Pieces of History
By Debbie Z. Harwell
My parents were born in the early 1910s and had definite ideas about racial boundaries. Growing up in Houston I learned from an early age, “You don’t socialize with them.” Although I do not specifically remember being told to whom “them” referred, the meaning was clear. As I got older my mother’s words translated to what I now recognize as a fear of miscegenation, “If you associate with them, you will marry them.” But times changed and, thankfully, so did my parents’ views – well, not about interracial marriage for their only child but about accepting African Americans as part of society. Perhaps that is why the study of civil rights intrigues me.
About two years ago, after spending several days studying the 1960s civil rights movement in my U.S. History class, one student said, “Gee, Dr. Harwell, I always thought the civil rights movement was just black people marching and then they got their rights.” In high school he had heard only the limited narrative of Rosa Parks refusing give up her bus seat and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. Further, the student had no idea that the movement had any impact on him as a millennial Latino.
When hearing the term “civil rights,” many people think of the 1960s movement to end segregation and disenfranchisement of African American voters. Protests in that era – the sit-ins, Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, and the Selma to Montgomery marches – led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the quest for civil rights is so much more.
Historian Vincent Harding argued that the civil rights movement in this country began when the first captive coming from Africa resisted slavery. And it has not stopped. The quest for civil rights certainly involves organizing and demonstrating, but it includes a host of other methods, some of which are so subtle they might be overlooked as part of the struggle. Houston History has covered some of these stories in past issues, from the Great Migration to the landmark civil rights cases that ended the white primary and segregation in higher education, from early suffragists to the National Women’s Year Conference, and from Mexican Americans creating la colonia to the growing spirit of inclusion as Houston proudly proclaims itself the nation’s most diverse city.
This issue examines the ways people have exerted agency—a sense of control or desire to control one’s destiny—in the stand for civil rights. It opens with the Camp Logan incident in August 1917, in recognition of its hundredth anniversary. Although the event is frequently called The Camp Logan Riot, I take issue with that term because frequently it is used to place blame for the violence solely on the African American soldiers, many of whom had served admirably around the world. When analyzing the racism and police brutality they experienced in Houston in the context of the times, however—the Waco, Texas, lynching of Jesse Washington attended by over 10,000 people in 1916 and attacks by white mobs who killed an estimated one hundred African Americans in their East St. Louis communities days before the troops arrived at Camp Logan—we gain a deeper understanding of why these men took up arms in response to rumors that a white mob was advancing on them.
Other individuals featured in the magazine broke down barriers through their political activism. Eldrewey Stearns and students from Texas Southern University began a sit-in movement that put pressure on local businesses to quietly desegregate. Eleanor Tinsley championed minority rights while on the school board and city council. She faced harsh treatment in retaliation but, nevertheless, continued the fight and improved living conditions for all Houstonians. Coach Bill Yeoman, in his quest for the best football team he could muster at the University of Houston, integrated the team in 1964, opening the door for African American players in colleges across the South that wanted to stay competitive.
We can learn from Guadalupe Quintanilla’s story, which could come straight out of today’s headlines. In 1978 a riot erupted in Moody Park in response to the death of Joe Campos Torres at the hands of police who received a slap on the wrist for their actions. Seeing this division between law enforcement and Latinos, Quintanilla conceived the Cross Cultural Communication Program to create understanding between the two groups and assist police in getting to know community members as people. Recognized by leaders across the United States and the United Nations, her model could be used today as our country faces similar challenges—a remarkable achievement for an “uneducable” immigrant and first-grade drop-out (who later earned a Ph.D.).
The “Departments” articles on the African American Library at the Gregory School, preservation advocate Minnette Boesel, and early television programming at KUHT also focus on creating understanding and making the city a better place by instilling respect for our history at its roots.
Telling the story of agency in the quest for civil rights is like making a crazy quilt, one created from irregularly shaped pieces using a variety of fabrics. Each piece—large or small, soft or rough, of any color or pattern—adds to the greater whole, which is not complete until all of the pieces are in place. These articles and others in our past issues represent but a few blocks in Houston’s larger story, but without them, the image we have of the civil rights struggle will remain a limited narrative.