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Interview with: Betty Chapman
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: May 5, 2008
DG: Today is May 5. We are on the mysterious 6th floor of the Jones Building of the Houston Public Library. My name is David Goldstein and today, we are interviewing Betty Chapman for the Houston Oral History Project. How are you today, Ms. Chapman?
BC: I am fine, thank you.
DG: Thank you for being here. Let's start at the beginning. Tell me where you were born and about your earliest years.
BC: I was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, a small town in the northern part of the state, a really wonderful place to grow up. A very closely knit community. A very progressive community. My parents were realtors. They had a realty firm. I had one sister who is 5 years older than I. Attended public schools in Tupelo, graduating from high school. And then, I attended Milsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi and graduated from there in 1958.
DG: Is there anything in your earliest days that would suggest what you would be doing as an adult?
BC: No, not at all. This is somewhat unusual. I loved history, always really liked it in school, but in college, I did not major in history. I grew up at a time that women were not really encouraged to do many different things, in the 1950s, in the mid 1950s. And so, you were pretty much told, well, you can be a teacher or you can be a secretary or you can be a nurse. So, I thought, well, I guess I will be a teacher. And so, I did not really know myself as well then as I should have, so I pursued a degree in education, in elementary education. So, my background in history was really very minute. Now, I always liked to read and I liked to do papers, I liked projects and things like that, so I guess there was some indication that this is something I might eventually want to be.
DG: Did you write? Did you keep a diary?
BC: No. No. I still don't keep a journal. And writing is not my favorite part of what I do. It's really the research that I love.
DG: So, how did you get to Houston and when?
BC: I came to Houston because I found a job here. I decided, well, I am going to teach school but I am going to go somewhere different, so I just sent out applications to a number of different cities and the first one that replied to me was the Spring Branch Independent School District here in Houston, so I thought, well, I will take a chance on that. Dallas sounded a little more glamorous to me but I heard from Houston first. So, I came to Houston, was interviewed and took a job teaching 5th and 6th grade in one of the Spring Branch schools. Did not know one soul in Houston, did not know one thing about Houston. So, this has all been a new journey for me.
DG: What year was that?
DG: Where did you live and what were your earliest perceptions of Houston?
BC: Well, I lived one month out close to my school, and I soon realized there was not much going on out there for somebody single, so I met another teacher and we took an apartment that we considered was midway. She taught down at the Ship Channel in HISD and I taught out in Katy Road, the farthest school out that distance then. And so, we compromised on an apartment on Bissonnett, Bissonnett Plaza Apartments, which were really there until fairly recently. I loved Houston from the very beginning and interestingly enough, Houston never seemed tremendously big to me. It was certainly the largest place I had ever lived but it really did not seem that large, I guess because I had the community of the school, the people I worked with. I was very fortunate to make some good friends, so I had that community, and it just never seemed like an overwhelmingly big place.
DG: School teachers don't have a lot of free time but a single woman in 1959 in Houston - what did you do for fun?
BC: Well, I met my husband to be fairly quickly and so, we did a lot of things together. We loved the theater, music. We did a lot of things like that. And yet, I can even remember, we had a snow, I believe it was the winter of 1960, and a whole group of us went out to Hermann Park and had snowball fights. You know, most of us weren't used to snow at all and that, of course, was unusual for Houston, so I pretty much enjoyed the same things that I enjoy now -- museums, and just being with good friends.
DG: You are an accomplished historian of the city so tell us from an historian's perspective, what was Houston in 1959-1960 like compared to what it is today?
BC: O.K., Houston, during the 1950s was, of course, rapidly growing. I think it was during one of those years, it was the fastest growing city in the country, so there was tremendous growth. There was still a very vibrant downtown. I can remember going downtown to shop, going to the movies. It was a wonderful place. It is still very vibrant. When I came here, Houston had a lot of problems in the 1950s, particularly within the educational circles with enforced integration which came in the early 1960s, so there was some strife in the city. I don't know that I was tremendously aware of that. I married in 1960, had a child in January of 1962, so I became almost kind of a homebody for a few years and was not that involved in community life except for volunteer work that I did. But it was a city on the move, just like it has always been in so many ways. One thing I sure wish they would have done something about in the 1950s was developing some kind of transit. The one thing we would sleep on.
DG: If we could just go back 50 years. When you got married, what part of town did you live in?
BC: The same one I live in now. I lived in the same house 46 years. I live in Briargrove just west of the Galleria. My husband worked downtown. He was an attorney with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, so we felt like that was a good distance from downtown, though when we were shopping for a house, we were told every house we looked at was 20 minutes from downtown. It didn't matter where it was. But that is, in reality, pretty much what ours turned out to be.
