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Interview with: Bennie Jackson
Interviewed by: Nicolas Castellanos
Date: December 8, 2009
Nicolas Castellanos (NC): Good afternoon this is December 8th 2009. I am joined here with Mrs. Bennie R. Jackson and she is giving her testimony for the oral history project at the African American Library at the Gregory School and Good Afternoon.
Mrs. Bennie Ruth Lewis Jackson (BJ): Good Afternoon.
NC: Just for our project and the record, would you please state your full birth name.
BJ: My name is Bennie Ruth Lewis Jackson.
NC: OK and would you please state where and when you were born.
BJ: I was born out in a little town outside of Bellaire which is called Riceville and my date is…my date of birth is 11 – 21 – 37, and we moved to Houston, I think, when I was about three years-old.
NC: Great and Mrs. Jackson you had mentioned that you were a former student here at the Gregory School.
BJ: Oh, yes, I was here in the Forties and I really enjoyed being here, this was a beautiful school at that time, I had many friends and we…actually I learned how to read and write down stairs, in that first room down there…and later on I moved-up in grade… I don’t remember the teachers at the time because it’s been a long time ago, but I do remember Mrs. Boutte who was our principal, she was a great lady.
NC: Do you remember anything particular about Mrs. Boutte that you would like to share?
NC: A story?
BJ: Well I was called in there one time because…of a fight after school and I was involved in it and…so we were disciplined for that very severely but we…other than that that was the only time I was in to see her.
NC: OK and here we are today in 2009, what do you think of the renovation of the school?
BJ: I think it’s beautiful and it really brought back many memories as I walked into the building and then I thought about where my last class was because I was right outside …the tree, and I remember we had to draw that tree and I found out that I had an ability to draw and so…we had a great education here. [Mrs. Jackson identified a tree on Victor street, an oak maybe, on the far East corner of Victor Street]
NC: Great and… earlier you were discussing memories of a street car that passed through this neighborhood.
BJ: Oh, Yes, the street car, the trolley as we called it. It made a turn like…around and came back again, came down Andrew which has lots of cobbles…cobble streets and I think you can still see the tracks down in some places and it will go down to Victor [Street] and turn right pass the Western end of the grave yard [Founders Graveyard] and go up to West Dallas and make a right, and, you know, you could get off where you wanted to get off, but anyway it would come all the way again and come back to Andrew and that was the way the street car went everyday
NC: And…And you say it took you to Downtown
BJ: Yeah, we were just right…from right across the street from Downtown. We turn down Victor [Street], you could get off, because you only had a couple more blocks to walk before we got to Booker T. Washington [Houston, Texas high school] which was on the right hand side and…that was not far from town so we could walk, and…
NC: And you also mentioned that it took you to the Carnegie Library.
BJ: Oh Yeah, The Carnegie Library was on Fredrick Street, I remember because I was impressed by…you had to walk up the steps to go to it and…but I don’t remember everything…that was inside, but that was our library at that time.
NC: OK…and you also expressed an excellent memory of some of the businesses that were located here in the Fourth Ward, and would you please explain some of them.
BJ: We had lots of businesses, we had two cab stands back in the Forties, one was on this side of a…highway and the other side of…the freeway and one was on the other was on the other side close to Booker T. Washington [Street]. And then we had a night club called the Harlem…I think it was the Harlem Grill and we had tailors, we had a tailor shop, we had haberdashery shop, we had an ice cream place we had many…a couple of drug stores, and we had a dry goods place, and then they had lots of clubs, there and I remember during that time that it was…the time that gambling was prevalent you could just walk up in the clubs and they had a gambling table and everything was going on…you could go to…the barber shop that they had all the people, the people that were entertainers would come to Bill’s Barber shop when they came to town cause you could get a great shoe shine and get a good haircut and then on the corner they had the “Doghouse” the famous “Doghouse”, a club there where you could get, take, twenty-five cents and go and get a big pot of chili which was really good and you fed the whole family, and it was about five of us in the family, so you know that was a lot of chili. And then during that time, they had a little corruption, like, oh, we had the “cat houses,” so to speak, where woman who sold their bodies, which was not good, but it was back during that era, because people were going to make a living no matter what and it was a time…the depression like you had to have a tokens for shoes and tokens to ride the bus, and tokens to buy food and so you knew that was a poor time for us, but other than that we survived we made it and it was a great time.
NC: …and in some of those experiences that you had that you recall “great” from your family any lessons that you learned.
