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Interview with: Howard Jefferson
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: May 15, 2008
DG: Today is May 15. We are in the offices of Howard Jefferson. We are interviewing for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. Mr. Jefferson, how are you today?
HJ: I am doing fine.
DG: Great. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Why don't we start at the beginning? I understand you were born and raised in Mississippi - tell me about those early years.
HJ: Well, I was born and raised in Mississippi in a little town called Clem, somewhere between Hattiesburg and McComb. My parents had 9 children and were fortunate that 5 of us went to college and we all have done fine there. I finished high school there in Mississippi. I left there and went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Southern University, left there, went to the University of Texas on an academic grant, came to Houston, started teaching in the Houston Independent School District, went to University of Houston and completed my master's in business administration, school administration.
DG: Tell me about those earliest years. What were the formative experiences in your life?
HJ: Well, being from Mississippi, one would think that oh, he had a horrible experience but I had a good experience there. We had lovely parents that taught us right from wrong. We had a little 10 acre farm that we grew a little stuff there. My parents were high on putting all of us through school. They wanted all of us to finish school there. So, we did go through segregated schools there. They had white and black schools, of course. The fountains were white and black. The movies were white and black. Everything was white and black. But in that particular little town and country we were in, while there was segregation, there was not a whole lot of unrest or problems in that town there. It was a pretty good black/white relationship, for lack of a better term.
DG: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
HJ: Well, I wanted to be a ball player. I wanted to be a basketball player. Of course, I came through high school - I was captain of my basketball team in my junior and senior year but I knew I wasn't good enough to play at the high level. But that is what I wanted to be. And after my senior year, I wanted to be an engineer. And finally, I decided I did go to school and majored in chemistry and then I decided I wanted to go into school administration.
DG: And what year did you move to Texas?
HJ: I came to Texas in 1961 at the University of Texas there on the National Science Foundation Academic Year Grant.
DG: Now, you didn't come far but did you have any thoughts, any trepidation about coming to Texas?
HJ: None. I always wanted to come to Texas. We had a professor that came to Southern University to give a seminar and he was in the chemistry department and I was in chemistry and I told him I wanted to go to Texas and he helped me to get the papers right and what not and come to Texas.
DG: What did you do during your college years?
HJ: Well, during my college years, it was some pretty tough times because my parents had 9 children and they were trying to send as many as they could to college. My whole 4 years, I worked in the cafeteria, I worked on the yards of the campus cutting grass and cleaning out flower beds. I bought me a lawnmower. I had a little apartment. I bought me a lawnmower and chained it to the outside bricks every night there. And I would get up before school at Southern University and I would go cut a couple of yards there and grass. I did those things there going through college. I was pretty academic. I made good grades while I was there. The last summer that I was there, they asked me to be an assistant in the science institute. That is where I met the professor from the University of Texas. So, I was responsible for setting up the labs and working. I had a job. They paid me pretty good there for a student assistant. So, I had good days at Southern University - so did 4 other of my siblings who finished at Southern University.
DG: Now, college years is when a lot of people become politically aware. It sounds like you were too busy to do much except go to class and work but did you have a political awakening during those years?
HJ: Well, yes. As a matter of fact, I still probably have some scars here where dogs were biting as I . . . I was in a march at Southern University where we marched on the capital of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We marched 5,000 strong there at Southern University. It was an amazing thing. They had some of the biggest dogs that you have ever seen. And this is a true story. The dogs were trained -- they would look over at the white students or the white people -- and they would look over at the black people and growl. I mean, we are talking about they were some of the biggest dogs you've ever seen. And they didn't just sick the dogs on us but they let them come at us and swipe at us and that kind of thing. But they had hoses. And it was raining that day we were downtown there and they turned those hoses on us. They had tear gas. And we were singing, "Tear gas cannot stop us today." And they were poom, poom, steady shooting that tear gas. So, yes, I had some political activity at Southern. And I remember when we were building up to it, my sisters called and told my mother that I was going to be in a demonstration. And my mother, she said, "Well maybe you shouldn't do that. It is not time. You are going to lose your job in the cafeteria." And I went to the cafeteria and told the supervisor, "I've got to do this. If I can get my job when I come back, O.K.; if I can't, then I've got to find something else." They told me, "Do what you have to do," so I marched.
