Margaret “Mama” Jennings was a frequent customer at a beauty school on East Lancaster Avenue.
Linda McSwain owned the school and remembered Jennings’ weekly trips to get a shampoo and set. Jennings always paid and tipped the beauticians for their work. Even though McSwain closed the school in 2017, Jennings always supported its students.
“Some of the women on the east side of Fort Worth kept me going at the beauty college, but she was always my customer,” said McSwain, now owner of Herd It Thru The Grapevine Salon Spa & Suites.
Throughout her life, Jennings was dedicated to her community and advocated for access to education and awareness to issues affecting Fort Worth’s Black residents. Jennings died Jan. 19 at 97. She is survived by her youngest son, five grandchildren and two great-grand grandchildren; her oldest son preceded her in death.
Her son, Jerry Jennings, recalled his close relationship with his mother. The majority of his youth was spent with her, he said.
“We shopped and did a lot of talking about what was going on in the world and the future. Well, she did the talking and I did the learning,” Jerry Jennings said, with a chuckle.
Leadership at Butler Place
Jennings raised her family at Butler Place, one of Fort Worth’s low-income housing units. She lived there for 65 years.
Built in 1940, Butler Place was home to many Black families and was one of the last segregated communities in Fort Worth. Butler Place closed in 2020.
Jennings was vice president of Butler’s neighborhood organization. She helped bring a library and playground to her neighborhood.
When the city closed Butler, she was the last person to leave, said Wanye Lewis, who grew up in Butler Place. She told her son she planned to stay until the city knocked down the last brick.
Lewis was a classmate of Jennings’ oldest son, Devoyd “Dee” Jennings.
Jennings was like a second mother to Lewis, he said.
“She was always someone that I would come and talk to about things I could not bring up to my own mom,” Lewis said.
Lewis saw his mother in Jennings. Both women were single mothers of two boys. Lewis saw how Jennings would go above and beyond for her sons and other children.
Lewis remembered Jennings would often get onto the boys about hanging out a bit too much and lecture them from time to time.
Even though the Butler Place community was far from perfect, the residents looked out for each other. Jennings and other residents were determined to disprove the stereotypes that are associated with living in a community like Butler Place.
“It was tribal. You know, everybody was about everybody,” Lewis said. “She just told me to be on the straight and narrow, to be on my best behavior and everything.”
‘An inspiring person’
Jennings’ leadership in Butler Place inspired the creation of the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber, said Bob Ray Sanders, Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber communications director.
She helped maintain the chamber’s office during its early days, Sanders said. She helped keep the chamber going as Dee Jennings worked to inform Fort Worth about the organization. Dee Jennings was a community leader and president and CEO of the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce.
After Dee Jennings’s death in 2021, Sanders and the chamber kept in contact with Jennings, he said. She still offered to help in any way she could.
“She was always taking care of people, advising people and rallying young people to feel comfortable in her home,” Sanders said. “Even until the day she died, there were people who would visit her for inspiration. She was an inspiring person.”
‘A beautiful, beautiful soul’
McSwain instantly connected with Jennings after Dee Jennings introduced them. They talked almost every day until her death.
McSwain and Jennings discussed business and things they could do to help Tarrant County. Jennings was always trying to help someone, McSwain said.
“When I wasn’t busy, we would have lunch and she would just talk to me. She called it lecture lunches,” McSwain said.
During their final conversation, Jennings told McSwain she wasn’t feeling well, but she was excited about making some improvements at her apartment.
Then McSwain’s phone rang on Jan. 19.
“I saw Jerry calling me that evening and I just felt it,” McSwain said. “I still find myself wanting to call her. She was a beautiful, beautiful soul.”
During their friendship, McSwain always promised to Jennings she would do everything she could to keep her memory going. She recalled the promise she made to her longtime friend.
“If you leave before I do, I’m gonna make sure they understand that before there was a Devoyd Jennings, there was a Margaret Ruth Jennings,” McSwain said.
Taylor Coit is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.