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Interview with: Reverend Bill Lawson
Interviewed by: Jane Ely
Date: March 14, 2008
JE: This is Jane Ely. I am interviewing the Reverend Bill Lawson and it is Friday, March 14, 2008. Reverend Lawson, let's just start with your beginning and get some of that biographical background in. What is your full name, where do you come from and how did you get here?
BL: I am William Alexander Lawson, most commonly known as Bill. I was born in St. Louis, reared in Kansas City, so I am a Midwestern kid. I went to Tennessee State College in Nashville which was my first contact with the South and then I came from there back to Kansas City and studied for the ministry. Then, I was asked to come to Houston to work at the then 8 year old Texas Southern University as Baptist Student Union Director. State universities cannot have religious programs and so the different churches or the different denominations will set up their own student programs and I was asked to run the Baptist Student Union. That was in 1955. I have been here since then so we are talking about 53 years. And I have watched Houston grow. When I first came here, there was only 1 freeway and only part of a freeway from downtown to Galveston, I-45 south. I think it was called 75 then. Now, it is interesting to watch the criss-cross of freeways, the Loop, the Beltway. Houston has changed a great deal. But that is my background and that is where I am now.
JE: How old are you? When were you born?
BL: I was born in 1928. I am right now 79, right on the threshold of being 80.
JE: So, you were about 30 when you came here then?
BL: That sounds about right.
JE: Were you married?
BL: Yes, I got married in 1954, so the year before I came, I got married.
JE: And why Houston?
BL: Well, basically, because I was invited to come. I knew where Texas was. I almost had no idea where Houston was. But the Southern Baptist Convention has what is called the Department of Student Work in Dallas and this university in Houston was, as I say, 8 years old, more or less brand new, and they wanted to work among students at Texas Southern University. The question was where do we find somebody who can work among students? While I was at Tennessee state, I belonged to a student organization called the Baptist Student Union. So, the Southern Baptists in Texas said, well, at least we know one man who has gone to a Baptist student union. Let's ask him if he will come. And so, I was asked to come to Houston when I first came down and saw what was really a ransacked university then - a bunch of temporary buildings from Ellington Field. I just fell in love with the school. It wasn't very prepossessing but I thought that this was an important investment to make in young black kids, so I loved it and said yes.
JE: When you came, what was the status of race relations and desegregation in Houston?
BL: That is an interesting question - what was race relations like when I came here because I came here in August of 1955. Things were beginning to boil in the South at that time. I did not realize it but they were. A young man named Emmett Till had been lynched in Mississippi. That was on the day that I came. I came on August 28. Once again, that was just kind of minor news for me. I did not realize what a tremendous effect that was going to have on race relations. In December 1955, Rosa Parks staged her protest against the Montgomery Bus Company and that was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement as we know it. By then, I had some idea that there was some kind of ferment in the South. So, race relations when I came was fairly strongly black and white separate and to some extent, blacks suppressed by whites.
JE: You are known as a man who is terribly responsible for the merging of the communities, if you will - I don't know how to call it or what you call it - but you certainly in many ways fit the definition of a strong liberal civil rights organizer but your style certainly never fit that. You have always been kind of a calming voice and I can certainly say that from personal experience.
BL: You compliment me more than I deserve but my own style has always been to see if reconciliation was possible. I know that there are always going to be differences but as much as I can, I like to try to bring parties together and at least talk out what those differences are. One of the reasons why there were not riots in Houston, one of the reasons why there was not strong racial conflicts in Houston was because we were able to bring together people to at least talk things out and it was some combination of white business leaders and black activists that segregation in Houston was quietly ended and nobody ever read about it. The newspapers like the Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle, the television stations which were very young at that time, had all agreed that if we could work out desegregating Houston, then they would not publish it, so that you would not see it in Time Magazine or Life Magazine and then when people learned and the busses were already desegregated, the department stores were already desegregated, people could eat in any restaurant that they wanted to and maybe people would wonder, when did this happen? And that was basically because we had reconciled the white leadership and the black leadership and we did not depend on student activism.
JE: Who all was involved in agreeing with that? Who was talking for both sides, if you will?
BL: We started with student activists. There were people like Eldrewey Stearns and Curtis Graves, to some extent, Mickey Leland, Deloy Parker - there were a number of people who are now pretty well still involved in trying to improve race relations. Those were the student activists. There were many, many more. The Reverend Earl Allen. But all of these people began by sit-ins and picketing and that sort of thing. On the other hand, we had these black business leaders and they were people like Mack Hannah, like Moses Leroy, like Hobart Taylor - there were a number of people who were in business and who were business leaders. And we would call together business leaders from the white community. And those business leaders, most of whose names I cannot remember right now were people who likewise came together. Bill Hobby was one of those and I think at least 1 or 2 of the white pastors were involved. But mostly these were business leaders and they were the ones who came together with the black business leaders. And they came together without the student activists because none of us wanted parades of picketing or racial conflicts in the street. So, when these people got together and they would get together in clandestine fashions, they would meet at the old Rice Hotel and they would talk about why we ought not to have race relations difficulties or conflicts in Houston. And it basically became a matter of the economic welfare of Houston. We were in the process of trying to build a domed stadium. We had just begun a space program. Oil and gas companies were now beginning to look at Houston as a place to set up headquarters. And the worst thing that we could have would be a replica of Birmingham with the dogs and the fire hoses and all the yelling and shouting and the _______. So, the business men on both sides agreed that there needed to be a quiet way of desegregating. And so, that quiet way was something where the media in Houston, who had been a part of the media for a long time, and the media agreed that we would desegregate with no publications by the media. So, the Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle and Channel 2 and Channel 13 simply said we will not broadcast anything about desegregating Houston. And one day, all the restaurants opened. I can remember young people from Miller Middle School around Cleveland and one day, they got ready to get on the bus and there were no white and colored signs and they did not even notice that. And the white kids got on the bus before the black kids did and the white kids rushed back to the back window and there was a very big back window and they could look out and see kids behind them. And by the time the black kids got on, the back seats were full and so they were forced to sit in the front. And nobody had even noticed that the signs had been taken down anyway. I remember that there was a story which is now Macy's, then called Foley's, and if you were black, you could not go in and try shoes on or try dresses on and now, it was possible to just go in and try anything on. When you walked in the store, some nice lady would come up to you and say, "May I help you?" And you would say, "Well, I came in to buy some shoes." And instead of having to go up and pick out the shoes from the shelf, she would say, "Wouldn't you like to sit down?" And so, all this was happening. What I am saying is that the quiet desegregation of Houston met more my style than the picketing or protesting that was not my style.
JE: And certainly I think you were a strong influence in bringing that about. Don't tell me Mickey Leland did not want to go out in the streets.
BL: Yes, he did.
JE: When you came to Houston, where did you live and were you restricted as to where you could live?
BL: In 1955, I certainly was restricted. Things had just begun to change in 1955. We lived as far south as Alabama Street. Otherwise, we had to be north of Alabama in what was called the Third Ward. But by the time I got here, blacks had begun to move on the south side of Alabama. They had come over as far as Southmore and we still called it the Third Ward. It was simply just kind of a stretching of the Third Ward. But very shortly after that, blacks began to move north of Southmore . . . probably south of Southmore but they were moving on the other side of Southmore, and while they moved on the other side of Southmore, they were then threatening the dwelling place of Jewish families. Jewish families pretty much were on the other side of Southmore where you dealt with the MacGregors and all the way over to Old Spanish Trail. These were basically Jewish homes, Jewish synagogues. And so, when blacks moved in, there were signs that popped up on the lawns of Jewish homes - "This is our neighborhood and we will not leave." But little by little, as realtors convinced blacks that they could get property for them and they could convince Jews that we will give you much more than your house is worth . . . and there were people who moved out and blacks were moved in and as the black community perforated the Jewish community and blacks moved over as far as Old Spanish Trail, so there was a change going on when I got here. And the only thing that I knew was that the change seemed to represent an overinflation of the Third Ward. There were so many people in the Third Ward that they were forced to move south. I did not realize in 1955 that there was almost an organized move not by protestors but by realtors. They felt that if they could get the Jews to move out, they could force the blacks to pay inflated prices and so they did. I guess most movements finally come down to money. They are relatively seldom just social things. And so, there was a great economic thing that was happening at that time, and blacks were more than victims of it than they were the beneficiaries of it. But at least they could live in better houses than they had before.
