Monday, April 9, 2012

Silent Transformation in the Bayou City: The Desegregation Process of Houston’s Public Facilities

            In the history of the civil rights movement, many events that set precedents and gained national attention were surrounded in, or followed by, violence.  In a 1967 article, Alan Scott documented the public sentiment of Texans with relation to the civil rights movement and remarked,
“The participation of the people of Texas in the struggles related to the civil-rights movement has elicited few headlines in the nation’s press.  There has been no equivalent to the events in Selma, Little Rock, Bogalusa, and Prince Edward County, or on the University of Mississippi campus.”[1]

These statements are true because in Texas during the 1960s there was no comparable civil rights event, or coverage of an event, to the movements that were occurring in many other southern states.  These statements reflect the legacy of the civil rights movement to end segregation in Houston.  In Houston during the 1960s, the fight over desegregation was the top issue, but there was no coverage of this event by the Houston media.  Civil rights action that occurred in many Texas cities during the early 1960s did not receive much coverage from the media.  The civil rights events that were surrounded in conflict received national coverage, and as a result, many civil rights events, which did not involve a high level of violence, are often overshadowed.  A majority of the civil rights activity in Texas is not widely studied by scholars, and, in particular, Houston has been understudied as a mark of progress in the civil rights movements.  In this paper, I plan to investigate the process of desegregation in Houston and examine the role of local civil rights organizers, the media, and the white power elite.  I will examine the influences and effects of the media blackout in Houston and explore how the threat of civil conflict affects the balance of power.  The desegregation process in Houston is complex, and it involved participation from a number of groups.  Houston is a unique case study, in the civil rights movement, of how the threat of civil demonstrations led differing groups of people to work towards the peaceful, immediate desegregation of public facilities.  Civil rights reformers in Houston struggled against a system of segregation based on deeply embedded norms.  The desegregation process of Houston offers an example of the, often times, hidden interaction between different power structures within a city and its effects on civil rights reforms.  I will begin by looking at the social atmosphere of Houston prior to desegregation; secondly, I will examine the Houston system of segregation based on deeply embedded norms and the effects it had on African Americans, and then I will examine the events of desegregation, in chronological order, to establish the changing roles of the participants.
            In order to understand the influences on the desegregation process in Houston, it is necessary to understand the type of environment in which this social change was born. Specifically, attention must be given to major events sparked by racism that occurred prior to the 1960s in Houston and also the level of pre-existing racial tension in the city.  In 1917 at Camp Logan, Texas, a black military policeman complained to two white police officers regarding their use of force when they arrested a black woman.  The two police officers pistol whipped the black MP and took him into custody along with the woman.  Another black military policeman entered the situation and was also brutally beaten and arrested.  When black troops from Camp Logan found out what occurred, they stole rifles from an ammunition storage room and marched towards the police station in Houston.  Approximately sixty-five black troops encountered a group of off-duty policemen and national guardsmen and an all night gun battle took place in the city.  By morning, 12 whites were dead and 14 wounded while one soldier was dead and four injured.[2]  Professor Thomas R. Cole, biographer of Houston civil rights activist Eldrewey Stearns, notes, “Memories of that awful night left black and white Houstonians over the age of forty with a palpable fear of a race war.”[3]  This incident left a mark on the remembrances of many older people who lived in Houston during the 1960s.  Race relations would stabilize in Houston during the period from the 1920s to the late 1950s, but this incident would stay fresh in the minds of many of the older white power elite and civil rights organizers, gravely affecting their outlook on upsetting the racial status quo.    Many older Houstonians would retain a constant fear of any situation that would be prone to causing racial strife.  Their fears will be reflected in their discussions of the events pertaining to desegregation.
            The level of pre-existing racial tension in Houston must also be examined if one is to understand the type of atmosphere that posed a barrier to, and eventually incited, unprecedented social change.  Professor Thomas R. Cole states that an “unwritten code of civility” guided the behavior of the general public in racial matters, which white Houstonians had grown accustomed to from the “quiet moderation and legal strategies of most older black leaders.”[4]  The older affluent black population in Houston did not participate in public demonstrations to achieve social reform, and this situation created an outward sense of complacency in race relations.  Eldrewey Stearns, a black Texas Southern University (TSU) law student, was driving home when he was pulled over by policemen on the morning of August 23, 1959.  The officers told him he was under arrest because he did not have proper identification.[5]  Stearns claimed he was brutally mistreated by the arresting officers, and also suffered beatings while he was in confinement.  In August 1959, Stearns vehemently reported his mistreatment at a Houston City Council meeting, and he received much press coverage from the Houston media and was subsequently interviewed by a young Houston journalist, Dan Rather.[6]  Professor Thomas R. Cole argues that this event magnified race relations in Houston, which at the time was the largest city containing the largest African American population in the South.[7]  The event received more coverage than usual because Stearns’ accusations of police brutality threatened the implied segregationist situation.  The complacent race relations situation that had been established in Houston over a period of three decades was suddenly disrupted.  The sit-in protests in Greensboro, North Carolina, which involved African American college students, rapidly influenced the impetus for social change throughout the nation.[8]  Professor Thomas R. Cole states that these sit-ins “silently broke through the old code of civility in race relations, which prized peace and goodwill while suppressing rage at indignities of segregation and second-class citizenship.”[9]  The civil rights activity in the South created a new avenue for African Americans to demand social change.  This direct action form of protest would eventually reach Houston and become the tool of civil rights reformers to inevitably threaten the balance of power of the affluent groups and political figures in the city.
            While sit-in demonstrations were becoming a highly visible instrument for social change in the early 1960s in other Southern states, Houston was experiencing civil rights action from conservative civil rights organizations.  The efforts of these adult-led organizations achieved victories but would eventually stir up feelings of rebellion among young African Americans.  Professor Thomas R. Cole described the system of segregation, known as Jim Crow, in Houston:
“More by custom than by law, blacks were segregated within or barred from white establishments such as hotels, theaters, restaurants, public schools, colleges, parks, jails, and hospitals.  In downtown Houston, a black man bleeding in the street could not get service from the driver of a white ambulance.”[10]