DG: Of course, now, it is a function of distance and traffic.
BC: You are right.
DG: Nothing is 10 minutes.
DG: Give me the chronology then. You taught school. How did you get your interest in history and Houston's history? What were the first events in your life?
BC: O.K., it really came through volunteer work because I was not aware of Houston's history, to a very great degree. I was home with the children, did a lot of volunteer work like being a Girl Scout leader and a room mother and volunteered with the Houston Junior Forum, but I was really not aware of Houston's history. Then, I decided in 1975 that I would like to become a docent for the Heritage Society. So, I went and they had a very extensive training program at the time which you went through and then took your test, and I can remember at the time taking it, it was very much a decorative arts museum at that time and I was very nervous in taking the test about whether I could describe the furniture accurately, you know, with all the right terminology. What I really loved to talk about was the people and the lifestyles, the social history. So, I became a docent and then, all of a sudden, I discovered Houston history and began doing some research for the Heritage Society. We had a registrar who would say, "We don't know much about these pictures. Who is this family? What are these pictures of?" They turned out to be one of the houses we now have in Sam Houston Park. But I loved that -- you know, getting into the researching and finding new facts and putting them together, and then being able to do something with them, and I just discovered this passion that I didn't know I had.
DG: What was research like? To everyone who will be watching this who is living in the age of Google, what was research like back then?
BC: No, it was a little different then. You had to actually go into, usually papers that were being held by some institution; in this case, the Heritage Society, of course, had files, and I laugh and say my second home has been the Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library because I spent so many hours there with all of their research materials that they had. And so, it was very different. I mean, you could talk to people. That was still very much a part of it then and is still today a valuable thing - taking someone's oral history - but no, you couldn't Google. You had to really go somewhere and kind of dig through what was there to be able to research something and pull a story out of it.
DG: When people do research, they get excited about a find, about finding something - a connection or a fact that nobody else knew. Do you remember your first big find? Do you remember that first big thrill?
BC: This was not the first but I remember very well coming home. I began doing women's history fairly early and I was doing . . . my brother-in-law was an English professor and he suggested I might do a paper for the American Studies Association. Well, I was not a professional. I didn't feel like I had any of the credentials to do that but he really, really encouraged me to do it. So, I was putting together the paper and later named a book while I named that paper then, and I was going to use photographs with it, I was going to use slides with the paper. And I was down in the library one day going through, it was like an 1894 published book, and I found a photograph of the first female doctor in Houston. 1872 is when she came. And I, of course, had never seen an image of her at all. I got so excited; I didn't know what to do! When I got home, I said to my husband, "You will never guess what I found today." And he said, "I hope it was a million dollars." And I said, "No, no, but it is worth that." It was the photograph of Dr. Margaret Holland. So, you do find things like that that you just get very excited about.
The photographs I was talking about that the Heritage Society had were these wonderful interior photographs of a family in a house showing every room in the house, even the bathrooms dated about 1915. So, the registrar said, "Take these photographs and see what you can find out about them. They are such a good representation of life at that time, of the way a home might have looked." So, I did research, determined who the family was in the photographs, and then got an address on them. And I thought, well, it won't still be there - a house that was built in 1905. This was about 1985. And I thought, it won't still be there. But I drove down to the Westmoreland neighborhood, turned on Westmoreland Drive, and there was the house, and it had a for sale sign in front of it. It was vacant. Then, I could not wait to get downtown and tell the director of the Heritage Society, "That house is for sale and we've got to buy it!" Well, of course, they could not buy it, but it turned out the Ayres gave the house and it is the Staiti House that is in Sam Houston Park today as a house museum with a wonderful documentation because this family had photographed everything through the years and there was no doubt at all about everything connected with that house and the garden. But you don't always find really exciting things. I just enjoy anything I find. I really feel like I am on a treasure hunt all the time.
DG: There are people who have a penchant and the patience for the research function but don't always have the skill to write about it afterwards. When did you realize you had a talent for writing about the things that you found?
BC: Well, it was not anything I was pursuing at all. I had done some papers for conferences but the first real writing I did actually . . . well, the very first thing did not require much writing. I did a Stevens Activity Book for 30 fourth graders that a company was doing of cities across the United States, lessons to use in an elementary school about a city. I did that, but then the next thing - the editor of Houston Business Journal called me and said they had had a staff person who had been doing buildings in Houston, historical buildings, as a feature that they were running and she had left the staff and would I be interested in doing some of those things? And it was kind of interesting what he said. He knew that I did a great deal of women's history, he said, "You can write about women and maybe we will get some more women subscribers." But anyway, I did not limit myself to women. I have been doing that since 1993 and still do 2 new articles a month for them on some aspect of Houston history. So, it was not that I really decided I wanted to write - it has kind of come to me to be able to do something with my research. The writing I do find the most difficult and it is not what I enjoy the most.