JE: You started out at TSU. How long did you work there kind of exclusively and what did you do there?
BL: I was there for 7 years exclusively and what I did during those 7 years, from 1955 to 1962, was to run the Baptist Student Union and to teach classes and bible. This was a state university, as I say. And so, this had to be paid for by the Union Baptist Association, the Houston branch of the Southern Baptists. That was what I did for those first 7 years.
JE: How did you come to start this church, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church?
BL: Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church was not something that I had wanted to start. We were at Texas Southern University. We were on the south end of the Third Ward. There were Jewish families moving out and synagogues still there. They began to vacate the synagogues. One of those is now the music building of Texas Southern University. One is part of Houston Community College. But as they began to move out, also the churches had not moved in. There were many black churches who did not want to come south of Alabama because these were mostly students and middle class blacks and they were not going to give very much offerings in churches. And so, the churches chose not to come south of Alabama. So, as I say, again, much of the issue has always been economic. But a number of people realizing that there was no church near where these students were going to school and near where these teachers worked . . . came to me and asked me will you consider starting a church? You are a minister, you teach bible and so you ought to be qualified to start a church. And at that time, I was not inclined to be involved in a church. I did not have a daddy who was a preacher or a grandfather who was a preacher. There had been no preachers in my background at all and I had no idea how in the world you would start a church. And so, they kept asking me if I would start one. So, I said, "O.K., I will start a church and I will hold onto it until I can find a young man who can take it." So, we pulled the folks together and we organized and established a church and it was at that time called Riverside Baptist Church. That is the neighborhood in Third Ward that we had. There was a young man who was in the university who had just gone off to seminary, his name was Prentice Moore, and later on, he became pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church, but he came to me and said, "Bill, I've got an opportunity to go back to seminary and they are going to pay my way. What should I do?" And I said, "Well, Prentice, you ought to go on back to seminary." He said, "O.K., I am going back to seminary and then when I come back, I will take over Riverside Baptist Church." He never came back. So, I was there at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. That was in 1962. And I have been there ever since.
JE: You certainly have. When did you leave TSU? Was it a quick break off or did you ease out?
BL: No, there was an overlap. I was at TSU until 1965 and the church was born in 1962, so we had this 3 year overlap. And at the end of those 3 years, I realized that I could not really build a church on a part-time basis, that I would have to come on full-time. The church could not pay and so I did the best I could with money from the Union Baptist Association and with preaching income but we had Melanie and then a second child and a third child and all this was happening while I was leaving Texas Southern University. But I believe in providence and I believe that God took care of us. And so, we never missed a meal, we never missed a payment on the little ransack (sp?) cars we had and somehow we made it.
JE: Yes, you did. How did you pick this location? How did you wind up here at the corner of Wheeler and Scott?
BL: The church started in the Baptist Student Union down on Wheeler and we were not sure where we were going after that. Somebody from the Union Baptist Association told us that the Baptist Student Union at the University of Houston was going to vacate its building. It was a little white framed building. And that building was going to be vacant. And that all of the denominational programs were going to be moved onto the campus of the University of Houston. They had just built a huge religion center and that is where all of the religious programs were going. That left this little framed building unoccupied. So, we asked the Union Baptist Association what was going to happen at that little building and they said, "Well, we will keep it up until somebody buys it." So, they constantly cleaned the building, they cut the grass, they planted flowers around it and they kept it going as though they were homeowners. And then, they said, "If you are a Baptist church and you would like to buy it, then we will sell it to you." So, I said, "Well, we are just 30 or 40 people. I guess we can't buy it." So we had just about given up. Then, a fairly wealthy oil man came to us and he said, "My daughter heard you at Baylor University and she says that you are a nice man and on that basis, I would be willing to buy that building for you and then give you bonds. I am not giving it to you. I want you to pay for it. But I am going to give you bonds to pay for the building and you will sell the bonds. So, we looked at the little building, we fell in love with it, and we decided to go ahead and take his offer of giving us bonds. And we sold the bonds. He sold us the building for the unbelievable price of $25,000, and he said that there would be no interest on it and that if we could not pay for it, he would buy it back. So, we began to work to buy this little building. It happened to be at 3826 Wheeler so we have stayed here ever since.
JE: You had to go through a lot of trouble to work at the expansion ______ to fit your property, didn't you?
BL: Well, the property was a fairly small piece of ground and so it just barely accommodated this little white framed building. But there was empty land behind us and over to the east of us. Now, much of that empty land has been taken up by University of Houston apartments but at that time, it was just empty woods. So, we were able to buy from the University of Houston enough ground to the east of us to expand and we were able to buy, and I cannot remember the name of the owner who had the land south of us, to buy that land south of us. That then gave us enough room to expand the little white building and we remodeled that little white building and built behind it classrooms. You mentioned the scout house. That was also a part of that property. But right next door to us was a book store, Coover (sp?) Book Store, and we were able to buy that book store and several little shops down the street from it. So now, we had a building expanded, we had some ground to expand beyond that, we had a strip shopping center and that meant that Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church was now firmly established as a permanent institution in the Third Ward.
JE: Where is your wife from originally?
BL: Would you believe she is from the same place that I was from? She was born in St. Louis. She spent all of her life there. I left St. Louis and grew up in Kansas City.
JE: Why did you do that?
BL: My mother was divorced from my father and my stepfather lived in Kansas. And so, she left following him and his 2 children. So, the 3 of us grew up. But that is how we happened to move from St. Louis to Kansas City.
JE: And your wife was in St. Louis. How did you meet her?
BL: It is almost unbelievable. I had gone to Tennessee State, graduated and left. She came to Tennessee State the following fall and when she came, there were girls in the dormitory who said, "You know, there is a guy named Bill Lawson who writes letters to us all the time and the girls in the dormitory get together and they laugh at the letters." So, she looked at the letters, or she looked at some of the letters and she said, "I think I would like to write to this guy." So, the girls in the dormitory dared her to write and if you know Audrey Lawson, you know that she does not take a dare. So, she wrote a letter to me and I wrote back to her and she wrote another one to me. We wrote letters for 3 years back and forth. We never saw each other but 9 times, never with both of us alone, and the ninth time was our wedding day. We now have 3 volumes of letters that we have written to each other. Our whole courtship was on paper.
JE: Why were you writing the girls in the first place?
BL: I think basically because they had been friends. They were not dates or anything of that sort. I was a dateless virgin at the time that I was at Tennessee State but had a number of friends. I became president of the student body and was part of the fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, which had a sister sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and so we Alphas had a good deal of friendly contact with the AKE's, and I guess that is the chief reason why I was writing.
JE: And so, 9 times . . . you married Ellen . . . had you been married before you dragged her to Houston, and how did she take that little trip?
BL: Really only 1 year. We were married in 1954, we came to Houston in 1955. She has tended to follow whatever I thought was best. She believed that I would take God's guidance and she believed that it was God's guidance for us to move to this city that she did not know anything about and to this college which looked like it was about to close any day. But I think that she loved it as well. Audrey loves children and young people, loves them, and so if this was going to help young people who had graduated from high school and who were trying to get college degrees and trying to be somebody in this segregated world, she wanted to help them.
JE: Do you see some irony that the first time, there was strong racial strife with shootings and stuff, happened at Texas Southern University?
BL: That was not the first racial strife. Racial strife really began in the southeast basically with student sit-ins and that was not part of Dr. King's movement. It was a movement that was started by a different group called CORE, the Committee of Racial Equality, and CORE encouraged these students to get on busses and if they got arrested, to go to jail. And this is what they did. When Dr. King came along, he encouraged non-violent protest which had already begun. But the shooting, the violence, really did not begin until Birmingham, and it was in Birmingham after Montgomery that so much of the violence came. And largely because of political officials like Police Chief Bull Connor. And I think that that probably was the worst picture of racial strife we had during the Civil Rights Movement. Now, there were numbers of protests by which people got thrown in jail. When our students at Texas Southern first went down to protest at Weingartens which is where the post office is now, when they first went down to protest at Weingartens, their plan was to go down and take over all the stools at the Weingartens bar and then when they got thrown in jail, then another group would come in. There were 17 stools and they would sit at those 17 stools. One group with 17 stools. And then, as soon as they were arrested, another group of 17 students went in. And they kept doing that until the grocer closed the bar down and took the stools out. And while they were being put in jail, this is literally how we got involved with the Civil Rights Movement . . . here were all these college students who had been thrown in jail and this was like April. It was fairly close to the end of the school term. And we did not want them to lose a whole year of school so Audrey and several neighbors who were in that area began to try to raise money. We would go down knocking on doors, stopping people in the streets, trying to raise money to bail these youngsters out. And we did raise enough to bail them out.
