Dr. Merline Pitre

Duration: 47mins 44secs
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Interview with: Dr. Merline Pitre
Interviewed by:
Date: 1980
Archive Number: OH B45

I: Here tonight is Dr. Merline Pitre, who is member of the history department at Texas Southern University. She’s presenting the third talk in our series, Praying, Playing, and Working in Houston, and we’ve invited her here tonight to talk on the subject of changing patterns among Houston’s black workers, 1900 to 1960. This is Dr. Merline Pitre.


MP: Thank you very much. My topic tonight is Seven Days a Week, Black Workers of Houston. From that earliest arrival in Houston, blacks have performed the least desirable tasks in town. As slaves in the antebellum period, they served their masters as menial laborers and as domestic servants. The result of this is that following emancipation, the white population continued to maintain control of both the skilled and unskilled occupations, while blacks were restricted to menial labor.

Unlike older slave states, Texas failed to develop a class of black odyssey during the era of slavery. Thus by 1900, Texas had the lowest percentage of black wage earner per unit of the population than any other state of the union. As blacks entered the 20th century, anti-black prejudice on the part of labor and management, inadequate educational opportunities, and a lack of the sufficient black odyssey and class would serve as factors in stymieing black Texas economic development.

(02:04) During the late 19th and early 20th century, a number of black wage earners throughout the south were displaced by white workers in what had been called traditional Negro jobs. This displacement phenomenon was not so much of a problem for Houston. The question is why. Well, 20th century Houston had and continues to have one of the nation’s most dynamic economic, but in view of the city’s growth and the lack of a black odyssey class in 1900, the tragedy of Houston has not been so much the removal of blacks from various occupation, but the barring of them from areas of expansion.

Like other southern cities, the urban black workers of Houston were confronted with an economic structure which allowed appreciable numbers to obtain employment, but only at the unskilled and service level. Statistical data for broad occupational categories from 1900 to 1960 describes and bears out such a pattern. In 1920, more than two-thirds of all black workers served as unskilled laborers. That is to say, 5.3% were unskilled, while 0.6% were domestic servants. Needless to say, these were two of the lowest status occupational categories in the city. In contrast, only 5.4% of the city’s black male managed to attain position among the white collar professional, proprietary, and clerical ranks, as compared with 44.6% of all white laborers who enjoyed status associated with these upper level occupational groups.

A close examination of the census data reveals that the few blacks who penetrated the most prestigious job categories were concentrated heavily in only a handful of occupations. For example, of the 261 black male professionals in 1920, clergymen accounted for 48.7%, while teachers supplied a modest 16.3%. On the other hand, physicians and lawyers represented 9.2% and 1.9%, respectively. During that same decade, no black males were classified as civil, electrical, or mechanical engineers. Moreover, retail dealers accounted for two-thirds of the 234 black males in the proprietary class. Of the 171 black male clerical workers, 55.6% were classified as clerks, but not clerks within department stores.

(05:44) A comparative data of the census from 1930 reveals a similar pattern. Black males remain concentrated in the lowest occupational categories. Only 6.9% worked in professional, proprietary, and clerical occupations. The relative proportional difference between black male and their white counterparts in each job category in the 1930s remained virtually unchanged except in unskilled occupational groups. As was the case in the 1920s, black males in higher status occupational groups continued to be concentrated in only a few areas. That is to say, in 1930, clerical accounted for 53.9% of all black male professionals, while retail dealers represented 44.7% of the black male proprietary class. In addition, over 80% of the black male clerical workers were engaged in only three job categories. They were mail carriers, which made up 24.4%, salesmen which made up 28.5%, and clerks, but not clerks in department stores, which made up 27.7%.

As we turn our attention to black women in the labor force of the Bayou city in 1920, the situation appears to be very similar to that of their male counterparts. That is to say, three-fourths of 75% of black females were employed as domestic servants. Only 5.5% enjoyed employment within the white collar occupational groups, as opposed to white women, who made up 68.7% of the higher occupational groups. By far, the largest relative disparity among female workers occurred in the clerical occupations, where 53.9% of all white women were employed, as compared to a mere 1% of their black counterparts.

