Downtown Tyler business owners reminisce as demolition nears for courthouse project

Smith County will lose a piece of its history to herald a new period of growth.

Properties on the east side of the downtown Tyler square will soon be demolished to make room for a parking garage and a new courthouse.

The parking garage construction is expected to start this month, with an estimated build time of 10 months. Demolition of east side buildings should also be complete by that time.

Progress comes at a price

Spring Avenue and Erwin Street were once called “Black Wall Street” because many Black-owned businesses were located near there, according to Larry Wade, Smith County Historical Society president.

“It showed a large presence of Blacks in Tyler, Smith County, who were successful business leaders. Segregation was very big during that time, not only downtown but in different parts of the county. Blacks had to have their own businesses,” Wade said.

Courthouse plan

This rendering shows the exterior of the new Smith County Courthouse with the associated parking garage structure. 

Smith County Jude Neal Franklin said while the buildings will be demolished, the history will live on for years to come. 

“The history there is incredible, and we’ve already got plans to do a pictorial, walk through the history on the walls, at least in our law library, but potentially even in the jury room,” Smith County Judge Neal Franklin said. “We don’t take it lightly. It’s just part of moving forward, and we’re building a building that’s going to be historic.”

Wade said it’s sad to see the community lose such a significant piece of its history. 

“It’s a great loss. Sometimes progress comes at the cost of losing historical landmarks,” Wade said. “This is a prime example. Blacks have lost many historical structures, like schools and businesses, in the name of progress, which is very unfortunate.”

The $179 million Smith County courthouse bond passed on Nov. 8, 2022. Ballots showed 40,120 people, or 53.73 %, voted for issuing $160 million in bonds for a new courthouse and $19 million for the associated parking structure.

There were 34,552 people, or 46.27%, who voted against the bond.

Like those who voted ‘no,’ some downtown employees aren’t satisfied with the plans to demolish historic buildings and are concerned about constructing a new courthouse and parking garage.


A street sign on the corner of E. Erwin Street and N. Spring Avenue. 

First Choice Bail Bonds has since moved to 324 E Erwin St., but office manager Tina Beddingfield said she loves the soon-to-be-demolished building at 123 N. Spring Ave.

Beddingfield has photographs of the building when horse-hitching posts were outside and added that the nation’s first African-American barber college was established on Erwin St. in 1933.

“We’re all very proud of our historic district — what’s left of it,” Beddingfield said. “They’re tearing it down. There’s going to be no more historical downtown Tyler.”

Businesses on Black Wall Street included the Tyler Barber College, the first barber college for African Americans in the country, which was founded by Henry Miller Morgan in 1934, according to a National Register of Historic Places Registration Form submitted by the Texas Historical Commission. Morgan provided training for hundreds of aspiring Black barbers and beauticians. His school became a chain with nationwide locations, including Houston, Mississippi and New York.

Due to financial hardships, Tyler Barber College closed in the 1970s. By then, most Black barbers in the U.S. were trained and shaped by the Tyler Barber College.

“Students came from all over the United States and around the hemisphere to learn how to be barbers and to be licensed so they could go back to their respective cities and towns to practice that trade,” Wade said.

Joel Baker wishes the county had chosen the block to the east of Fannin, which was one of the first three locations suggested. It would have been less disruptive to businesses and would have preserved some of the last remaining historical buildings downtown, said Baker, owner and partner at Murphy and Baker Law Firm.

“I love the history of downtown and the Tyler Barber College history is an amazing story that made its founder a millionaire. I hate to lose that part of our community’s history,” he said.

The law firm will remain downtown; the demolition will cause only a short-term disruption until their new location is remodeled.

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The Senate Building, where Archie S. Senate, a Black physician and surgeon, ran his medical practice in the 1930s. It is embedded with a plaque reading “SENATE,” on the upper zone of the building.

There is also the Senate building, where Archie S. Senate, a Black physician and surgeon, ran his medical practice in the 1930s. It is embedded with a plaque reading “SENATE,” which appears in the upper zone of the building.

People’s Barber Shop was located in the building for 30 years before the courthouse project.