JE: O.K., well, I really meant the conflict within Houston, and I would like to hear your version of what you think happened there.
BL: Well, you are talking about a period that was much later. This was 1968. There had been a change in the way students protested. Dr. King's non-violent program began to decline about 1965, 1966. There had been a huge march in Washington and there had been a general acceptance of the non-violent form of protest, but there were a number of people who felt as though we did not need to just accept segregation or try non-violently to deal with segregation, that we needed to use force. And Malcolm X, I suspect, was the strongest voice at that time, saying that we ought to get freedom by any means necessary. There were a number of students on our campaign who believed not in non-violence but in something called Black Power. That was a different strategy altogether. So, these students began to yell epithets and began to throw stones and began to do a number of things that the non-violent students had not done. And when they began to do that, then Houston police reacted negatively. In 1968, there were some Texas Southern students and some University of Houston students who began to protest in some violent way and they ended up on the top of St. John's Baptist Church down on Dowling. There came a time when many of these students inside the dormitory at Texas Southern University were part of this Black Power group and they began to shout epithets. You had kids out in the street who were going to the top of this church. You had kids in the dormitories who were yelling a lot of epithets. You had kids outside the dormitories, and the kids outside the dormitories convinced the mayor and the chief of police, I believe that Louie Welch was the mayor at that time, and I cannot remember who the chief of police was . . .
JE: I can. It was Herman Short.
BL: Herman Short. That's right. But somebody had told the mayor and Herman Short that there was a riot going on at Texas Southern. Well, these kids were making a lot of noise but there was no riot and I don't think that there were any guns but the police came down in force. And so, the night shift came down to Texas Southern University, parked outside these dormitories and they were going to stop these rioting students. Well, one shot rang out, so the police then charged the dormitories assuming that that shot came from inside the dormitories. They later learned that the office who was shot was shot by friendly fire by one of the other police officers. But that was a little bit late. They had come in and they had forced all the boys out of the dormitory, they put them on the ground outside the dormitory and they began to take them to jail. It is interesting that one of the students who was taken to jail was a youngster named Kenneth Hoyt. Kenneth Hoyt is now a federal judge and when Chuck Rosenthal had his problems, he had to stand before a federal judge and the federal judge happened to be Kenneth Hoyt. The whole story about Texas Southern University was that there was never any evidence that there had been guns inside the dormitory. The only thing that was going on was all the loud epithets by these students, mostly outside the dormitories.
JE: Well, didn't it actually kind of start over the food or do I have that . . . I remember some of it started in the cafeteria and I do not know that it actually was food. It could have just been ________.
BL: That is probably so and I cannot remember what started it. I do remember that there was a lot of loud shouting.
JE: But it was a confined thing almost. There was tremendous police overreaction which I think is a knowledge thing at this point. But then it was over kind of and things seemed to have quieted down. And then, was Sunnyside next?
BL: Sunnyside was involved and I am going to guess that Sunnyside was probably a part of that whole picture. A child had drowned out at the city dump at Sunnyside and the quiet anger that had been around all the time suddenly exploded. And people said that since this child had drowned, that they would all go rushing out to Sunnyside. I went out there, too, and there were several of us who were thrown into jail including me. Then, Audrey tells me that Mayor Welch called and he asked, "Where is Reverend Lawson?" and she told him, "He is in your jail." So, he came down to the jail, let me out, told me that there was a major riot at Texas Southern University and asked me if I would go out there and see if I could calm them down. Well, I was taken to the dormitory in the police car, was taken to the dormitory and when I got there, I could hear all the noise outside the dorm, and I could hear the kids screaming at the police and the police lining up in front of the dormitory, and I never was able to get inside the dorm. All of the shooting started before I got into the dorm. When this one shot that filled this police officer rang out, then all of the rest of the police officers began to fire. Whole barrages of fires coming into that dormitory. And that is when they dragged the boys out and took them to jail. So, the Sunnyside incident certainly was related.
JE: No, there was one after that, Bill, and I don't remember what started that specific one but I think it started at a gas station. There was a big mob, you know, and there was a little looting and stuff going on, and once again, Louie Welch sent for you and you came out. And Blair Justice who was the mayor's - I am not sure exactly, I don't know what his title was . . .
BL: He just made him assistant, maybe.
JE: Yes, and you got in a car with him and I invited myself to get in the car with you which is the reason I remember this. I was in the back seat with you and Blair and the mayor's driver were in the front. Actually, I pulled a photographer in, too. You were kind of jammed up. And we went down there and somebody threw something at the car or something like that and the mayor's guy drew his gun and pointed it back. And I just happened to be in between him in the general direction. And I have always been grateful to you for talking him out of firing that gun.
BL: Would you believe that I cannot even remember that?
JE: Well, I know it did not have nearly the importance for you than it did for me. But that one, too, just kind of seemed to dissipate. And then, there was one on Dowling Street up on the top of the church.
BL: Yes, with the kids getting on top of the church.
JE: And I cannot remember who . . .
BL: He was killed.
JE: The young man was killed.
BL: The young man was killed and I cannot remember his name.
JE: He was one of the Black Power boys. This was not the . . .
BL: Well, they had taken to stopping traffic on Dowling periodically and I think soliciting money or I don't know. They were stopping traffic. And then, the police got on the top of the church and they fired down on him at that time ______. Those are the 3 incidents . . .
BL: Well, you've got a much clearer memory than I have for much of that.
JE: Well, it was because I was getting shot at some of those times!
BL: I am glad you are still here.
JE: I certainly am, too. But those are the 3 that I can remember, and the only time that . . . and it is regrettable that there were 2 lives lost in it but when you look at the rest of the country, it was really pretty remarkable.
BL: Yes, it was. Can you remember the school march? It would have been probably 1965.
BL: That was supposed to have been led by the NAACP and, for some reason, they declined to do it. There were several of us who were responsible for gathering different components of the community. Somebody was supposed to gather the preachers, somebody was supposed to gather the businessmen and civic leaders. I was told to gather students. So, I went to the high schools and I got students. We declined to go to the middle schools but we went to the high schools and we gathered students and it was interesting that as we were gathering students, teachers were saying that this is not legal. And then, they would tell the kids, "Why don't you get out of school and go on with them?" They were telling us that it was not legal but they would tell these kids, "Get on out of here and go with them," which meant that they agreed with us. And we gathered them all together and then we brought these hundreds of students down to the South Central YCMA of Wheeler and when we got there, there were almost no preachers and there were almost no business or civic leaders. And so, I wondered what the heck should we do? We don't have the other people. And so, those few black civic leaders who were there said, "Well, let's just go." So, we had all this bunch of kids starting the march but the good news was the HISD headquarters was downtown on Capitol, so we went down Dowling Street and while we went down Dowling Street, there were people who came out of the houses and out of the businesses and joined us. So, we ended up with I guess at least hundreds if not thousands of people and it was not just kids anymore. It was a number of other people. There were whites and Jews who joined us because of all of them did not like school segregation and when we walked down to a school headquarters, I think the school superintendent then was named McFarland. I cannot remember for sure. And he literally closed down the school building. So that when all these folks got there, the school building had been closed but very shortly after that, the schools did desegregate. They had been desegregating one year at a time but after this march, then they went ahead and they finally desegregated all the schools. I guess that that was probably the last of the non-violent peaceful marches. After that, most of the protests were sort of involved with violence one way or another.
JE: Yes, I remember that. I had forgotten about that. See, I didn't get shot at . . . I didn't remember that one. When you came here, Houston was probably about the 7th or 8th largest city in the country and you probably were surprised to learn that when you got here.
