Hidden museum encapsulates rich heritage of small Irving neighborhood

Nestled in a hidden Irving neighborhood, three quaint houses stand as remnants of the area’s rich black history.


Walking through the restored rooms of the Masonic Lodge, long time community member and museum board member Gale Norris was quiet.


“Whenever I come in here I feel so peaceful,” she said. “I can feel their spirits.”


The Jackie Townsell Bear Creek Heritage Center sits in the middle of one of the most historically significant areas in Texas. The neighborhood is the oldest African American community in Dallas County, established by freed slaves seeking good farmland in the 1850s.


As the areas around it flourished over the years, life in Bear Creek remained much the same, according Norris. The tight knit people of the community overcame many hardships, however, she still describes the areas as one of the most fun places of her childhood.


“There was no danger here,” Norris said. “Where I lived in Dallas, your parents wouldn’t let you go anywhere. But here, everybody knew each other. They had stores, they had a skating rink. I felt like I was getting out of prison when my mom let me come out here.”


On the walls of the J.O. Davis house, restored as a Bear Creek history museum, Norris sees the faces of her friends and family, people she grew up with.


“It’s so weird, pretty much all of these people, I know them,” she said. “If I don’t know them, I know their children. Walking through [the museum] and seeing my aunts, it’s weird in a sense, it takes me back to when I was a girl.”


From one end of the street to the other, Norris can point out houses where she played as a child during the 60s and 70s.


“This whole street was my playground,” she said. “They had this place called Roach, which was a dance hall. It was where you went if you wanted to get your groove on. We would tell our parents we were going skating and this was like the meeting place.”


In fact, that very dance hall is where she met her husband.


“I thought he was kind of rude at first but it turned out to be good,” she said, laughing.


Although her memories of the area are mainly based on the fun she had in the neighborhood, her family’s community involvement runs far deeper.


“My father founded New Home Missionary Baptist Church in this area, and the church right down the street my husband’s family founded,” she said. “Being in [the restored house] kind of feels creepy to me, like an out of body experience.”


Norris’s ties to the community have given her a passion for the center and the Bear Creek area as a whole. Her hope for the future is that more people come to share in that passion by visiting the museums.


“I think if a lot of people knew about it, we would have more traffic,” she said. “I’m always trying to spread the word about the houses.”


To visitors, the center may be a place to learn about black history in America, but to Norris and other community members, it is a place to remember and truly feel the generations that came before them.


“This community here is the same,” Norris said. “You see the people and they’re older, that’s all that’s changed. Every other house on this street I used to visit as a kid. People don’t do that anymore.”


Jackie Townsell Bear Creek Heritage Center is located at 3925 Jackson St. in Irving. Visit tinyurl.com/BearCreekHeritage for more information.