On the other hand, a large portion of black women worked in unskilled jobs. Perhaps most significantly, although white women outnumbered blacks—that is black female workers—1.2% to 1%, the number of black females exceeded whites nine fold in the domestic services. The fact that black women like their fellow male workers held jobs in fewer different occupations than their white counterparts compounded the limitation of their low status. For the most part, blacks were concentrated in only one profession—that is black female—one proprietary category, one skilled occupation, and a very few unskilled occupations.

For example, 84% of all professional black women served as teachers in the city schools in the 1920s. Seventy-one and six tenths percent of the black female proprietors were boat and housekeepers. Black barbers and hairdressers comprise all of the skilled occupations that black women were engaged in. Even in the lower rated status job categories, black women suffered unequal occupational distribution, laundry workers in factories, and seamstress accounted for 42.6% and 33.3%, respectively.

(10:20) The decade of the 1930s didn’t produce any significant change in the occupational status of black female workers in Houston. That is to say, blacks were still concentrated in a handful of the white collar professional jobs. In 1930, black teachers comprised more than three-fourths of all the female professionals, and boat and housekeepers constituted more than one-half of black women within the proprietary class. Of all of the black women engaged in semi-skilled occupations, 46.4% were dressmakers and laundry operators. It is no surprise, then that in 1930, 71% of the black women were engaged as house servants. Such economic pattern is probably understandable in the 1930s.

Black Houstonians traditionally had suffered job losses during periods of economic dislocation. The Great Depression continued this tradition. Not only were blacks typically the first fired and the last hired, but blacks were disposed, dismissed, and displaced. Speaking of displacement of blacks, the Houston Informer condemned the practice of replacing black workers with whites in the 1930s and warned that such action might “disrupt the amicable reputation existing between the colored and the white races.” This was all to no avail. The practice continued.

Perhaps the most accurate description of the impact of the Great Depression upon black workers in Houston came from the pen of Simeon B. Williams, a black educator, who wrote a column for the Houston Informer which he called “Chimney.” Now, Chimney was supposed to be a semi-literate racketeer and a man about the town. William, using Chimney as his mouthpiece, commented upon individuals and events affecting the black community during the Great Depression, and this is what he had to say: “And the poor colored man is in the worse fix of all. He left the country, because he didn’t have a chance to make a crop and gather it in peace. He couldn’t get enough school for his children. He wasn’t safe from mob nor boss. Indeed, the black man walks in the worse fix of all.” An analysis of black occupational structures in the 1930s, as well as the 1940s, provides statistically support for Chimney’s argument and raises doubt concerning the accuracy of the belief that was prevalent in the 1930s that Houston was the town that the depression forgot.

During the 1930s, Houston black male workers remain heavily concentrated in unskilled and domestic occupational categories, although the percentage of black men in unskilled jobs appeared to have declined a little in the 1930s, this decrease was offset by an influx of black workers into domestic service. Apparently, black Houstonians faced with losses of jobs in unskilled occupations that they had previously held, were forced by the great depression to seek employment in even lower status positions. Not only were there few black males in higher prestigious jobs in the professional, proprietary, and clerical occupational categories, but in fact, the absolute number of black male professionals declined between 1930 and 1940.

(14:36) As indicated earlier, the situation for black women were the same. Their economic status was typically static. The typical major occupation for black women in the 1930s was that of house servant and food server. More than 50% of those in food services were employed privately, while the others were employed as institutional workers, that is, those who worked as cooks in schools and public facilities. the institutional worker was usually more highly trained and was paid a little more than the private worker. Moreover, black females did not measure an increase in professional, proprietary, skill, and unskilled categories during the Great Depression. This proportional shift resulted in the net decline of the job status of the black women of this city.