BL: I was.
JE: But when you look at what it has become now, I would submit to you that the growth of your church has probably reflected somewhat of the growth of Houston. How do you think Houston has aged?
BL: Well, I think, first of all, people have been more upwardly mobile. I think the people of Houston now look forward to a much better economy. I think at the same time, that there is a good deal of cynicism here. I think that after the collapse of some of these major corporations and the discovery of corruption in some of the high officials, I think that there are many people who have become somewhat cynical but I think that there is still a hopeful atmosphere in Houston. People are hoping that after we can come up with a much cleaner ethic, that Houston will be a much better city. Nobody seems very pessimistic about Houston. Cynical, perhaps, but pessimistic, no.
JE: What about Houston politics? You have certainly seen that change. Give me your version of Houston politics.
BL: Well, Houston politics has reflected the sort of atmosphere of the nation and when the nation was largely divided between white and black, Houston was largely divided between white and black. Once the nation began to recognize the ethnic differences like white, black, brown and Asian, then Houston began to recognize those differences. I think that Houston at the moment is largely a conservative city. I think about the purchasing of the Post by the Chronicle and there were many of us who were sorry to see that because the Chronicle has always been recognized as the voice of the conservatives. And the Post seemed to be a much more open paper. That is just one example. But I think that in Houston, there is right now a much better picture of politics. Politics has always been conservative in Houston, whether it was conservative Democrats or Republicans, but I think that in Houston, there has been a much more open attitude and I have often said that Houston is in the south but it is not of the south. Houston does not have the same mentality as Mississippi did or as Alabama did or as Georgia did. Houston was sort of a free-wheeling, free-thinking place. I am not just talking about Houston - the whole state of Texas has been a state of a rugged individualism which means that if you were tough enough, you could rise to the top. It wasn't a matter of whether you were black or brown or Asian, if you were tough enough, you could rise to the top, as some of these business leaders did - Hobart Taylor or Mack Hannah - because they were just strong men in a rugged, individualistic society. And so, they were able to do what they could not have done in Mississippi. I think that Houston politics has reflected, by and large, the politics of the nation. It is more conservative than much of the nation but I think it is willing to at least give an open door to people in ways that it did not used to because that open door is being offered throughout the nation.
JE: What about Herman Short? Do you remember Herman Short? Did you ever deal with him? He was kind of the symbol, the last great symbol to be toppled, I guess.
BL: I do remember Herman Short and I do remember that he reflected the racist attitudes of much of the south. He also was a person who believed that the difference between the persons on top and the persons on the bottom were not a racial difference - he believed that this was an economic difference, and he and Mayor Welch were working to buy a great deal of land out in northwest Houston which now is the Houston Intercontinental Airport, and I think that they made a great deal of money buying and owning that land. Houston sooner or later had to buy it and much of that they bought from them. So, I think of Chief Herman Short as somebody who was probably a racist and mostly an opportunist.
JE: That is very interesting. What about Louie Welch? He was a mayor that was initially elected I think with a lot of black help and then, the longer he was in office . . .
BL: He probably stayed there longer than any other mayor except Kathy Whitmire. I am not sure how long each of them stayed there but I know that Louie Welch had a long tenure here. You are right - when he started, he was a person who did have a lot of black help but now, remember, Louie's background was sales, so he knew how to sell himself and he did sell himself very effectively. Once he became mayor, he became almost imperial, and he was not a person who was going to give too much the time of day to anybody but he still knew how to reach into the various communities and get whatever help he needed. I was a black preacher and I had no kind of eminence at all and yet, he felt that since I knew Texas Southern University and since I knew the Third Ward, that he would call on me when he had to. And I don't think he called on me because he respected me, I think that he called upon me because as a salesman, he knew which products to put on the top shelf and which products to put on the bottom shelf. He was just somebody who understood how to rule and that is what he did.
JE: As I recall, in the politics that developed here, politicians always went to see Mr. Hannah and you and, golly, I did not think I would ever forget the name of the organization that Zollie Scales ran. That was with the 3 people that I can remember that politicians always went to see.
BL: You also have to remember Hovart Taylor who had a bunch of taxicab companies and Elliott Simpson who was a pastor of the Fifth Ward church but who had tremendous influence and whoever was the president of the NAACP at that time, and I believe it was some guy named Francis something. Can you remember him? He was a lawyer.
JE: Yes, I do, and then C. Anderson Davis got in and stayed for a lifetime.
BL: He never had the kind of influence that some of the other NAACP leaders had.
JE: Who do you think of as your contemporaries?
BL: My contemporaries? I am 6 months older than Martin Luther King so obviously we had some contact. There were people like Robert Felder who I think is dead now, who was a preacher/pastor of Trinity Methodist Church. Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, strangely enough, is a peer of mine. At the time, he was a young priest and I was a young preacher, and he was also an activist. And I felt that no one would ever even allow him to remain in the priesthood much less name him as a bishop. But he was a contemporary of mine. He walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with other protestors. I think that some of the rabbis - I remember Rabbi Jack Siegel who was probably a little bit older than I am but we had a good deal of Christian/Jewish dialog. These are some of the contemporaries. Barbara Jordan was just a little bit younger than I was but not much and she likewise was a major force. I mentioned Curtis Graves. He was fairly important and it is probably likewise in his mid to late 1970s. These are at least some of the contemporaries.
JE: There was an association of ministers at the time and you were active in that, right? Did that play any role in . . .
BL: It did. This was the Baptist Ministers Association and L.H. Simpson at that time was the president of it, and part of his power was in the fact that he could call together a bunch of pastors and they could motivate congregations but yes, there was a Baptist Ministers Association. One of the problems that we had with the Baptist Ministers Association was that J.H. Jackson who was, at that time, the president of the National Baptist Convention, was a close friend of then the FBI director of J. Edgar Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover had made the statement that Martin Luther King was a Socialist, a Communist, and because he said that, J.H. Jackson believed it. J.H. was the president of the National Baptist Convention and he passed the word down to Baptist preachers throughout the nation that they ought not to be identified with Martin Luther King because he was a Communist. That came down to Houston. So, in the Baptist Ministers Association, that likewise was a common belief, that Martin was Communist. When he came here 2 or 3 times, there was not a Baptist preacher in town except Manson Johnson over at Holman Street, who would give him the time of day or who would let him into their pulpit. We were dumb enough to let him into ours and that is how we became the Houston Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But I think that probably, as I think of the Baptist Ministers Association, I think of a group that have power but had been misdirected and later on, felt that Dr. Martin Luther King was a hero. But he has been lionized only after his death.
JE: I remembered the Riverside Bank. Was that the first bank that was predominantly owned by black people?
BL: It was the first and to this day, remains pretty much the only. It has a different name, it is called Unity Bank, but I don't know of any other bank in Houston or in the Houston area that is predominantly owned by blacks. Even Unit Bank right now has a mixed board and I believe at the moment has a white president, but it has been always the only bank that was owned mostly by blacks.
JE: Were you on the board?
JE: I remember Julius Carter was.
JE: Do you remember Julius Carter?
BL: Very well.
JE: He was kind of innovative in the newspaper business as I recall. I liked him. He was a really neat guy.
BL: Well, I think that he set the standard for black journalism in Houston and probably helped to influence even white journalism.
JE: Oh, yes, I think so. Well, when you started building this church . . . describe the differences between the Third Ward and the Fifth Ward for me, the 2 predominantly black areas of town.
BL: The Third Ward had almost in its middle Texas Southern University, that has a tremendous influence on the flavor of these 2 wards. The Fifth Ward was largely a blue collar neighborhood and has always been. It was a strongly cohesive neighborhood. People from the Fifth Ward are strongly patriotic about the Fifth Ward. People in the Third Ward, on the other hand, are basically middle class people, mostly middle class people, and they tend to be much interested in their own upward mobility. That is not altogether true of the entire Third Ward but I think that if I would characterize the two, I would call one blue collar and one white collar.
JE: What about the YMCA? I'll bet you I went there once a week for 20 years or something. There was always something going on there and it was always the place where press conferences were held and things like that. How did that come about?
BL: I think much of that can be laid at the feet or put on the shoulders of Quinton Meese. Quinton is now 98 years old. The next birthday, he will be 99. He is still around.
