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the town can attract some high-paying jobs by training a 21st-century workforce. They eagerly show off murals local artists painted on downtown buildingsbucolic, pastel scenes of old West pioneers, livestock and steam trains. The small library will soon be renovated. Most of all, the town has invested in education, building a new high school and hoping this generation of Hale Center residents will stay. That ideal future feels far away in Laney’s old usedcar garage, where friends gather each morning to gossip and recount stories about the town. The garage is filled with relics. There are Packards, Studebakers and old, retractable hardtops. Old license plates, dealer’s plaques and discarded keys line the walls. As the menonce farmers, blacksmiths and business ownerssmoke and sip watery coffee from Styrofoam cups, Herman Cozart eagerly talks about the day he was supposedly mayor. He never quite seems to finish the tale. “The story changes every time you tell it,” cuts in Ronald Farmer. Cozart, in his 80s, proclaims he has no worries about the town. \(“He’s not worried about anything, old as he is!” shouts one of the others at the machinery, Cozart shakes his head. “That’s what ruined this town is those cottonpicking machines,” Farmer shrugs. “We’re not that different from the rest of the world,” he says. “Technology always loses jobs.” HALE CENTER’S DECLINE has been particularly hard on the town’s black population, many of whom worked in agriculture. Across Highway 27 and on the other side of the railroad tracks, the east side of Hale Center once was home to a sizable black community. Now five African-Americans sit in lawn chairs outside one home, surrounded by fields and crumbling roads and two younger children. In the 2000 census, Hale Center reported 114 black residentsdown from 140 in 1990and the population has likely declined further in the last 10 years. “Basically, this is all the black you see,” explains Jimmy Roberts, gesturing to the others. Sitting next to Roberts, Bobby Ross agrees: “We’re probably one of the last generations that’s going to be here.” At 55, both men remember a segregated Hale Center before they left for better jobsRoss went to the railroad, while Johnson drove trucks across the country. They came back to care for elderly family members and have stayed to watch the town’s black population wither as children and grandchildren head to Lubbock and beyond. “In another five more years, you can’t just walk up and see just an African-American like me,” says Roberts. “Us older guys, you can see us fading away.” As a police cruiser passes for the second time in a little over an hour, everyone in the circle says the police can be a frustration. “They just hassle us by the little stuff,” says Ross. Kiszzy Estrada, at 33 the youngest adult in the yard, complains that her children haven’t been taught about Juneteenth. “They don’t even teach black history,” she says. Bobby Ross laughshe wasn’t taught black history in schools, but then, he says, “We knew it all along.” No one here has much hope that blacks will return. But if the black community of Hale Center is disappearing, the growing Hispanic community has gradually taken a larger role in town affairs. At Owl’s Cafe, Tejano music plays in the background. Among strings of chili-pepper lights and flags, the walls have posters advertising bands. There’s an autographed picture of Grupo Suerio, the 2009 Tejano Music Award winner, and a larger sign for Cuatro Vientos, a mariachi band out of Lubbock. There’s also a series of certificates honoring the restaurant and its owner, Melchor GomezMel to anyone around here. Gomez came from Houston 16 years ago to lead the town’s now-shuttered Jerusalem Baptist Church. He soon became a prominent leader in Hale Center and the first Latino member of the Hale Center City Council. Now two of the five city council members are Latinos. Gomez has continued to work in churches, all primarily Latino. As he’s moved from one church to another, Gomez has worked to forge relationships between white and Hispanic residents, holding joint services at white churches and making his restaurant a popular spot for politicians of any party. “Of course,” he laughs, “the Hispanics sit on one side, the whites sit on the other.” Still, Gomez has seen the town change dramatically. He’s been a Chamber Hale County -3396 population change 69% Avg. GOP vote for statewide election 54% Hispanic population The coffee drinkers gather each morning at former Speaker Pete Laney’s used-car garage. PHOTO BY ABBY RAPOPORT DECEMBER 10, 2010 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 131