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Interview with: Otis King
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: August 6, 2008
DG: Today is August 6, 2008. We are in the home of Mr. Otis King, who is being interviewed for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Mr. King?
OK: I am doing fine.
DG: Great. Mr. King, let’s begin at the beginning. Tell us where you were born and when.
OK: I was born in Texarkana, Texas, in 1935.
DG: And what were your earliest memories?
OK: My earliest memories of living on 16th Street in Texarkana when I was perhaps 3 years old. And those are memories of being in the house and of the neighborhood and things of that sort.
DG: And when did you move to Houston?
OK: We moved to Houston, I believe, around 1940, when I was about 5.
DG: And what were your earliest memories of Houston?
OK: My earliest memories of Houston, I guess, were based upon how different it was from the little town of Texarkana. We moved into Fifth Ward on Lyons Avenue which was the main street, I guess, still is the main street, through that area of town. We lived in a couple of rooming houses at first, and I have very clear memories of that, of being confined to one room and not having very much space to do much of anything.
DG: It must have been tough for a five year old.
OK: It was. It seemed like it rained all the time in Houston.
DG: It probably did. So, what did you do for fun?
OK: Well, I sort of played in the hallway in the one boarding house we lived in. I probably had some toys. I can remember having that feeling of being cooped up because I could not get out and play outside very much, which was pretty much traditional in a small town.
DG: And why did you move to Houston?
OK: My father was working for a company that relocated. I do not think it produced sulfur. It was involved in some way in the sulfur business. And he worked for what we just called the sulfur company. He was working for that company in Texarkana and it moved to Houston. So, rather than trying to find another job in Texarkana, he decided he would move the family to Houston as well.
DG: I see. When did you move out of the boarding houses? The
OK: We lived there only for a few weeks, as I can recall, and we moved then about 3 or 4 blocks farther down the street and we moved into what was known then as a Jessie Dale rent house. It was kind of a modified shotgun. You could not see completely through it because it had a little offset to the left.
DG: I see. And what schools did you attend?
OK: I attended Bruce Elementary School which still is there and, at that time, it was located in what we called the bottom over on Buck Street. It was a good maybe 15-20 walk in the morning.
DG: So, describe the Houston of the mid 1940s, early 1950s.
OK: O.K. The area where we lived was a kind of self-contained community, and I guess a lot of people talk about how things were different then, how our neighbors knew each other. There were lots of kids. We played with each other in the yards and in the back alley, for lack of a better term. We had a grocery store on the corner and the church was maybe 3 or 4 blocks from where we lived. The playing fields that we played on were close by. Everything was sort of in that community. We did not have a car so we walked or we rode the bus. And, as I said, it was a self-contained kind of community where everybody within a 3 or 4 square block area knew everybody else and we knew all the kids and we played together.
DG: And when you left that small enclave, where did you go?
OK: Well, I stayed in that enclave all the way through high school and when I left there, I came to what we call Third Ward to attend Texas Southern University and that was when I graduated from Phyllis Wheatley in 1952.
DG: When you were a kid, did you go downtown to go to the theaters, did you go shop?
OK: We could not go to the theaters downtown because, at that time, everything was segregated. I am not even sure we could have gone and sat in the balconies at that time at the theaters. Later on, that was available in some of them. And then, there was a black theater downtown, but we had a neighborhood theater and where I lived, the neighborhood theater, the Lyons Theater, was across the street from where we lived. And the Deluxe Theater was about 4-5 blocks down Lyons Avenue, I guess that would have been to the west.
DG: Was desegregation something you were conscious of as a kid?
OK: You become conscious of it. It grows on you because you come to realize there are things that limit what you can do. I guess the first notice of it was riding the bus, and you notice that when you get on the bus, you knew, even as a small child, that you could not sit on the front seat. That was reserved for whites. So, you had to move back a seat or two behind that. And you a little bit later came to realize that facilities such as restrooms and things of that sort, were not available to you in the downtown area unless you were over on the 1 or 2 blocks that were kind of set aside for black businesses.
DG: When you were young and in school, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do when you grew up?
OK: I had sort of mixed ideas. I was fighting against the notion of following the route that was traditionally thought to be available for blacks at that time, to be either a teacher or a doctor or something of that sort. So, I initially thought I wanted to be an artist and the strangest thing was my art teacher dissuaded me, discouraged me because her horizon was limited to teaching school and she said, “You will never be able to get a job because the schools only hire 1 or 2 art teachers.” So, I was very confused when I finished high school and went to college. So, although I fought against it, I said, “Well, I guess I will be a doctor.” But that was never what I really wanted to do. I came to hate being in labs and so although I finished school with a degree in biology and chemistry, I never pursued it beyond that point.
