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Interview with: Joan Denkler
Interviewed by: Nicolas Castellanos
Date: February 23, 2010
Archive Number: OH GS.0010
Inclusive Date Range: 1970-2000
Mrs. Joan Denkler is a self-proclaimed “activist” for affordable housing in Houston and has been included in many areas as an advocate for affordable housing in Houston, especially in Fourth Ward and Allen Parkway Village areas.
Scope and Content Note
Mrs. Joan Denkler discusses people involved in the “saving” of Fourth Ward and organizations she was involved in.
Nicolas Castellanos (NC): Good Afternoon, today is February twenty third, two thousand ten, we are at the African American library at the Gregeoy School, and we are conducting an oral history with a Mrs. Joan Denkler, how are you today?
Joan Denkler (JD): Fine, thanks.
NC: And just for the record would you please state your name?
JD: Joan Denkler.
NC: And Mrs. Denkler I am just ask you, where did you start with the Fourth Ward? Where did you start with the history, and where did your interest begin in this community?
JD: Fourth Ward is very historic, my interest in history is great, but one of things that Fourth Ward particularly needed was, and Houston needs, is affordable housing. And those things combined drew me to it I can’t look for a better representative of needs than Fourth Ward. So there was much discussion over many, many years on the destiny of Fourth Ward, and it interested me. I am a reader, newspapers, books, magazines, and I thought I might make a difference, and I contacted an early leader, and a leader for many years, Gladys House, and talked to her, and then I had been encouraged to work for affordable housing by the League of Woman Voters, which I had been doing, and I thought I will not…I will look around, and see where I can have the most impact. And slowly over the years, I found others who shared my interest, and I was on many boards…I shouldn’t say many, probably a half-a-dozen, or less, but…also, I looked at individuals as I was working, and I could say the names off three dear old ladies whom I visited often to their deaths: Ollie Minicks, who I believe worked on this…lived in…she lived on Sonnier, she had many visits from me, and even after she was put into a nursing home. Mama Shorty, lovely little lady, and I was able to help her a little bit financially. And Mary Anderson, who was in the Woman’s Army Corp in World War II, and was such an interesting lady.
JD: So this became more and more part of my life. I was spending more and more time on various boards, and some of them where boards where, like “Advocates for Housing,” where officials of entities like, the city, county and state, well not state, city and county were involved in affordable housing. NOAH, “Neighborhoods Organized for Acceptable Housing,” that was an actual building in repairing, no, I think, I shouldn’t have said building, that was repairing houses group. Very successful, very Christian oriented, and…let’s see, what are some of the other groups I was in. I am a present member, founding board member of the Rutherford B. H. Yates museum which collects historical, cultural, archeological information about the people that have gone before us, and saves them for the community this is a thirteen-year-old, vital organization saving the great deal of African American history that would have been lost if they hadn’t, actually saved some of the buildings where ancestors have lived. And so I involved peoples in my churches, and often people that could do things like a priest from Saint Ann’s Catholic church what a wonderful article that, Fourth Ward’s treasure was human, human people and that it need human development, and so I had an opportunity to be part of actually making history because there was a great deal of politics involved and whether this neighborhood would be saved. And the people I was involved with actually made a difference because Dallas’ African American community buildings were whipped out is my understanding, I don’t know if there is anything left, but I think very little, and this has been the case in many, many areas of the country, so this is, this is has been a very interesting and positive part of my life.
NC: Saying that, you brought people in Houston together and also people from outside Houston to work towards affordable housing here in the Fourth Ward, Hmm, wow, you are a social activist, you are a hub, and it was interesting how you directed activities to do that, now were there any particular projects that were looking to complicate or destroy affordable housing? During this time?
JD: Well the pressure was quite intense from the city to use the Fourth Ward for so called modern development. And the property is very financially valuable because it is close to downtown Houston, so there was always the background of the majority of the politicians would be against saving the Fourth Ward or giving them services, for instance, Mayor Hofhienz had promised that there would be, I believe, a community development building for many activities in Fourth Ward, and eventually it was put in River Oaks, and so one of the…when I say that, that wasn’t just a promise that was in…written, that was, in dealing with HUD, Housing and Human Development [Housing and Urban Development] of the Federal Government.