“I went there in 1990, but I’ve been right around there on that same square all this time,” owner Billy Cross said. “I worked in several shops. They got torn down too because of renovation and stuff like that, like it is now.”

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An interior view of Tyler Barber College opened by Henry Morgan at 212 East Erwin Street in 1934.

Cross was part of one of the last classes of Tyler Barber College. He attended the barber college from 1966 to 1967. It took him about 12 months of studying part-time to complete his education.

While Cross can see the need for the courthouse, he said it’s unfortunate People’s Barber Shop was located in the spot that was needed. He opened his new location at 18043 FM 1252 in Winona on Aug. 10.

A restaurant owned by Robert W. Porter called People’s Café also occupied this property. In the neighboring building at 212 East Erwin St., Clarence McDaniel, the son of a schoolteacher, ran People’s Drug Store.

Other businesses included East Texas Phonograph Company, owned by Morgan and his colleague Emmett J. Jones; Hill’s Café, run by Lewis Hill; and a dental practice established by Dr. Edward L. Francis. More Black-owned businesses composed Black Wall Street, but the properties they inhabited are no longer extant.

‘That’ll be the end’

The Kamel family held a building downtown for over 100 years, using the spaces for everything from a hamburger joint, dress shop, concession supply warehouse and, today, a home for 87-year-old Rodney Kamel’s lifelong assortment of antique and unconventional collections.

“When I leave here, that’ll be the end of that dynasty,” Kamel said.

The historic building at 211 E. Ferguson was constructed in 1902 and has never been remodeled. It features original fixtures, sliding and bathroom doors and a steel storefront.


The historic building at 211 E. Ferguson serves as a home for 87-year-old Rodney Kamel’s lifelong assortment of antique and unconventional collections.

Kamel started collecting when he was 2 years old. Since then, he’s accumulated everything from A to Z and has to sell his collection as he closes the doors on his warehouse for the last time.

“I have a wealth of World War II stuff, 1940s, 1950s stuff, and I’ve got stuff we took out of buildings downtown that we bought or rented that go back to the 1860s,” Kamel said.

He has pinball tables, small appliances and more than 100 RPM records, WWI, Nazi and Japanese war memorabilia, antique cash registers, spotlights, sound and stage equipment and more, most of which was made in America, he said. He also has an extensive collection of firearms.

Despite the building’s slated demolition, he commended Smith County elected officials for their dedication to progress. Kamel served on the Tyler City Council for 12 years and understands the importance of forward development.

“We need this courthouse. This one we’ve got, we’ve used it up,” Kamel said. “It’s way too small. I don’t know what they’re planning to do with this new one, but we desperately need it.”

Beddingfield doesn’t oppose a new courthouse but suggested the county underestimates the price tag and should consider allocating funds toward improving community and law enforcement relations rather than constructing plans that could disrupt downtown businesses.

Franklin is “deeply involved” with the construction process. He said the project will stay within budget with furniture and landscaping included. Franklin added that the decision to build on the square’s east side was based on limiting interruption to businesses.

“We are committed to working alongside city officials and our construction team to keep the lines of communication open with the public and all of our downtown businesses and residents,” Franklin said. “We’re going to do our best to make it come in on schedule and under budget — or at least on budget.”


The Arcadia Theater(left) showcased the first talking pictures in Tyler in February of 1929.

‘Only option’

The Arcadia building was a performing arts theater when it was originally built; now, it houses Martin Walker Law Firm and is soon slated for demolition. The law firm plans to move into a downtown building between Southside Bank and KLTV news station.

Owner and partner Jack Walker said the area of Spring Avenue behind the current courthouse is relatively untouched and has an elegant and historic architecture that ideally would not be torn down, but he is on the side of progress.

“In the end, it’s unfortunate, but it is the only option,” Walker said. “We’re definitely in favor and have been in favor of the new courthouse.”

Anyone who’s been inside the current courthouse knows it does not meet the needs of the region, he said. The new one will have plenty of space for courtrooms and other facilities.

The first Smith County Courthouse was a log cabin on West Erwin Street in 1846. A year later, a new courthouse was constructed of logs on East Ferguson, according to the Smith County website.