DG: Do you remember what the issue was? Was there a particular incident? Was there a particular issue . . .
HJ: Well, it was funding for the school, the classrooms, the painting, the library needed updating, the chemistry equipment. Everything was going to LSU and the rest of those universities down there. But some of our students had sit-ins and they had locked those students up and they suspended some law students - there were about 6 or 7 law students. As a matter of fact, one of them is my brother-in-law, Kenneth Johnson. He was in that group there and they suspended about 6 law students from the schools. All of that brought on a whole lot of stuff. As a matter of fact, these kids that were suspended, all of them became outstanding citizens. Kenneth Johnson became a judge in Maryland.
DG: So, they shot tear gas at you for wanting better books and . . .
HJ: Well, not just better books. There were a lot of things. I don't remember all of the details but it was like most black universities were underfunded, neglected, and that kind of thing, and kinds were trying to stand up to get more on what they were supposed to get. And the authority just came down on us.
DG: When were you first aware of Houston as a place where you might want to go?
HJ: Well, when I was at the University of Texas and as I was finishing my stay there, they started having interviews. I was in education. I wanted to teach chemistry. We started having interviews. And so, the interviewing office called and said, "Look, we have someone that has looked at your resume and we think that they want you." And so, I went to the interview and when I walked in the interview, the man said, "You are Jefferson?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Look, let me just be honest with you. We are not hiring blacks in our school district." And that was a school district in Harris County. It was not the Houston Independent School District. So, the office who was trying to get me the job there, they were very disappointed, they were angry. The administrator at the University of Texas, they supported me and they said, "We are going to find you a place." They called to Houston Independent School District and said, "We have a top guy. He made all A's and B's. He is a clean guy. We would like for you to give him a chance." And so, a friend of mine who was rooming with me at the University of Texas, his dad had come up that weekend. So, I rolled back to Houston with him in his truck and I got the job teaching chemistry at Wheatley High School. I left Wheatley High School and went to Bellaire in the crossover of staff. I left Bellaire and became a principal. Left there, became an associate principal. Left there, became district principal. And finally, I was assistant superintendent where I had over 100 schools and whatnot I was supervising. _________.
DG: Now, what year did you come to Houston?
HJ: I came to Houston in 1963.
DG: And what was the state of Houston schools in terms of segregation? Was it officially sanctioned? What was the policy at that time?
HJ: Well, the policy was that schools were separated. The black schools didn't play the white schools. They had what is called a Prairie View League. That is what the black schools played in. The white schools were well funded. Library, books, good teachers and what not. The black schools did O.K. but they did not have the resources. But I must say in spite of that, I think that they had the best teachers. They had some teachers who cared, who could identify with kids, so you get the Mickey Leland and Barbara Jordan or whoever came through - they had to be nurtured at those schools and they were. So, we had some good schools. In terms of resources, to leave Wheatley High School on Market, which is a black school and was like many of the other black schools - needed other resources. To leave Wheatley and go to Bellaire which ranked in the top 10 schools in the United States when I went there, it was quite an eye-opener for me - the resources they had and the things that they had. And I remember particularly that some black school, I don't remember which one it was, needed some books. And so, I went out to look in the Bellaire book room and all the kids . . . when I went there, I believe it was 3,600 students -- I believe that is what it was -- and there were 10 blacks . . . but I looked in the book room - everybody had a book and the book room was still full. Plenty of books. And so, I went to the principal, Mr. Harlan Andrews (??) who was a great principal. I said, "Mr. Andrews, you know, that is not right what I see out there." He said, "What are you talking about, Joe?" He had a deep voice. And I told him. I said, "I want to send some of those books -- I will go bag them up myself -- to the black schools." "Go ahead and do it. Just make sure we don't come up short." And I sent books to the other schools and to the central office there. So, that was the kind of difference that they had. But there is a myth there that it was all different in funding. There was some difference in funding but it wasn't totally the difference in funding. These schools had excellent PTAs or PTOs and they had great parental support that could pay for a lot of stuff, whereas some of the other schools were not that fortunate. So, I had a good experience at Bellaire and at Wheatley High School.
DG: How long were you at Wheatley?