JD: So, that was happening all the time, and a wonderful lady named Jackie Bekum who owned a home with her family, husband, in Fourth Ward was so irritated and distressed that promises were broken again and again and they didn’t get the sewers they needed or the water repairs and…or affordable housing…any…it was…it was a battle.
NC: And just so we know, what years were these? What years did they begin? What years are we talking about?
JD: You’ll have to check back with me, I am little weak on dates, I think…a very important housing development was a congressional hearing chaired by Henry B. Gonzalez, the outstanding representative and the head of the Banking and Housing of Congress. I didn’t bring that tape, but uh, that was a victory the proponents of affordable housing in the area thought, but, actually when things didn’t work as well as we thought, and soon a local representative, Representative Craig Washington set out to destroy any work we had accomplished in either Fourth Ward or Parkway Village. And he was an enemy of the…it…and he felt that’s, that was his mission, but we had our missions and we had previously helped by Representative Mickey Leeland, and I knew Mr. Leeland, he had us in his office and cheering us on, so there were victories and defeats.
NC: Yeah I just…well thank you for sharing that. And you did speak in DC [Washington D.C.] at Congress…
JD: The hearing was in Houston.
NC: Oh, the hearing was in Houston, excuse me,
JD: Yes. Representative Gonzalez came here.
NC: Oh, ok, wow, and what building was it held in? Do you remember the address?
JD: No, I don’t.
NC: Ok and when you did attend the meeting, wow, you went and you went to speak to the legislatures and they...you talked about the Allen Parkway Village.
JD: I did, at that time.
NC: …As an advocate…
JD: I was speaking more for Allen Parkway because representative Gonzalez was a Federal Officer, you know, he worked for the Federal Government so Fourth Ward was heavily involved with Allen Parkway Village, but, it was going to be less threatened if Allen Parkway survived as a group that came forward with excellent ideas that had been worked out in the state of Washington for a housing project with security, and tenants being more involved in tasks like, maintenance and which had the support of many corporations and the various medical institutions and things like that, that we, we worked very hard at that, but it didn’t get off the ground as we hoped.
NC: and stepping back you were talking about meeting Mickey Leeland, did you want to share any…
JD: Yes, I do because Mickey was very enthusiastic about helping he’d uh…he had a wonderful personality, and a handsome man, he was an activist. I am an activist, that’s a word that has been disparaged, but it’s uh, I just uh, I am very comfortable with it, so at my stage in life, and I have been teased about it by some of my children’s friends, but anyway it fits and I have had victories, too, outside of affordable housing. I was involved in getting substantial number of food pantries approaching 200 and getting the food bank started, that gave me a lot of confidence that individuals can make a difference.
NC: And is there anything else you wanted to say about Mr. Leeland?
JD: Well I don’t want to, I please want to mention a couple of people Neddleback Nell, a professor at the University of Houston in architecture, was a dynamic helpful person her husband was I believe the community director of the city and she was an inspiration and preparing some designs that helped the appearance of Fourth Ward, some columns, some buildings and she put her plans out in her studio at the University of Houston and they were stolen, two weeks later she died, with meningitis which can be caused by distress. And I can’t leave out the superb work of Gina Antill of Noah, who was repairing houses in a big way, and those people need to be applauded, and so its been, and Katherine Roberts who’s worked for 13 years in the Ruther Yates Museum against great opposition, so its been a fun experience, often with people like this,
NC: I can imagine, meeting people and working…
JD: And Henry Gonzalez what a treasure he was and he.
NC: Is he still with us?
JD: No he has died, but an edit…but the editor…one of the editors at the Wall Street Journal, one of the top ones, Paul Jiao said he was the most outstanding person in Congress of all times. Ethical, what he got done, he was a modest man and he didn’t acquire wealth and I met him, I was sent to Washington by a group, not connected with this at all, a Catholic group and network and affordable housing work I did, he was responsive and smiling and doing things and it was thrilling, he wrote me a personal letter which I treasure, thanking me.