DG: In 1986, you worked on a project involving the women who lived in the houses of Sam Houston Park. Can you tell us about that?
BC: Well, the Guild chairman that year . . . when we gave tours of the houses, we seldom talked about the women unless . . . there were 1 or 2 that were prominent, but most of the time, you talked about whatever the man in the family did and you just seldom talked about women. Sometimes there were a few I didn't really even know maybe their first name. So, they asked me if I would do a program for the Guild of the Heritage Society on the women. I named it Ladies of the Park and I began researching. There were 16 of them that had lived at one time in one of the houses. I realized then how difficult it was to find material on women. They weren't often written about and unless you were fortunate enough to find a journal maybe a woman had kept which, you didn't often find those, they had not found their way into archives very often. So, you had to do a lot of digging. But I realized when I did that, I had found one of my real loves in history, was trying to document the women that were there because there were some fascinating stories there. And, you know, they were not women who did . . . all of them didn't have accomplished achievements but just knowing how the women lived in Houston or at a particular period of time I think was really enlightening.
DG: And is that what led you to the Houston Women's Project?
BC: Yes, it was, though they coincided pretty much at the same time. There was a group that had been put together here that was going to do a women's project for Houston's sesquintennial which would have been in 1986, and they were researching women and then they actually put together an exhibit and I was one of the researchers - did several of the women in the exhibit. A wonderful exhibit of panels and I don't know what has happened to the exhibit. I hope it is still around because it was really well done, quite well done. We didn't get it through. It was not finished in 1986. I think it was actually probably 1988 before we really were ready to install it and then it traveled throughout the city for 2 or 3 years.
DG: You created Houston Then and Now for HISD. Can you talk about that project?
BC: Well, that was the activity book that I mentioned. I did not do it for HISD and I don't know how widely it was even circulated in HISD. Steck-Vaughn in Austin, who does a lot of textbooks, actually published this. It was 44 lessons in some aspect of Houston history from begin up to, it was done in, I think, 1993, with a photograph and some text and then an activity of some kind - either geography or writing or a thought question, that kind of thing. They were doing it, as I said, on cities all across the country. Houston was the second city that was done. But I never found a teacher who had it because I would sometimes go out in the schools and do things with students, do presentations for the students. And I would say, "Were you ever given this?" They would say, "No." So, I don't know how widely it was circulated at the time.
DG: When you talk to students, what is your message when you talk to them about our city's history? What do you tell them to make them want to know more about it?
BC: Well, it has an amazing history. So much has been done in this city that really shouldn't have happened, and I think the example of Buffalo Bayou becoming one of the largest ports in the world is a really wonderful example of that. The Allen Brothers really landed where they were going to buy their land. Oh, the water may have been 6 feet deep and they thought, oh, O.K., we've got a port here and, of course, the foot of Main Street was the port. And there are so many things that have been accomplished here because I think the city has just kind of dreamed big. But then I say the important thing is that people did this. There were people involved in all of this. It didn't just happen. And then talk about some of the people who were really involved in doing this. They were not all famous people either. You know, I want them to feel like they are a part of the history that is being made today in whatever it is that they are doing.
DG: What was your first book?
BC: My first book was "Historic Houston" which the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance sponsored and that was in, I think, 1997. So, that was the very first one.
DG: And what was the focus of that work?
BC: It was just a chronological history of Houston. We did put a brief preservation section in there since, of course, GHPA, that is their focus. Then, businesses, you know, had their stories, their historical story in the back of the book and, of course, that is how the book was financed through these businesses doing that.
DG: You start out in grad school learning history and you learn facts, and then you get all that and you find out there are very few undisputed facts.
DG: What are the controversial issues of Houston's history? What are the things that people disagree about?
BC: Well, one thing that has never been, I think, determined just totally is how Buffalo Bayou got its name. Was it for the bison buffalo or was it for the buffalo fish? You've got wonderful stories, kind of legends, that go with each one. So, that is one. Oh, I don't know. Of course, the beginnings when the Capitol was here. That is not controversial, that was a controversy within the government. It is not an undisputed fact that the Capitol was taken away from Houston and put in Austin. That was a fact that really bothered Houstonians at the time. You know, I don't know about disputed facts particularly. It is just sometimes there are different stories out there about how things got done.
