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Interview with: Attorney Francis Williams
Date: September 21, 1974
Archive Number: OH 193
Female Speaker = FS
Francis Williams = FW
FS: Mr. Williams, to begin with, could you give us some general background information about your birthplace, family, and education?
FW: (0:00:27) I was born and raised in Austin, Texas. I graduated from, what is now, Houston College. When I graduated from college, I graduated from Sam Houston, which is one of the 2 schools that later merged. I am married Marzella Aman Williams. She is from Calvert. We have no children.
FS: Can you tell us something about your later education?
FW: I graduated from Howard Law School in 1950. That is the extent of my formal education. I have a bachelor’s degree in law.
FS: Okay. Can you tell us what the bachelor’s degree was in?
FW: It was in general course of the law. It qualifies you to practice law in any state. Incidentally, I started law school in 1947. Being from Austin, I had the opportunity to know about the Sweatt v. Painter case at The University of Texas Law School case. Some of the friends of my father advised me to wait and go to The University of Texas to take my degree in law, because the Sweatt case was in the court. The Sweatt case actually started in 1946. I was a veteran. I had a GI Bill. After being accepted by Howard, I went to law school in September 1947. The Sweatt case was decided by the supreme court
2 weeks after I graduate from law school in 1950. If I had followed that advice, I suppose I would have been at least 3 years behind.
FS: Upon your graduation from Sam Houston, your degree was in what area?
FW: My degree from Sam Houston was in chemistry. I had a major in chemistry and a minor in biology. I thought early on about going into medical practice. I probably made a mistake.
FS: What particular motivations led you into the field of law?
FW: (02:50.9) Well, there were several things. I thought that law would be a means to help people. I suppose I, at first, aspired to medicine because, quite frankly, medicine was urged by school officials for people who were fairly proficient and made the honor roll. They urged you to go into medicine because they thought you could make it. They thought that you had the educational background to go through 4 years of medical school, which everybody knows is quite tedious. I changed my mind because of several things. I had bad incident with a bus driver while I was in the service that made me want to do something about the system. One Saturday evening, I was on my way from Camp Barkeley in Abilene to Austin on a weekend pass. In the old days, black folks rode at the back of the bus. I wasn’t sitting on the very backseat. I was sitting on the seat just front of the back seat on that wheel. It was a Greyhound-type bus. A small community up in North Central Texas called Goldthwaite. I never will forget it. The bus became crowded because a lot of people were getting on that to get to the next largest town, which I believe was Lampasas, Texas. There were several white people standing. As I recall, there were two people on the backseat as well as Ameren and his wife and a little child. There were 3 people. I was the only other black person on the bus, and I was not seated on the backseat. The bus driver using his microphone told me to move to the rear. He said something like, “Solider, move to the rear of the bus,” but I ignored it. He drove approximately 3 or 4 blocks on the edge of town. He stopped the bus and came back and said that if I didn’t move to the rear of the bus that he’d put me off. So I moved to the rear of the bus. I hadn’t thought too much about the segregation laws at all, but this really hit home to me. You want to do something about these things if you can. At that time that didn’t make up my mind to go to law school. This was one of the things that made me conscious of the problems that black people had. At a later time, when I began to decide what I was going to do when I got out of the service, I decided to go to law school. Later in life I was able to do something about some of the laws on our people.
FS: Was there a particular person that encouraged you into the study of the law that you would like to mention?
FW: No, nobody.
FS: Nobody. You said—.
FW: People thought, when I came into law, that you should “go to school” and become a teacher.
FS: Okay. How do you view your undergraduate work as relating to your later law studies? Is there any connection that—.
FW: (06:56.9) Not too much because I changed my major when I was in college. I was floundering around in college taking history, sociology, and all of that sort of thing. I changed my major to the sciences. I didn’t have any trouble with chemistry or biology. I had a little trouble with math. I don’t believe that anything that I took in college had any influence on my law career and law education. I went to a small college. Sam Houston was a small college, but we had good professors. I don’t think the faculty motivation was where they should have had me. There were some professors who were with it, and there were some professors who were just there.
FS: Your choice of Howard I think you mentioned before, but were there any particular reasons why you chose to go to Howard?
FW: Oh I applied to lots of school. Well, I applied to 3 schools. I applied to Lincoln, which was an all-black school in St. Louis. The Lincoln School of Law was connected with Lincoln University over in Jefferson City, Missouri. However, the law school was in
St. Louis. I was admitted to Lincoln. I applied to Howard and got admitted. I also applied to Yale. I sent my application to Yale and received the first preliminary part from the Dean of the Admissions who asked me to “journey to New Haven” and take the aptitude test. In the winter of 1946 or spring of 1947, I was not financially able to get on train and ride to New Haven to take the aptitude test. Of course by failing to take the aptitude test, I had to petition the faculty to accept my preliminary application as the entire matter. I asked the faculty to accept my written application as the entire application, and I was not admitted. They urged that I reapply for the next school year, but I had already been admitted to Howard.
FS: What are your views regarding the adequacy regarding your preparation at Howard for the practice of law?
FW: Howard is a good law school. There is no question about that. I never had any doubts about Howard in connection with what I said a few minutes ago about Sam Houston. Incidentally, I am a loyal supporter of Houston. I hope this doesn’t put them down, because I give them a little money. I don’t give them anything that I don’t believe in. They have changed since the time I was in school. My first 4 or 5 months in Howard made me think that I had never studied. They were quite hard. The professors were quite hard at Howard. Even though I had been a honor student at Sam Houston and graduated with honors. You know you get those little things behind your neck. The course and preparation was more than adequate. I came along the time when the professors at Howard were determined that they were not going to turn out any Amos ‘n’ Andy lawyers. Amos ‘n’ Andy was the most popular show on television in 1947. The lawyer, whose name was Kelton—. The professors at Howard hated the show because it tended to portray black lawyers in a disparaging light. Thus, they were quite hard. We started with 48 law school students. The American Association of Law School was supposed to admit 50 students. They told us that they admitted 53 students and, of course, 5 did not show. We started with 48 students. There are 33 pictures there, but only 30 of us graduated. They got 3 the last semester by a single year. So we started with 48 and
30 actually graduated.