HJ: 7 years. Then I went to Bellaire.
DG: What were those years like? Somebody watching this tape, wanting to know - maybe their parents went to Wheatley - what was Wheatley High School like? What was the life of a student like there at Wheatley?
HJ: Great. I will tell you - the teachers were so great at Wheatley. Wheatley is known for having a great basketball team. I mean, we think they had the greatest basketball team in the nation. They were, in the season 35-1, 35-2, almost constantly every year - go to State, win. And it gave them a lot of energy. But they had all kinds of glee clubs and they had all kinds of different clubs, science clubs, math clubs, honor clubs. They had a lot of clubs - things that they don't have today. The band was outstanding. You don't see that today. There should be more resources. Those black schools took what they had and maximized it there. It was a good experience at Wheatley High School. I had a lot of experience on dealing with underprivileged kids, kids with some severe problems. But most of them were respectable. And there were some cases that were pretty rough. Discipline sometimes got plenty rough. You had to know what you were doing and how to talk and deal with people. But that was a good experience for me, Wheatley High School.
DG: When did you know you wanted to be in administration? I know you knew when you were young but you came to teach. When did you make the switch and why?
HJ: Well, when we were there after a couple of years, I became the kind of faculty representative - like I was a little aggressive. And our principal's name, Bill Moore. And Bill Moore put out a program they wanted us to do - I don't remember what it was, and I opposed it. I openly opposed them there. You know, he could have gotten rid of me ________ principal was God. It is not like it is now. A principal was very powerful back then in the school district and they could have gotten rid of me. But instead, he called me in the office and sat down and talked with me. And the next year, he gave me 4 classes instead of 5. He said, "I am going to let you help me around here. I want you to help me with this. Go help manage this teacher's schedule. Go help and get some books." So, he gave me an extra class and stuff. That kind of inspired me a little bit so I enrolled in the University of Houston administration, school of administration program. I went through there and did very well. As a matter of fact, my last year before I got my master's, the last couple of courses, a professor, Dr. Wallace Terrell asked me could I not take a full load that summer because he wanted me to do research with him. The National Schoolhouse Construction had a grant there so I worked for the University or whatever. It was a good experience at the University of Houston, too.
DG: What do you recall of the efforts to desegregate HISD?
HJ: Well, what happened is when it came time of the order to desegregate, they switched faculty and zoned certain students living in certain zones. The school that had the biggest problem with this was Bellaire, where I was, because nobody wanted to be zoned out of Bellaire. It was the top school. Bellaire had more national merits than all of the other high schools put together. And so, there were some problems with that. One of the problems and I cannot contribute this totally to the integration but where kids went to white schools, there was an over number, for lack of a better term, of kids in special education. During that section . . . and in the all black schools, too, to some degree this happened. But kids who had discipline problems were taken as they had emotional or mental problems and that was not the case in many of those cases. In short, the special ed classes were too large. That is the thing that disturbed me the most that I talked about. "There is nothing wrong with this kid here. Let's put him in a regular class there." So, that was one of the things. And when they integrated, the teachers, the African American/black teachers felt a little insecure in some of the schools. Some of the principals were not so nice. As a matter of fact, when I was going from . . . they went me to several different principals. I learned later they knew where I was going in the first place, Bellaire, but they sent me to several other principals. And I ended up telling 2 of those principals, "I can't work here." One of them said to me when I walked in, "I don't know what this school district is doing. There is no discrimination. I don't know what this board and this legal stuff" . . . I said, "Wait a minute, you don't think that there is any discrimination in the school district?" And he said to me, "No, not one iota." Those were his words to me. I said, "Well, look, there is no need of me sitting down. I can't work here," and I left. I went to another principal and I kind of had a similar experience. And I went back downtown and told Mr. Horace ______ who was the superintendent ______, "Hey man, I'd rather go back to Wheatley in the classroom because if I work for some of these guys, they are going to fire me because I am not going to take that kind of stuff I know that they are going to put on me there." And so, he said, "Well, Joe, that is not where we wanted you to go anyway. We want you to go to Bellaire to Harland Andrews. Go out there and interview." I went out there, we had a good interview, and then I had to pop the question to him because I had been sensitized by the rest of these principals. And I said, "Mr. Andrews, I've got to ask you a question. What is your feeling about integration and desegregation?" He said, "Well, Joe, I can tell you this: You can be black, white, blue or green - if you come here and don't do my work, I am going to run you off!" I said, "I want to work for you." And that is how I went to Bellaire High School. And I have never had a supervisor or boss treat me with more dignity and respect.