BJ: Any lessons that I learned? I knew that I…we could not do anything because the neighbors were watching us and would report our wrong doing and they had the permission to whip us if necessary and if you went back and told your mama you was going to get another “whipping” and then I remember during that time the buses was segregated and my Dad he was really, real white looking…people did not know that he was not white so he could pass, and we got on the bus and me and my Dad were going to town, he was going to buy me some shoes and so we got on the bus I got on first and he came behind me and he put the money in the meter and I went on to the back and so when he passed up the part where the white people sat at then everyone turned around and look to see where he was going because they all sit in the front and he came and sat beside me and a man on there said “where are you and your daddy going, baby?” and I said we are going downtown, he is going to buy me some shoes and it shocked everybody on the bus because they thought he was white, but he wasn’t.
BJ: Then another time when I was thirteen-years-old, back during that time when people still had not learned any better, I guess you can say, I got on the bus and I was thirteen-years-old, and I was working at the bowling ally where my Daddy worked at night, and so at night I had to get off the bus at 11 o’clock, and it was a man who was watching me and he watched me get off that bus for some time and so I saw him and by me being “street smart,” so to speak, I knew he was up to no good and so the closer I could get across the path the closer he would get to the edge of his porch and so when I got a chance I took off running, but he could not catch me. So my Dad told me I need to have some protection when I get off that bus at night and I had an ice-pick. So when I got on the bus about a week later, I was sitting on this bus and I was sitting on the long seat, not the long seat, but the seat behind the long seat, and there was another man sitting in the back, a black man sitting in the back, and I guess he was still in that same era because he went all the way to the back, but I sat in the front. But any way, about a block and a half after I got on the bus this white guy got on the bus and he looked at me for the longest and he did not say anything and so anyway we went about a block and he goes “Good old Mississippi, back down yonder in Mississippi niggers know their place,” and so I looked at him and I turned my head and the bus driver looked at him out the side of the mirror, wondering what was wrong with him so he waited a few minutes, and he said it again, “Good old Mississippi, back down yonder in Mississippi niggers know their place,” I said if you don’t quit f-ing with me I am going to send you back in a pine box, I hit my purse and he hit that bell, “Let me of this bus,” so the man said “I cannot let you off in the middle of the street” I said, “Let me off,” [laughter] that was the end of my experience with segregation.
NC: That was the last experience.
BJ: That was my last experience.
NC: That’s great…that’s a great memory and you know… the Fourth Ward you definitely discussed businesses and you worked at a particular business here, would you please describe that business, name it, and how did you get involved there?
BJ: OK, It was after I graduated from high school, I left Gregory [Houston elementary school], went to Booker T. Washington [Houston high school] and then I went to E.O. Smith [Houston high school] because we moved to another ward, and then I graduated from Wheatley [Houston high school] and after I graduated from Wheatley [Houston high school] I decided that I was going stay a while before…then decide if I was going to college or not, but I did not think I was, you know, college material, but my aunt had a café at the end of West Dallas down there, close to Taft and it was called “the Roaring Twenties.” And she sold barbeque, she had a really, really good menu, she sold dinners and people would come all the …how do you say it…the people that ran the garbage trucks…drove the garbage trucks and all of that, they were right down the street and she had all of their business and we were able to come on down and have a good old time and the barbeque was great and she was a very good cook. And so anyway, I stayed there for a while and worked for her for a while, and I was there for a long time, after she got out of the business, she gave me the business, and I took it over and so I stayed there until late Sixties and I ran it for a long time. But anyway, it was a good business and we had good customers and people…in Fourth Ward everybody knows everybody, so we just had good business.
NC: OK, and you said you had good barbeque.
BJ: Very good barbeque.
NC: If you…If the business was there that long and you said you did not leave the business until the sixties, it was an established business…
BJ: Yes it was.
NC: …There for a long time, were there any other events that happen there? Maybe some night time music? Or any other type of events? Did you serve anything besides barbeque?
BJ: Oh yeah, we had beer, and sodas, and stuff like that, and then on the weekends when everybody was not working they came down and we danced, and we had a good time. We did not have a band but we had music, the jukebox and people would just dance and have a good time.
NC: And you said that many people would come there just to see what’s going on… a hangout so to speak…
BJ: Yes, a Hangout…
NC: …a social organization. All right, great, well, thank you for coming here today
BJ: Oh, Thank you.
NC: I really appreciate it and earlier you were talking about the Fourth Ward being a nice place to live.
BJ: A very nice place, a very nice place, everybody knew everybody and so…it was a community affair…most of the kids out here went to Gregory [Houston elementary school] and from there on to Booker T. Washington [Houston high school].
NC: Well, Thank you Mrs. Jackson
BJ: You are welcome, you are very welcome.