FS: (12:54.1) Were there any particular professors that you would like to mention that influenced you in any way in your studies?
FW: In law school?
FW: Well the first one that I want to mention is James Nabrit. We called him Jim Nabrit. In my opinion, he was the best law school professor that I knew. He taught first-year student contracts. He taught second-year students constitutional law. He also initiated the first civil rights course; it was a seminar for third-year students. He taught law school because he wanted to. When I was there, he was secretary of the university. As you know, he later became president. He taught law school because he wanted to teach too. He said to us later that he wanted to shape the young minds and give them fundamentals in law. He was an outstanding person.
FS: Can you tell us something about the type of relationship and support you maintained with your law school today?
FW: Oh, I give money every year. (laughs)
FS: Now that’s support, right. (laughs)
FW: I belong to the local alumni club, and we have a fundraising effort. In addition to that, I give contributions to the Howard Law School every year. After I had graduated from law school of 10 years in 1960, I wrote to the law school. I wrote to Jim Nabrit, who was the president then, and he put me in touch with the person over in the law school who had the fairly up-to-date roster of the people in my class. I wrote to each one of them and asked each of them for a contribution. I collected some money. I wasn’t able to go to the
10th year. However, the class of 1950, through my efforts, made a sizeable contribution to the student loan funds. Jim Nabrit told me that was where the money was needed—the student loan fund. So I’m in pretty good shape with them.
FS: (15:24.0) Can you describe the type of practice that you eventually established here in Houston?
FW: My practice has taken several forms. When I first started to practice, I was lucky enough to be in the office with a lawyer who had lots of business. I didn’t starve the first several years because I took care of his overflow. His name was Henry Doyle, and he taught me in junior high school in Austin, Texas. Henry Doyle had operated a grocery store in
Austin, Texas and started a law school there under the full run of TSU. He was the first graduate of the Texas Southern University School of Law. When I finished and came over, I started practicing law with Henry Doyle. I did everything during my first several years with whatever overflow he had. I finally became sort of independent and set up a civil practice. That civil practice continued until I went into a private program in 1967, but it was largely civil. As you may know, for 2-1/2 years I left the practice of law and went over to be the Executive Director of Harris County Community Action Association. I resigned from that position after 2-1/2 years and ran an unsuccessful raise for a criminal judgeship. My practice has now changed, and over 60% of my practice is now criminal law. The other is divided among domestic relations, probation, and still some civil work.
FS: Is there any particular reason that you chose private practice as opposed to corporate law?
FW: Well, that is easy to say in 1974, but 1950 there were no corporations that would hire a black lawyer.
FS: The major types of cases that you have handled then were sort of moved from civil to criminal.
FW: That’s right. In the early years of civil practice, we handled land cases, personal injury cases, accident cases, and so forth. In my early years of law practice, it was when I did the civil rights bit. They may be called civil rights cases now but at that time we called them segregation cases.
FS: Can you give us a span of years that you were predominantly involved in those particular kinds of cases?
FW: Oh yes, from the time I started practice in 1951 up until 1956-1957.
FS: Can you tell us from what economic class were most of your clientele?
FW: Poor people. Negros. Black folks.
FS: (19:23.4) Has that changed since that time in the early days?
FW: Mainly, no. I have some friends who are professional people that I represent, such as doctors. I have some physician friends. I represent about 4 of them as well as school teachers and insurance men. I like some of the younger lawyers. My clientele is not made up primarily of middle-class black folks. I still represent the small people.
FS: Can you mention some of the types of jobs that these people have as you done for the middle class?
FW: Oh, yes. The women working in the hospital district somewhere. They now work for the major oil companies as IBM programmers or whatever. The men work in construction jobs, cement finishes, truck drivers, etc.
FS: You mentioned a few minutes ago land cases. Can you be a little bit more specific about the kinds of land cases?
FW: Most of the land cases that I’ve tried have not been tried here in Houston. Most of the land cases that I’ve tried have been land cases in East Texas or in adjoining counties. There are very few land cases tried in Houston. Harris County is composed of 2 kinds of properties, but I guess there are all kinds. There are city lots and then there are the large acreage tracts. Black folk don’t own much acreage in Harris County. They do own acreage in the counties to the east of here and in Central Texas. There are disputes between brothers and sisters to property. There were law suits where white people have attempted to take land and so forth. I’ve tried cases from Marshall, Texas in Harris county to Shelby County, San Augustine County, Henderson County, and Rusk County. All of these lawsuits were involved in tracts of land for our folks, who in some way were involved in their heirs or with persons who were tempted to take the land from them.
FS: You mentioned that the highest percentage of today is in the criminal area.
FS: Can you give us some reasons for this?
FW: Well I think my practice is turned over because I ran this race for criminal judge. People suddenly began to think I was a criminal lawyer. It’s alright. I don’t knock it. It makes my living. I then get referred. I represent one person, and they said, “Oh, get Francis William. He was on so-n-so’s case. He was on Ms. Jone’s son’s case.” It’s a chain-type reaction, for which I am grateful. I noticed it a couple of years ago for the first time, and I have been thinking about it constantly since. For example, last Monday I had set for trial in 179th court for attempt to murder. I had set in a county court a violation of unemployment compensation law where a person had worked and filled a form saying that he didn’t work. They caught him on the computer and his social security. I had a robbery case set in a 3rd court, and it did not go to trial. In the 4th court last Monday, I had a motion where a person had pled guilty to driving while intoxicated but that was the day that he was come back and pay his money. There were 4 cases last Monday, and they were all criminal cases. On Tuesday the 17th, there was a DUI case in the county court 6. On Wednesday, it was evading an arrest. That was the only case I had on that day. On Thursday, I had 2 domestic relations cases. On Friday, it was a probate matter and a DWI case.
