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School Days, School Days

For many Independence Heights residents, their earliest memories of the neighborhood focus on their school days. The average child growing up in the City of Independence Heights attended Mrs. Booker’s Kindergarten, the Independence Heights School (later renamed Burrus Elementary), and lastly, Booker T. Washington High School (previously called Colored High).

_____ Before beginning elementary school, Mary Lee Taylor attended Mrs. Booker’s kindergarten, which she recalls was “one room, about the size of a garage.” When the children would act up, Mrs. Booker “would get her switch and she would call it ‘Brother Rabbit’.” Today, when Mrs. Taylor disciplines her own grandkids, she says, “I’m going to get my ‘Brother Rabbit’.”

_____ Vivian Seals fondly remembers her days at Mrs. Booker’s kindergarten. Mrs. Seals recalls nearly all of the neighborhood children attending the school, which was located in a building directly behind its founder’s home. The founder, Susie Horton Booker, who many children affectionately called “Aunt Sue,” earned her teaching certificate from Prairie View College before moving to Independence Heights in 1910.

_____ Mrs. Booker’s commitment to the children was evident in her generosity. She never refused children because of their parents’ financial status. The school’s success was demonstrated by the excellent preparation for elementary school that the students received. Mrs. Booker’s kindergarten, now called Williams Academy, still serves the Independence Heights community.

_____ By the time a dozen or so families had moved into Independence Heights, the need for an elementary school had become evident. In 1911, with the help of Harris County, local leaders worked to create a school at the 600 block of E. 39th street, and a two-room building from the Sunset Heights community was moved onto the site. The first teacher in the new Independence Heights School was O.L. Hubbard, a graduate of Prairie View College.
_____ As the population increased, the student body outgrew its small schoolhouse and classes had to be temporarily held in both the New Hope Baptist Church building and in the General Mercantile Store, By 1928, a new building for the school was constructed on 33rd street, and P.H. Holden had become the first principal. When it opened, the school was renamed in honor of James D. Burrus, a former slave who became a successful black educator.

_____ For high school classes, students attended Colored High, which was established in 1892 and rebuilt (on the same site) in 1927 to accommodate the growing numbers of students (for more than 25 years it was Houston’s only high school for African Americans). In 1928 it was renamed Booker T. Washington. According to Mrs. Seals, the elementary school that she attended in the First Ward, outside of Independence Heights, was first named Booker T. Washington, but its name was changed to Brock Elementary when the high school took the elementary school’s former name.

_____ Booker T. Washington, named for the famous leader, was the closest high school to Independence Heights, but it was still outside its city limits. Students had to take the streetcar to the Fourth Ward where the school was located. In 1959, the school moved to 39th Street, inside of Independence Heights.

_____ Many of the neighborhood’s residents attended college, but given the financial and racial constraints of the time, most attended black colleges and universities. After Mrs. Seals graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1933, she attended Houston Colored Junior College. According to Mrs. Seals, this college was formed in 1927 after members of the greater Houston African American community (including Independence Heights) requested that a college for African Americans be established in Houston. Although many members of the Houston school district were against the idea, citing that there were other black colleges nearby (the closest was in Prairie View, 50 miles away), the school district superintendent at the time, Edison Oberholtzer, agreed with the petitioners.

_____ In 1927, Houston Colored Junior College was established under the direction of the Houston Independent School District. Thus, the tireless efforts of community leaders made a profound impact on the educational opportunities of Houston African Americans, by creating an institution where they could receive advanced degrees.

_____ From 1927 to 1934, Houston Colored Junior College was run by the Houston Independent School District. In 1934, it changed from a 2-year institution into a 4-year college and became the African American branch of the University of Houston. At that time it was renamed Houston College for Negroes. The university eventually became Texas Southern University.

_____ Lota McCullough Charles attended TSU and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education. Her two older brothers helped scrape together the money to pay for her first two years of school. Mrs. Charles says, “There was just a handful of us [black youth] that finished college.” She recalls that even with a college degree, “The only thing that a black woman could really do and make some money was to be a teacher.”

_____ Helena Allen does not recall having role models to encourage her as a youth to aim for college. But Mrs. Allen still had the self-determination to pursue a higher education. While she was raising her children, Mrs. Allen returned to school to become a geriatric nurse. She states that she just had to find the time to study so that she could achieve her dreams.

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