DG: I see. The 1950s was a time of change in Houston. Of course, every decade was a time of change in Houston. What changes were you aware of when you were a kid? We have not gotten to college yet, so think it through elementary school and high school.
OK: Well, I was aware mostly of the separate facilities. I and some of my friends from the neighborhood would go downtown and we would sort of challenge the system just a little bit, as we had the courage to do. For example, we would go over and drink out of the white water fountain and one of us would drink out of the colored water fountain and we would shout across the store or whatever, “Is the white water any different from the colored water?” things like that. So, we became very much aware of the separation when I was in high school. We became very much aware of it in terms of the books. We came to note that the books were hand-me-downs from the white high schools. And even playing sports, we noticed that we often got practice equipment that had been used before at the white schools as well. So, you become aware of it. It just sort of creeps up on you. You are not rebelling against it that strongly at that time other than, as I said, the kinds of things we would do with the water fountain but yes, it starts to weigh on you a bit and it starts to weigh on you in terms of the selections you can make for the future and the kinds of things you might think you can be.
DG: Other than those early experiences with segregation, if we look back on those school years, those high school years, would we have seen anything to suggest what you would do as an adult? Anything you were involved in? Any experiences . . .
OK: Probably not that much. I was a good student but not outstanding in any particular thing other than just academic. I had good grades. I finished second in my class – things of that sort. I would think that no one would have predicted that I would have gone into law as I eventually did. Most of my friends . . . not most, I should say a lot of my friends did go the teaching route. So, that may have been though that, well, Otis will go the teaching route. He will probably wind up being a principal or something of that sort.
DG: So, when you are a kid in high school in Houston in those years, who are your heroes? Who did you look up to?
OK: Well, you looked up to sports heroes. One thing, this was a period of time when Jackie Robinson was recruited and went to play for the Dodgers. So, all of the black people in Houston sort of switched allegiance from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Brooklyn Dodgers. We did not know much about the Brooklyn Dodgers. Everybody sort of rooted for the Cardinals because Houston was then a farm team of the Cardinals and we knew the local players, some of whom did go on to play with the Cardinals. So, the sports heroes like Jackie Robinson and then a little bit later, Willie Mays and, of course, the boxers, Joe Lewis and Sugar Ray Robinson, people like that. So, for the most part, we looked to the sports figures initially. I think a little bit later, we started to focus on some others like Dr. Bunch when he got the Nobel Peace Prize, and I remember persons who came to speak – Edith Sampson – who did work with the United Nations. Very impressive. She spoke to us when I was in maybe 10th, 11th grade, and we started to focus a little bit beyond just the sports heroes and started to look at some of the other people and what they had done.
DG: Anybody local provide a voice for the movement?
OK: Ministers mostly when I was really young. I attended Pleasant Hill and Reverend Simpson was very vocal and was involved in running for office and some other things. So, there were some people like that. There were a few others, the names I do not particularly recall, but I knew there were some that were looked to, to provide some leadership. But I was not very much knowledgeable about that through high school. Just sort of on the periphery of those kinds of things.
DG: So, you graduate from high school and you decide to go to school at Texas Southern?
OK: That’s correct.
DG: And what led to that decision?
OK: Well, it was mostly what was available. At the time that I finished high school, I had a couple of scholarship offers that were not that great to places I did not know much about and I did not feel that I would have enough supplemental money to attend those places. I knew that if I went to Texas Southern University, I would be staying in Houston, a town that I was familiar with and a place where I thought I would be able to get some part-time work, and also I had an older brother who was living here that I could stay with and attend school. And then, I got something like $100 scholarship from the Parent Teachers Association which was enough at that time in 1952 to register at Texas Southern. So, those were the factors that influenced that.
DG: Other than knowing that you didn’t want to be a doctor, what were your plans, what were your aspirations when you went to TSU?
OK: Well, I was sort of mixed up at that time. It was kind of a muddle and I did not really decide I definitely did not want to be a doctor until after . . . about the time of graduation. I even took the, what was it called, the MCAT? But I never knew what I made. I never requested the results. I went out to Rice and took it, walked out and said I am not going to do this, and I never even looked back at it. I really wanted to go to TSU and work with John Biggers who I had had met in high school on a field trip. But after having such discouraging words from my art teacher, I decided, well, go the traditional route, go the science route, go the medical route. And just doing school, although I did well, you know, again, with the grades, I just simply decided, I am not going to do this.
DG: So, how would you describe those college years? It is a time of growth for a lot of kids, a time of exploring new things.