African Americans in Houston worked within their chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and implemented litigation to fight this highly visible, yet implicit system of segregation throughout the 1940s.  In the 1940s, the Houston chapter of the NAACP won a legal battle in Smith v. Allwright.  In this case, the United States Supreme Court banned the all-white democratic primary in Texas.  The NAACP also achieved another victory in 1946 with Sweatt v. Painter, in which the United States Supreme Court banned segregation at the University of Texas Law School.[11]  Eldrewey Stearns tried to enroll at the University of Texas Law School after graduating from Michigan State in 1957, but he was denied admission.  Stearns enrolled at the law school at TSU and met many other African American students that were becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of social change in Houston.  Professor Thomas R. Cole cites that “they (the students) began to see the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as an organization that provided a handful of comfortable jobs for lawyers but few practical benefits to the larger community.”[12]  The legal victories were few and far between in the eyes of the students.  They did not believe the legal tactics of the black conservative adult leadership were moving the desegregation process fast enough.  With sit-in demonstrations occurring daily in southern states during the 1960s, and a group of restless college students aggravated by the non-confrontational approach used by conservative blacks, these combined factors lead to the fight for the desegregation of Houston’s public facilities.
            The roles of the media, black adult leaders, and white power structure would change significantly from the first civil rights demonstration to occur in 1960 through later ones that would occur up to 1963.  The Texas Southern University (TSU) students channeled their energy and planned to arrange their first sit-in demonstration on March 4, 1960 at Weingarten’s Store, a local supermarket.  Eldrewey Stearns planned to call local radio and television stations to inform them of the protest and also the major white newspapers: the Houston Post, Houston Chronicle, and Houston Press.  Stearns also planned to contact the police about the protest.  On the evening before the sit-in, the TSU students went to the Baptist Student Center to see if Reverend Bill Lawson would give them nonviolent instruction.  Lawson was very critical of their plan to have a sit-in and tried to dissuade them from having the protest.  The TSU students left the Baptist Student Center vowing to move ahead with the sit-in no matter what would stand in their way.  The first sit-in demonstration in Houston occurred in March 1960.  The TSU students sat down at the Weingarten lunch counter in the white section and asked for service.  The store manager quickly closed the lunch counter, and the students waited to be served until finally the store manager locked the doors at closing time.  The police officers on the scene did not interfere with the protest, and no violence occurred during the first sit-in demonstration in Houston.  The local television and radio news programs reported the event that evening.[13]
The second sit-in occurred the next morning.  Curtis Graves, a TSU student, drove protestors to the Mading’s Drug Store.  When the students sat down at the lunch counter, the manager immediately closed the counter.  The students were confronted by whites who started to taunt them.  The police and the press showed up at that moment and the incident was dissolved.  Prior to the demonstration, Police Chief Carl Shuptrine had taken extra precautions to prevent the chance of violence and made the decision not to arrest the protestors.  Uniformed and undercover police officers had been set in place during the demonstration and police cars were ordered to stay close in the area but out of sight.[14]  Police Chief Shuptrine called Dr. Samuel Nabrit, president of TSU, to inform him that the students would not be arrested since he believed no laws had been broken and the students did not provoke any violence.  A few days after the first sit-ins, Dr. Nabrit made a speech to a general assembly of students and faculty and indicated that he would not try to stop the sit-in protests, and he indirectly stated his support for the students.[15]  The first sit-ins in Houston ran smoothly, but the changing roles of the participants in the desegregation process would greatly affect future sit-ins.
