Mary Jourdan Atkinson

Duration: 42mins 30secs
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Interviewee: Dr. Mary Jourdan Atkinson
Date: October 1, 1974
OH 003

I:    This is an interview with Mary Butler Jourdan Atkinson, October 1, 1974, at her home in Houston, Texas. Good morning, Dr. Atkinson.

MA:    Good morning, Dr. Nancy.

I:    We would like to have a little background information on your birth, your family, and where you received your education.

MA:    Well, let’s put it this way. I was born on the edge of a100-acres of steep pasture that had never been plowed. There were cotton fields on the other side, right in the middle on my grandfather’s ex-plantation, oh, about 10 miles northeast of Austin.

I:     What year were you born?

MA:    [01:10] I was born in ’98 (1898). I barely got most expectedly. I’m sure that my family entered the century with the rest of the grandchildren.

I:    You were much younger than your brothers and sisters?

MA:    I had no sisters. One of my brothers was 15. One was 18, and my oldest one would’ve been 23 if he’d been there. I supposed I summed to be his reincarnation, which I’ve always claimed is why I’m a deviate.

I:    A deviate in what respect?

MA:    Well, I understand most people on faculties come out as deviates when you check up there, Minnesota, not the basic. another question they asked like that. They are always on the border between masking them and rather than being extreme one or extreme the other. It’s supposed to be—what’s the word for it? I believe it was Carlisle said that all people with any conscious of genius are always—what’s that word?—meaning they’re both.

I:     I know what you mean.

MA:    I can’t think of the right term for it.

I:    A mixture of both characteristics?

MA:    Uh-hunh (affirmative).

I:    That’s interesting. You have mentioned to me that your grandfather was the conformist. Either he was anti-succession of being in Texas?

MA:    Oh, he was an anti-secessionist, definitely. He had come here while this was still Mexico and said that he’d been coming out of the South because he saw what was happening there, and he wanted none of it.

I:    What was his name?

MA:    His name was Frederic—no k—F-r-e-d-e-r-i-c Jourdan.

I:    You’re sure of that?

MA:    Uh-hunh (affirmative).

I:    He came from the South, from what state?

MA:    [03:15]  From North Carolina, I understand. I have never been able to tie in to that family, although I have been told that they come from a brother of Jean-Baptiste Jourdan who was with Lafayette, and that Jean-Baptiste, who was later marshal of France, was at that time unmarried and [unintelligible]–I believe it’s called—had the right to come over here. Still there are some descendants, due to that respect, to the pope. He went home and he sent these two married brothers, from one of who was supposed to have come. Now, I have not examined any census records and been able to tie back, so I’ve been thinking I would see if I could find a business of all the people who did come early.

I:    He settled then in Austin, Texas about the year what?

MA:    No, he settled near Bellville. He was on the way from the battle of the Siege of Jasima (??) was being fought, and his wife’s people—seems to me 8 or 10 of them were already—her brothers and sisters—here in Austin. There was a colony of those—coming to join them, but they were Bachmann’s, as I understand they are Ausaitians (??) by descent.

I:    Then when did he move to the Austin area?

MA:    He first moved to Bastrop. I find him listed in 1840 in Washington County, which was really cut off from all the Austin County. Then I next find him at Bastrop. In 1852, he bought from Henry Burden what we call the home place, which is now a park given by my cousin who died last of June. He was 94. He bought that place in 1852, and my cousin’s mother inherited it as her part in this plantation. It was spared up and divided amongst 9 children.

I:    Then your parents were born about the time of the Civil War? Is that correct?

cue point

MA:    [05:57]  No, they were both born before the Civil War. They were middle-aged when I was born, and I always had the experience of having grandparents for parents.

I:    You grandfather then owned slaves, correct?

MA:    A few, yes.

I:    Even though he was not sympathetic with the secessionist movement in the south.

MA:    Why?

I:    It was the practical means, I suppose.

MA:    I had a (unintelligible) in the beginning that married my father’s sister who had quite a number. Those family blacks were still around most of the time. They were living on land that they had acquired within this plantation when I grew up.