OK: Right. The college years were great and I found that the process of getting to know people and to learn about growing up, in many ways, to me stands out in my mind much more than the things I did I the classroom. I have a feeling that the socialization process was more valuable than the things that I learned. I felt I could learn those things anyway. Tell me what books to read and I will learn those things. But just really getting to know people, learning to get along with people and to grow up into adulthood was just a very important time for me.
DG: In terms of the changes within the city, did you find TSU to be an incubator for a heightened awareness, for a heightened sense of activism?
OK: At that time, and remember, this is the early 1950s [1952-1956], not very much. There was not a lot going on in terms of things on the campus. We knew, of course, about the things that were happening with the Brown v. Board of Education and that kind of thing but the campus itself was pretty conservative in terms of any kind of civil rights activities. And so, we just sort of went to school, tried to do well in our classes, started to form our ideas about what we might want to do, and then just kind of moved on from there.
DG: Other than the classes you took, were there any extracurricular activities you became involved in?
OK: I was a member of the debating team at Texas Southern University. In fact, Barbara Jordan and I finished high school together – were partners on the TSU debate team for 4 years. And that was quite a very good experience. And this was one of those experiences I was talking about that was sort of separate and apart in a way from the classroom. And that was really a growing and learning experience – to be able to participate in a program where you felt you had a totally equal chance with anyone because we had access to the same material that anyone else would have. We had minds like they did. In fact, we thought we were probably better than they were. And so, we were able to do well. And I find that if I point to any one thing in college, it was my participation on the debating team and being able to go against some of the large white institutions and do well to win. That really gave me the confidence that I could pretty much do anything that I set my mind to.
DG: Where did that come from? Did you see it out because it seemed interesting? Were you selected by somebody who saw talent in you?
OK: Well, my brother was involved. I have a brother who is 4 years old than I am but because I had made up 1 grade, he was 3 years ahead of me, so we overlapped 1 year. And I had not participated in debate before other than just arguing around the house or with the other students. He said, “Well, why don’t you come on out for the debate team?” I said, “Oh, I am not sure.” He kept insisting so I said, O.K., I will try it. And then after I got involved, I really started to enjoy it. And then, he left after our overlapping 1 year. And then, Barbara and I sort of had another year where there were senior members on the team and finally, I guess about our third year, we got our chance to be the senior people on the team.
DG: And you had some notable success with that partnership.
OK: We did.
DG: Can you share some of your accomplishments?
OK: Probably the greatest success personally to me was our debate at University of Chicago. We had gone to University of Chicago and I had heard so much about that institution that I was scared to death of what we were going to encounter. Amazingly, I was afraid that I would not understand the words that they would choose to use – they would be so far above this poor little black guy from Texas Southern University – but we went out and we did well and we were successful there. And that really I think is when the confidence started to sink in, that hey, you are as good as anybody you come up against if you have prepared yourself. And so, I always think about that particular occasion when I am asked about my experience with the debating team. And then, the final debate, not like really . . . Denzel used, I guess, artistic license in showing that while they debated against Harvard, Barbara and I were really the ones that debated Harvard. It was the last debate of our career and we won that at Texas Southern University. And so, I guess, that was kind of the benchmark of our career together in terms of debating. And I think Barbara had more of a notion of what she wanted to do than I did at that time. I think she had already sort of set her sights on being a lawyer and getting into politics.
DG: Was there a trip to Baylor that had some significance?
OK: Oh, yes. There was a trip to Baylor where we went to Waco and this was the first time I think that there had been any participation by a black institution in one of the tournaments. There was a tournament game hosted at Baylor and when we went there, we had gotten separated. We were in 2 vehicles. And the vehicle that I and Barbara were in had gotten separated from the one that the debating coach, Dr. Thomas Freeman, was riding in. And so, when we got there, we did not know where we were supposed to stay. So, we went out to the campus - we found our way to the campus - and the people at the campus said, “Well, they are registering down at the Roosevelt Hotel,” I believe it was, downtown. So, we went down to the Roosevelt Hotel, Barbara and I hopped out of the car and we marched right in through the front entrance, to the amazement of everybody as these 2 black youngsters coming in. But we went over to the table and met with the people who were handling the arrangements for the tournament and they told us which motel we were staying at. And we went on and went there. And we did well in that tournament. And surprisingly, I do not recall feeling that much pressure after that. We felt good about the fact that hey, we went downtown, we walked in and we had no problems, and we got our arrangement. And we commented about the fact that we were out at the colored motel, not downtown at the main hotel where the rest of the people who were participating were staying. And that was, I guess, our first experience in a kind of integrated situation, particularly one here in this state.
DG: Other than the desire to compete and do well, you have a sense that you were breaking down some barriers maybe of questioning some preconceived notions about what blacks were capable of? Was that part of the crusade?