It should be pointed out that despite what appeared to have been a more rapid rate of declining economic status among white women of the 1930s, the black female remains subordinate in terms of job status, when one compares it not only with all white workers, but also with black males of Houston. To be sure, the 1930s was not so heavenly as some would like to believe, nor was it the city that is Houston, the city that the depression forgot, as others would like to believe.

One of the cruel ironies of the Great Depression was that it beheld a movement of a large number of blacks from the farm to the city. Leaving the countryside because of the ravage of economic disaster, they came to urban centers like Houston, with the expectation of attaining a better standard of living. However, the fulfillment of that expectation was deferred because of the economic debacle of the 1930s. This economic debacle exacted a severe toil in the cities, as well as the countryside. Black people living in urban areas prior to the influx of rural blacks had been displaced in the 1930s from so-called traditional Negro jobs. That is to say that the employment outlook for incoming rural black Texans was not so bright in Houston in the 1930s. In other words, the Great Depression revealed the insecurity of black people in the urban labor market.

(17:23) The federal unemployment census of January, 1931, revealed that unemployment among black workers in the city was in some instances twice as high as among black workers. In Houston, the survey revealed that 35% of the black workers in the city who had been gainfully employed at the time that the census was taken, was now unemployed. Thus, urban black workers had to contend with the colorblind while seeking employment during the 1930s. Remember, this would have an adverse effect upon the type of jobs that they would receive in the future.

For example, in the early 1930s, the worsening economic conditions created problems in the fish and oyster stock in the city of Houston. That is, the Houston City Commission issued an ordinance which prohibited the employment of blacks. At a time when the job market was tight, the city official moved to provide additional employment for whites, at the expense of black clerks who had formally worked in the fish and oyster stores. Despite protests to the contrary, the black clerks were permanently displaced. Thus, the economic tradition last hi and first bye held true.

It should be noted at this point, however, that even though Houston had dog days in the 1930s, brighter days would come. Economic prosperity returned to Texas, as well as Houston, after the 1930s, and continued for more than a decade thereafter. The benefit of that prosperity was not equally distributed among all Houstonians. By 1939, the growing threat of war in Europe and Asia signaled more to the United States than a threat of world peace. The President asserting that the use of force by the enemies of democracy had made it necessary for the employment of weapons of defense by the peace-loving nation of America. This President, which was Harry S. Truman, then went on to call upon Congress for an increased appropriation for an army and a navy. The President also sought to create stockpiles of materials that might be important for America’s defense.

The result of this was the establishment of a wartime economy, which in turn would lead to a level of prosperity of both Texas and Houston which was unknown a decade before. The question that naturally comes to mind is how would this prosperity affect the peoples of Houston, especially blacks? For the majority of white Texans or white Houstonians, it meant a liberated, fully employment and a time-committed increase in wages as private industry turned to the production of wartime materials. In the drive to create defense industry in Texas, massive aircraft manufacturing plants were built in north central Texas. Shipyards were established from the Gulf Coast in Baytown, Galveston, and Houston. Petrochemical industry were created near existing petroleum refineries and were located a various points in the state.

(21:12) How then were blacks affected? As far as blacks were concerned, as the industrial plants began to convert for the purpose of producing wartime materials, blacks found great difficulty in securing employment, because employers were generally inclined to absolve those still unemployed white workers first. Unemployed black people generally moved into the resulting vacancies created in the New Deal relief work agencies. Thus, the first benefits which black Houstonians derived from the boom in the defense industry were in securing jobs that had been deserted by whites who were attracted to defense work for higher wages.

However, as the operation of the defense industry continued, the demand for additional labor intensified. Thus, by 1942, the economic expansion and manpower shortage accompanying the Second World War created a heretofore unrealized employment opportunities for blacks of Houston. One might argue that in the remaining years of the Second World War, an increasing number of black workers, male and female, received both training and employment in semi-skilled defense work in Houston. Despite this defense training at Prairie View and elsewhere in the state, skilled black workers who would produce were more often than not, not employed in Texas or Houston industry. Instead, they were transported to Chester, Pennsylvania or Oakland, California to work in shipyards, while the shipyards in Houston were experiencing a labor shortage.