FS: Before I go on further, can you tell us if you clientele consist of blacks and whites or what ethnic groups are they coming from?
FW: (24:48.7) 99% blacks. At this time, I have 2 Mexican-American clients who incidentally came at different times on referral from people that I knew from a program. I have, at this time, 1 white client who was referred to me by one of my friends who works at the federal building. He works in the same section with this fellow.
FS: In the early days, there were no—. Could you say that you had 100% black or—.
FW: Oh, in the early days, yes. When I became president in NAACP, I used to get a smidgen of white clients because these liberal white people wanted to patronize a Negro. They knew that they were coming to a Negro, and they deliberately came. There were few.
FS: You mentioned a few minutes ago something about probates. Are there many instances of receiving ships in probates from judges to you?
FW: Oh I’ve gotten some. I don’t think I’ve had a receiving ship appointment as such, but I have been appointed on various things by the probate judges and the county judge. The county judge, incidentally, has appointed me on several occasions to be the attorney ad litem at Jefferson Davis Hospital. Attorney ad litem is a term meaning to be a lawyer for a period of time for this litigation, ad litem. Everybody under the mental health code who went into the 10th floor at Jefferson Davis, which was a receiving floor for persons who are alleged to be mentally ill, have a right to have a lawyer explain to them their legal and civil rights. The white folks just get uptight when you say civil rights, but that’s true. It’s their rights and what remedies they may have. For example, the lawyer has to it explain to them even in their mental condition. A lawyer is assigned and must explain to him or her that is put over there either by the police, relatives, or agency that they have a right to hire a lawyer of their own choice. They have a right to hire a psychiatrist of their own choice. The states is going to have 2. The question that the judge must determine is whether they are in such a mental condition that they need hospitalization, as well as if they are in such a mental condition that they may do harm to themselves or to somebody else. They have a right to their own doctors to come and say that they don’t need hospitalization or that they are not in such a condition that they are going to harm themselves or somebody else. They have a right to a jury trial. All of these things must be explained to them, and I have been appointed several times over that to do that.
FS: (28:13.8) What involvement have you had in mineral and oil industry cases?
FW: Very little.
FS: Is there a particular reason for this other than the obvious?
FW: Well, perhaps. In Houston there is not much oil and gas litigation from the people that I represent.
FS: During the early stages and your practice since the 1968-1969 era, were there any particular kinds of cases that you felt were particularly unique to your practice? Were there any unusual things that you had an opportunity to work with?
FW: Most of them were rather routine. There were some unique ones. I suppose the ones that we remember most would be the so-called civil rights cases. As far as the general practices of law, I can’t think of anything unique at all.
FS: We’ll come back to civil rights a little bit later. Can you describe the attitude of white judges towards our black attorneys in the courts in Houston both in the early days and in the second phase of your practice?
FW: When I first started the practice, they just wished that we weren’t there. Almost without fail, they wanted to ignore you. They just didn’t want to believe that you were there. When I started practice in 1951, there were 3 older black lawyers. The offices were generally on Milart Street and Perry Street, which was where the black section of downtown was located. They handled non-contested divorces, probative wills, juvenile delinquents, and that sort of thing. There weren’t too many things that brought them into court except for the divorces. There was one from that group, Davis, who handled misdemeanor criminal cases, DWIs, aggravated assault, and things like that. The older gentleman did not. When a new breed of lawyers came on the scene, the judges just weren’t used to us.
FS: (30:56.8) Before we go on, can you give us the names of the other 2 black attorneys that you referred to?
FW: F.S.K. Whittaker and W.M.C. Dickson.
FS: Okay. We are going on with the—.
FW: Right. Generally, as the black lawyers came on the scene—. First, there was Doyle, and then I started practicing law. Then Robert Ford, who is now the assistant district attorney, started practicing followed by Pomma and Berry. Those were the first ones. We started to have cases by then. By and large, the judges just wanted to think that you weren’t there. The situation improved as there became more of us. You’ll always find 1 judge who will take a particular liking to one lawyer. He just likes you, and you make friends with that particular judge perhaps. Then there were some of the judges who recognized that you had ability from the way that you tried a lawsuit. The situation started to get better, and it gradually began to get better. I was talking yesterday in the courthouse cafeteria with some young lawyers. I told them that we met every month with the Houston Lawyers Association and talked about our problems and the fact that how the black folks were told to sit at the rear on the very backseats of the courtrooms. There was a discriminatory practice on Monday mornings when you were getting non-contested divorces. The cleric would take a yellow pad and right in the middle of the page would write “color.” That meant that any colored person who got a divorce would have to sit there until all of the white people had gotten their divorce, and then they would take the colored. This, as you probably know, was very degrading to us because all of our clients were “colored.” We would get there at 9:00 o’clock on Monday mornings. You would sign up in order. They would get you in order. We would see whites come in there—. If you signed up at
8:30 a.m. and were number 1 on the colored side of the ledger, you would see a white guy come in at 1:00 and sign up. He may be number 9 on the white list, but he would get his divorce with his kind before you were able to go up and get your divorce for yours. It was purely discriminatory. We were able to chip away at that until we got that practice stopped entirely. There were some white attorneys who handled a lot of black business and whose clientele were almost all black. Those white attorneys used to complain to us in the hall saying, “You know, this is a shame.” However, they didn’t have the guts to complain to the judge because he was white. We complained to the judges, but he didn’t have the guts to complain to the judge. I told these young lawyers about an incident involving Henry Doyle. Henry Doyle had a divorce one Monday morning for a schoolteacher at Yates. She wanted to get a divorce. The principal told her that he could cover for her until 10 o’clock, but if she wasn’t back by 10 o’clock she’d have to take off the rest of the day as a personal business day. Doyle and I went over there very early and (35:43.6) signed up around 8:15 a.m. He was number 1 on the list. Nobody had signed up, either black or white, at that time for a divorce that morning. Mondays were the only days that the judges set aside to hear these non-contested divorces, so it was a pretty big day. We sat around there and before 9 o’clock several other lawyers came in and signed up their clients. We didn’t have the list and didn’t know who they signed up with. Most of the time the client would come in with the lawyer, and we’d know why this was black. Doyle said that he had to woman back to school. When the judge came in about
