Larry O’Neal is an open history book of Fort Worth.
Ask, and you shall receive an oration on almost any key affair in Fort Worth history. You might start with the last great Comanche chief Quanah Parker, move on to Amon Carter, and then visit to more recent developments like the Panther Island project.
“I try to talk history as much as anybody lets me, or will listen to me,” O’Neal said.
Every so often, he uncovers information that he can’t stop talking about, given the significance he considers it holds.
Currently, the 71-year-old self-taught historian has switched his focus from history to current events: the 2021 Fort Worth elections.
Only 39,410 Fort Worth residents voted in the 2019 municipal election, a dismal showing of the nearly 1 million population. As the administrator of a 114,000-member strong Facebook group, O’Neal believes it’s his responsibility to educate the group members on election matters and get more people to the polls.
The Fort Worth Memories Facebook group, where old photos of Fort Worth are shared and discussions of bygone days held, has pivoted into a civic engagement community and a voter resource center for group members in this year’s election.
“When we see a problem, I make a post about it, and we get thousands of comments,” O’Neal said. “I then forward those to the mayor and City Council. And believe me, strength is in numbers. They pay attention.”
O’Neal can make that claim, given the group’s past pursuits and experiences.
Mary Keys Gipson, a Fort Worth nurse born a slave in the 1800s, is regarded as the first African American graduate nurse in the South. Much of her existence was lost to history until O’Neal dug out her story two years ago.
After months of research into Gipson and tracking down documents from her lifetime, O’Neal brought the matter to the city leadership and requested the city recognize Gipson’s contribution to Fort Worth. In addition to his historical knowledge, O’Neal holds the leverage of having a huge public following.
In his Fort Worth Memories Facebook group, O’Neal made a post about how the city reneged on an agreement to have O’Neal declare a proclamation to recognize Gipson at City Hall, he said.
“And there were 2,300 negative comments in two hours,” O’Neal said. “I got a call, ‘You got to take that off there.’ ” He responded: “I’m not taking nothing off there until I get in writing what’s going to happen because I don’t trust you.”
Against the backdrop of the Fort Worth General Elections in 2019, O’Neal stood alongside Mayor Betsy Price to officially proclaim March 5 “Mary Keys Gipson Day.”
History in the making
At least twice daily, O’Neal conducts live streams on the Fort Worth Memories Facebook group, where he broadcasts his thoughts on issues pertaining to Fort Worth and provides updates or new action plans.
Mayor Price appeared in one of O’Neal’s shorter, live video sessions in mid-March. Price came by in her bicycle wearing a bright yellow helmet and bicycle gear.
“They can volunteer. Have them out to small groups, to talk to people. They can be the eyes and ears of the people,” Price said about the Facebook group.
Since early March, O’Neal has started reaching out to candidates running for election, asking them their positions on issues and discussing their ideas to tackle challenges. Mayoral candidates Brian Byrd, Deborah Peoples, Mattie Parker, Steve Penate and DC Caldwell have all been interviewed live by O’Neal on Fort Worth Memories group. Candidate Ann Zadeh is yet to make an appearance during this election cycle.
The interviews are a way of holding people accountable, O’Neal said.
“By interviewing prospective candidates for mayor or city council or school board, we have videos on our group that never go away, and you can go back and research and see what they say, what’s their idea about Fort Worth,” O’Neal said.
The videos garnered hundreds of thousands of views. Group members also presented questions and concerns to the candidates through the video’s comment section.
Vickie Humphrey, a 69-year-old member of the Facebook group, said she appreciated O’Neal’s efforts to educate the public.
“It’s given us an opportunity to have a feel on certain subjects that I probably would have just had to do on the Google, and I don’t use the internet as much. I’m not real good at it myself,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey has been a lifelong resident of Fort Worth. She lives in the far southeast part of Fort Worth near Mansfield. Since joining the Fort Worth Memories group two years ago, her membership has allowed her connection with the city to remain strong.
“I don’t get way up in the middle of town very often,” Humphrey said. “(The group) gives me a say-so to places, on information that I wouldn’t go downtown to get.”
Keeping the record straight
Before the Facebook group reached its current level of popularity, it was simply an online repository for O’Neal to share historic pictures and documents from his collection at Fort Worth Memories Museum. Most of the live streams and candidate interviews take place behind his office desk at the museum.
The Facebook group started in 2016. O’Neal’s collection of Fort Worth history started when O’Neal got a hold of a 19th-century Fort Worth land deed 48 years ago. It was to be his first in many.
O’Neal’s traces his love of history back to his uncle, the famous photographer and collector Jack White.
O’Neal kept collecting items as he grew his knowledge of Fort Worth’s history. The process that started in his early 20s has now transformed into a collection of 80,000 Fort Worth-related artifacts that includes over 57,000 photos and 19,000 documents.
The Fort Worth Memories Museum, tucked in a small space adjacent to O’Neal’s car detailing business near South University Drive, exhibits about 5,400 pieces of artifacts from his collection. O’Neal has cached the rest in climate-control storage units across Fort Worth.
“Everything in here is Fort Worth-related. No artwork, there’s none of that,” O’Neal said. “It’s Fort Worth. It’s the nuts and bolts of what happened.”
Underneath his office desk is a Fort Worth city guidebook from 1896, which lists all the property owners during that time period.
Modern-day pioneer Amon Carter had 85 keys to the city made to present to various leading figures of the nation, including U.S. presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Three of those keys are exhibited in a corner of the Fort Worth Memories Museum.
The museum also houses Carter’s last phonebook that has the phone number for President Dwight Eisenhower.
In folders upon folders of photographs and old newspaper clippings, the average life of Fort Worth is also in full display at the museum.
“When I go down there and it just floods memories back, walking in my memory lane,” Humphrey said.
Learning, preserving history
Scott Sumner moved to Fort Worth two years ago. He said he’s grateful he found the Fort Worth Memories Museum and the Facebook group.
“I haven’t been in Fort Worth much longer,” Sumner said, “so, I’m learning the history along with everyone else on the group.”
Sumner is the moderator for the Facebook group. About half a dozen new members get added on an average day. Sumner has to go over hundreds of posts and even more comments every week. Managing a Facebook group as big as Fort Worth Memories is a large undertaking, but hasn’t been difficult, he said.
“Our members are generally pretty well behaved,” Sumner said.
Although the online community lives on in harmony, the physical museum that gave rise to the community is undergoing a phase of uncertainty.
The museum charges $10 for a one-hour tour conducted by O’Neal. O’Neal said attendance has severely decreased because of the pandemic.
All the expense for upkeep and buying artifacts for the collection is financed solely by O’Neal. There is no contingency strategy in place for the museum, he said.
“Out of all these 80,000 pieces, when I go, a bunch of that history goes,” O’Neal said. “So we need to get it documented.”
O’Neal said he wants his collection to be shifted to a city-operated building. But formal discussions to lay out any such plans haven’t been held yet.
“It’s somebody stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, we got to do this.’ It takes private sector money and it takes public. And it takes our city leaders to say, ‘This guy’s got the only Fort Worth Museum in Fort Worth.”