DG: The next book was called "Houston Women and Visible Threads in the Tapestry." Is that an outgrowth from the first book? Was it a separate project? Who initiated that effort?
BC: No, it was totally separate. In between that, Houston Business Journal published something that more people ask me about than anything I have ever done and, of course, it is out of print and nobody can find it. For their 25th anniversary, I had been writing the articles. I shared them in the beginning with Gordon Beard who was a long-time journalist there. They put together a paperback called "Two Minute Histories of Houston," and it included 55 of the articles that he and I had done. And, of course, that is about all people like to read about one thing, you know. Very much to the point. They published that. It apparently was extremely popular but it is gone now and I have a lot of people ask me if Houston Business Journal would think about publishing another one. I don't know that they will. But then, I did the book on women because that is something I had really wanted to do for a very long time, and a publisher, Downing (sp?) Publisher, who does mainly community histories. But since I had already done one, they contacted me and I said, "Well, I have done one that is just purely historical, kind of a chronological history of Houston. Could we do something on women?" And they said, "Well, I don't know that we have ever done one like that but sure, let's try it." So, that is how that happened. And, of course, it has lots of photographs. There were about 300 photographs in that book but it covered women, I hope from all walks of life, kind of walked with them through Houston's history.
DG: Did you find women in history, you felt a special affinity for, a special admiration for? Did you gather any heroes from that process?
BC: Oh, yes. In fact, they nearly all became heroes. Yes, they were women who really went up against tremendous odds. African American women who had such difficulty getting an education and yet, there were some who were tenacious in seeing that they were going to get the education and eventually a college degree and then be able to teach. The Suffrage, the women who really worked for Suffrage, were another group that . . . I guess the women that mostly appealed to me were the ones that were working against odds. They weren't having anything handed to them. And, of course, there was so much opposition to giving women the vote and yet, there were women who spent years out there trying to convince the voters that could vote at the time and, of course, Congress, to give women the vote. And then, you just follow right on through. There were always so many women that the road was not a particularly easy one. And then, we have the women who have been fortunate enough to have wealth at their disposal, who have been so generous to the city. Houston has so many wonderful philanthropists and that is something that I think has contributed to what we have in Houston today.
DG: This is a good opportunity to maybe mention some names . . . school kids are looking at this 5, 10 years from now . . . women who became, as you say, your heroes that deserve individual mention that you think the school kids ought to know about in our history?
BC: Yes, O.K. As far as suffragists went, there was Annette Finnegan who had graduated from college in the 1890s, which was unusual as far as Houston women who graduated that early, but she became a very, very active suffragist along with Hortence Ward who was the first female lawyer in Houston in 1910. They were two that did so much for advancing women's rights. We had, as far as African American, there was Pinky Yates who taught in the schools here for a number of years after finally acquiring her education. If you move on through time, there, of course, were women who were really active in the Civil Rights Movement like Christy Adair. Frankie Randolph worked very closely with Christy Adair. Then, if you want to look at philanthropists, of course, there is Imma Hogg, there is Nina Culinan, there is Dominique de Menil. There are just so many who have contributed to our city, particularly in the fields of education and the arts.
DG: There must have been special challenges for a researcher in finding information about a segment of society there really wasn't much being said about at that time. Was it particularly challenging to find the information? Did you have to go different places or do different things to gather that much information about women?
BC: It was hard and there are still many of those women we don't know much about but, of course, since I concentrated on Houston women, most of the resources, of course, were here. There are still descendants of some of these women and you keep hoping they are going to say, oh yes, we have the diary she kept for years and years and years. You don't find that. I was able to find photographs sometimes that way but it is mostly just going in to, for example, HISD records and you can find teachers. I actually had to go to Austin to do much work on the Suffrage records. We just do not have a great deal. We do not have anything of the local Suffrage organization or any records remaining of that kind. But you kind of go in the back door. Women's clubs were so extremely important in the early 20th century and there are a number of those that have their papers here in the library. So, you go in to the club records and see what the women were doing there. And they were not just playing bridge. They were really making a difference in the community in so many ways.
DG: Who knows what undiscovered treasures lay in attics all over town?
BC: Yes, that is quite true.
DG: What was the Texas Avenue Project?
