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Life before Civil Rights

The hard work of visionary and political leaders of the Civil Rights Movement significantly changed life for all Americans nearly 50 years ago. But many Independence Heights residents have stories of segregation that bring this dark period of U.S. History to attention once again.

_____Full-blown segregation did not emerge immediately after the Civil War, or even when Reconstruction ended. Rather, there existed a period of time during which race relations and even social conventions were ambiguous. In the case of Houston, segregation and the laws that enforced it developed randomly over the course of several decades. But over time, by both law and social custom, segregation grew to affect nearly every aspect of daily life in Houston.

_____A number of new laws passed by the Texas Legislature and the Houston City Council illustrate how gradually segregation emerged. The first official segregation law was a part of the new Texas Constitution of 1876 and called for the separate, but equal education of all Texas schoolchildren. A state law in 1891 segregated railroad cars. In 1903, a city ordinance segregated all streetcars in Houston. Other segregation laws followed: segregation of public facilities in 1907, public parks in 1922, and public busses in 1924. The ordinance regarding city busses was revoked in 1932, however, after residents of the affluent River Oaks neighborhood complained to the city when their African American housekeepers were not able to get to work because of overcrowding on the busses.

_____I knew that I was black anywhere I went,” says Vivian Seals. “On the streetcar you sat in the back. On the train, you sat up in the front. The trains had windows, so all of the soot and stuff coming out of the smokestack — you’d breathe that . . . So you had a terrible place wherever you were . . . How did I react to it? I didn’t like it, but at that time there wasn’t anything you could do about it, but abide by the law.”

_____Mrs. Charles also remembers segregation affecting African Americans’ ability to get around town. “We had to sit on the back seat, [at the] back of the bus,” she says. “They had a sign up on the bus that said ‘Colored’ and ‘White’. We were not allowed to sit in front of that sign.” Mrs. Charles continues, “When the bus would begin to get crowded with white people, then they would push that sign . . . back for you to move on back further to let the white people sit down . . . We would have to stand.”

_____I never had much contact with white people,” says Vivian Seals of her childhood, “because I lived in Independence Heights, which was an all black city.” Despite this, Mrs. Seals’ family attracted the attention of the local Ku Klux Klan because her father served as the city’s second mayor. She vividly recalls that night that two white men “came to our house under the pretense of using our phone. Well, they knocked on the door and dad didn’t let them in. They said, ‘We want to use your phone.’” Her father’s response was to tell the men to leave, and when they refused to do so, he picked up a rifle he kept by the door. She continues, “You had to click [the hammer] to use [the rifle], and they heard that through the door, so they went on their way. They decided they didn’t need to use our telephone.” When asked why the Ku Klux Klan members came to her house that night, Mrs. Seals’ answered, “They didn’t like what was going on in Independence Heights. Too much good stuff was going on for black people.”

_____Lota McCullough Charles has several memories of segregation and its effect on her academic life. “When I got ready to go to high school,” she explains, “I had to go to Booker T. Washington High School. I could not go to Reagan. I passed Reagan up because of segregation.” Mrs. Charles adds, “[Blacks] only had three high schools: Booker T. Washington was in Fourth Ward, Jack Yates was in Third Ward, and Phillis Wheatley was in Fifth Ward.” She also remembers that “we only had black teachers” because of segregation. Helena Allen says she didn’t really notice the segregated schools. She remembers, “We really didn’t know the difference at the time because we had never been exposed to a nonsegregated school, so it was . . . the norm.”

_____She does, however, clearly recall the trouble that segregation in downtown Houston could pose to an African American. According to Mrs. Allen, there were not “many places [downtown where] blacks could go to the restroom, and you’d be on one end of town and you had to punish yourself [to wait] to go at the other end of town” where black businesses with restrooms were located. Mrs. Allen also remembers very few downtown restaurants at which African Americans could dine, “and when she did [find one], you had to stand at a little window and order your food.”

_____Mrs. Seals recollects that “[store owners] wouldn’t let you try on hats. If you went to the store to buy a hat, you just looked at it and bought it.” In addition, Mrs. Charles remembers being segregated at The Majestic, the downtown movie theatre, which allowed African Americans to sit only in the balcony. Many blacks avoided this situation by patronizing the Lincoln Theater, which was owned and operated by O.P. DeWalt, a resident of Independence Heights.

_____In Helena Allen’s experience, segregation and racism also meant limited job opportunities for African Americans. “At that time, if you worked at the post office . . . you had some of the best jobs blacks could get.”

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