I:    Did they adopt the name Atkinson?

MA:    No, they weren’t ever. Now, but remember, this is (unintelligible) that we were talking about, although John Atkinson was a brother-in-law to Frederic Jourdan. They had married Bachmann sisters, and John Atkinson’s name, along with another John Atkinson, is on the same monument.

I:    Then you have deep, old Texas ties in your family background.

MA:    [07:22]  Right. In fact, as I understand it, our people belonged to what they then called the old party, which was adverse to annexation. They would’ve preferred to stay in Mexico.

I:    Where did you get your education?

MA:    Well, I didn’t go to school from the time I was about 12 years old until I was 20. I got it at home.

I:    Who taught you?

MA:    Oh, everybody in the family. I did enter the university under what they called individual approval. You can, when you’re 21, if you can read and write the English language, and I was immediately put into the more advanced English sections, and I ended with a Phi Beta Kappa key.

I:    What year was this that you were at the University of Texas?

MA:    I was there 6 years. I had to make up all of those lost.

I:    —credits.

MA:    Right.

I:    When was this?

MA:    Well, I was 21, so I must’ve entered in 1919, and I married at 26, but now I’ve always had an eye difficulty. I presume it’s what they call dyslexia. I don’t know any other name to give it. My eyes don’t focus together, and I have a kind of a blind spot right in the middle, for which reason I never try to read figures and trust what I see.

I:    Do you have difficulty in reading print too?

MA:    No, because I can read the word by the shade. I’ll know what should be there. I have difficulty in writing because I leave out the middle of the words. I don’t miss them. Now, figures, it’s not like words. You’ve got to see every individual figure, and my eyes will kind of take the 2 and make it into a 3, or turn a 7 upside down and make it into a 5, and all that kind of stuff. This is really why I dropped out of school.

I:    Did you get an advanced degree?

cue point

MA:    [09:33]  I have been in graduate school about three times, and the last time I came out with a Bachelor’s of Science in Education, and then an MB in Education. The reason for taking in Education is that for no one will I learn German.

I:    The foreign language requirement is difficult.

MA:    I have no use in my life for German, no love and no liking for it. I’m not about to learn it.

I:    It is the professional language of your profession. You are a cultural anthropologist.

MA:    Yes, and I can read French, a little bit of Australian, Spanish, and Italian, if necessary, but no German.

I:    You have taught at Texas Southern University. Did you teach any place else?

MA:    I taught there 2 years. Before that I taught 2 years at the University of Houston.

I:    In the anthropology department?
MA:    Oh, I don’t think we ever had an anthropology department. At least we didn’t. I thought really anthropology at TSU. Texas history is a good anthropology course, if you teach it that way. Then I taught man in civilization.

I:    Have you always lived in this neighborhood or did you move into this neighborhood after it became an integrated neighborhood?

MA:    I moved into it before it became integrated, but I moved over on this side of town only because of my relationship with TSU.

I:    This was a very nice neighborhood called Old Riverside at one time. Is that correct?

MA:    No, this is Riverside Terrace.

I:    This is Riverside Terrace.

MA:    Old Riverside is on the other side of the valley from us.

I:    We are south of the Bayou.

MA:    We are now south of the Bayou.

I:    About 1950s?

MA:    I think I’ve owned this house 10 years.

I:    About 1950 was when the neighborhood began having blacks. Is that correct?

MA:    It was a little later than that.

I:    Sixties?

MA:    [11:57]  There were no blacks on this side of the Bayou when I bought this place, none.

I:    What class of people lived in this neighborhood?

MA:    Now?

I:    Uh-hunh (affirmative), now.

MA:    Well, the people that live over here are either professional or retired.

I:    Most of them—it’s a predominately black neighborhood called Sugar Hill. Is that correct?

MA:    It’s not called Sugar Hill, but it’s classified as a Sugar Hill.

I:    Well, what is here is Sugar Hill, and I didn’t know whether this was the only area.

MA:    There are other Sugar Hills.

I:    Ah, it’s any area of upper class professional?