I've got to tell this. We were at a meeting and the acting superintendent said to Mr. Harland Andrews, "Harland, how is your boy?" He said, "I take exception to that statement. He is not a boy. He is a man and a damned good one, too, and I resent you saying that," and walked off! This is a principal talking to the general superintendent there. And so, that was what I remembered.
DG: Now, you were there 1960s, 1970s - Houston was undergoing a lot of changes.
HJ: I was at Bellaire from 1970 to 1973.
DG: You were in the school district teaching for Wheatley then to Bellaire. In parallel, I mean, when did you get involved with the NAACP? What was your first involvement with them?
HJ: Well, let me go back. Civil rights had kind of been instilled in me from a long time, even back in my town in Mississippi, when my daddy had to qualify to vote. And if I remember - it is kind of shady - I know they bought in some federal people to kind of protect us in Mississippi because my daddy said, "I am going to vote." I was a boy then. I don't know where he got that _______. But when my daddy went to take the test to vote, here is the test: "Niefus, tell me how many teeth are in a horse's mouth." That was the test. That was the only question on the single test. And my daddy answered to him, "Well, I don't know how many teeth are in my mouth _____ a horse's mouth. That don't have anything to do with me voting." And it was kind of instilled in us, you know, that we have some rights to go there. And, of course, when I came to Houston, I just got involved with church and I was just kind of a leader. And coming through high school, I had always been a leader out there. I was president of my NFA club, I was president of my class from 6th grade all the way through high school. And only 13 were in my graduating class so, you see, I did not have much competition there. I was captain of my basketball team my junior and senior years and I was president of the South State FFA. That is like the FFA deal. And so, I have always had some . . . the assistant superintendent of schools when I was in high school, the assistant superintendent of Sunday school in the church, so I have always tried to do a little leading.
DG: A researcher ________, did you know Wesley Carter?
HJ: Tell me a little about who he was.
DG: Well, if you don't know him, the question was to ask you about his influence in Houston and Texas. Somehow, he thought you might have had some association there.
HJ: No, that name doesn't ring a bell right away.
DG: For somebody in the school district, for somebody who is politically aware, who were the other leading black citizens when you came to Houston . . .
HJ: In the school district?
DG: In the school district or just in the city at large?
HJ: Well, first of all, I could name a few. Judson Robinson. Judson Robinson was the first City Council person down at the City. He was a very smart man. He knew how to work both sides of the fence there. He did an excellent job back then. Judson Robinson. There were other people, of course, you know, Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland and all those folks were coming up there. And then, you had people who were sort of community power brokers. Mack Hannah, for example, you will hear of him again, I am sure. If you had to rank him, he probably was one of the most powerful black men in Texas. Mack Hannah had a funeral home and he had banks. He was a very powerful man and he was responsible for a lot of the federal elected black officials, appointed black officials in this town. He had a real estate deal in there. He had a little of everything and he would work with folks there. Then, there was another person called John B. Coleman. He was a medical doctor. John B. Coleman was a little more of a people person than Mack Hannah. He mixed, he went places with people. He was well thought of. He eventually ended up on the Texas A&M board. He was the first African American on the Texas A&M board. He was a well-liked person. He gave a lot. If there was a charitable organization - NAACP, Urban League, whatever it was, he gave. And then, there was a guy named Ziley Scales (sp?). Ziley Scales was well known. He was well known. He was the preacher's man. He was the one that would take the candidates into the churches. We don't have that now. We have different people maybe could get you in but Ziley Scales was the man who all the judges came through, everybody . . . if some people got in trouble, "Ziley, see can you go down and talk to the judge?" Ziley Scales would take the elected officials and the candidates into the church. So, those are just a few of the people that were in the community that were considered black leaders. In the school district, you had people like _______ who recently passed there. He was a high ranking official with a lot of integrity. You have Arthur Gaines who was my boss and who just recently stepped down as a school board member. And he is the person where I learned a whole lot. I worked under him as his associate superintendent. And I always tell people, they'd say, "Where did you learn that?" I say, "I sat at the feet of the master. Arthur Gaines was a master." Then there was Felix Cook who, when I went to Bellaire as assistant principal, he went to Sharpstown as the principal. Sharpstown High School. All white. Bellaire. All white. And Felix Cook was an assistant principal at Wheatley and he had trained me a lot at Wheatley, too. And so, there were several others. There was Dr. John E. Codwell. Dr. Codwell was a high-ranking official. He was well thought of as one of the education leaders. There was the principal at Ryan High School and I cannot think of his name. He was well thought of there. And to go on and on. Dr. I.B. Ryan (sp?), he was principal at Kashmere High School. So, these were city-wide known names that meant a whole lot.