BC: That was a really fun project. In 1998, there were 3 entities that came together: the Downtown Management District who would deal with the infrastructure - the streets, the sidewalks and what needed to be done on Texas Avenue - and then there was Trees for Houston that was involved with the planting actually of vegetations along the avenue, and then Scenic Houston was responsible for documenting the history. So, I did my work for Scenic Houston and my instructions were find what was on each block of Texas Avenue and try to do a marker that will replicate what happened on that block. Well, we were doing 60 markers. The first 22 were not as difficult as the last ones because we started . . . well, I did from Bagby up to Main Street first and that is an area that had lots of really interesting commercials and arts activities, and many of them that actually are still there. As I began to go down the avenue though, so much of that was residential and I thought, oh how am I going to ever get anything different in here? I took those city directories and really went through those with a fine tooth comb to see what was on Texas Avenue at different periods of time. Then, we had to find photographs. They wanted 3 photographs on each marker. And finding the photographs was difficult. For example, there was a service station at one point on Texas Avenue east of Main. I could not find a photograph of that station. I looked and looked and looked and I thought, if I could find another one on Texas Avenue, because that would make such a wonderful story because then you could talk about . . . I don't know whether gas was high then or not but you could talk about transportation. But I never could find one, so I said, O.K., I think on that marker, I am going to do the changing surface of Texas Avenue, the street. So, I found one picture that had the shell street and one that had the brick. And then, I had the one of them actually doing asphalt around the streetcar tracks. And so, then put a text with that that told how the surface of the streets changed in time. But it was really a lot of fun to actually dig in and see what was there, and then to find the photographs and see so many of the changes, of course, that had come about. And, in a few cases, not that many changes had occurred; at least, in the use of the land if not the particular thing that was on there.
DG: I am fascinated by the thought that you must have uncovered millions and millions of individual bits of data and photographs and names and events. Do you have a personal organizational tool database that helps you keep track of all that so you don't have to go back and recreate the wheel every time you look for something?
BC: Well, I have files but they are not always that well organized. Yes, I have many file cabinets full of information. I have not done a database or anything like that. I just got my files, I think organized where I hope I can find information because you are right - you don't want to have to reinvent the wheel every time you go for something. But it is probably not as organized as it needs to be and my husband keeps saying to me, "Betty, you might get hit by a car tomorrow. What do I do with all of this?" So, I guess that is something to be determined.
DG: You are chairman of the Houston History Taskforce?
BC: Well, I was. That is a taskforce the mayor formed and we did our work and then it dissolved.
DG: And then, the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission?
DG: Still current or past?
BC: No, that is current. I am chair of that. That is one of the city commissions.
DG: Can you tell me what the work of that commission is and what that experience has been like?
BC: The work of that commission is historic preservation. We are governed by the preservation ordinance that the city has and trying to preserve what we have. We do recommendations on designations or either individual buildings or neighborhoods if they have decided to pursue this. It has been very, very interesting because we are, I think, at something of a turning point with our preservation in the city. Houston is not a city that has looked to the past and I think most cities that are growing and booming don't. They are always looking to the future. And it seems that you have outgrown whatever you had before you are really in it very long. And so, you tend to tear it down and build something bigger and more modern and supposedly better. But I think we need the old _______. I think in order to have a real history of the city, you need to have some of the past I think visible because I think we have learned when we can actually see things, we can touch them, we can visit them - I don't think just reading about it is enough. So, this is the commission that really is the watchdog, I guess you would say, for preservation. We have just succeeded this past year in amending the ordinance, getting a few strengthening clauses in it and we are ready to recommend some more to City Council and hope that they will pass. And we are just trying to make preservation more meaningful to the public so that they will appreciate it and hopefully support it. Preservationists came out of the woodwork when it was announced that the River Oaks Theater might go. I didn't know there were so many people in Houston that would care about the River Oaks Theater. So, I think that told us that people really do care but it is just not always a top priority and you don't know that they are there. But I think we are building a ground swell of appreciation and hopefully we can do more about preserving what we have. The mayor has been so supportive. In fact, the taskforce came out of his interest.
About 3 years ago, it will be 3 years ago this fall, he said that he was going to establish a taskforce and he wanted the taskforce to educate all Houstonians about the city's history and to inventory all of the historic resources in the city, identify all the historic resources. So, I served as chair of the taskforce and we had 5 committees who worked for about 7 months determining what could be done as far as identifying the resources, education for adults, education for youth, what could be done in the media, and then, what could be done to preserve the built environment. We got wonderful, wonderful recommendations from the taskforce, those committees, and several of the things have been put in place. So, I feel like it is going to be something that was fruitful and that we will get some results from that.
DG: You mentioned River Oaks Theater. Are there any other landmarks that seem to be under threat or that you are particularly concerned about or that the Commission was particularly concerned about?