            The initial sit-ins established the starting roles for the participants in the Houston desegregation process.  The TSU students took a direct action approach to fight against discrimination, black leaders in the Houston community took both a conservative and neutral stance on the actions of the students, the media provided coverage of the events, and the police took extensive precautions to prevent violence and made no attempt to interfere with the protests.  With these initial victories and publicity for the direct action student-led protests, pressure ensued from political figures and conservative blacks.  On March 14, 1960, Houston Mayor Lewis Cutrer visited the TSU campus and brought a police convoy with him in an attempt to intimidate the students and discourage them from engaging in further acts of civil protest.  The students were not frightened by this display.  As part of an agreement to ease tensions, TSU President Samuel Nabrit asked the dean of students, Dr. J.B. Jones, to set up a meeting at City Hall between the TSU students and Mayor Cutrer.  The students came to the meeting looking to compromise, but Mayor Cutrer ignored their concerns.  He warned the students that they would be subject to arrest in future protests if they refused to comply with store managers who ordered them to leave the premises.  Despite the Mayor’s uncompromising attitude, Dr. J.B. Jones tried to persuade the students to stay in the meeting to reach some kind of agreement, but they left as soon as they realized Mayor Cutrer was not going to listen to their input.  That evening, TSU administrator Dr. B.A. Turner invited the students to his house for dinner.  The students, still wary from the meeting with Jones and Mayor Cutrer, sensed this invitation had an agenda behind it.  After dinner, Turner stated, “You guys have done a magnificent job…Now it’s time you young people step back and let us negotiators move in and handle it.”[16]  The students refused his suggestions and affirmed that they would continue to protest until desegregation was complete.  The success of the first sit-ins garnered a slightly negative response from conservative blacks, who wanted to handle it their way, and from Mayor Cutrer, who wanted to maintain order in the city.
            The threat of violence would have an increasing influence on participants of Houston desegregation.  On March 25, 1960, Eldrewey Stearns assembled a large mass of students and they all marched to the City Hall cafeteria.  When the students arrived, white patrons left the cafeteria, and the manager did not know whether to serve them.  Houston Councilman Louie Welch ordered the manager to serve the students because the city cafeteria had no right to refuse service to citizens.  The students were served food and the Houston media ran the story on the front page.  No violence occurred, but City Hall received a large amount of angry phone calls due to this event.[17]  With growing apprehension, the Retail Merchants’ Association (RMA), a group of white business owners, issued a statement to retail merchants throughout Houston urging them to participate in meetings of “Houstonians who are concerned that our community continue to grow and prosper free of the disorder and violence which took their toll on business and community life in Little Rock.”[18]  The fears of many people in Houston were sensing that the longer these protests took place, the more chance there would be for violence.  Bob Dundas, vice president of Foley’s department store in downtown Houston, watched the events that the students participated in very closely.  Professor Thomas R. Cole describes Dundas as a “hard-bitten, old-fashioned political fixer and lobbyist who played for keeps and worked faithfully with the city’s ruling elite.”[19]  Dundas was a teenager when the Camp Logan riot occurred in 1917, and his father had been called by a telephone operator to help protect the city.  Dundas later went to the morgue and saw the bodies of the people who had been killed in that shootout.  The protests of the students and the possibility of violence rekindled old memories of the racial conflict for Dundas.  After much effort, he got local downtown merchants to agree to desegregate their lunch counters all simultaneously on the condition that there would be no press coverage of the event.  Dundas got together with John T. Jones, publisher of the Houston Chronicle and president of Houston Endowment, and they worked to make sure that the event would not receive any news coverage.  Oveta Culp Hobby, owner of the Houston Post, agreed to their plan, and under threats to pull Foley’s advertising from the Houston Press, Editor George Carmack also agreed to Dundas and Jones’ plan.  They secured an agreement between local newspapers and radio stations to remain silent on the event for ten days.[20]  On August 25, 1960, seventy Houston lunch counters quietly integrated and Dundas greeted the TSU students when they arrived at Foley’s lunch counter and asked for service.[21]  The growing fears of racial violence led the white power elite to voluntarily desegregate and the result was a peaceful, relatively unnoticed social change in Houston.
            The national press soon criticized the Houston media for censoring coverage of the event.  On September 2, 1960, an article in the Texas Observer stated,
“We are still blinking our eyes—we can’t believe it!  The entire Houston press—newspapers, radio, and TV—entering into an overt conspiracy to suppress a major news development they had covered fully up to the time of its climax! … Inflammatory reporting is one thing, but truthful reporting is another…”[22]