One of the rumors was that when black workers were employed in the state, the prevailing practice was to put him in an unskilled position, despite his previous training. This phenomena invasion in the utilization of the total manpower resource by a nation at war was a clear tribute to the tenacity of racial discrimination in Texas, as well as, the entire nation. The effect of such attitude upon the industrial production was noted in the Houston Informer in December, 1942. Comparing the ship building on the West coast with that of Houston, the Informer stated that it took 37.5 days to build a ship on the West coast, while “the lily white” Houston shipbuilding company required 83.6 days per ship. This article went on to argue that while the manpower shortage in the defense industry became critical due to military effort which was mounting after 1942, black skilled workers were walking the streets in many cities of Texas, including Houston, while management talked of an extreme shortage of skilled workers.

It should be noted, at this point, that there was no great evaporation of racial discrimination during the 1940s in the labor market in Houston. As a result, black workers did not receive an equitable share in any of the skilled or semi-skilled defensive work. The most important industry in Texas since 1901 has been the petroleum industry, but black workers made only slight gain in the employment in the petroleum production, refining, and allied petrochemical industries. The growth of the petroleum and allied industry in Houston was astronomical throughout the World War II, and the pace has not slackened. The refinery and petrochemical plants in Texas, as well as Houston, after World War II, employed thousands of Texans, but only a small minority of these workers were black.

(25:50) Concomitant with this unpleasant experience of black workers was that of promotion. Late in the war, in 1945 to be exact, the black auxiliary of Local 367 of the OWIU, in the Shell Oil refinery in Houston filed a complaint with the FEPC regional office in Dallas, contending that the white leadership of Local 367 and the management of the refinery prevented black workers from rising above the levels of janitors, laborers, and gardeners. The complaint persuaded the management of the refinery to attempt to upgrade seven qualified black workers. The effort to promote these seven blacks to skilled employment provoked a strike by white workers in the refinery. The strike produced the desired result, as the management of Shell rescinded its promotions. Thus, the question of vertical mobility for black workers in the petroleum industry in Houston was not to be resolved for another decade.

Another unpleasant experience for black workers in the aftermath of the Second World War was the reoccurrence of unemployment. The reconversion of Texas industry to peacetime production and the return of white veterans meant increased joblessness for black Houstonians during a period of relative prosperity. Despite the establishment of job training centers at Prairie View and Houston College for Negroes after 1944, the spectrum of unemployment continued to haunt black workers in Houston. In 1948, at a time when a Texas poll revealed that more than 60% of the white respondent looked upon black Texans as inferior and deserving of unequal treatment. Unemployment was becoming an endemic problem to black Houstonians. Such attitude among white Houstonians rationalized the restriction of the opportunity for vertical mobility among black industrial workers in the state was rapidly increasing.

By 1950, a study of industrial employment among black Texans concluded that “the greatest opportunities for Negros appears to be in firms employing them on the lowest level.” Thus, black workers in Houston were restricted overwhelmingly to unskilled labor in the 1940s. I might say, at this point, that this was happening at a time when you had increasing mechanization and automation, thus the portion of unskilled workers to the total labor force was constantly decreasing.

(29:10) Still speaking of the 1940s, other than public education, the opportunity for public employment in government on the local, county, and municipal levels were extremely limited for black Houstonians. The record of black workers reveals that only a minute number was employed by the government. Without exception, there were no black firemen, very few black clerical workers, very few black nurses in public hospitals, and very few black librarians. This discrepancy exists despite the fact that black citizens paid tax which provided salaries for public employees. Unlike traditional black employment, which was considered undesirable by most white workers because of low wages, the work hazard involved, or because of its irregularity, public employment was far more attractive, but its attractiveness was not lost upon black Houstonians either, but for black Houstonians, the door was closed.

A few mail carriers and about seven policemen made up the sum total of the non-menial government employment available to black Houstonians during and immediately after World War II. The sole non-menial, prominent position in government services were held by employers of the Post Office Department. Other than that, blacks have defined work as janitors and porters.