BC: Well, of course, the Alabama Theater. We were concerned about both of those theaters. And actually, one of the most vulnerable buildings, if you want to call it a building in Houston, is the Astrodome. Information has gone to the National Trust from Houston asking them to put it on their most endangered list just to draw attention to it because the building of the Astrodome, again, this is something that Houston did when it wasn't being done. That is another example I think of thinking big. And then, there are so many people that have memories in these buildings. And, of course, that is ________ and that is what happened with the River Oaks Theater. So many people remembered growing up with it and good times there but we have always got buildings that are endangered. Yes, we have some schools that may be looking at being demolished and that we think are really worthy of being preserved. And, of course, homes are going down, particularly in some of the older historic districts. Bungalows were the most popular housing in the 1920s and the 1930s and we are just losing bungalows, and we are just going to lose that whole aspect of neighborhoods and the architecture of the time and what the bungalow represented because they are just disappearing.
DG: What individuals or groups have been particularly helpful in the preservation effort in Houston?
BC: Well, there are really not many preservation groups as such. The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance is the oldest and was probably the first. The Heritage Society, of course, was here first. In fact, the Preservation Alliance grew out of the Heritage Society and I was on the first board. A group of us from the Heritage Society kind of moved over and it was a committee of the Heritage Society at the time. That was in, I think, 1978. It is, of course, the oldest. The Heritage Society, of course, is involved in preservation, certainly of their resources that they have there in Sam Houston Park. Historic Houston was formed a number of years ago and they are very concerned about if houses are torn down, what happens to all those wonderful materials inside them? So, they have done a great deal of salvaging of materials and making them available to people who are restoring older homes so that they can find a molding they need or the windows they need or the flooring that they need. There are not just a whole lot of organizations that are strictly preservation. Some of our neighborhoods have become very strong preservationists. Old Sixth Ward, which is the only protected historic district we have in the city. They, of course, are very preservation minded about their own neighborhood. They have a very strong civic club and where there is a strong civic club in these neighborhoods, they are more concerned with this and more aware of trying to save the context of the neighborhood.
DG: How about individuals? You mentioned the mayor. Have there been other mayors, other City Council members, other business leaders who have been a friend of the effort?
BC: We have had some Council members that have supportive. Actually, the one who works with our Commission, Sue Lovell, and she has been very supportive. Peter Brown is very supportive of preservation. And, the fact that we got these additions to the ordinance through last year, I think there was only 1 negative vote when they actually brought it to a vote. So, City Council has been very supportive. But it is really the mayor's interest that has driven this. I don't think there is any doubt about that. He obviously is a history buff and wants other people to have that passion, too, for where we have come from as a city. So, I would say he has been the biggest influence on what has happened.
DG: You mentioned that you started with the research and you were most attracted to the stories, the people and the stories. Do you have favorite Houston stories that sort of give a sense of the spirit of the city, of its unique history, that could only happen here? You alluded to one about the willingness and the ability to think big. Are there other moments in our history that sort of seem uniquely Houston?
BC: Well, since we are in the election season right now, there is one about how the Democratic National Convention came to Houston and you may have had this story already told to you, I don't know; that Jesse Jones who, of course, was very prominent in the city for many years, was on the Democratic National Committee, went to the meeting where they were selecting the meeting place and, of course, Houston had never hosted it, and it was in the summertime and the thought was nobody wants to come to Houston in the summertime. This was pre air-conditioning 1928. But the city started making their bids and, oh, Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland and San Francisco. And Jesse Jones thought, well, I don't know why Houston couldn't host that. So, he wrote out a personal check for $200,000 to be Houston's bid. And San Francisco, who really outbid them money-wise, said, "But you don't have a convention hall that will seat more than 5,000 people. You can't have that convention." He said, "We'll build one." This was in January. He said, "We'll build one." So, the committee awarded the convention to Houston. Jesse Jones comes back and tells the mayor, "Well, we've got to build a convention hall and we don't have long to do it. It's got to hold 25,000 people." They built it in 64 days. It was on the site where Hobby Center is today, where the Coliseum was later built. The Convention came, was very successful as far as kind of showcasing Houston. People didn't know much about Houston. And they said they were able to raise the money in Houston so that Jesse Jones did not have to pay for the Convention. But that was just an act of saying, you know, we never have done that but we can do it, and they actually did it. There are wonderful stories that go along with that, too. A lot of the delegates from the north came wearing wool suits and it was very uncomfortable. The Rice Hotel, who, at that time, required gentlemen to keep on their jackets in any of the public places, put a sign in the elevator that said, "Due to the weather, we will excuse a gentleman if he takes off his jacket." So, that is just the story that I think illustrates how Houston went about doing things.