MA:    Right, now, a really swank place is Tilley Preston, which is the most eastern section of Old Riverside, the one reserved section of Old Riverside. So far as I know, it is totally black. In real life, it’s not necessarily so. It just is. We laugh and we say we’re 2-car families. Well, they’re 3-car families over there.

I:    Are there many whites living in this area or just a very scattered few?

MA:    [13:15]  I would say about 1/5th. I make the directory, but I haven’t checked them up. However, we are having more families move in now because—there are several reasons. One is the availability of this area. It’s right in the center of institutionalism, the University of Houston, TSU, Medical Center, Boone’s Hospital, Rice, Herman Park. We have recently had a professor from the community college buy and move in here. We have also had what is obviously a very well-to-do family buy a big house on the corner of Del Rio and (unintelligible).

I:    These are white families that are moving back into the neighborhood?

MA:    Yes, moving back into it.

I:    Dr. Atkinson, because we had a problem with our power supply, we’re going to resume talking about the Riverside Terrace neighborhood, and we would like to talk again about how this neighborhood changed. First off, what was the effect on this neighborhood of the first black family moving in?

cue point

MA:    [14:53]  We sort of were prepared for it. We knew that inevitably this was going to happen, and they were prepared to receive it. They were ready. It seems to me that every family were prepared to receive it with grace. The people over here are particularly—who were either university professors themselves or wives organized their own real estate development. This has always been a changing neighborhood because it’s always been professional, and the companies would move people in there for 4 or 5 years, and all that sort of thing.

    The real estate developer who sold me this house told me it was originally heavily Jewish. Then it became heavily Catholic. Now it’s on its way to becoming black he thought. There were no black families here for at least 2 years after I came. The real estate developers were ready to drive us all crazy. They were standing in the driveway and practically demanding a price and so on, on one’s house.

I:    Blockbusting tools.

MA:    Blockbusting—we didn’t have blockbusting here.

I:    This was a tactic?

MA:    This was tactic we tried on our homes.

I:    This was when you put the sign, this is our home.

MA:    The Unitarians revoked that sign I think in Indiana somewhere. The signs were ordered and there were put up.

I:    This is my home. It is not for sale.

MA:    Right and the hoodlums would come through here and see it without the light, the yard light, and destroy and take away the signs. I lost two before I finally swung one to my upstairs window where it couldn’t be reached. The neighborhood sits on the city grounds, and the house has changed hands clearly, although we’ve never had I think less than 1/5th Anglo, because I make the directory for our city club. We have 250 families in our own city club, and there are some city clubs that go down the line all the way to McGregor Park.

I:    Are these very active groups?

MA:    They’re very active groups. They watch the property thief, and they watch the property values very closely. They also watch that these let no business groups in.

I:    What is the price range on the houses in this neighborhood?

MA:    [18:00]  The price range did go down for down for an extent, but are now already up. They had $27,000 on them, but I would say beginning with the smaller houses on associates south by the colleges, $30,000 to $90,000 to $135,000. I’m talking about the three areas now, on the river side of the bayou, all the way from Herman Park down.

I:    On the south side?

MA:    On the south side.

I:    What are the differences between the south side and the north side of the bayou?

MA:    Well, the north side is, from our point of view, a [unintelligible].

I:    Because of the apartment complex that’s along it?

MA:    There’s a new apartment complex.

I:    New homes were torn down and—

MA:    I saw a $100,000 home bulldozed down to make way for instant homes, which is what those apartment houses actually are. Yes, there are a number of those of affluence, extremely powerful. The core of it was TSU. The core of everything is Texas Southern University. Now, Texas Southern University was referred to among the students as “The house that Sweatt built.” If you remember years ago they even threatened (unintelligible) and now they’re on blacks in Texas graduate schools.

I:    The Houston mail carrier.