Still another example of white monopoly upon government in Houston was found in the state highway department. In 1947, the state highway department employed 7,000 workers, and had branches throughout the state. One of its largest branches was based in Houston. However, the sole black employee hired by that agency was in janitorial personnel. It is worth noting that aside from performing menial tasks, as the majority of black workers were doing in Houston, there were a number of blacks who were in the business for themselves. During this separate—

[OH B 45_02]

—with the economic opportunities. These opportunities together provided the right climate for blacks who wanted to get into business for themselves.

In the spring of 1954, Jacob T. Stewart, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, conducted an intensive survey of Houston’s black business community. Stewart studied 770 black-owned businesses. Of the 770 companies, 428, or 55% and 68% were classified as retail, and the remaining 342 were placed in a service business category. In this study, Stewart specified the characteristic of both the typical black-owned business and the average black entrepreneur. One of the most notable characteristic of the black-owned retail and service companies in Houston was the decided trend toward proprietary ownership. Of the retail stores, 89.5% were proprietorship. Ten percent were partnership. Five tenths of a percent were corporations. Proprietorship accounted for 88.5% of the service enterprises. The percentage of partners among service companies was 10.2%, 0.9% of the firms had corporate structure. From the list of 770 businesses, only five were corporations. They were two funeral homes, one grocery store, one meat market, one wholesale appliance store, and one school.

(02:19) The typical black corporation in Houston was a service enterprise, and it was not within the realms of manufacturing. Whether retail or service, the average black-owned business in Houston was located in 1950 in a deteriorating single-room structure, or in the room of the owner’s house, and the number of employees was usually small. Over 74% of the companies employed fewer than three people, and 38.1% did not have any employees at all. Contributing to this negative aspect of the black-owned business was the general lack of experience and training of the average owner.

Within the retail category, 59% of Stewart’s respondents stated that they had never owned another business. Sixty-three and four tenths percent of those having service companies were operating their business for the first time. Of greater significance was the lack of any former training, business training. Approximately 92% of the service enterprise owners and 96% of the retail entrepreneurs had not received business training, either by correspondent course, business school, college, or high school. It should be noted that over 50% of the businesses were under five years of age, and 77.1% were less than 10 years of age. Blacks in the 1950s were severely underrepresented in construction, wholesale trade, major financing, banking, insurance, and real estate business.

As we approach the 1960s, the economic situation appears to have been a little better for blacks on the surface, but beneath the situation remains the same. Between 1940 and 1960, the black urban population in Houston grew from 19.5% to 23% of the total population. As a result of this, there would be a change in the occupational status of some blacks. For example, one would find more blacks moving out of domestic service occupations. This was especially true among black women who sought other types of jobs because of low wages, which usually averaged about $6.20 a week. For black men who were previously engaged in domestic service, they would move in the 1960s to other jobs such as construction, utility, trucking, wholesaling, restaurant, retail sales, welfare, and hospital employee. Collectively, those industries doubled the percentage of their black workers, yet most of these new positions still fall in the unskilled and semi-skilled labor categories.

(05:58) An interview with Mr. Walter Jefferson, director of the Civil Service of Houston in 1963 bears out this pattern. When Mr. Jefferson was asked about black workers of Houston in August of 1963, he stated that the city of Houston did not reveal employment by race. Well, this may or may not be a favorite dodge of the city’s father to cover up their civic responsibility to its citizens. Nevertheless, it was revealed that the number of persons employed by the city of Houston, as of August, 1963, was 9,062. When we divide these up into sex, we find that there were 7,091 males and 1,771 female.

When Mr. Jefferson was asked how many of these 9,062 were black, he stated that a good estimate would be about 20%, but he emphasized this was only a guess, but assuming that his guess was correct, that would be 1,812 blacks employed by the city of Houston. The number here is not so important as the occupation in which they were employed. It was further revealed that the great mass of blacks were employed in the following areas in 1960: Public Works Department, Utility Division, Parks and Recreation, Police and Fire Departments.

