poor Fort Worth residents, especially children. Although Rolla had no children of her own, she gave shelter to and unofficially adopted more than fifteen young drug addicts, refugees, abused children, orphans, and drifters. As many as six lived with her at a time, and many stayed for a decade or more.
Rolla received many honors and awards throughout her life. In 1971 she was presented with a congressional citation by U.S. Representative Jim Wright and an honorary resolution from the Fort Worth city council at a banquet to raise money for the East Hattie Street Haven. She was inducted into the Black Woman’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and received the Carter G Woodson Memorial Award for positive leadership two years later. In 1996 the Stop Six community honored her at their annual Heritage Day observance, which marked the founding of the community 100 years prior. On her ninety-fifth birthday, on March 4, 1999, Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr and the city council declared the day “Lenora Butler Rolla Day.”
Lenora Butler Rolla died at the age of ninety-seven at her home in Fort Worth on June 29, 2001. Her funeral, hosted at the Community Christian Church where she had been a staple, featured speeches by dignitaries from all over the country honoring Rolla’s legacy. Former state representative Doyle Willis called her the “Rosa Parks of Texas” for prudently advising elected leaders on behalf of the African American community. Fort Worth Mayor Pro Tem Ralph McCloud read a tribute from Mayor Kenneth Barr declaring Rolla had “reshaped [Fort Worth] forever.” Rolla was buried in Cedar Hill Memorial Park in Arlington.