MA:    A Houston mail carrier who was a graduate student in sociology and ready to go to law school. I was living over on the Montrose side, and he and an elderly administrator named Mr. Mann came to my house for a concert. To come unchallenged into that community at that time of day, they wore their mail carrier’s uniforms. Everywhere they were moving south, but the people in the south weren’t going to have it—where is your chastity belt set aside. They forced after reviewing the federal action, there was money to send their black graduate students to urban colleges, but Texas would have none of that. They weren’t sending Texas money anywhere.

cue point

    [20:46]  About 1960, the University of Houston, which was then a private metropolitan school moved out into the sticks, for at the time, nobody even knew where it was, because I came back here from being out of the state for some time and couldn’t even find the place. I don’t know what estate, but some estate gave the University of Houston acreage for a black branch, since it was left to policy. They had to have a black branch, so it was established about a quarter mile from the University of Houston property. The faculty traveled up and down between the two places to keep the two groups separate.

I:    Separate but equal?

MA:    Perhaps that set it unequal. A strange thing, that was the first black settlement, crossed up right in the middle of Riverside. If you will remember Riverside was all part eventually of River Oak realty because River Oak accepted no Jews, and all the Jewish money was in Riverside, and there was always a question of what was the culture of the two areas.

    Houston had something that nobody else had. At least I have seen it described, I believe, is a wholly all-black business town, if not in the United States, certainly in the South called Sugar Bay, which was right downtown.

I:    Built by black money.

MA:    Built by black money. There are some black businesses in the Sugar Bay, an elderly barber who was considered a sage among his people. Over in the palace, I believe that’s his main barbershop, and his children built it, and he knows all the history of that area.

I:    What’s his name?

MA:    This is George Nelson. He is a wonderful man. Dr. Laurie Slip, whose book was out at primaries, had his office in that building.

I:    He had to go the (unintelligible) 1940—

MA:    It (unintelligible) but when Texas Southern was established, university professional men immediately moved into the Riverside area. I felt for them. I heard them say among themselves that there would be no further development downtown. We could come over here. First thing, Mac Hammer, a black millionaire from Fort Arthur has established the [unintelligible] Company. Certain university professors—that is, TSU professors—established the Riverside National Bank. Right now, there is a black medical building going up in the Riverside area.

I:    Who financed that?

MA:    It’s the doctors, I presume. Now, none of these things are segregated. There may be blacks, but (unintelligible).

I:    They are open to whites, if whites wanted to use them.

MA:    [24:42]  —wanted to use them. The ingress is always black on that side of the bayou because of the residential area. There was a residential area over at Riverside.

I:    That’s on the north side of the bayou?

MA:    On the north side. We laugh and say we’re two-car families over here, but they’re three-car families over there.

I:    Are there any whites living in that area?

MA:    I don’t think there are any, but they can. They just don’t happen to be there. Now, this justified the thing that happened, I believe, in Florence, Italy in the college of our own anthropology. There’s an international anthropology (unintelligible). They deployed a forced integration that is going on in the United States, particularly in the schools, because this is something that you can’t force. You can’t force one’s ethics to like another ethic, just because you make them sit by them. You’re much more likely to increase hostility on the basis that no one wants to be told what they’ve got to do.

I:    There some flights over this.

MA:    Uh-hunh (affirmative). I lived over there then. That’s why the white flight, but we had one school board. I know that 300 letters went in from Anglos asking for integration in the schools over there in the elementary schools.

I:    Turned it all about.

MA:    Turned around everything now, and I don’t know that it was then. These laws are varied. The public was never let know that the levis existed. Eventually, because of the school situation and help from pushy real estate, there was a white flight from over there.

I:    Now, that differs from this side.

cue point

MA:    [26:53]  Entirely. It’s Riverside Terrace.

I:    Right. Now, this side was where they put the signs up and tried to keep the real estate people from force selling.

MA:    They not only tried. They did.

I:    What is the attitude of the people here towards the blacks that moved in?

MA:    Oh, there were some dialogues open with them, but not many (unintelligible) in the majority. I was present at the civic club meeting where eventually there was a vote. Lately, I’ve been sort of not sure whether to go or not because they had to do it. When the so-called Caucasian clause was thrown out of the bylaws, and I think the vote was 87-17, or something like that, so letting it go without any code-cutting.