A scathing critique of the Houston media’s actions was also made in an article titled “Blackout in Houston” in the September 12th issue of Time magazine.  The article reported the comment that one unnamed Houston media official gave on why the stores decided to go along with the secret plan: “The stores wanted to integrate the lunch counters at the least possible cost.  They wanted to lose neither Negro nor white business.  They felt that not publicizing the event was their safest course of action.”[23]  Both economic and safety concerns were influences in the desegregation process and also motivated the Houston media blackout.  The adult black leadership and the TSU students were all involved in this act of desegregation in Houston.  Despite the criticisms of the national media, the voluntary desegregation of seventy lunch counters in Houston went virtually unnoticed by the general public.
            The black conservative adult leadership in Houston played a hidden role in many of the events in the desegregation process.  In February of 1961, TSU students staged an attempt to get service at the Union Train Station cafeteria, which served interstate travelers.  The students were trying to take advantage of the 1960 Supreme Court case, Boynton v. Virginia, which prohibited segregation in waiting rooms and restaurants that served interstate travelers.  When the students arrived, the manager called the police.  The police charged the students with loitering and took them to jail.  The students’ lawyer, George Washington, Jr., paid their bail with money donated from the Harris County Council of Organizations, a group of affluent black businessmen.[24]  In 1957, the Houston Sports Association (HSA) led a campaign to bring a major league baseball franchise to the city.  The city needed to build a stadium in order to get a franchise and Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz was in charge of gathering support for voters to approve a public bond to build the world’s first domed stadium.  He asked Quentin Mease, South Central YMCA director, to gather support among African American voters for the bond issue.  Mease and other affluent black businessmen agreed to campaign for the bond issue only on the condition that the new stadium be a fully integrated facility when it opened.  Hofheinz accepted the agreement and with the support of African American voters, in 1958 the bond issue passed and the stadium was built. This event led to the desegregation of Houston’s convention hotels.  Hofheinz did not want the city embarrassed by having African American baseball players stay in segregated hotels, so along with John T. Jones, who had played a critical part in desegregating Houston lunch counters two years earlier, he convinced hotels to desegregate in April of 1962.  This event marked the second time in the Houston desegregation process that a media blackout occurred.[25]  The affluent black leaders used their monetary stature and influence in the city to make great contributions to the desegregation process playing a behind-the-scenes role.
            One of the last major demonstrations in the desegregation process of Houston never happened.  This event relied on the participation of an extensive network of people with differing interests.  Houston planned to have a nationally televised parade to honor astronaut Gordon Cooper on May 23, 1963.  Reverend Bill Lawson, who had first criticized the TSU students for planning sit-ins, was now working with them.  Reverend Lawson, along with other TSU students, planned to use the parade as a way to desegregate movie theaters and restaurants.  They told Quentin Mease that all the students were going to block the parade route in front of national television cameras.  Mease organized the protest so that it could be used as a form of leverage in desegregation negations.  Mease contacted African American businessman Hobart Taylor.  Taylor had extensive ties to the white elite and set up a meeting to persuade theater and restaurant owners to desegregate their establishments.  John T. Jones and Bob Dundas again played a critical part in convincing theater and restaurant owners to desegregate.  Mease informed Jones and Dundas that if they were unable to convince the theater and restaurant owners to desegregate, TSU students would block the parade route and embarrass the city in front of a national audience.  The fail-safe point to call off the protest was eleven A.M. on the day of the parade.  This time marked the last point at which TSU students would call Mease to find out whether the protest would take place. On the day of the parade, Jones and Dundas finally convinced the theater and restaurant owners to desegregate on the condition that there would be no media coverage of the event.  The TSU students were contacted at ten thirty A.M. and the parade went ahead as scheduled with no interruption.  This event led to the third and final media blackout in the Houston desegregation process.[26]  The negotiating power was in the hands of the adult black leaders and the TSU students.  Houston experienced another monumental social change without any awareness of what happened that day beyond the people involved in that event.
            Meaningful change did happen in Houston during the 1960s.  The desegregation process in Houston included a significant amount of participants.  It forced people, with differing interests at times, to interact with each other.  A major racial conflict that occurred almost four decades before the sit-in protests in Houston fueled the fears of many people and led them to ultimately advocate desegregation rather than the possibility of violence.  African Americans in Houston battled their way out of an implicit yet highly visible form of segregation, and the combined power of influence and prosperity wielded by conservative black adults, and the threat of civil protest posed by young college activists guided the progress of desegregation.  Members of the white power elite avoided what they saw as a potential racial conflict, and they implemented media blackouts.  These blackouts resulted in the peaceful desegregation of public facilities at a time when violence was prevalent in the struggle for desegregation in many other Southern states.  As in many smaller civil rights movements, we are not always aware of the influences that led up to, or the people that played a part in, certain events.  The desegregation process of Houston is a vivid example of the different roles that power structures played in the civil rights movement, and the unseen work and efforts of people that participated in this complex social change.
Works Cited