We start with the police and the fire department first. We find that the total number of blacks employed in the police and fire department in 1963 were 35 men. Of the graduating class of 1963, this class had 67 firemen. Ten of these were black. A percentage comparison of the total employees in the Department of Public Safety, which includes police and the firemen, shows that Houston had 1,800 employees in these departments and a miniscule percentage of 0.19% black.

(08:30) Since the fact of segregation exists in Houston in 1963, employment of blacks in parks and recreation were only in “black [skip] in swimming pools [skip] (08:59) mostly black areas which were Pleasantville, Finnegan, Emancipation, and Sunnyside. We only find approximately six employees at each park, but this number varies with the season. At the most, 24 blacks were employed in parks and recreation department in 1963. The Utility Division implies water department. Data was lacking on the number of meter readers or laborers who were black. The Public Works Department includes sanitation division. Needless to say, the great mass of blacks in public work actually worked in sanitation division. These men are nobly engaged in the collection of refuse, trash, and garbage, which flows in a never-ending stream from our homes in Houston.

We cannot talk about black workers of Houston without saying a word about Harris County, since Houston is the seat of the county. Harris County embraces the city of Houston. In 1963, Harris County employed 2,375 individuals. Of that number, only 101 were black. This is indeed a low percentage of employment. Mr. George Art, who was the county auditor at that time, said that the greatest concentration of blacks employed by the county in ’63 was enrolled in bridges’ construction. He went on to say that there were very few in white collar class, and even a lesser number in the welfare department and home for the aging.

Moreover, between 1940 and 1960, the medium income for black workers only increased 37%, to about 50% of the white workers. During the early ‘60s, 50% to 60% of black Houstonians earned less than $2,000 a year, which was indicative of the type of jobs that they were performing. This is to say that a sizeable portion of Houston’s population did not benefit from the area’s growth and booming economy.

Because blacks continued to have difficulty acquiring capital and business training or experience, black business in Houston remained limited in the ‘60s. Although blacks made up 20% of the population, they owned only 3% of the businesses. Despite the success in the business of a few blacks, blacks still face major problems getting into the business world. Basically, the trend is toward large manufacturing and retail corporations, with several plants or stores across the city or even the country. Few small businessmen including blacks could and can meet such competition.

(12:33) Reflection on black Houstonians in the business world creates mixed talk. In an absolute sense, black capitalism in Houston and throughout the United States was less developed than white capitalism. The typical black businessmen had less experience than his white counterpart, but given the air in which they were living, and the obstacle confronting them, black businessmen accomplished a good deal. Starting with virtually nothing, except for desire and their individual abilities, blacks created their own business world, a vanguard of blacks refused to accept the premise that blacks were predestined to menial labors and low wages, but keep in mind, these were only the minority.

In some it can be said that the relative economic position of black workers does not appear to have deteriorated in the first half of the 20th century, but rather to have remained the same, stagnation rather than deterioration characterized the status of blacks in the Houston job market. Blacks entered the centric in an economically unattainable position and remained there through the 1960s. One of the reasons being was that the invisible sign of expanding in the Houston economy, more often than not, read “for whites only.”

The grandfathers of contemporary black youth, more often than not, were caterers and cookers, barbers and shavers, coachmen and footmen, butlers and waiters. The grandmothers of those contemporary youths were house servant and food server, cleaning lady and ironing lady, hairdressers, or barbers. For seven days a week, the majority of black workers performed tasks which was usually strenuous, frequently unpleasant, and often repetitive. They usually worked long hours for low pay. While a small number of blacks moved into professional, skilled, and semi-skilled jobs, as we moved through our history. They, for the most part, were violated by tokenism, gradualism, and persistent racial insensitivity. Thus, the traditional pattern of progress through striving was not found in the history of black workers in Houston from 1900 to 1960. For these people, the glorious age was in the future. Thank you.


[Tape ends] (15:53)