DG: What year did you join the NAACP?
HJ: To tell you the truth, I don't remember. I imagine probably I would say in the late 1960s, if I had to guess. Somewhere in the 1960s.
DG: What led to that decision?
HJ: Well, I had always been kind of active and I saw what they were doing, I would read, I would know about them there and I just wanted to be a part of it. I felt that I had a responsibility to do that, so I joined.
DG: And what did membership entail at that time?
HJ: Well, to be honest, it just entailed joining and somebody to go to a couple of meetings. It really in the early years, in the very early years, the NAACP was strong when it first started. Then, it sort of died down. The leadership fell down there. And then came along Al Green. Now, Al Green was a lawyer and he became a judge, justice of the peace, and he became president of the NAACP. And that is when the NAACP turned around in Houston. We became a very powerful body, a very outspoken body, and he led it with integrity. And he built the organization. He built it. I was his first vice-president for those 10 years and after he left, I became president for 7 years. I could not stay as long as he stayed there. But he went on to become a congressman of the United States and I served as his campaign manager and we are very proud of him.
DG: What were your main accomplishments when you were president of the NAACP?
HJ: Well, we had a good membership. We had all kinds of programs. We bought the National Convention here. And if I had to say, my major contribution was negotiating minority participation in the stadiums there. We did well. When they were trying to pass the proposition, I went to Austin twice to testify before the House of Representatives and the Senate there on whether or not we ought to have this resolution to have the stadiums that we were building in Texas. Me, the mayor and Dray McLane and Ken Lay testified before the John Whitmire committee up there on bringing those stadiums here. And here is what happened: about 10 days, I think it was, before the election, the proposition was losing by 11 points and the city fathers became very nervous and the city fathers called me and met with me some of them and said, "We can't pass this bond issue without the help of the black community," and asked me would I help to pull things together? Well, I told them I had to have some commitments. So, we met in the office downtown there on the 50th floor. The mayor, City Council, the owner, the big-time city fathers who run this city, and we met. And we talked about what we had to do to meet it. For an hour and a half, I listened. We had lawyers, preachers, LULAC, had them all there talking. And at the end, I said, "This meeting ends. Now, here is the deal. Put 30% minority participation on the table, we will pass it. Failure to do that, we will kill it. And there are no other alternatives." They thought that was a good deal and Ken Lay and Dray McLane, owner of the Astros, those two men kept their commitment. And Joe Mussoleni (sp?) who was head of the partnership, those were the 3 people who signed the agreement along with me, Reverend Lawson, Congressman Green, Silvio Brooks of the Urban League, Reverend J.J. Robertson, some LULAC people and I think Giff Allen. We had the best deal that you wanted to see and when things went wrong and the contracts were getting too large and we wanted to split, I could go to those people and say, "Look, this is not where we started. This is not what we are supposed to do. We need to fix it." They would make a phone call and it would be fixed. They did an excellent job. And so, there were 2 other stadiums but the baseball with Dray McLane . . . Dray McLane kept his total commitment. Not only were we supposed to get 30% in the construction, we were supposed to get 30% in the concession. And Dray McLane is the only one who kept his commitment and today, those minorities have a good deal with the concession with Dray McLane and the Astros.
DG: In 1997, the Houston NAACP launched the Black Dollar Days campaign. Do you remember that?
DG: What was that all about?
HJ: Well, it was kind of like spend your dollar with black folks. That was the tone ________ to a great degree there. What will a dollar do? How much money do black people spend outside of their neighborhood? So, that is kind of what it was - spend your money with your neighbors, among other things.