I:    On the neighborhood level, were black children accepted by the other children?

MA:    The minute they moved in, the mothers over here sent their children out to play with the black children and invited their parents in for tea. This has been used all over the United States with the advances of urban integration.

I:    Was it educated, middle and upper class intellectual approach to the problem?

MA:    That’s right.

I:    How did the blacks that moved in feel?

MA:    Well, I tried to say earlier in this conversation—blacks don’t feel that blacks are any different than anybody else and that non-blacks are any different than anybody else.

I:    Was there an effort, do you think, on their part to move into the new area in the first place, to be the first family to move in?

MA:    [28:57]  They were only interest was they didn’t want to (unintelligible). I heard them say so, because they had got some of them over in old Riverside. They had purchased good houses over there, only to learn that there was no voting and they had no protection.

I:    An apartment would be built next door.

MA:    Right.

I:    That was not divulged to them.

MA:    I’m going to say something for which I am sure I will castigated. Nevertheless, I am sure that much of the verbiage of so-called racist flight has been due to the reaction of second and third generations of Americans, and especially from Europe who have come over here, and that’s their fortitudes. They know nothing about black people. They still have the old ideas based on black magic. They were worshipping that kind of thing. This is really the first ones that came with their children and grandchildren.

I:    To perpetuate prejudice?

MA:    Well, and they’re afraid that they’re learning something because the South does have restrictions (unintelligible). If they see them running up and down, running, swimming, cursing, and carrying on where they live in New Orleans.

I:    The redneck element.

MA:    The rednecks structure element could probably get money even from the communists to do it.

I:    You used an interesting phrase “the Red Hots.” Could you explain that?

MA:    Well, it’s . . . which meaning the people that Mrs. Till Brown Cary once expressed. There’s a relative piece to that. Tailors would wear their shorts loaded with lavender so they can get out and load them on the closing.

I:    I like that. Where these the red-hot redneck?

MA:    Well now Red Hot and Redneck—wait a minute Dorothy, I have to think.

I:    They don’t have to be the same thing?

MA:    Rednecks are—he’s a thrasher from (unintelligible). A Red Hot is a social elect.

I:    Yeah, they trusted his (unintelligible) on occasion. Is that right? Okay, it is redneck then, a lower class fright, ignorant usually, prejudiced, who come through and terrorizes.

MA:    Right.

I:    Organized terrorism.

cue point

MA:    [31:35]  Well, once you are acclaimed to do what’s called “bad-mouthing reals.”

I:    Do you think that there was a plot on the part of the real estate people to employ these people, sort of get them to come in and stir up trouble in order to make a profit on the fast turnover of houses?

MA:    I don’t know that there was exactly conniving between those two things. Most surges I always saw them as an indigenous movement. It’s really hard to conceive of any ideas of Christianity. We have to believe that so-called white people, which really means bronze by descent, they thought they should dominate the world.

I:     The late crusade in the sense of the Medieval Crusade?

MA:    Exactly. I think the Red Hots were part of anything the bad guys do. I think that they were—

[Tape ends] [33:12]


MA:    On Riverside (unintelligible).

I:    That’s one of those developments over there.

MA:    Yeah, that was a street that was very quiet and knew that the whites (unintelligible).

I:    Was this the source of much of the break-ins, robberies, and things that take place in this vicinity? Do these people come out of these kind of outlaws?

MA:    That kind of horrors, yes. Okay, Villa Caprice has been bought, taken over by black real estate developers. It’s been fenced, security guarded, and safety gates. It’s been completely rebuilt. It took them about 2 years to get the job done. As I understand, tenants are being carefully screened, so that it is now a decent place to live in again. If you look, you’ll see many signs of urban movement over there. How long it will take to really get rid of the criminal element in old Riverside that has infested it, because the criminal element and the narcotics in those days, and all the rest of it, follow black ruling. It is a belief that the schools go together. At the moment the youngsters come in—I saw it happen over there in old Riverside. It’s been checked out over here.