15 minutes to 9:00 a.m., he asked the clerk if he could go and see the judge. The judge had gone in his chambers. He called the judge on the telephone, and the judge said that he could speak with him. I went in with him. At that time, everywhere a door was, I went in. He came in and said—. Incidentally, if a judge knows you, he’ll always call you by your first name in their chambers. I had to get ready for that too. When I first heard them say to Doyle in the hall, “Hey Henry,” I didn’t like it too much. I didn’t say anything about it. I found out that spoke with white lawyers the same way, and they still do that in the hallway. Anyways, they’ll call you by your first name if they know you. In the courtroom, it’s always Mr. Williams and so forth. We went in and he said, “Hi, Henry.” Henry asked, “Judge, do you know Francis Williams?” He replied, “Well, I’ve seen him around.” So I was introduced to Judge Wilmer Hunt, who is no longer on the bench and has retired now. He said, “I just have to get this divorce because this lady is going to lose $25 for today. There are a lot of divorces out there, but I was first. I was here at 8:15 a.m. and signed up. It looks like if I have to wait through all of those other divorces, she won’t be able to get back to school by 10:00 a.m.” He said, “Well, Henry, it doesn’t make any difference. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll hear all of the colored divorces first today.” And he did. I assumed because number one off the bat he called Doyle’s case. The lady got up and got the divorce and so forth and left. Before we left, he was calling another Negro case. It didn’t make too much of a difference to him. Of course, by that experience, he was one of the first judges to cut out this whole business of separating. Nowadays, it’s entirely different. There’s no obvious segregation. In the courtroom, you sit where you want to. We got that squared away through the Lawyers Association. Political pressure was put on the commissioners a long time ago and to take those signs down. They had colored written on the water fountains and restrooms. In the courthouses, it’s called the criminal courts bill. There were 2 water fountains on every floor, and they were put there for whites and blacks. There were signs when the building was opened in 1953 stating “Colored restrooms on 3rd and 5th floors.” The white restrooms were on the other floors.
FS: Are there any particular judges that you found to be very liberal during the early 50s?
FW: Judge Wilmer Hunt. There’s also Judge Ben Wilson who recently is deceased. Those two I think about. On the criminal side, Judge Phil Payton was the county court judge. I can’t say too much about any other stuff.
FS: (40:120.6) What about today? Do you find any that are extremely innovative in the civil rights area, or do you still find that there are some are who are “racist” or carry on some of the old traditions?
FW: It is alleged that there is one judge on the civil side. He’s a civil district judge who may be considered a racist. By and large, I don’t think that any of judges are innovative in civil rights. Civil rights questions come up pretty seldom in criminal law now. Most of the civil rights things are done. As you recently recall, Judge Jefferson and the
Mexican-American Composition. That’s the first so-called civil rights decision by a local judge in the last 20 years.
FS: Are there any other comments that you would like to make regarding the relationship of black attorneys with white judges that you have not mentioned?
FW: Most of them are getting along fairly well. We’ve got a crop of lawyers now who tend to business. I’ve had judges talk with me in a complimentary tone about some young lawyers which would have been rare years ago. I had a federal judge talk to me about a young woman lawyer, and he asked, “Do you know her?” I said, “Yes, judge.” He’s a federal judge and a friend of mine. He asked me, “What do you think about her?” I replied, “Judge, she’s going to make a good lawyer.” He said, “Let me tell you this, Francis, she’s already a good lawyer.”
FS: Would you care to mention this particular attorney’s name?
FW: Penny Brown and Judge Singleton.
FS: Let’s go now to the relationship between black attorneys and white attorneys. Can you give us some input as to early versus today?
FW: I think that early on they were curious. You didn’t go to the same law school that they went to. They still perhaps don’t. They were just curious. Most of them didn’t resent you because you really were no threat to their practice. Nowadays we may take a little practice from some of them. Some of them were, of course, segregationists. They didn’t want to sit on the same bench with you. In the early years when a black lawyer would go inside that railing and sat down in a chair that’s provided, some of them would get up and move. Oh, yeah. Now they don’t think about it now because in the scheme of things and time they know that all of this has changed. The relationship between lawyers has always been pretty good. You’re always fighting for your client. I’ve had lawsuits against many of them. All that they are trying to do is beat you, and you are trying to beat them. Whether it’s a district attorney in a criminal case or one of the lawyers in the civil case. I’ve tried cases against black system district attorneys over here, and they still try to beat you even though you’re all black. Everybody is black. I tried a lawsuit against a black prosecutor in Judge Rotts court. Everybody was black, and we were going at it tooth and nail. That’s the way it ought to be.
FS: (44:55) Let’s go now very quickly to the Houston Bar Association. Do you feel that the black attorneys receive full benefits, privileges, and so forth as part of this organization? Can you tell us something about the old Houston Bar versus the new, if there is any?
FW: Oh, yeah. I’m familiar with this. In olden years, we were not privileged to join the Houston Bar Association because they had a white-only thing in their constitution. They made several runs at it. The liberal members of the Houston Bar Association made several runs at getting it changed, and it did not pass. I believe we have another lawyer here. I don’t recall the year, but it was finally changed. When it was changed, some very good friend of mine said that he would work on my application. You had to be recommended by 2 members from the Bar Association. I didn’t join—to hell with them. They didn’t let me in when I wanted to get in. I didn’t join until 1969 or something like that. Of course, there were no benefits at that time. If you weren’t a member, you were just out. Nowadays, of course, you can receive whatever benefits may be derived--
[Dictation ends at 46:51.8. END OF TAPE 1]
FW: (00:15.4) Nowadays there are some benefits. However, by and large the black lawyers don’t belong. They don’t belong in lawyers’ numbers. They fearlessly do belong to the Houston Bar Association.