DG: How did the issues facing the black community in Houston change over your time here? Are we facing the same issues, different issues from the time you came here in the 1960s and especially during your time, your involvement with the NAACP? Is the NAACP talking about the same kind of issues as they were when you first started?
HJ: Well, that is a good question, and there are people who do not like to hear the word "racism." When you talk about racism, some people don't want to hear that word racism, but racism took on a different kind of dress from 45 years ago or so up until now. 45 years ago, we just knew that we were not going to participate in this deal or in this contract or get these jobs. We would try but we would know it and there would not be much of a fight - we would just accept it when they would say, "No, you're not going to do this." You know, it was kind of accepted you may do something. Now, it is different. You've got to justify. And President Johnson and Congress did a lot to help pass laws and whatnot that went on. But now, there is a different kind of discrimination and I can't mention them all but there are different ways of shutting you out now. I mean, you look at the boards. Look at the big boards and see how many African Americans you see on there. And let me mention one . . . people don't like to talk about this one either but I am going to talk about it. In Harris County, this county, our county, there is not one black county-wide elected official. Now, we had some judges up there and the one I like to mention most because he was best and best known is Carl Walker. Carl Walker was a top judge. He was heavy in community activities. The YMCA was his heart. Carl Walker got defeated! And he got defeated because he was black! You can say all this but he was qualified, a well qualified judge there. So, right now as we speak, on April 15, 2008, there is not one city/county-wide elected black official. Now, some black officials have been appointed and I think they carried over there but you talk about discrimination - that is a different kind of discrimination. That is a deep thing there. So, yes, discrimination goes on.
DG: As we sit here in 2008, the demographics of the city are changing. We are now city of minorities. There is no single segment that has the majority of the population. What do you see for the next 15, 20 years for Houston, for the black community in Houston, for the relationships among the races, among the different segments of our city?
HJ: O.K., well, the dynamics are changing. I had to testify before a senate committee once and we were talking about getting black and brown judges, and I said to that committee, "Look at the enrollment of HISD. Just put the blacks aside for a while and just look at the enrollment. Hispanics are 51% or 52%. The white people had better start making their friends before they need them because the population is increasing. And so, we need to work together with all races and you here people say when we are talking, well-respected people, well-educated people, wealthy people who say race doesn't have anything to do with it. That is the biggest lie that has ever been told. It does have something to do with it. And if you would realize this, then we would have a place to start. How do we fix it for a level playing field?" Now, some time ago, we formed a black/brown coalition and we work very well with the Hispanics, the black community. Very well. There have been people trying to drive wedges in between us and about 2 years ago, they were really trying to drive a wedge on the radio. And I called a meeting of the black communities and the Hispanic community and got together on TV and said, "You are not going to drive a wedge between us." When we were dealing with a big situation on stadiums and the contract and whatnot, there were those that went over to the Hispanics and said, "Well, look, why don't you pull away from the blacks and we will cooperate with you?" And then, they would come to us and say, "Why don't you pull away from the Hispanics and we will cooperate with you?" meaning they had to give up less. That is what that meant. And both of us said no. That is what we said.
Four or five years ago, we went to Laredo. The state LULAC chapter and the state NAACP signed an agreement that we would work together and there would be times that we could not work together and we have to understand that. But we signed that agreement and we call on each other. When they are in a fight, they call on us. If we can't get in the fight, we say, "Hey look, we've got to stay neutral in this." And they will say, "We've got to stay neutral in this." And so, we have had a pretty good relationship.
DG: There is a narrative that has been put forth in a number of these interviews that talks about race relations in Houston, that talks about desegregation of lunch counters and stores and schools and whatever, and the narrative says that Houston didn't have the riots, didn't have the conflicts, didn't have the level of . . . that a lot of cities in the South and a lot of cities in general did because . . . and there are variations on it but basically it comes down to there was a benevolent leadership in Houston that proactively met with the minority communities and made the steps quietly behind the scenes. How do you view that narrative?