The first Smith County Courthouse was a log cabin on West Erwin Street in 1846. A year later, a new courthouse was constructed of logs on East Ferguson.

In 1848, a 520-square-foot log courthouse was built on the square. The county prospered, and in 1852, the first brick courthouse was built in the center of the square. The log courthouse was moved and used as the jail. The courthouse was remodeled and expanded and was used for 57 years, until 1908.

In 1910, county officials dedicated the courthouse commonly remembered in Smith County. Located in the center of downtown, where Broadway Avenue now runs, it was known for its beauty. It was used for 45 years before it was demolished and replaced, according to the county. The current Smith County Courthouse was dedicated in 1955 and has been used for 68 years.


The Tyler Barber College has a Texas Historical Commission State Historical Marker installed outside the original building. According to residents, Smith County promised to return historical markers to the area once the courthouse project is completed.

Marking history

There are numerous historical markers signifying achievements made by early Smith County settlers.

The barber college has a Texas Historical Commission State Historical Marker and five Half Mile of History markers, including Wood T. Brookshire, who started the Brookshire Grocery Company in Tyler on Sept. 1, 1928. Brookshire began with four employees in a small, 2,500 square-foot store, according to BGC. 

Other markers recognize Mattie Jones, the first female member of the Tyler Chamber of Commerce; Sarah McClendon, a journalist who established her news service and covered 12 presidents as a White House reporter; and more local historical figures.

According to Cross, Smith County promised all landmarks would be restored after completion.

“They promised that that historical mark would always continue to be there because there’s a legacy,” he said. “That’d be the only kind of remembrance of that area.”

courthouse plan

A rendering shows the planned Smith County Courthouse and parking garage.

Decades in the making

Over the past 20 years, numerous studies have been conducted to assess the needs of the courthouse and the judiciary and offer suggestions on possible solutions.

Each of those studies has reached the same conclusion: constructing a new courthouse and associated parking structure are needed to accommodate the county’s judicial system’s growth, logistics and security needs.

Baker is “generally in favor” of building a new courthouse, but is concerned about the details.

“My biggest concern is that the development of the plans have only included the judiciary, prosecutors and law enforcement. There are other stakeholders who should have been included in the process,” Baker said. “As a taxpayer, I’m concerned about recent investments in the current courthouse which will prove to be a complete waste when the courthouse is demolished.”

Demolition is complicated with older buildings. Most of them contain asbestos, which must be abated.

According to Franklin, all the details still need working out, but the plan is to begin demolition of the buildings on the east side of the square during the construction of the parking facility.

Residents have questions about what will happen to office furniture, equipment and marble inlay work, and organizations have inquired about using metal detectors to uncover forgotten historical relics.

“The county can only do certain things with their surplus,” added Casey Murphy, Smith County communications director. “You have to auction it or give it to a nonprofit.”

Franklin added that everything that can be utilized will be saved, and discussions will be had on what can be preserved, kept and restored after demolition. The current courthouse will remain in service during the construction of the new courthouse.

All court proceedings will continue their routine during the construction of the parking garage and the new courthouse. Some parking changes will occur during the construction of the parking facility, but the public will have ample information before the changes.

For many years, jurors have parked in the large lot on East Ferguson Street, but now, those reporting for duty are being asked to park in the Fair Plaza Parking Garage, located at 208. S. College Avenue.

“We want to start getting the word out now about the juror parking move so people will be used to the idea well before the lot is no longer available to them,” Franklin said.

Build time for the parking garage is expected to be 10 months. The plan is to demolish the square’s east side before the parking facility’s completion. Construction of the courthouse will begin after the parking garage is completed.

Years of discussions, surveying, renderings, drafts and plans has now become a reality. As the start of construction nears, residents have mixed emotions but ultimately, elected officials hope residents can look forward to the progress being made in downtown Tyler. 

Kamel, majorly affected by the demolition, is one of those who can see the positives.

“Tyler, Texas, is a beautiful city. We have some of the best human beings living in Tyler on the face of the Earth, and I have been everywhere coast to coast to coast to coast,” Kamel said. “I couldn’t find a place on the face of the Earth better than Tyler.”

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