Leona Ford Washington, teacher, community activist, newspaper publisher, and founder of the McCall Neighborhood Center in El Paso, was born in El Paso in 1928. Her parents, Eugene and Lollie (Wells) Ford had four children: Leona and her twin sister Leana; Eugene, Jr.; and Roland. Leona’s mother was a housewife/employee of the Poplar Store and her father a shop helper for Southern Pacific Railroad. From early childhood, she grew up in El Segundo Barrio in El Paso and later attended Douglass School. Leona received her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Prairie View A&M College (now Prairie View A&M University) and, upon graduation, served in the Alumni Association’s local El Paso chapter. After college, she taught in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for two years before returning to El Paso to teach. Leona Ford was married to James Washington and had a son (who died in infancy) and a daughter, but the marriage was dissolved.
Mrs. Washington, as she was known to all, taught for thirty-nine years in the El Paso Independent School District, initially at the segregated Douglass School and subsequently retiring from Alta Vista Elementary School in 1989. She was fluent in Spanish and particularly knowledgeable about the histories of the Mexican-American and Native-American communities of El Paso, and she drew attention to these histories in her classroom.
Through the years, prominent El Pasoans—including the mayor, city council, business leaders, non-profit officials, and philanthropists—sought Washington’s advice and counsel in improving the city and race relations. Her most important work and contributions were in the development and progress of El Paso’s black community. She was a longtime member and supporter of Second Baptist Church (founded in 1884) and frequently played organ and sang in the choir for Sunday services. She was active as a charter member and secretary of the Black El Paso Democrats. Washington was cofounder of the Martin Luther King Committee and led in the campaign to bring many prominent speakers and individuals to the city, including King’s daughter Rev. Bernice A. King. She was a cofounder and principal organizer of the annual Miss Black El Paso Southwest Scholarship Pageant and served as president, vice-president, and treasurer of the Phillis Wheatley Chapter of El Paso, helping in her official capacity to provide sustenance for needy families and the elderly. She served additionally on the NAACP, the El Paso Community Foundation Advisory Board, the Arts and Resources Board of El Paso, and Planned Parenthood Board of El Paso.
The enduring legacy of Washington was in her role as founder and executive director of the non- profit McCall Neighborhood Center, established in 1983 and named in honor of the famed Douglass High School Teacher Olalee McCall and her husband, Marshall McCall, who served as the city’s first African-American mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. The McCall Neighborhood Center served the larger African-American community as well as the Mexican-American community (the majority population in the area) as a meeting place for events ranging from political issues to reform. The facility held educational classes; health fairs; a senior citizens lunch program; and social events and celebrations such Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Juneteenth, and Kwanza. Fraternities, sororities, Inter-Club Council, and Inter-Denomination Faith Council also convened at the center for monthly or periodic meetings.
Aware of the importance of historic memory and current information on which to base decision-making, Washington wrote and edited The Good Neighbor Interpreter newspaper (formerly known as the Southwest Torch) which, in the absence of significant information on African Americans in two El Paso dailies, frequently provided historic timelines on the black community, biographies of past and present leaders, and essays on the host of significant issues impacting the local black community. Subsequently, at the McCall Neighborhood Center, Washington began to build a library on black history and collected artifacts related to the evolution of the local black community. Her photographic collection, which she donated to the University of Texas at El Paso in 1991, contains more than 800 pictures evident of luminaries, ordinary persons, and activities in the black community.
Her numerous awards included induction into the El Paso County Democratic Hall of Fame, 1984; Commander’s Award, White Sands Missile Range, 1989; induction into the El Paso Women’s Hall of Fame, 1991; and the city of El Paso’s Conquistador Award, 2000. She was honored in 2001 with the renaming of the Missouri Recreation Center as the Leona Ford Washington Recreation Center. She also received Woman of the Year Award in 2002 and the Myrna J. Deckert Lifetime Achievement Award by the YWCA in 2007 (posthumously). During the 1980s Washington composed a song on El Paso, “The City of El Paso,” which Mayor Jonathan Rogers adopted as the city’s official song, though many accept Marty Robbins’s hit, “El Paso,” as the city’s official song.
Leona Ford Washington died in El Paso on August 5, 2007, at the age of seventy-nine. She was survived by her daughter. Many El Pasoans as well as former students credited Washington for building the black community from within and establishing good relationships with other groups—Anglos, Mexican and Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. She was fond of noting, “My students would tell me that I preach too many sermons. I wouldn’t be teaching. I would be preaching.”