FS: Do you have any input as to the reasoning or speculations to the reasoning for this?
FW: Well, they don’t see the benefits perhaps.
FS: What would you stipulate as the benefits perhaps?
FW: Well, the Houston Bar Association has been the establishment bar as input on all things that affect lawyers from the dues that you pay every year to the changes in the law itself. There are committees of the state bar that work all during the year on changes in the law, and these things are suggested to the legislature every 2 years. For example, I am a member of the local admissions committee. When a person is ready to take the bar examination, they have to go before a local committee. I’m a member of that committee. I’m also a member of the state committee. Incidentally, I became a member of the local committee because I complained very bitterly to the local president a couple of years ago. I had a law student from Texas Southern who was working for me part-time, of course, as a clerk. He was from out-of-state, and at the last minute he decided to hedge his bets and take the Texas Bar also. Well, I helped him get over that hurdle. He was supposed to have done these administrative things some time before. He went before a local committee. They gave him a hard time. They asked him, “What are you doing? Chasing ambulances? Running bails? Running bonds?” On the other hand, he was not. He was helping draft petitions and so forth. He worked on Tuesdays and Thursdays, because those were his light days at the law school. He came up every Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. to open the office because we obviously weren’t there. He would stay until whenever we got tired. I was trying to help him, and I paid him. He would do lots of little things for me. For (02:55.3) example, he drafted several wills for me. He drafted probate pleadings for me. He drafted divorce pleadings for me. It was a sort of teaching process, because I had to go over it again with him. The things that they asked him he wasn’t doing anything of. When he came back and told me about it, it made me very angry. I didn’t know of these guys incidentally. There were about 3,000-4,000 layers here. If I had known them, I think I would have called them up and cussed them out. I didn’t know any of them, but I did know the president of the bar. Incidentally, the Bar Association Office was also next door in the next building. On the second floor is the local office of the Houston Bar Association and also the Inns of Court. The Inns of Court is a restaurant and club. They serve mixed drinks. It’s a lawyer club. You are not automatically a member of the Inns of Court. You have to pay a fee to join it. You can’t join the Inns of Court unless you’ve gone to the Houston Bar Association. Well, I would see the president of the bar socially. I would go through that buffet to eat at noon. Sometimes I would go over to have a drink, and I saw the president. I told him about this incident. I was sort of angry and said, “Besides, how many black folks are there on these damn committees?” He said, “Well, I don’t know. I just don’t know.” Okay, you know what happened. I was appointed. That’s fine. I just sat this week on Wednesday, and we interviewed 8 people on our subcommittee who were getting ready to take the bar in October. I guess because of expressing myself pretty strongly to the president of the Houston Bar that the next president of the state bar appointed me to the same kind of committee, Standards of Admission Committee. As a matter of fact, I know how it happened. I know about it now that I’ve been appointed. I was at the state meeting in Dallas, and I saw our local president talking to the guy who was going to come in as the new state president. I was introduced to him. I said, “Hi, Vince.” He asked me if I knew so-and-so, “He’s going to be our next president.” He introduced me and all that. Then I received a letter from him asking me. I know he told him. Of course, incidentally when I went to my first meeting in Austin called the “Standards of Admission,” we pass on who can take the bar. We don’t have anything to do with the examination; that’s another committee. For example, your characters, grades, age, and all of that sort of thing is passed by my committee when I went up there for the first meeting, these duties of love. They’re free, and you don’t get paid for them. You had to pay your own hotel bill too. I went up there and got up there a little late. The meeting started at 2:00 o’clock. I had cases, and I left from the courthouse and drove up there. I got there about 2:30 p.m. I went over and registered and got my badges. It was at the University of Texas campus at the Thompson Convention Center, which is right in front of the LBJ Library. I found my room, and I walked in. The chairman was up there. I’m sure that it was the first time a black every knocked on the door of their committee. He came around, and said, “How are you?” I said, “I’m Francis Williams.” He said, “Oh! You’re a member of the committee.” See? He had the names, but he didn’t know that I was black. As chairman, he has been furnished with a list of names. He had no idea that I was black. There were at least 2 other lawyers in there from Houston; one of whom I had seen at the courthouse. He was with one of the large firms, and I didn’t know him. There was another lawyer in Houston that I just didn’t know at all who was on that committee. I have enjoyed working with them. Now these are some of the pluses that you get from the Houston Bar.
FS: (8:08) We’ve been talking about the Houston Bar Association. I’ll come back a little bit later about the Houston Lawyers Association that you probably have some information to give us there. How do you view the relationship of the black attorney with the Houston Police Department? Can you give us any input? Do you have any reactions to that?
FW: I don’t think that that a black attorney has any direct relationship with the police department. We generally believe that they do a lot of things that are not quite forgiven. Most of us believe that—. They may have stopped the obvious maltreatment of black folks. There is some subtle reaction against black folk by the police.
FS: When you say “things,” Mr. Williams, what do you mean?
FW: Well, I sincerely believe that most of the time when they see an infraction of the traffic laws by a black man; they will always give a ticket. I sincerely believe when they see a similar infraction of the law by a white person, who is not of the hippie culture, they perhaps would not give a ticket. I don’t believe that black people are as prone to violate the traffic laws as—. Any glance at the courtroom down at the city would show. For example, half of the offenders in there would be black. We comprise about 25% of the population. I just believe that they always give the black folks the tickets. That’s the lowest thing. Traffic tickets are the lowest grade of misdemeanor. People don’t even think it’s a violation of a criminal law, but it is. On the other hand, going up the scale to robberies and crimes of violence, there used to be a time when they would beat people. I don’t believe there’s too much of that anymore. They try to force confessions out of them. The stance has been taken out of confession by the supreme court’s decisions. Confessions are just something that they don’t try to get anymore, because there are so many legal safeguards on a confession. I do think that they are prone to use every other tactic that they can. In our kind of field, I think that they use wiretaps. They have but I don’t know if they continue to do that. They use paid informers. In the drug culture, they have been shown by some of the testimony over here in the cases that they have taken money. They’ve traded off narcotics. They’ve done a lot of things. I don’t think there’s any formal relation between the black lawyers and the police department.