I:    You say that this Villa Caprice has been bought by black money? Now, these other—

MA:    It’s currently being managed—the Gulf managed, and I assumed it was being taken over by black money.

I:    Are the other complexes owned probably by whites?

MA:    [02:32]  I heard them say in my bank—which is definitely Germanic by ethnic trends—that the Jewish and the Italian units that put up all those multiple apartments on Riverside were having trouble collecting their rent, because they got lies and the people didn’t have it.

I:    They don’t send black agents in to collect?

MA:    [03:06]  One wonders why not—probably because they don’t want to have to be with them.

I:    Maybe when our crime problem in the black community maybe stalls out of the black community itself?

MA:    I think it is slowly on the way. Some electricians are warned of those apartments immediately, either town requests or the embassy. I don’t know which one, and a hundred persons on the roofs (unintelligible).

I:    Do you take any special precautions living in this neighborhood, you yourself?

MA:    We constantly advise that everybody keep their eyes open for what’s going on among their immediate neighbors and report immediately anything that looks out of the ordinary.

I:    Like a group of boys coming through?

MA:    Right.

I:     Strange working men around?

MA:    Uh-hunh (affirmative).

I:    I know that some of the houses have bars on the windows and sort of thing. Are these effective?

MA:    With any sense—the major trouble of it that so many people are away from home all day, and the robberies take place in the mornings. I don’t believe in expelling or suspending troublesome students. It is my belief that every student should have a large room with a security guard. When a junior or a senior high school student is out of control where he belongs, he should be sitting there and checked there. He should never be turned out on the streets to play on the left side. It goes back to the school system.

I:    Or a penal system, perhaps. Having been a teacher in the public schools, I don’t want to keep those children in the public schools, but as you say, a guard room with handcuffs maybe to the law. It is a very hard problem.

MA:    [05:38]  But every student needs it, you know what I mean?

I:    Dungeon.

MA:    Their own incarceration unit. They just should not be turned loose on the public.

I:    It’s very true. What about walking in this neighborhood? Is that possible?

MA:    It’s not possible on account of the bays. Our curse is dogs.

I:    You don’t have purse snatchers over here?

MA:    No, we have not had purse snatchers over here.

I:    I think they tend to haunt the more populous areas like shopping centers where there are a lot of people around and a lot of shopping.

MA:    What we do have is breaking into the house and messing them up.

I:    Just vandalism.

MA:    Vandalism during the daylight hours. They’re not (unintelligible). They come in new apartment units, and they come or they get suspended or expelled from school.

I:    Or are truant, because a lot of them are truant.

cue point

MA:    They are truant, yes.

I:    The parents don’t know what they’re doing because the parents work. The students will tell them they are going to school when indeed they have not.

MA:    [06:55]  Yeah, uh-hunh (affirmative). It seems to me that the majority of the children from this neighborhood are not put to the public school, which is on the edge of being across the flats, but are sent across town either to private schools or to the better schools.

I:    This would be the middle class and upper class people in the neighborhood who send their children out of this neighborhood?

MA:    Right.

I:    It is the apartment children—

MA:    We don’t have no apartments. These are the apartment children from all around, and I understand the morale is getting lower every year.

I:    I’m afraid that is true. I haven’t been in the school system for about 5 years.

MA:    Not only in our public schools, but in the public schools around TSU.

I:    Do you think that the Houston black community is any different than other black communities in comparable towns in the south?

MA:    Well, I really doubt it. You see, this is because we have lots of people that are (unintelligible), and she’s from the South.

I:    You would tend to say then what is true of Houston probably could be generalized as black communities elsewhere?

MA:    Well, I would certainly think it was true of places like Atlanta and New Orleans.

I:    Large urban areas in the Deep South. Houston hardly is deep south. It’s such a strange mixture.

MA:    Houston is southwest.

I:    It has a mixture of things that make it a little different, because we’ve already talked about some of those. Well, Dr. Atkinson, this has been very interesting. Your views as an anthropologist and a member of an integrated community I think are most valuable, and I certainly appreciate the interview.

MA:    Oh, thank you.

 [Tape ends]  [9:15]