JE: God, I did not know that.
BL: And he is still driving himself. But Quinton Meese was a man who believed that blacks needed to have a voice. He came out of the upper Midwest and I am going to guess from Iowa or someplace like that or Nebraska and when he came to Houston, he came because he was going to be the executive director of the YMCA. The YMCA at that time was on Bagby and Quinton was largely responsible for its move to Wheeler. And he wanted it to be an open place. So, the fact that you could go there and find meetings and some activities going on all the time characterized the South Central YMCA very well. But Quinton Meese would not shut out somebody because he did not believe in their political views. When we were getting together to start the march against HISD, that was something that gathered at the South Central YCMA. The businessmen gathered there. Civic groups gathered there. Social groups gathered there. It was just a place where everybody could meet and it was one of the few places that would be large enough to accommodate such meetings.
JE: When you started Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, who was involved in it with you? I mean, was it kind of like let's go start a church and who said it?
BL: Not exactly. These were mostly teachers. I can remember Dr. Robert Terry from Texas Southern University, Mrs. Constance Mabry who was the wife of the president, obviously Audrey and me. There was a guy named Jessie Cashall who was a professor at Texas Southern University. Charlotte Bryant who later on became one of the leading teachers at the high school for the medical professions. There were a number of people like that. I remember one time, Mrs. Valene Mitchell who was, for a long time, a professor at Texas Southern University, I remember saying at one time that I could not think of a member of the church except the children who did not have a college degree and for that reason, there were people who said that church is not going to last. It is a whole bunch of boogie negroes and they would look down their noses at all the rest of us. And I feared the same thing. But what happened fairly quickly was that these people learned, I hope because I helped to teach them, that because God had blessed them that they were also responsible for helping somebody else. So, we established a program called Missions and Mercy. This was a second offering which we still take and the second offering cannot be used for the church. It has to be used to help people who can't pay their light bill or are having trouble with their rent, kids who need to stay in college, so the church began fairly quickly to adopt the idea that we had a responsibility. We started out as a fairly aristocratic group of people but fairly quickly, we set the model for other churches for Christian education, for missions, for outreach and I think that this is what helped to characterize Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.
JE: As I recall and I may be incorrect, you never let politicians speak at your church. You would introduce them but did you let them speak?
BL: No. Very seldom did we. I think that on some 1 or 2 occasions, we would ask the mayor to come in and speak but candidates, we have never allowed to speak.
JE: Why? So many churches do. I mean, the Sundays I have spent in black churches were just phenomenal.
BL: Most of all because I have always thought of a church as a place where everybody could come and worship, whether you were high or low, whether you were rich or poor, whether you were mature or a child, and I did not feel that we ought to be governed by politicians who would come in and say we will make a donation to your church if you will let us speak. So, we have felt that the church ought to be the one place where you could come and worship without somebody having to sell you something or campaign. So, that has just been a pattern of ours. Now, we would get involved in politics. We would be involved in social action but we did not allow the politicians to come and speak with us.
JE: I don't remember you being that active in politics at the beginning as you seem to . . . openly, at any rate, that seemed to grow. Am I incorrect in that?
BL: No, I am sure that is true. We started out in politics not supporting candidates. We started out in politics getting out the vote and we felt that that was as important as anything. Going and vote, choose your own candidate but go and vote so we did that. A little bit later on, we did begin to understand that there needed to be some voice that could speak to the powerful on behalf of the powerless. And so, when you see me involved in politics now, what you see is me going to Bill White and saying to him, "We've got some kids who need help and we think the city could help them." So, we have become not candidates - I have never run for political office, have no desire to run for political office, but still hope that if we've got connections with powerful business or with powerful leaders in government, we should be able to call the governor, we should be able to contact Congress people and say, "We've got some folks who need help. Will you help them?" That is basically my role in politics now.
JE: Well, you have been involved with every mayor I can ever remember, starting with Louie Welch who got you out of jail. And after him, Fred Hofheinz. I mean, you were always the go-to or hear from guy.
BL: Once again, I am not sure that that characterizes me very well but once again, I am very interested in making sure that whoever is in office or whoever is tops in business understands the same thing that we were saying to our own members: If God has blessed you with substance or power or connections, you need to share that substance or power or connections with people who are lower than yourself. So, I have not minded going to a Louie Welch or to a Fred Hofheinz and saying, "There needs to be some way by which you can do better by the people in Sunnyside or the people in Acres Homes than you are doing now." So, that has been and continues to be my role. Now, each one of those mayors will understand that I am going to give them my own opinion and I am not going to always cow-tow to their opinions, and if they disagree with me or they arrest me, then I will just have to accept that.
JE: How many times have you been in jail?
BL: Three that I can remember.
JE: What were they for?
BL: Mainly for protesting something. I got put in jail because of the city dump thing. I can recall going to jail one time because I was involved in a group of students from the University of Houston who got themselves in trouble. I have mentioned Deloid Parker. He was one of those who went with me. I am not sure whether you know Gene Locke who was, at one time, city attorney. Gene Locke was part of that same group. And so, there were several of us who got arrested then. I cannot remember the third time, what it was for. I am sure it was because I was out of line publicly.
JE: How long did you usually stay in jail?
BL: Not more than 1 day.
JE: Well, the Holmes Road dump was a source of great controversy. Not controversy, I mean, . . . but there were protests that went on out there and it was finally closed down and grassed over and at one time, I was told that that was the highest one of elevation in Houston.
BL: It is now a luxurious golf course. It is interesting to go out there and find fairly wealthy people, white and black, playing golf on the place where there used to be a city dump. People had been begging for years for the city to close that dump and it wasn't until these college students went out there and protested - some of them were lying down on the road and as trucks came up, trucks would have to stop. I had gone out there not to protest but just to see what was happening and I got thrown into a paddy wagon and had not realized what was going on. I learned after I got in the paddy wagon that they were protesting against the dump and lying down on the road.
JE: The Intelligence Division of the Houston Police Department probably was not ever really very good when you got right down to it but it seems to me that during Hofheinz's time or something, they did find a bunch of files. No, that was FBI. I am sorry. I may be off base there. I think it was in the Intelligence Division that they had a bunch of files on people and it was primarily newspaper articles that they cut out and stuff like that but did you ever feel any particular intimidation or oppression by the police?
BL: I did not feel any special intimidation but I was very frustrated by the intimidation I knew that others felt. In many cases, they would not bother me, at least in part because I was at Texas Southern University or in part because I was pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church or in part because they really could not find anything criminal on me. They searched to see if they could find out that I was seeing prostitutes or something and they were just never able to find anything. So, I think that is part of the reason why I was never bothered that much. But I was certainly concerned about how other people were bothered, how other people were falsely accused, falsely arrested, and so I became an advocate for many of them.
JE: Where did you stand on Leotus Johnson?
BL: Leotus was, on the one hand, a friend of mine and on the other hand, a neighborhood nuisance. We knew that Leotus was loud and we knew that he could be brassy but at the same time, we knew that Leotus' primary concern was for people. Now, he was a nuisance because I think he drank too much and because he probably used drugs but he was like one of our sons, the kind of son at whom you fuss but you still love.
JE: What was your reaction when Lee Brown was elected mayor of Houston?
BL: It was one of great pride. He was the first black to ever be elected mayor of Houston and this was the same city where there had been a Herman Short and where there had been a whole lot of other people who simply had suppressed blacks and women. So, I was very proud when Lee Brown was elected. I also knew that he was going to have major problems. I even thought that Lee might assassinated. But the thing that I did remember was he had had a successful tenure as chief of police and so maybe his life was not in danger but I knew that politically, he would have stones thrown at him.
JE: Well, and I think he did.
BL: He did.
JE: But then, in truth, I don't think there has ever been a mayor who has not had a few rocks thrown in his or her general direction.
BL: But we look with a great deal more respect at Bob Lanier than we ever did at Lee Brown. I even think about people like Kathy Whitmire and I don't think that she has a golden reputation, the same way that Bob Lanier has.
JE: I was always taken with the fact that in Lanier's election, he got tremendous support from people who thought he was conservative.