FS: How do you respond to the problem of police brutality? I think you sort of touched on this. Do you think it exists?
FW: Well, not as much as it used to. Thank goodness. Under the former administration, there was a lot of brutality. A lot of people were fired on aggregated assault on police officers. I think the former police administration stressed that the policemen were to file charges against offenders if there were any offensive touching. In the normal course of handling the prisoners, there may be some offensive touching by the prisoner towards the police officer. The former administration wanted charges filed on all of those cases. There are not as many of those charges being filed now even though it’s a felony now.
FS: (12:56) So you are saying then that police brutality has decreased greatly since the early years of your practice?
FW: Oh, no question about that. A lot of brutality in my early years was concerned with attempting to force a confession. Now you have to have warnings and all that sort of thing before you can take confessions. There are so many safeguards put on confessions now by the court that policemen don’t even attempt to get confessions.
FS: Let’s move to the jury portion. I think you mentioned that—. Do you have any views or viewpoints or input that you—?
FW: On jury?
FS: Right, on the jury.
FW: Things have changed quite a bit when I started practicing law. If a black man was called to the criminal court, the (13:58___) would meet him at the door and say, “Well, you know you don’t have to serve.” You either slip for your boss man, and he’s said either yes or no. If he didn’t, there’s a slip that you take back to his boss to show that he was called to jury so he wasn’t docked or something like that. You’d given that slip and he’d go back. If he didn’t need the slip, he’d just go home. Black folks were not permitted to serve on jury. I am not talking about 1920. This is 1951. Black people didn’t serve on juries. And then it was pointed to the judges that this was illegal. I’m told that one of the judges, who is a criminal judge now, said that we better stop this because—. This was years ago. “One of these nigger lawyers is going to take one of these cases to the Supreme Court, and some nigger who raped a white woman is going to go free.” So, they stopped it and they started to take juries. White lawyers didn’t know how to deal with us. They never question black folks before because black folk never served on juries. I think they had learned how to question them just like they question anybody else. I obviously have a difficult time when I go to the jury and get a black folks on the jury, especially a criminal case. There are so many strips without giving a reason for their part. Even though the persons may answer all of the questions correctly, the prosecutor just figures that, because my name is pretty well known, they will be sympathetic with me.
FS: (16:18) There has been a lot of talk about that particular power, the striking. Do you have any reaction to that? What are your views?
FW: I don’t care. I think the striking is a good law. For example, I filed a lawsuit not too long ago with 2 black men, and I represented one of them. He was 18, but he is legally a man for life. He was tried for a robbery of a man in a mom and pop store. The man had been shot in the exchange. There was an old white fellow on that jury who was a security guard who retired after 28 years at some chemical plant. I tried and tried to get him to admit that he was prejudice somewhat. He said, “No, sir. I’d be fine with this.” I knew that old cracker wasn’t, so I used one of my strikes on him. I think they serve a good purpose. I wouldn’t change t, especially in criminal law. You can also strike in civil cases. But especially in criminal law, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Oh, I know that it cuts down on a number of black folks. I’ll tell you now if the white defense lawyer, you’re more apt to have black folks on the jury.
FS: What is the reason—?
FW: Well, they don’t prosecute when the strike, you know, the blacks because he didn’t figure that this guy has a report with a black man.
FS: Okay, let’s go back now quickly to the Black Lawyers Association. I think, perhaps, you were quite involved in the beginnings and, you know—.
FW: Well, I’m one of the founders of the Houston Lawyers Association and started some
20-22 years ago up in an office with Henry Doyle and I. Henry Doyle, M.W. Plummer, Robert Ford, Dexter Catchings, Weldon Barry, Robert Hainsworth. I don’t know if I missed anybody, but we were the original founders. We came together because we had a special need. We couldn’t join the Houston Bar Association. These things that I’ve talked about from courthouse business, divorce business, seating in the courtroom are all those sorts of things are the things that we discussed and tried to talk about. If one member knew a particular judge, we’d commission him to go and talk to that particular judge, for example, the seating business. What we decided to do was to start sitting our clients in a certain place. For example, I’d go into the courtroom with my client and old bailiff would be there. He was a retired police officer. It’s usually an older guy and usually a cracker. We decided not to have our clients sit on the front row but to have them seated somewhere near the middle of the courtroom. I’d go in with my client, who just normally wanted to sit on the back because they didn’t want any trouble, and I’d say, “Sit here.” Old bailiff would be looking. I’d say, “Sit right here.” It was the middle of the courtroom, middle pew, right there. He’d see it, and he would know that I told them to see there because he was looking right at me. Most of the time they didn’t say anything. We had one or two instance when the bailiff told the clients, the Negros, to go to the back. If they saw you deliberately seat them there and then look defiantly at him after you did it, they wouldn’t say anything about it. You see there was no law that said Negros had to sit in the back of the courtroom. The law said you had to sit at the back of a bus or on a segregated train, but there was no law. You could sit anywhere in the courtroom. Each judge kind of ran his own court. With the judges with whom you were friends, we were delegated out to talk to the judge and tell the judge that bailiff was making your folks sit on the back seat, and it just looked bad. Some of them perhaps instructed the bailiffs otherwise. But those are the kinds of things that we did in lawyers association.
FS: (21:27) The Houston Lawyers Association today is moving in what direction, would you say? What are your programs, goals, etc. sort of directed now?
FW: A public service role. The president has a program on the radio on Sunday and Saturday by Samuel Jackson. I’ve been involved in some things to particularly help black lawyers. There are seminars here and there to particularly help black lawyers. We ought to get a little more involved than we are. Everybody is busy making money now. In the old days, we’d always meet everybody was there. Nowadays, it’s a little different.
FS: That’s probably because the problems seem to be alleviated do you think?
