Texan married into a family feud when he moved to Birmingham

Joe Adams
Joe Adams

Today’s guest blogger is Joe Adams.

If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

A while back, my good friend Bill Ivey wrote a piece for ComebackTown about the history of Birmingham that recounted the elitists, racists, and snake-oil salesmen who built Birmingham.

It provided a great bibliography, with histories that told the story of how Birmingham was established. After more than a decade here, I’m still learning about the place I now call home.

It’s a lot to ponder.

I’ll admit to being odd and out-of-step. I’m an outsider from Texas, a state with the motto of “Friendship,” from an insistently optimistic and defiantly anti-elitist cowboy culture.

Texans bristle at social hierarchy and have a tendency to look people in the eye and expect the same. I attended a fully integrated public school, and I’m proud to be a graduate of the first high school class, in the state’s oldest school system that elected an African American homecoming queen in a majority white community— in rural Texas.

It felt like I married into a family feud when I moved here. After listening for a while, taking notes about who shot John and why yesterday’s chip on the shoulder is today’s big issue, I started to feel homesick for the summer I worked on the Houston Ship Channel building off-shore rigs with men and women from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Vietnam. Everyone, white, black, and brown seemed to get along so well, something I hadn’t really thought much about, until I moved to Birmingham in 2006.

Houston has a different vibe, but it also had dramatically different leadership at a critical moment in its past. About the same time that significant events in the civil rights movement in Birmingham were unfolding, Houston took a radically different path. Its leaders decided to integrate lunch counters, transportation, and department stores across the city in one day, with no fanfare. [1]

In some ways, Houston owes Birmingham a big thank-you for showing them what not to do. Leaders in Houston even said as much at the time. Even before the events of 1963, Birmingham’s reputation was recognized by civic leaders in Houston. [2]

The book, No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston provides a perfect counterpoint to what happened in Birmingham.

When black protesters staged a sit-in at Houston’s city hall cafeteria, then councilman (later mayor) Louis Welch, grabbed a tray and sat down with the protesters, saying, “Well, we don’t all have to be damn fools, do we?”  Then, “[he] went over and sat at a table beside ’em and started talking to ’em. And defused the situation.” [3] Welch wasn’t the only white leader to take that stance. Mayor Roy Hofheinz and business leaders in the oil and gas industry were major players.

It happened so fast, hardly anyone remembers that Houston integrated public accommodations.  Lamented as “Blackout in Houston” by Time magazine for the stealthy censorship that made it work without opposition, the idea was simple.  It was a surprise attack on the “Civil War” mentality that had prevailed, and it was orchestrated behind the scenes, by a coalition of black and white leaders, in advance. Over the course of a single day, the signs came down, department stores welcomed African American shoppers, and they were invited to sit at the front on buses. From Sakowitz to Neiman Marcus, shoppers mingled without incident. [4]  The newspapers didn’t even cover it the day it happened. [5]

Shortly after, both white and black communities worked together, taking turns driving through white and black neighborhoods to drum up support to pass the bond issue needed to build the “Harris County domed stadium,” which would become the Houston Astrodome, for what was then the Colt 45 football team, and later the Houston Oilers football team and the Houston Astros baseball team. It also hosted the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and countless rock concerts for decades. For the first time, vendors of all races were allowed to provide food and other services, providing jobs for everyone. The moment it opened, it became the largest integrated sports stadium in the South. The groundbreaking photos are priceless, with black leaders holding pistols (Colt .45s) in front of a row of white dignitaries to recognize the new team.

Houston still has problems, some owing to its own success, and many neighborhoods still suffer from decades of segregation and inequality, and there are perennial bigots running around causing problems here and there, but it’s now the most diverse city in the nation with a lot of friendly, cooperative people. In general, Houston was lucky because it had the right leaders at the right time, committed to the city’s future, as well as a shared memory of the horror of what happened at Camp Logan when they were young, something they did not want to repeat. In 1960, Houston had the largest urban black population in the South, larger than Atlanta, Birmingham, Dallas, Memphis, Miami, or Nashville,  If Houston exploded, it wasn’t going to be pretty. They knew that.

As  Gregory Curtis of Texas Monthly put it, “No one would claim that Houston today is a racial utopia. But more than in any other Texas city, blacks are represented in political and business circles, and the ugly and defeating polarization by race, as there is in Dallas, has not occurred.” [6]

Histories matter. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from them to write a better script for what comes next, especially when our leaders dare take responsibility.

Notes:

[1] There were at least two distinct stages, both with no local media coverage.  The first was in August 1960, for lunch counters, stores, and transportation, and the second was for hotels and restaurants generally on April 1, 1962,  See Cole, Thomas R.. No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston . University of Texas Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Footer, Alyson, MLB News, “Astrodome played major role in Houston’s integration.” May 28, 2014 (Accessed 11/25/19 at https://www.mlb.com/news/astrodome-played-major-role-in-houstons-integration/c-77158602)

[3] Cole, Thomas R.. No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston . University of Texas Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Footer, op. cit.

[5]  “Blackout in Houston,” Time Magazine, Monday, September 12, 1960 (Accessed 11/25/19 http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,897550,00.html)

[6] Curtis, Gregory, “The First Protester,” Texas Monthly, May 31, 1997 (Accessed 11/25/2019 https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-first-protester/)

Joe Adams, a Native Texan, lives in Avondale and works at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama.  He serves on the board of trustees of the Governmental Research Association. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of any institution or organization.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how  we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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4 thoughts on “Texan married into a family feud when he moved to Birmingham”

  1. So glad I grew up in small town Florence Alabama. I vaguely remember the B/W fountains and my HS was segregated in 68-69 & we ALL got along. We got along w/o the fire hoses/GSD’s & such like in Birmingham.
    Shall we learn to never repeat any atrocities against ANY race but stop bringing it up constantly as if to stir things up. Such as the Birmingham News which forments racism constantly. Moving on to the civil 21st Cenyury & beyond as united Americans not a Hyphenated people which segregates us again. God bless America and Alabama.

  2. i grew up in the ham..moved to missouri city in 98..and spent ten happy years there . i can attest to the truth of this and the dissapointment and shock i had in moving back to the ham. like a time machine in the not good way

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