And then, of course, on an even smaller level, the way we developed the symphony orchestra. We did not have a symphony orchestra in 1913. Many cities did. So, there were women in the music clubs here, Imma Hogg being one of them, who said, you know, I think we can form an orchestra. And so, they just found 35 musicians and put them together and they, of course, had not played as a group, so played in restaurants, provided the music for restaurants, and they had a concert on a Sunday afternoon in June 1913. That was the beginning of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Houston has always had people who were willing to get out there and do something. And, you know, you can look at that in all of our . . . the Museum of Fine Arts started very much the same way. You would think very small beginnings but they certainly grew into very substantial parts of the community.
DG: We are sitting in the Houston Public Library. It is undergoing major refurbishment. As a lifelong researcher, where are your best places to go when you are looking for stuff on a particular subject or anything? If I was a researcher and I came to you and said, "Betty, give me your Rolodex of the really great places to look" . . . of course, we are living in the computer age now so there are a lot of things you can do in your own home.
BC: You can do that at home, but where you need to go find for the primary resources, well, of course, the Julia Ideson Building which houses the Houston Metropolitan Research Center which is the old central library. It was the central library from 1926 to 1976. It has a wonderful, wonderful collection of papers and we are very excited about the plans that are underway now to build a new wing on the library. The plans were drawn in 1925 for that building. They didn't have the money to build the wing. It was one time it didn't come through with what they needed. And so, the collection had been housed in the Julia Ideson Building in less than ideal conditions: crowded, the climate control is not always what it needs to be. So, when they decided to restore the Julia Ideson Building because it needs a great deal of work . . . and this is an aside - that it is one of our real architectural gems. An absolutely beautiful building. They said, "Well, O.K., these plans were drawn. Why don't we just do that?" And that is what the City decided to do. They are going to build this wing and it will house the research center, a state-of-the-art archival center where everything will be right for housing the paper estate. And, of course, there, you have papers on individuals, you've got businesses, you've got churches, you've got all kinds of groups, and it is not just people always doing history way back that come in there. I am always curious when I am in there to wonder what people are researching. It is obvious that you have got businessmen coming in there and they can look at areal maps of certain areas if they are interested in land or things of that sort because it just has absolutely untold resources and it has, I think they say three million photographs which, of course, are not all processed but they have started a digitation process and we are hoping that all of these materials would be digitized so that they will be so much more readily available for people who need them.
There are other libraries, institutions in Houston with wonderful archives, too. University of Houston in their library has a good collection of local materials as does the Rice Library has them, TSU has some and, of course, the wonderful place to do genealogy if a person is interested in genealogy . . . now, I have never done personal genealogy but I end up doing genealogy on other people when I am trying to put the facts together. And, of course, the Clayton Library is one of the finest in the country to go into genealogy or you can do other kinds of history when you are dealing with families or people at Clayton. So, we have wonderful, wonderful resources here to do the research.
DG: What is the Texas Room and why is that special to you?
BC: The Texas Room is where you actually use these materials. It was the reading room back in the days when that was the central library and that is, in essence, what it is today. But you go in there and you request materials and they are brought to you from the closed stacks. Of course, everything is . . . except there are some in the front of the Texas Room that are not closed like the city directories. You can have access to those. And, of course, they are wonderful. They are wonderful. But the close stacks, they bring you the material and you use them in the Texas Room. So, that is its identity and it makes the local history department, it makes up one of the components of the research center.
DG: When you think about the daily lives of regular people in Houston over the past, whatever, 50-100 years, it is easy to pick some of the obvious . . . I mean, obviously, air-conditioning the city must have made a big difference and paving roads and transportation advances. In your view, what are the biggest changes in Houston maybe that we might not think of that have made the biggest impact on the city and the city that it became, maybe responsible for its growth?
BC: Well, of course, the oil industry had a tremendous impact on Houston's growth. When oil was discovered, again, Houston jumped on the bandwagon as being the center rather than Beaumont and then, of course, with the oil discoveries, that had a great deal of impact on Houston but that was not really an unexpected one. That is something that developed with time, as did the shipping. You know, I think the thing that probably has impacted Houston so greatly is how it has spread. It is such a tremendously large city in area and that has got to affect it in so many ways. And the fact that we never did anything really adequate about transit has made it in many ways unmanageable. And I think that is one of the things that we did not do that, as the city began to stretch and spread and grow, that we did not do bad. Now, zoning is something that was never done. It was voted down every time it was tried and I don't think we will ever have zoning, and I don't even know that we need zoning. What you read today says there are other ways . . . land use that can be developed without zoning. But that is something we have not done very well. Houston is not what I would say a well planned city. It is a city that has kind of grown like topsy and we are seeing some down sides to that, particularly if the neighborhood does not have deed restrictions. There is no way they can really keep their neighborhood intact without perhaps a huge plant coming down right in the middle of it. So, I think that is something we probably didn't anticipate, that we were going to have that great a need for it because of the way that Houston grew. It grew so fast and they probably didn't realize that there was going to be a need for really careful planning.