FW: I’ve always said that when a man’s foot is on his hardest, you do more in field of human rights. Mississippi, I think, is a good example. Next is the state of Michigan. There are more elected officials in the state of Mississippi than there are anywhere else in the United States. Everybody knows Mississippi. Let me digress a bit. In 1959, at the 50th anniversary of NAACP, there was a Freedom Fund in New York City at the
Waldorf-Astoria. We had the roll call of the states. They did this every year at the Fight for Freedom Fund. The chairman of the Freedom Fund was Thurgood Marshall. He was very flamboyant. They were calling the states, as they would do in political convention. For example, “Alabama. Mr. Chairman, Alabama reports $200,” and so forth in the Freedom Fund. When he got to Mississippi, he said, “Mississippi—.” Met Geppert was the chairman of the NAACP. He said, “Mr. Chairman, the sovereign state of Mississippi reports $1,000 in Freedom Funds.” They just went wild. Just to think that in Mississippi in 1959 when they were killing folks right and left. You remember all that sort of thing. They reported $1,000. On the other hand, Michigan had reported about $19,000. That’s different in Detroit, you know, and all that sort of thing. When a man’s foot is on, you achieve a little more.
FS: Let’s go to the black citizens of Houston viewing the black attorney’s power in the community. How do you think that the average citizen’s views—?
FW: (24:45) The short answer to that is it has increased with the number of black lawyers. For example, it is pretty difficult for one black lawyer to be universally known. It’s quite easier to have a familiarity with black lawyers when you have 50, 60, or 100 of them practicing law. They have become increasingly aware of the black lawyer and what a black lawyer can do as there are more black lawyers out in the community. I think we ought to have twice as many. Incidentally, somebody asked me not too long ago about a young lawyer. I said to this gentleman, “We’ve got a lot of good lawyers. Is it hurting you? It’s helping me.” My practice hasn’t been cut in anyway. It hasn’t hurt me at all. It’s has helped.
FS: So you encourage black lawyers to—.
FW: Oh, yes. I used to think that a black lawyer should go somewhere where you were the only lawyer and you wouldn’t have any competition. It doesn’t make any difference. People come to this building and there are lawyers on every floor, and I still have people who come to see Francis Williams.
FS: Do you have any position, and this is probably a little bit preceding another area that we want to go into or comments on the Houston Legal Foundation or would you like to wait until we get into the area?
FW: Oh I can talk about it now.
FW: I don’t have any position to answer that. As Director of the Community Action Association, however, I was thoroughly involved with the foundation because at that time their funds came through us. I’m familiar with their operation and how they got started. You might say that the Houston Lawyers Association had legal services project in Washington. You may not know about this but we submitted a proposal to do legal services for the poor--we, the Houston Lawyers Association. But because of our scarcity in numbers, we were just going to do our quarter, third quarter, and Sunnyside as a demonstration project. You get so much money for a demonstration project. If it works then, you know. We submitted the proposal, but we didn’t know was the politics of it. We never got funded, of course. Our proposal was up there and just laid there and laid there. We made inquiries and so forth of it. The next thing we knew it became proposed by the Houston Legal Foundation, which encompassed the whole city. Frankly, that’s better but we never got our money because the power structure didn’t want us to propose or grant it.
FS: (28:35) Do you have any comments on their evaluation and assessment, or have you been that aware of their project?
FW: Oh, yes. I’m fairly familiar with them. I think that their program leaves a lot to be desired. We were critical of them when I was at HCCAA. We were critical of the fact that they got too heavily involved in domestic relations. I know that some people needed divorce or temporary relief from a domestic situation. I certainly would have like to see the foundation go to innovative changes in the law. They did some of that. For example, the decision that Navarro tried that made it possible to get off the farm. Unless you had a lawyer, it was tried by a Foundation lawyer. They were imprisoning people on the p-farm because they didn’t have money, and that’s illegal. You get a bunch of traffic tickets, and you go out before the judge at the city at the city jail, we say city county. If you go over to the city court, and the judge says it’s a $250 fine. If you don’t have $250, they’ll send you to the prison farm, so called “p farm” to work you off. Well, there’s no provision in the law that says you must be imprisoned for the debt. The provision in the law is that you must pay the fine. The Foundation took the case to the Supreme Court of the United States. Now, if you know about the law and don’t have the money, they’ll let you pay it on time. If you don’t know about the law, they just send you on out there to work it out. That was that innovative change. They had some done some other things as far as they could, but they haven’t been too innovative. Of course, they have been innovative in the power structure and it doesn’t want them to be innovative. They were working between a rock and a hard place. In California with some farm workers and some other places, they have been able to do something in tenant rights. They’ve done a lot because there’s not much they can do with tenant rights. In Texas, though, we have a very strong landlord’s law.
FS: Let’s move and my final question in this area is going to be what we started on with the innovations. What new approaches, innovations, goals, etc. or do you think the use of the community should be moved again? You may narrow this down to any particular group or lawyers such as Houston Lawyers Association, Houston Bar Legal Foundation, etc. Do you see any particular things that need to be innovated and taken in direction?
FW: Well, I’m not interested much in the Houston Bar Association because I think they’ve got a good program. They’re doing what they want to do. As far as the Houston Lawyers Association, I think that we need more publicity about the program. We need to acquaint the black populace that there are black lawyers who have been practicing in all the courts and who do every day. They are practicing in all the courts, federal courts, city courts, and state courts and in all kinds of cases. The reason that we need that kind of program is because most of us get tired of seeing our people come down there and being represented by other people.
FS: (32:26) You think this would be a direction that they could take?
FW: Oh, yeah.
FS: Okay. What about urban law? Do you think there should be any movement in the black committee in that direction?
FW: Well, we have to change the landlord laws in the state of Texas before we get a lot further in urban law. For example, in this town we don’t have any urban renewals. The only sort of urban project that we have here in Houston now are these monstrosities of 235, 236 apartment dwellings. We don’t have any redevelopment-type area like they have in St. Louis and some other cities where you have had urban renewal. You have new things coming in, and the lawyer has a chance to have input on what’s going in there. That field is not as fertile here as it is in some other places.