Beeth, H., and Wintz, C. D., eds. Black Dixie: Afro‑Texan History and Culture in Houston. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press 1992.

“Blackout in Houston.” Time. (1960, September 12): 68.

Cole, T. R. No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press 1997.

Cole, T. R. (Producer), & Berman, D. (Director). (1998). The Strange Demise of Jim Crow [Motion picture]. United States: California Newsreel.

Scott, A. “Twenty‑Five Years of Opinion on Integration in Texas.” Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 48(2)  (1967, September): 155‑163.

“Unbelievable.” The Texas Observer. (1960, September 2) 52(22).

University of Houston. “Untold Stories: The Strange Demise of Jim Crow in Houston.”    Published online at [cited June 30,     2005].

[1] A. Scott, “Twenty‑Five Years of Opinion on Integration in Texas.” Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 48(2)  (1967, September), 155.

[2] University of Houston. “Untold Stories: The Strange Demise of Jim Crow in Houston.” Published online at [cited June 30, 2005].
[3] T. R. Cole, No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press 1997, 25.

[4] Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 17.
[5] Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 14.
[6] Ibid, 15-16.
[7] Ibid, 19.
[8] H. Beeth and C. D. Wintz, eds. Black Dixie: Afro‑Texan History and Culture in Houston. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press 1992, 213.
[9] Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 22.
[10]Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 23.
[11]Ibid, 23-24.
[12]Ibid, 25.
[13] Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 26-30.
[14]Ibid, 30-31.
[15]Ibid, 33-34.
[16] Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 36-38.
[17] Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 40-42.
[18] Ibid, 43.
[19] Ibid, 54.
[20]Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 55-57.
[21]Cole, T. R. (Producer), & Berman, D. (Director). (1998). The Strange Demise of Jim Crow [Motion picture]. United States: California Newsreel.

[22] “Unbelievable.” The Texas Observer. (1960, September 2) 52(22).
[23] “Blackout in Houston.” Time. (1960, September 12), 68.
[24] Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 64-67.
[25] Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 78-79.
[26] Cole, No Color Is My Kind, 93-97.