February’s Black History Week was established by historian Carter Woodson in 1926 to recognize the achievements of African Americans. Fifty years later under President Ford’s leadership, the week was expanded to a month now also known as National African American History Month.
A history of African American achievements in Houston is beyond the scope of this blog but here are snippets about a few extraordinary leaders:
- The Buffalo Soldiers. In 1866, Congress established two African American Army cavalry and four infantry units. The early recruits were former slaves and Civil War veterans of the United States Colored Troops. The origin of the term Buffalo Soldiers is disputed among historians but according to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, the name originated with the Cheyenne who fought the African American soldiers in the Southwest and Great Plains regions. From the Indian Wars to the Korean War and integration, the Buffalo Soldiers were an integral part of the U.S. Army. On a sad note, one of the most violent interactions between the Buffalo Soldiers and the community where they were based occurred at Camp Logan (now Memorial Park) in Houston in 1917. For more information about the Buffalo Soldiers, visit the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston’s Museum District.
- Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. How can you discuss African American history in Houston and the nation without mentioning Congresswoman Barbara Jordan? A Fifth Ward native, Jordan was a graduate of Texas Southern University and Boston University School of Law. She then achieved many “firsts” throughout her career: as the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction; as the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from a southern state; as the first African American to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention; and as the first African American woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery. Throughout her career, she was a civil rights leader and advocated legislation that would assist underserved communities. While most Houstonians remember Jordan for her various achievements, the nation was introduced to her and her exceptional oratory skills (what a voice!) during her televised speech to the House Judiciary Committee on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
- Congressman Mickey Leland. Congressman Mickey Leland’s public service achievements began in Texas but ultimately reached an international realm. A graduate of Houston’s Wheatley High School and Texas Southern University, Leland was an active leader of the civil rights movement. In 1972, Leland along with Craig Washington became one of the first African Americans elected to the Texas House since Reconstruction. In Austin, Leland became a champion of health care rights for the poor, and he was largely responsible for the passage of legislation that provided low-income consumers with access to affordable generic drugs. Leland was elected in November 1978 to represent Houston’s 18th Congressional District, where he continued to work on behalf of the poor and the elderly especially in the areas of health care and food security. After he was chosen by Speaker Tip O’Neil to lead a bipartisan congressional delegation to assess conditions in famine-stricken sub-Saharan Africa, Leland returned to the U.S. and developed a diverse coalition of entertainers, religious leaders and private voluntary agencies to create support for the Africa Famine Relief and Recovery Act of 1985, which led to $800 million in food and humanitarian relief supplies. Leland continued to serve in Congress until his death in 1989 when his airplane crashed while leading a relief mission in Ethiopia.
- Mrs. Protho. Mrs. Protho was my third grade teacher. Now before you roll your eyes, consider the following. I attended Pearl Rucker Elementary School in a blue collar neighborhood of whites and Latinos near the refineries and Ship Channel in Houston. Rucker Elementary, like all previously segregated schools in HISD, did not have African American teachers in white schools until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mrs. Protho was among the first African American teachers at Rucker, and students adored her. She was smart, energetic and dedicated to making all of us the absolute best we could be—despite the fact that Jim Crow laws had to have been a recent memory for her and while desegregation was still being debated in neighborhoods such as ours. In hindsight, I am guessing that there was likely not an overwhelming amount of support for Mrs. Protho from many of the parents in those years, but I know most, if not all, of her students respected her. I also know for a fact that she taught and helped build confidence in a relatively smart kid in a neighborhood where few folks went to college.
Visit the African American Studies Program at the University of Houston’s College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences for a list of events celebrating African American History Month. Want to explore more? Be sure to catch the numerous documentaries now airing on HoustonPBS.
This blog entry was wriiten by HCPP’s Renee Cross: Associate Director, Hobby Center for Public Policy; Lecturer, Political Science, University of Houston; Lecturer, Political Science, University of Houston-Downtown. Expertise: Texas and Houston Politics, Politics & the Internet, Civic Engagement & Public Service.