FS: Are there any other comments, Mr. Williams that you would like to make that we have no covered as far as the black legal community is concerned?
FW: No, nothing.
FS: Okay. Now we want to go very quickly to your position at HCCAA, which is the Harris County Community Action Agency. I always get tripped up on that one. At about 1967, I believe it is, you took on a job leaving the law practice with Doyle?
FW: Right, but it wasn’t with Doyle. I did leave. In 1960, I believe, he moved out and I stayed downtown. However, I did leave law practice. I became Director of the Community Action Association.
FS: How did you get involved in this program? Can you tell us about this?
FW: Oh, I got involved before 1967. I got involved in 1966 or 1965. Anyways, I was appointed by the county judge as a one of the members of the board of directors of a full run of HCCAA. One of the four runners was HCEOO (Harris County Economic Opportunity Organization). That was one of the programs in Houston. Before HCEOO was formed, there was another one on the north side of town at the fifth and north side including the Mexican American over in the second ward called HAY (Houston Action for Youth). Houston Action for Youth got started around 1964. It was a juvenile delinquency project. When OEO came into being, they shifted gears and got to be an OEO Agency. Their congressman was a guy named Albert Tongs who was chairman of (36:24___) committee. It wasn’t hard at all for them to do that. I mean, Houston Action for Youth. HICO got started but it got hammered because OEO had all of the start money from the county. It was one of the things that really made OEO. They had hit start units all in fifth ward. When the other agency took in everything in the county, except the HAY area in 5th ward, people out in Sunnyside wanted daycare but we didn’t have any money. They had all of the money for the whole county. They got started first. It was an intolerable situation. Austin said to merge. On February 27th, they sent a letter out stating to merge and that the two organizations must merge. Incidentally, there were great philosophical differences between the two organizations. HICO was action-oriented. They were kicking the status within the tail and telling them to do right. On the other hand, HAY was involving the parents through quilting circles and beads and recreation for the kids in the evening as well as head start. They were giving service to the people but in a different way. It was very traumatic to put the 2 organizations together.
FS: (38:32) What led, perhaps, to you being selected or chosen to lead HCCAA?
FW: I might say that Leon Jaworski was the first chairman of the board of HICO. He served for a short time. That just shows you how it was put together. After Mr. Jaworski served and resigned. President Johnson appointed him to something, and he was going to be out of the city. William Bleu was the vice chairman to go. He was a lawyer with one of the large firms. He was a pretty nice fellow, a liberal. You see, Bill Bileu was dealing with black folks who were action-oriented. Any white man knew in those times that they were going to have a hard time. He resigned, and I was elected chairman of HICO. When we went into the merger, I was chairman of HICO. We went into the merger situation and finally got the 2 organizations merged. There was a negative vote to not hire the executive director of HICO as the new executive director of this organization, and it passed. So, he couldn’t be it as a white man. There was a vote to hire the executive director of HAY as the executive director of HCCAA, and she was white; it didn’t pass. We had a hiatus there. Two of the top people had the backing of combined boards.
FS: Do you care to mention the names, or do you know the names of the 2 persons?
FW: No, I don’t want to mention their names. The new organization floundered along from May 15 to June 15 without a director. I was really active because I went out there and spent about half a day out there trying to run it as chairman of the board. I was chairman of the board of the new organization. We took applications from people, but the board committee could not agree on any person. Incidentally, this is true. The judge on one hand and the major on the other got a local person rather than bringing somebody in from somewhere else. As you might know, May 17, the police shot up at Texas Southern. So, the relations community-wise were running pretty hot between the black folks and the police. I was persuaded by some people on the board to take the job. When they first mentioned it to me, I said, “You must be crazy. I’ve got a job. I don’t need a job.” The last job I had was at the post office when I was in law school. I worked at the post office for about one year. I didn’t need a job. The more they spoke with me the more I began to think about. Then they said something about taking it for a year. I said that if I would take it, I would take it period. I wouldn’t put any time limitation on it. They persuaded me to take the position. I did go on a payroll. I believe around June 15, 1967.
FS: (43:00) Was there anything particularly unique about this position historically or—?
FW: Did I need it?
FS: No. Was there anything unique about it?
FW: Oh. Well, the thing that made it unique was it was the first fully all-encompassing directorship of all of Houston because around that time they had 2 programs which were moving across different directions. Neither was serving all of the people of the whole county. OEO had all money where all could come down to a central place and be dispersed to various segments of the poor in the county. That’s the only way to do it, incidentally. It was not being done for. OEO was not happy at all with the situation in Harris County, but they couldn’t do anything about it. HAY had a champion up there name Albert Thomas, who was chairman of probations committee, and he died. OEO was removed. That’s my thought about it.
FS: Can you described for us, in your own words, what were the basic goals of HCCAA once you became director?
FW: I guess the overall thing was to help alleviate poverty, and that’s a little too general.
FW: We had some basic things that we wanted to do like helping the poor secure jobs and helping the poor with their marital problems by counseling. For example, we were able to secure counseling for persons that had either no fee or a sliding fee. Frankly, a lot of the domestic situations could be solved by counseling, but our people don’t know about counseling. Rich folks know about counseling. Right now, low income people can secure marriage counseling at no fee, if they’re not able to pay. We also wanted to provide a method for them to come together in commutative meetings to talk about their common problems, such as why hasn’t the commissioner had the ditches cleaned or why we have no street lights in this section of Houston. A community for gathering. Those were some of the things that we were about, in addition to providing services such as recreation for the kids and head start.
FS: (46:09) As well as head of HCCAA, how did you view your position? What philosophical approach other than the ones that you’ve just mentioned did you operate under?
FW: Frankly, the head of HCCA is an administrator.
FS: And that was all?
FW: The philosophies expressed in the work program that you tell what you’re going to do. It’s about 2 or 3 inches thick. The work program says, “Everything you’re supposed to do.”
[Dictation ends 46:42]