JE: Because he was an old white man and smoked cigars. I think they thought they were electing a super conservative guy and I would suggest to you that I think he was probably the most liberal mayor that I have ever known.
BL: He probably was. What most people would not know about Bob Lanier was that he had a listening ear to both blacks and browns in ways that other mayors had not had. There was a case in Texas called Sweatt v. Painter and that was the case where Heman Sweatt lived in _________ was trying to get in to the University of Texas and the State of Texas did not want him to go to University of Texas, this is 1947 - and so, the State of Texas __________ Texas Southern University in 1947 to keep him from going to University of Texas. The Sweatt v. Painter case went all the way to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court decreed that Painter was wrong, Sweatt was right, and that Sweatt should be admitted to the University of Texas. Now they had already established this little black college and they felt we have wasted money so ever since then, they have been trying to close down Texas Southern University. That is another story. But Bob Lanier, who was at the University of Texas at that time and who was a law student was very much concerned about this black student who had come. They would not allow Sweatt to sit in any classroom. He was in the basement of the law building of the University of Texas and Bob Lanier went down and tutored him so Bob Lanier is remembered for a lot more than just his conservative appearance. He is an open man.
JE: Oh, yes, I think so, and probably did as much as anyone to bring the 3 communities, if you will, together. There has always been a lot of speculation and talk about how blacks and browns get along in Houston but I am not sure that anyone has ever known of anything that accurately describes the relationship. Can you have a shot at it?
BL: It is a hot/cold kind of relationship. There are times when blacks and browns work together very well. There are times when they will be almost hostile towards each other. We have a rodeo going on in town right now and one of the major protests is that Hispanics have not been given an opportunity to be a major part of the rodeo. There has always been a good deal of Tejano music. This year, there hasn't been so much Tejano music. And the Hispanics are very much upset by it. Well, there have been times when blacks needed some kind of support and Hispanics would come to our rescue. This time, Hispanics needed support and so this coming Saturday, there is to be a press conference which involves not only people like Ben Mendez and -- who is the senator in Austin?
BL: No, he is a senator. But anyway, he is at least one of the Hispanics. Then, on the other hand, you've got Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Congressman Al Green, you've got Garnett Coleman, Rodney Ellis - there are a number of black leaders who are joining Hispanic leaders to protest what is happening in the rodeo and the protest has grown beyond Tejano music, the protest now is that there would not have been the exclusion of Tejano music if there had been more minorities in upper management. So, the protest now is about the absence of blacks and browns in upper management; the feeling that if there had been blacks and browns in upper management, this probably would not have happened. So, I think that the relationship between blacks and browns sometimes is good, sometimes is cool.
JE: Speaking of Al Green, there was Zollie Scales' organization and I cannot, for the life of me, remember the name of it. Association something or another. And then, when Fred Hofheinz started running for mayor, he formed a group . . . I mean, supposedly it was this spontaneous group that came up from nowhere to support Fred, and there were a lot of young professional men in it. I remember that Al Green, when he got appointed a municipal court judge, we thought that well, all of them have been taken care of now and you never heard, of course, of this group again. On one hand, my reaction to it was that it was a group of young men who were being exploited but on the other hand, I thought it was a group of young men who were doing a terrific job of exploiting the mayor because they all went up into positions of prominence and importance. I cannot remember anybody right now except Al because he was the last one we thought and then kind of disappeared.
BL: Was Andrew Jefferson one of them?
JE: Probably. It was mostly young lawyers. Do you have any recollection of what I am trying to remember and talk about?
BL: Yes. The man who was the executive director of the urban league was like the chief figure in that. I don't know whether he is called chairman or president or what he was called and I can't remember his name right now. He lives in New Orleans. But he was part of that little power group and he likewise was elevated a good deal while they were here. Something happened that I guess was a mini-scandal but something happened that broke that group up and they had begun to do a good deal of good.
JE: Who is your favorite politician from Houston and why?
BL: You mentioned Al Green. He is close to being my favorite. And you asked why. There are a few politicians who have integrity, the Barbara Jordan-type integrity. Al Green seems to have that. My impression is that he is not for sale. Most of the things that he gets, he pays for himself. He is a person who seems to have a fairly immaculate record. Once again, he is not the kind of person where you can find a number of skeletons in his closet. And when I look at a politician, I look not so much for power, I look most of all for integrity. If there is integrity, he can be a loser. Jimmie Carter was a loser but he was a person who definitely had integrity. And right now, he is probably one of the most valuable ambassadors that we have in politics. So, I guess that if I have to look at a favorite politician, it would be most nearly Al Green.
JE: You and Barbara Jordan were good friends weren't you?
JE: I remember one time _____ very early when I went to a press conference called by Barbara Jordan and George Bush and they were calling for get out to vote, register and get out to vote in the black community. Barbara may have been working for Bill Elliott then but she certainly never held office or anything, and I think maybe Bush had just become county chairman of the Republican Party. But you and he were pretty good friends or are pretty good friends, aren't you?
BL: Not really. I knew George Bush but he and I were never close. I admired him but no, we were never really close. I was somewhat more close to Barbara. Barbara was kind of an icon to me. She was sort of an idol. Now, here was a woman who had tremendous intelligence and who developed tremendous power but who remained a woman of integrity. As you can see, this is what I value.
JE: I remember talking to you in 1988 and I had talked to you about the obvious, that George Bush was going to run for president. He had been vice-president and he was going to run for president. And you were applaudatory of him generally. And then, Dukakis wound up choosing Lloyd Bentsen and I found myself talking to you again about what did you think about Lloyd Bentsen, and you were applaudatory of him. I always thought you handled it very well but did you have a personal favorite in that race?
BL: No, in fact I think that I had expected from the outset that Dukakis was going to lose and I think that I likewise expected that George Bush was probably going to remain with conservatives.
JE: But he did do the right vote on open housing? That endeared him I think to a lot of people.
BL: Yes, I think so. Well, while many of us may criticize the Republican Party, I think that there are a number of things for which they can be given credit. I don't think that the Democrats would ever have named a Colin Powell as a Secretary of State or a Condoleezza Rice to be in the place where she is. I think that this says something about Republicans that is not equaled by Democrats. And they have passed a good deal of legislation. I am talking about the Open Housing Act that I think was favorable to minorities - blacks and browns.
JE: Wondering around here . . . even in the years since Houston's schools have become open and every kind of kid goes to every kid of school, there has always been such intense rivalry between Wheatley and Yates and I, over the course of the years, have gotten in the middle of that one on many occasions. Is there still a cohesiveness in the black community that is separate and apart?
BL: Not nearly as much. The rivalry between Yates and Wheatley has been fairly well softened by the fact that Wheatley is now, if not predominantly Hispanic, there is a goodly number of Hispanics there. So, it isn't as though this is the black rivals of the black high school in the Third Ward. How cohesive is the black community? Not very. Remember, the black community, at one time, all lived in the Third or Fifth Ward or Pleasantville of Acres Homes. There were a fairly limited number of places where blacks lived. Once desegregation, particularly housing desegregation came, then blacks could move where they wanted to and they were scattered which is as they are today. So, there is no neighborhood that could be called exclusively black or exclusively white or exclusively Hispanic. There are still predominantly black neighborhoods but since blacks can move anyplace, then there has been a siphoning off of affluent or influential blacks and they are no longer available to people in the ghetto or in the barrio. And that means that it is difficult for us to be very cohesive. There was a time when those who were at the upper socio-economic levels could fairly well live with all the people who were at the lower socio-economic levels and they could often have much of the same agenda. They wanted equality, they wanted freedom, they wanted access, and now, that is not so much the case. Black people or brown people can cry about what they need but the brown people of influence, the black people of influence, have been drained off and they are now living in the Woodlands or they are living in Pearland or they are living someplace else; while the black and brown ghettos and barrios have been left fairly well without people of power living in them.
JE: I know at one time, there was some sort of organization in the Fifth Ward where they were trying to bring young professionals who had left the neighborhood, were coming back to try to have an influence. I don't have any idea what level of success it was.
BL: So far as I know, there has never been any successful effort to bring together the high and the low in either the black or the brown community. Those who are capable of getting out of the ghetto, getting out of the barrio, have gone and even though those who are left will try their level best to get some of these folks back or some of these folks will say I am going back because I should go back. Fats Domino built his house in the New Orleans ghetto because he believed he had some responsibility to the people in the ghetto but that is rare. That doesn't happen that often.