DG: From a personal perspective, you have been researching the city and its people and its events for a long time. It must give you a certain sense of accomplishment when you can occasionally write a book and see that research turned into something that people can access and learn from. What gives you the most personal satisfaction from the work that you have done?
BC: I think people learning something from it. You know, I consider myself an educator and this is just the way I am doing it rather than being in a classroom, though I have taught some classes at Rice and I love doing that. I have adults who are really interested in the history of the city. But I consider myself and educator and I think if people can learn, where did you come from, who the people were, important and not so important, and I say that, when I say important, I mean well-known, and not well-known who contributed to the history. I just want them to learn how this was done. It is very much what the mayor said . . . when he said he was going to do this taskforce, he said to us, he said, "I think when people know the city's past, they will have more city pride in it." It was not, you know, we can make it a big tourist attraction or we can do this, "They will have more pride in where we live if we know where we have come from." And so, I think that is true. That is not to diminish anything about the present or the future but I just think it all ties together. And so, I think having people learn about it. I guess that is why I have been glad I could do some writing and get some things out there. I did a book for the library on the history of the library for its centennial and I would have people say to me, "I never realized we had this or we had that and I didn't know we had those branches out there." And I felt like it was a way for people to learn more about the library system.
DG: You have a clear and more detailed view of the past of our city than most so what do you see for our future?
BC: Maybe more of the same. They say the city, of course, is going to continue to grow. Didn't I see something just recently that said we will be one of the cities with the fastest growth anywhere in the country, so I don't know that it is going to perhaps change. Our population has become very diverse and I don't think that is going to change. I think that will continue. Dr. Steven Kleinberg says we are the most diverse city, bar none, in the country in our population, and I think that is probably going to continue. I would hope that we could maybe be a little more careful in our planning to curb this growth so that it is not just necessarily topsy turvy. And I do wish we could come up with some kind of transit that could get some of these cars off the streets and off the roads. We need to do something from an environmental standpoint, not to mention just the city in gridlock so much of the time. You know, I don't know that I see Houston really changing, that the future will be too much different from what we have today except just more of it. Houston just doesn't seem to ever stop offering things to new people and just to keep growing in spite of the fact that we don't have the most wonderful climate in the world . . . we've got maybe some other deficiencies, but I love it and I never thought growing up that I would probably end up living someplace like this and being so passionate about it.
DG: The saying is that those who don't know the history are doomed to repeat it. What would you not want to see us repeat from our history or perhaps you have alluded to it with the planning.
BC: Well, I think that is one of the biggest things. Of course, the other thing that I wish we could go back and undo, but this was true not just in Houston, but the segregation laws we had. I mean, we had two parallel communities here and one obviously did not benefit as much as the other. And I think ultimately Houston fortunately did not have a lot of strife during the Civil Rights Movement as many cities did and were able in many ways to integrate facilities almost cleverly, where other cities did not. So, here again, this says what Houstonians were able to do. But, you know, those are years that I wish had been different. But Houston was not unique. Of course, this was true everywhere that there was segregation, and such heavy segregation. There was a lot of strife in the schools at that time which proved to be very detrimental. As they said, one of the best shows on television was the meetings of the Houston Independent School District board because they were so acrimonious from that time period.
DG: I have heard that. You have alluded to it in different points in our conversation but just as a wrap-up, as a final question, is there a unique spirit to this city and if so, how would you describe it to other people from your perspective?
BC: I think there is a unique spirit to Houston. The old word that has been used for it was the can do spirit, and I think that is part of it, but I think Houston, more than probably a lot of cities and, you understand, I haven't lived in any of these others -- Houston is the only city I have ever lived in -- but I think it seems to be more open and more inviting than some other cities to newcomers, to new ideas. It doesn't seem to have a closed mind to expanding how ever that is done. And I think, of course, that is one of the reasons it has grown and developed, is because it has been open to that. So, I don't know . . . other than that, of course, good leadership helps; when you've got leadership that is good . . . sometimes our leadership has probably been stronger than at other times. I feel very good about the direction the city is headed right now. I really do. It has problems. It will always have problems. But I think it is how you deal with those problems. And I do think we have learned from the past. We look back and see sometimes our problems weren't dealt with very well and we don't want to repeat that, or perhaps we can see how something was done and take some clues from that as far as solving problems _____.
DG: Thank you very much for your time today.
BC: Thank you. I have enjoyed it.