JD: This is wonderful story from “The Houston Post;” which doesn’t exist anymore, and it shows a wonderful lady, very historic, Mary Anderson. Whose house was being fixed-up by a group I was involved in. One time with actually labor fixing up, and more often I was raising money, or visiting her. And she’s standing in front of this house with the founder of a group called “NOAH,” an organization that was doing work around the city fixing up homes of people who were having difficulty paying for repairs. And Mary Anderson is…has Jacquelyn Bostic, an outstanding citizen of our community, Whose Grandfather was, whose great-grandfather was, I believe its great-grandfather, Jack Yates, a historic founder of Freedmen’s town. And Mary was I believe I haven’t said yet, that she was in the Woman’s Army Corp, which was founded by a Houstonian, Ovita, I believe was the first name of Mrs. Hobby, a leader of administration of this first unit of woman working for a military division…division is perhaps not the word, but part of the military. And these are the kind of lovely people that were low in funds at the end of their lives and needed help, and I was happy to be involved, I am mentioned in the article, but, I much prefer the emphasis on other people because they were making such a good difference.
JD: Another wonderful person who I would like to show, is a lovely retired teacher, this is Bessie Wells, and dressed so beautifully like your grandmother or favorite aunt, or somebody that you dearly loved, and Bessie was just as nice as your memories of perhaps some departed loved relative, and she rented a home the Ned, Reverend Ned Pullman house that is now owned by a group that is saving history, culture, archeology, and also the actual homes of some leading citizens of Freedmen’s town and I say leading because these were leading citizens of Houston. Marvelous entrepreneurs, the…for instance the owner of this house had a brick yard, and he had a pharmacy, he started the first, he was involved in starting the first Black medical system the Black sanitarium, then eventually I think his wife was helping with the Union Hospital. And the final, of the final segregated system of medical care was Riverside Hospital which was eventually not segregated. But they were even involved in the Carnegie Library, so this is just a picture of a woman who is a part of history, and you can see her expression in this picture, you can’t see it up-close because you can’t see this as well as, this wonderful Chronicle [Houston Chronicle] article about her and changes in Fourth Ward.
JD: And, last I want to talk about a very exciting exhibit by the art organization “Diverse Works” which is still doing wonderful shows and this is about Fourth Ward and it shows most of all what I want to point out this is a John Biggers’ painting the famous artist of Houston that had a full retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, I believe he was still alive, I hope so, wonderful show. He is picturing shotgun houses and most of you know what a shotgun house is. Its a three room house where if you open the front and back door, you can shoot straight through. And, he put the wonderful ladies who occupied these homes, often maids for our, for another culture, but treasures of our city in these tiny little houses, in these rental houses and here is an actual house that was in existence there, probably not in existence now here are some models that were done for the diverse works show, here is a painting by a Fourth Ward artist, and even I saved the program this show, Fourth Ward exhibition and it showed how close Fourth Ward is to Downtown Houston. These buildings were among, these housing which were seriously deteriorated were among the first things to be destroyed, but they weren’t the kind of housing you expected to save. Lot of the houses can be saved if they are allowed to exist and not, not bombed, as some arsonists have done or…that was rare, but it happens, and I won’t go into complete detail about losing houses, but this charming picture shows a parade on Juneteenth day of a decorated float of a horse and carriage. And this is the BB Tabernacle Choir.
JD: The last thing I will show is a brochure, and flyer or a picture of a slave who became an attorney, and the co-founder of the 20th Century State Bank and Trust Company, whose home has been acquired by, the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum, which is actively working to save the history, culture, archeology of Freedmen’s town this handsome lawyer, banker, his beautiful wife in a Victorian dress, his home, his handsome home, which needs serious repairs, but isn’t it fortunate that this home is in existence so that we can take people eventually when it’s renovated to see this treasure of the past that’s particularly what I wanted to emphasize and that’s all.