JE: How about your church membership here? How has it evolved over the years?
BL: They are scattered likewise but they do have still some sense of responsibility, so that if there is any church that is going to help kids to get in school or to stay in school, it is probably Wheeler, even though Wheeler lives in Kingwood and Pearland as well.
JE: You were speaking earlier about the Boy Scouts. Why did you start a Boy Scout movement here and how have you kept it going?
BL: For this, you have to give credit to both of us. Audrey and I have been partners ever since we got married and any time you talk about my achievements, you have to include her. We are linked almost Siamese-like and we both have a great concern about what is happening to black males. We see them dropping out of school, we see them predominating the population in jails and prisons, we seem them in gangs and on drugs, and our concern has always been for the character building of black males which is why we have a black middle school right now - all boys. Audrey was very much concerned about what was happening to black males, so she and I together asked Cuni (sp?) Homes director, C. Regor Hall, if he would help us to start a Boy Scout troop and the number of Eagle Scouts that have been made has been because Hall was almost kind of a military person who would push boys towards Eagle Scouts. But we started it largely because of the deplorable conditions in which we found black males. We knew that we could not do much to repair adult black males but at least we could do something to building young black males and Boy Scouting was at least one of the ways in which we could do it.
JE: When you retired from the active pastorship here, didn't you start some sort of organization?
BL: I did not start one but let me tell you about that. In 1996, some 11 years ago, I was 50 years old in ministry. I had been in the ministry for 50 years starting in 1946. And there were a group of people who secretly said, "Lawson has now been in ministry for 50 years. We ought to do something special for him." They knew that I would not take a car or a house or any major block of cash and so they raised the question, what can we give him? And they decided let's give him an already funded nonprofit so he can do anything he wants to do. Now, that was 12 years ago, something like that, 12 years ago in 1996. And so, one day, I was asked to come down to the Hyatt Regency. As a matter of fact, it was on income tax day, April 15, and I went down there just expecting that I was going to give an invocation at a luncheon and when I walked into the room, there were these hundreds of people - the place was packed - with black and white civic leaders, with members of our church and of other churches. And they were there to give me this nonprofit . . . Congressman Al Green had given it a somewhat clumsy name, William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity. So, we reduced it to an acronym, WALIPP. And that organization has now built a senior residence on Scott Street and has established an all boys middle school housed at Texas Southern University. Our hope is that we can expand beyond that to a school for girls and that we can begin to do some things to help incarcerated, these people who were coming out of jails and prisons but right now, it is those 2 things that we have established.
JE: That is terrific. It is interesting that you chose to have so much involvement with boys when you had girls. Did they ever feel slighted?
BL: I hope not. We have always tried to include them and we have even included them in trying to help us work with boys. My second daughter, Melanie's younger sister, is the executive director of WALIPP right now, so even though we've got a boys school, she pretty much calls the shots for that nonprofit and for that senior residence. Melanie, of course, has made her own name and I think everybody knows her and everybody loves her and respects her. And our younger daughter, Roxanne, has likewise been very much a part of all that we have done. They have been included, not just as family but also as part of our ministry, as part of our social services. So, I don't think that they feel slighted.
JE: Mrs. Lawson is active in a theater group, isn't she?
BL: Right. She took over a dying theater, the Ensemble Theater, which was in a great big abandoned car repair place and its founder was dying and she said to him, "George, we will not let the Ensemble die. We will keep it alive." And so, she began to raise money for the Ensemble Theater for the buying of the building, for the renovation of the building, for the establishment of some kind of regular theater with plays. And so, she raised about $4.5 million for this thing and she did completely renovate it, and it is now one of the major features along Main Street. When light rail was brought to Main Street, they chose to have one of the stops named after the Ensemble, one of the stops right in front of the Ensemble. So now, it is known everyplace and there are people who will go to the Ensemble about as much as they would go to the Alley. So, she has had a good deal to do with that.
JE: If I had available funds and you came to me seeking money for a cause, I hope that I would give it to you. If Audrey Lawson came to me seeking funds, I would hope that I could be able to come up with something to give her. I suspect she is a better fundraiser than you are.
BL: Oh, yes, she is.
JE: I think she would be a little tougher to say no to. Is the WOB (sp?) office here?
BL: Yes, it is on Cullen and Griggs.
JE: So, it is not in this church?
BL: Oh, no. It is at Cullen and Griggs.
JE: That is a good address. Where do you live now?
BL: I live right close to Old Spanish Trail and Griggs but we live on a street just off of Old Spanish Trail. It is called Glen Cove. There is a new small development in that area and we chose to live there rather than to go to the suburbs.
JE: Have you always lived there?
BL: Oh, no. We started out on Wheeler and we were living just down the street from the little church, just west of Texas Southern University. In fact, Texas Southern University took over the land where we lived and they had built the health and physical education building there. We then moved over on Rosedale near Scott Street. Then, we moved over on South MacGregor, I guess between Scott and Del Rio. So, we have always lived about 5 minutes from his church, never out of the Third Ward.
JE: The other day, the new president of Texas Southern was talking about putting in requirements for admission. What is your reaction to that? I mean, the one thing that always stood out the most about Texas Southern was that the main campus was available to any student not, you know, at University of Houston, you could go to UH downtown but you could not go to . . . what is your reaction to that?
BL: First, I had a semi-negative reaction to it. Texas Southern has always been an open enrollment university, where any kid who wanted to go to college could get in. And after the many negative reactions, after some thought about it, I recognized that Texas Southern cannot compete against the universities of the nation unless it can have a decent graduation rate. Right now, 16%, 17% of its students graduate. That is much too low a graduation rate. And the reason is not hard to find. They will come in to Texas Southern University with an 8th grade, 6th grade, 4th grade education and there needs to be some way by which Texas Southern can screen those kids. And I don't think that Texas Southern should ever refuse to accept them. And right now, what his plan seems to be - when a kid comes in with a 6th grade reading ability, that he will then send that kid to Houston Community College, let him or her stay there for a year or two, then once they can bring that reading skill up, then they will take them into Texas Southern University, and perhaps that way, raise the level of students who graduate from Texas Southern University. So, my first impression was that this is closing the door to many students. My second impression was that it is the only way to raise the graduation rate.
JE: Have you ever regretted that the kids prevailed and they closed down Wheeler?
BL: That has never bothered me that much. It gets to be a little frustrating if you would like to go straight through Wheeler but that has never bothered me much. The reason for their closing was a good reason. They were closing it so that the kids would not be so much threatened by fast traffic moving along Wheeler, however, what I think is going to happen is that perhaps under Rudley, Wheeler is going to be reopened so the traffic does not have to be stopped ______ at Innis and whether open or closed, that doesn't bother me so much. Cullen runs straight through the University of Houston. Calhoun runs straight through the University of Houston. They have simply got crossing areas with the little hands up and I think that is possible to do something like that on Wheeler. So, maybe something that is friendly to both students and traffic can be worked out.
JE: That is interesting. Leonard Spearman, did you know him?
JE: He was a Republican.
BL: Yes, I knew that.
JE: Got along with him anyway?
BL: Got along with him anyway. We had a Republican governor at that time so it does not surprise me that a Republican would be named president and I think that when there has been a Democrat governor, we have had a Democrat president. That is O.K. That is normal politics.
JE: What should I be talking to you about? You are a great answerer! This is for posterity. What is your message for posterity?
BL: Well, I am right close to 80 years old and if I have a message for posterity, it is that they shall carry on the notion which I got from Jesus first and from the prophets even before Jesus and that was that what God requires of you is to love, mercy and do justly and to walk humbly with God. That is an Old Testament concept. The New Testament concept is that you should love your neighbor as yourself. So, I think that if there is anything that I could pass on, it is that we will try to raise the quality of life in the community in which we live and if we were able to do it in the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s and up until the 21st century, then people who live beyond our death could keep on carrying out those Jewish and Christian traditions. That is what I would hope.
JE: Do you think that the human race is anywhere near Dr. King's concept of a truly equal society?