HJ: Well, I was a part of some of that so I am very familiar with what you are talking about. It did not mean that there was not discrimination and racism in this city. It meant that we handled it differently. And I am not saying whether or not we handled it the best but we really did not have the kind of rioting that other cities had. And one reason was we were able to sit down and talk to people and say, "This is not right." Let me give you a big one. There was a City Council person who made an unacceptable statement about Mickey Leland and the black community became angry about that, and there was talk about demonstration and marching and this and that. And a group of us got together - Kirby John, Reverend Lawson, Senator _______, myself, Reverend Jefferson, Congressman Green, some other folks and Leo Linbeck (sp?) - there were several. I cannot remember all of them now. I will remember as we go. Charles Duncans, Charles Miller. We formed a group to talk about this and we called this group The Sunday Group. We met almost every Sunday and we named ourselves The Sunday Group - to talk about how we could handle this, how we could keep the peace. And how they would not support this candidate. Now, I've got to tell you, I felt like the guy who saw his Cadillac go over the cliff with his mother-in-law in it. I had mixed emotions. And the reason I had . . . I know we had to do what we had to do and I supported it, but the City Council person that we were coming at was the best white person to vote for black issues on City Council. This was the best City Council person on there for black folks. Well now, ________ we sat down and came to a conclusion and kept the community intact - the City Council did not get the support of the people we met with and as a result, a black person won that seat. That is an example of how we talked and kept things going smooth.
DG: Is that benevolence or economic self-interest?
HJ: I guess a little bit of both. I guess a little bit of both. And a lot of it was protecting the name of Mickey Leland. I mean, you talk about Mickey Leland - you are talking about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and Roosevelt. Don't talk about Mickey Leland! He was our hero at that time out front there and he gave us something to rally around.
DG: So, how do you describe the Houston of today, 2008, in terms of race relations, community relations - how good of a job are we doing getting along?
HJ: Well, race relations, human relations, and you left one out - economic empowerment - on race relations, we are doing well. There is not a lot of fighting and bickering among the races here in Houston now. Blacks, whites, browns, are friends with each other in many areas - communication, clubs, organizations, games . . . there is just not a lot of that. We are doing better than we have done in a long time. In terms of economics, we are doing pretty good. But that is where we fall short. Getting appropriate proportions of the economic pie. We are just not there. In employment and we've got jobs we are proud of but the jobs are, at this level, very few at mid management, fewer at top management and practically none at the board level. So, in terms of race relations, we are O.K., probably as well as any city in the United States. We are doing well. We don't have a problem with race relationships. But the economic pie, chopping that up, we are still not on a level playing field.
DG: We need to finish the biographic narrative. Now, we are sitting in the offices of your insurance company. Give me the timeline from high school HISD administrative to insurance magnate.
HJ: Well, my last 3 or 4 years, maybe 5 years, I met some friends of mine who were in insurance and on weekends and after school and whatnot, holidays, I would get with them and I would sell a little insurance. I kind of enjoyed doing that. So, after 32 years in the school district, when I stepped down, I said, "I think I will start this insurance agency there." And so, that is what happened there. I think I was 57. While I have been successful, if I had to do it over again, I would not do it. And I have been much more successful than most who started in the insurance business, may I say. But for a 57-year-old guy starting a new career, a tough career like insurance, I would think twice.
DG: So, as a wrap-up question, Mr. Jefferson, how would you describe the city of Houston to others? You came here, it became your adopted city but you have seen a lot of changes, you have been on the front line of some of those changes, you have helped bring about some of those changes as it relates to the black community but how would you describe the city of Houston as a place to live and work and make your future?
HJ: The best city in America! No question in my mind. The best city in America. That is what I would tell them. While everything is not where it is supposed to be, some of those defaults or defects that I described, they are in this city, they are in this city - they are all over. That is not just Houston. So, if I have to choose, I would choose to continue to live in Houston. There are some opportunities here. There are a lot of jobs here. There is a good education system and several universities here. There is the energy capital of the world. We've got the biggest port in the world. We are aggressive. We built 3 stadiums and may build a fourth. We ought to build a fourth. We helped with the first 3 so I don't know what people are grumbling about slowing down on the dynamos now. We ought to help them, too. So, I would say to them, come to Houston - you may stumble a little bit, you may stumble a little bit but you won't fall. Come to Houston.
DG: Thank you, Mr. Jefferson.