Teen curfew debate is nothing new. Fort Worth passed a law in 1897, the first in Texas

Bob Booth/Bob Booth

Recently, the Fort Worth City Council has been debating whether to continue a curfew on the city’s youth, 17 and younger, prohibiting them from being “in public places” between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and midnight to 6:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

The so-called “teen curfew” has been on the books for years and comes up for renewal periodically, the last time in 2016. The police department generally defends it, saying something like, “The kids know they have to be home at a certain time.” The debate was reopened in January, with officials still in disagreement on whether it works, though the curfew ordinance will be allowed to expire, for now.

Council members need to dig into the city’s history because this is not the first time we have wrestled with the problem. In stricter parenting times (1897) the council passed a “vigorous curfew ordinance” aimed at children. Fort Worth was the first city in Texas to adopt such a law, the work of Alderman Fred S. Boulware, who would go on to become “the Father of the Texas Curfew Law.”

Boulware’s proposed ordinance covered anyone under the age of 16, regardless of gender, who was on the street for any reason after a given time, which varied from season to season. The legal elaboration of the law covered a long column of newsprint, and the newspaper called it “the most important item taken up by the council” at the time. Though gender neutral, it was clearly aimed at boys who were part of the growing criminal element. Violators of the ordinance could be fined up to $25, presumably to be paid by their parents.

Fort Worth held itself up as a model for other cities across the country that passed similar curfews. And it seemed to work at first. A month after passage, Fort Worth police had not had to make a single arrest. Then in June the law claimed its first violator, 14-year-old Henry Estes. Brought to the station house by an officer, he was interrogated by Chief William Rea, who accepted the boy’s story that he was taking a homemade lunch to his brother, employed at Fort Worth Light & Power. After lecturing Henry on “the evils of loitering about the streets at night,” Rea sent him home. No word whether the lunch was ever delivered.

Responsibility for enforcing the ordinance fell upon the city court (aka, police court), presided over in 1897 by Judge J.H. Jackson. When three boys, ages 11 and 12, were brought before him, he lamented, “I have never pronounced a sentence I am so averse to” before fining each of them $1, which he explained meant “six days each on the rocks” if their parents did not come forward to pay the fines.

Not every parent was in favor of the curfew. Many, in fact, were openly opposed for a variety of reasons. As an alderman in another city explained when debating the issue, “If it is passed, the sons of some of the most prominent people in this city will be the first arrested,” and no official wanted that. Another alderman said he doubted “whether the law would even be constitutional in Texas.” Sure enough, it did not take long before one of the curfew laws came up before the state appeals court, which struck it down. This should have been all it took for other towns to back off, but most sat tight, waiting for the court to single their own laws out.

Chief Rea remained a committed supporter. In 1900, he said it had “lessened crime among the youth of our city to a great extent,” offering no numbers to back up his claim. Five years later, after the Fort Worth ordinance had been struck down on narrow grounds, he went on record favoring a new law “which could not be thrown out by the courts.” He argued that “boys of tender age” had been “ruined” by playing on the streets at night, while also pointing out contrariwise that it was “gangs of minors” who were committing a recent rash of burglaries in the city.

Tarrant County communities continued to pass curfews they hoped wouldn’t bring the courts down on them. In 1904, North Fort Worth, recently incorporated, passed an ordinance prohibiting children under 15 from being on the streets after 9 p.m. Four years later, Rosen Heights passed a curfew covering “all school children” for which details are not available. In every case, the argument was not so much about protecting innocent youth as stopping “burglaries being committed by small boys.” A curfew would keep the culprits at home, it was argued, ignoring two points: 1.) Would irresponsible parents do any better if an ordinance were passed? And 2.) What about the homeless boys who lived on the streets?

In the years that followed, curfews fell out of favor for both legal and social reasons. To many Texans, they seemed an unwarranted exercise of governmental power. Authority over children belonged with parents, not the police, who had better things to do with their time than play truant officer. When Waco city fathers passed a tough curfew ordinance in 1912, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram sneered, “Come on, Waco! Be fair to the kids ... What’s the use of trying to run it over the boys? Put the screws to the parents where the blame belongs.”

There things rested until 1994, when Fort Worth Police Chief Thomas Windham persuaded the City Council to resurrect the idea, dubbing it a “teen curfew” and focused on “protecting teens from becoming crime victims” rather than keeping them from becoming criminals.

Windham died in 2000, but the curfew lived on as part of his legacy.

Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.