BL: No, I don't, but I can see a major improvement from 1955 when Rosa Parks did her protest in Montgomery. I could not have imagined 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 2 years ago, I could not have imagined a black man running successfully for president and getting this close to being nominated. He may not be nominated but to get this close is unprecedented and I think that that only happens because of the Civil Rights Movement which opened some doors that had never been opened before. I don't think that King's dream has been fulfilled but I think that we have gone a long way towards fulfillment.
JE: You are a minister, you are a civil rights leader, you are a strong influence in the city of Houston - how do you consider yourself? How do you define yourself?
BL: Well, I am Bill Lawson, and I think of myself basically as a servant. I am trying to do what I think God wants me to do and I am trying to influence other people to do what I think God wants them to do. So, as I think of myself, I don't think of myself as a person of prominence or power, I don't think of myself as a civil rights leader, I think of myself who has been blessed enough to be able to establish some connections and to be able to use those connections to help some people who are beneath themselves. That is basically how I picture myself.
JE: You have known Barbara Jordan, you have known Mickey Leland. I know you had influence in their lives. What influence did they have in your lives?
BL: A great deal of influence. Barbara was probably one of the most brilliant women that I have ever known, and the thing that she was both black and female and yet, to have that kind of influence has always been a marvel to me. Mickey Leland was an interesting character because he was and remained a free-wheeler. He did things his own way and yet, he always seemed to manage to have influence over his fellow politicians. He was known and sometimes respected, sometimes feared in Congress. He was not as brilliant as Barbara but he was able to do things that Barbara could not do. Barbara remained on the floor of Congress, she would eat her bagged lunches and stay right there in that big Congressional room, and she did not get out too much. Mickey, on the other hand, was out drinking and smoking with all the guys and influencing them while he did it. Different styles altogether but both of them very influential people. So, yes, they certainly did affect me and influence me. Barbara probably taught me to be focused and to have personal integrity. Mickey taught me how to speak my own mind and how not to be influenced by what people thought of me. So, they both had a good deal of influence on me.
JE: Who else did?
BL: Well, there have been a number of people who have. I am thinking right now of Fred Hofheinz. You had mentioned Fred Hofheinz. I think that he had a good deal of influence on me. I think Bob Lanier had a good deal of influence on me. I would certainly say that Sam Mabry, one of the presidents of Texas Southern University, had a great deal of influence on me. I think that some of the Jewish rabbis and some of the Catholic priests have had a good deal of influence on me. I have been influenced by a number of people from a number of ethnic background and from a number of religious disciplines, from both genders. I think that every time I find somebody who has been blessed with intellect or with skills and yet, who has not let that intellect or those skills go to his or her head, and is willing to use that intellect or those skills to help elevate other people, that person does influence me.
JE: Do you still have the Baptist Ministers Association? Does it still exist?
BL: It still exists. It is just a skeleton of its former self. And the past president of it, J.J. Robertson, is probably in his 90s but it likewise has become just a small group of pastors of small churches. The pastors of the larger churches have long since forsaken it.
JE: Well, you are nearly 80 years old and you have seen a lot. What events stand out in your mind in terms of Houston and a little bit maybe of the rest of the world?
BL: Well, I think the growth of Texas Southern University stands out very much. I have watched it come from these few military buildings to the place where right now, it is one of the largest black universities in the nation. I have been impressed with this church, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, which came from 13 people in the living room to the place where we are right now which probably holds 7,000 members and the kind of influence that it has had in this community - that has impressed me a great deal. I have been impressed with what has happened in the Mayor's office; the fact that Houston could name a woman as mayor, that Houston could name a black as mayor - all that has been very impressive to me because I don't think that I would have expected that in 1955 when I first came here. I have certainly been impressed by business in Houston. The huge businesses, the huge corporations that have grown up. I have watched the whole National Bank of Commerce become no J.P. Morgan Chase. And I watched Enron grow and then fall, and I was very much impressed with something that could get that big in Houston. I therefore grieved when it collapsed but I have seen a number of things in Houston. I watched the Shell Oil Company and I have watched Exxon Mobil. I have seen a number of things grow in this town and I am glad to see that.
JE: What about the Medical Center? When you came, where did you go for your health care? The Medical Center was barely started, I guess. We had Hermann and maybe Methodist out there, I don't know, but you know . . .
BL: Well, remember, when I came here, Houston was tightly segregated. The only place that I could have gone for medical assistance would have been Riverside General Hospital. When the Medical Center opened its doors, we started out being welcome at Hermann and Methodist and St. Luke's. That was about the only place we could go. When Texas Children's was opened, we could go there. M.D. Anderson was probably one of the last to open to us but when it opened, it was a major refuge for those of us who had cancer, for our families and loved ones. But it started out as a very segregated medical community and that is where it was when my children were born and where we went originally for our medical health.
JE: Riverside General?
BL: Riverside General.
JE: It doesn't even exist now, does it?
BL: It is still there.
JE: And it functions as a hospital?
BL: That I don't know. It is still a clinic. I am not sure that it is a hospital.
JE: What about lawyers? If you had to go to court?
BL: Once again, there were black lawyers and if you needed a lawyer, that was who you had to go to. I mentioned Andrew Jefferson. He was one of those lawyers. Many of their names now escape me. I remember a man named Plumber who was a lawyer and who was one of the more prominent lawyers. Obviously, Francis, whose name I still can't remember . . . but I can remember a number of black lawyers. We mentioned Barbara Jordan over and over again. Barbara Jordan was a lawyer and was a very good one. She did not remain a practicing lawyer for a very long time because she went first of all to the State House of Representatives and then ultimately Congress, but she was also one of the better lawyers.
JE: She was in practice with Jefferson, wasn't she?
BL: Yes, she was.
JE: Was she your lawyer?
BL: No, she wasn't mine. I didn't even have a lawyer.
JE: Wow, that says something for you. You have led a good and blessed life.
BL: ________ says I was broke!
JE: What do you see yourself doing in the Houston of tomorrow?
BL: Well, I would guess that if there was anything that I can see myself doing, and I don't have much longer to do anything, but if I can see myself doing anything, it is to make the people who were in power more sensitive. I mentioned to you once before that if I have a role, it is to use the connections that I have been able to get to help somebody who was the bottom of the ladder. So, if there is anything that I can do in the future, it is to be a spokesperson for the blacks, Hispanics, the Asians, the poor, the handicapped, and can meet people in power, recognize them and regard them.
JE: How many grandchildren do you have?
JE: You don't like them, I don't suppose?
BL: I am crazy about them. I spoil them.
JE: What do you see in your future?
BL: Well, both of them have bright futures. One of them won an opportunity at the Grammy Awards to sing with Justin Timberlake. She wants to be a professional singer and she is well on her way to being a professional singer. The youngest of our grandchildren wants to be in theater - writing, directing, acting, and she wants to go to NYU, New York University. So, the older one went to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She will make good connections in the show world there. The youngest one has been accepted to NYU. She will make good connections with theater people there, Broadway people, so I expect both of them will do fairly well. Their grades are high.
JE: Would you say they have been influenced by their grandmother?
BL: I would certainly say that. I would certainly say that.
JE: Neither one of them is going to be a minister?
BL: No. I've got 4 children, 2 grandchildren, and nobody has been interested in the ministry. They've grown up in a preacher's house, they've seen all the headaches.
JE: And you did not you said.
BL: Oh, yes I did.
JE: I mean, you didn't . . .
BL: No, I didn't grow up in a preacher's house. Maybe if I had, I would have turned against the ministry.
JE: Has that been the dominant thing in your life?
BL: The ministry, yes it has. I was called to ministry when I was still in high school in 1946 and at that time, I was 18 years old; actually, 17. That was my 18th year. So, since that time, I have recognized that I was going to be in the ministry. I didn't know what kind but I knew I was going to be in the ministry. I chose to go into the mission field. I never got a chance to do that. I did not realize that I would be called to work in a university campus and that was a kind of mission field itself.
JE: I was going to say there are some who would say that is a big mission field.
BL: That is a mission field. I certainly never expected to be in the pastoring. So, my ministry has not been stuff that I have planned. It has been stuff that just sort of came to be.
JE: O.K. Thank you very much.
BL: Well, you are welcome. Thank you for being interested in all this stuff.