A New Houston Rises

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

Our latest Community Spotlight, edited by Bernadette Pruitt, takes us to Houston, home of the largest population of African Americans in the South. Like many urban environments, this city provided an opportunity for black people to form a community that bred leaders, influenced local politics, and develop the area into a modern metropolis. At the same time, this urban setting has presented its own challenges, including living wage gaps, de facto segregation, and a lack of government investment in infrastructure and jobs.

What makes Houston unique is that it developed so haphazardly after the Civil War that there were few established laws preventing blacks from living and working alongside whites. Moreover, its proportion of black citizens remained steady; in other words, while the population grew, there was no massive influx similar to what other cities experienced—something that many opportunistic white political leaders have used as a pretext for discrimination and violence against black communities. Whereas other urban centers instituted segregation laws during Reconstruction (often as part of the post-war "Black Codes), Houston provided one of the best opportunities for former slaves to develop a community, build schools, and follow a "blue collar" path to security.

Where Houston was not unique, however, was in the role it played in the Jim Crow era. By the early twentieth century, a series of ordinances restricted black residents to the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards, while at the same time undermining the economic opportunities that had been built in the decades before. Looking back now, it seems inevitable that the resulting tension would boil over into violence. That day came on 23 August 1917, in what is now referred to as the Houston Mutiny, one of the deadliest race riots in history. Soldiers of the all-black Twenty-Fourth Infantry, stationed outside of the city, grew increasingly frustrated with the harassment they endured from both local police and citizens. Things escalated when police used gunfire in an altercation with black youths near the camp. Later that day, a group of soldiers armed themselves and marched on the police headquarters. In the ensuing conflict, over fifteen people were killed, and dozens of soldiers of the Twenty-Fourth were arrested. Later, ninety-five men were convicted of mutiny, with twenty-four sentenced to death (though not all of the sentences were carried out) and dozens serving prison terms for over a decade. It was the nadir of race relations in the city, compelling many blacks to move away for fear of retaliation, and even prompting an extensive report by the NAACP on the events that led to the riot.

The Houston story, however, is not simply about the oppression of African Americans, but about their efforts to endure and thrive under the ensuing decades of segregation and abuse. It was during this time that black Houstonians mounted one of the first boycotts of a segregated public transportation system—the newly built electric streetcars. In the wake of the riot, African American-owned newspapers began publication, including Houston Defender and the Houston Informer, the latter of which is still in operation today. Moreover, African Americans continued to build up their community and establish new institutions, with the most prominent being the Houston College for Negroes—founded in 1927 and renamed Texas Southern University in 1951.

As the city emerged from the Civil Rights struggle, new challenges arose that would continue into the twenty-first century. Like other urban centers, Houston experienced a gap in educational achievement and employment between whites and blacks. Moreover, the crash of the oil industry in 1982 affected African American laborers the most. However, the city continues to grow and provide opportunities, most notably during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when over 100,000 residents from neighboring states migrated to the area to contribute to a new Houston. Indeed, as a modern city with over six million residents in the surrounding areas, Houston is marked not so much by its white and black communities any more, but by its increasing diversity overall. Its tech and energy sectors, along with its universities, have drawn people from around the world to a city built and shaped by its African American history.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
May 2014

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Franklin School of Beauty
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Houston, Immigration to
Independence Heights, Texas
"Louisiana Houston"
Turkey-Day Classic, The
Houston Family and the Houston Place

New Biographies

Brooks, Lonnie
Bryant, Ira Babington, Jr.
Bryant, Thelma Scott
Lanson, William
Laws, Hubert, Jr.
Sample, Joe

New Primary Source Documents

Character Review of Soldiers Involved in the Camp Logan Riot (1917)
Excerpt from Out of the Ditch, by Joseph Vance Lewis (1910)
Freedman John Love Recalls Life on a Texas Farm (1938)
Houston: An N.A.A.C.P. Investigation (1917)
Houston Informer Editorial on School Segregation in Texas (1946)
Interview with Texas Cowboy Robert Lemmons (1940)
Judge Advocate General Memorandum Concerning Henry Green (1919)
Letter from J. Edward Perry to J.S. Cullinan (1927)
Letter from William Hough to the Lt. Col. S. T. Ansell (1919)
Report on Freedmen Murdered in Houston County, Texas (1866)

Archived Material

Houston Informer
Houston Mutiny
Houston, Texas
Texas Southern University