OK: I think it was a part of it. I do not think we focused on that so much but sure, you felt that and you felt some weight on you to do well, to show that you could do well. We felt some weight on us because we were representing the university. And any time you are in a position to represent your university, you feel that. But we did feel some pressure that we wanted to do well, we wanted to show the people who were in attendance, we wanted to show the judges that we were as good and capable as the other participants.
DG: Did you ever have a competition where you felt that you did not get the marks, the recognition, the rating that you deserved?
OK: There were some. We always took the attitude that if we are going to win in these tournaments, the only way we can prevail is to be so much better than it is so clear that we have won, that the judges sort of won’t dare vote against us. But we did not get that strong a sense that there was that much bias or prejudice in the judging process. We felt it sometimes. But we did particularly feel that, and maybe this was self-imposed, but we felt that we had to make it clear that we had won if we were going to get the decision. And so, we went out with that notion in mind – that we were just going to do that good a job and we were just going to distance ourselves, distinguish ourselves that much over the opponent that the judges could not, in good conscience, find against us. And we normally did well in those circumstances.
DG: And by doing well, do you mean you won your share?
OK: We won our share.
DG: That’s great. So, somebody looking back would say, well, you find debate, debate finds you, you excel at it but it is a logical next step to go to law school. Is that the way it worked for you?
OK: I think, to a certain extent, it was. What happened in my case was after I finished college, since I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do now, and having gotten deferments . . . at that time, the draft was still in effect . . . I went ahead and was drafted. I did not volunteer but I sort of volunteered for the draft so I could go ahead and get that out of the way, and I went into the service for 2 years. And that focused my thinking. That focused my thinking quite a bit, those 2 years. I was intending at that point to, perhaps still thinking about the possibility of medical school but really kind of divorcing myself from it. But very clear in m mind that I was going to go forward and not just stop with a bachelor’s degree. I sort of said to myself, well, you can be a doctor other ways. You can earn a Ph.D. So, when I got out of the service, my thought was to go back to school. Again, my brother interceded. He had decided to go to law school and when I got out of the service, he said, “Well, while you are making up your mind, why don’t you come over to the university and go to law school and see how you like it?” I decided to enroll, and I did. I did like the challenge of it. I liked the idea of learning the law and sort of trying to learn what others had learned and to do well at that. And, again, just as my brother influenced me to be involved in debate, he influenced me to go to law school. But once I was there, it was my decision to stay there because I did really, really find that I loved it, and I loved the classroom, I loved the techniques of the Socratic dialog, things of that sort.
DG: Even 2 years removed from TSU, did you come in with a certain reputation because of your success at debate?
OK: Somewhat. I was sort of surprised a bit that some of the law professors knew about my debating past and when I participated in what we call mute court where you made a mock appellate argument, there were some little remarks they made about, “Well here comes the debater now,” and things like that. So, yes, it did precede me a bit.
DG: Probably made things tougher?
OK: Not particularly.
DG: What was going on in the city during that time? You went away for a couple of years, now you are in school.
OK: I think that at that time, things were starting to change a little bit – politics. There were more blacks getting involved in politics although no one had been elected. So, there was more a sense of political awareness at that time. There were other students in the law school, particularly a student named Eldrewey Stern who became much involved in the sit-in movement and the Civil Rights Movement in Houston, who talked about it. And so, in our little bull sessions around the law school, now we were more likely to talk about what could we do, not just, oh, isn’t this a shame that things are like this, but what can we do? And the ideas were sort of kicked around as to what can we do until we heard Red Saw (??), the North Carolina sit-in. And we said, hey, that is what we can do. So, yes, we were much more politically aware, much more willing to be involved in the process after the 2 years that I spent in the Army and being in law school. And, in fact, I guess it was in my second year of law school, is when the sit-in movement really got started, and I participated in that long with Drew Sterns and others.
DG: To prove a fine point on it for young people who may be listening to this, the reluctance up until that point, and even the reluctance to engage at a higher level, was it based more on the fear of physical reprisal, was it just not that many avenues to . . .
OK: Well, I think it was just the idea that there weren’t that many avenues. It wasn’t so much the fear of reprisal, it was, in part, that the time just had not arrived. I guess there just was not enough agitation, enough discussion. We were sort of about the process of doing what we were doing and that sort of can consume your day. And while we talk about, isn’t that awful, this thing that happened or you talk about the Emmett Till situation or you talk about something else and you are angry about it, you say, O.K., well, I’ve got to study for a contract now. So, you pushed that aside and you went on and you just focused on what you were doing. But we were all just really thrilled when the students in North Carolina started their sit-in and when Drew Stern who had been something of an activist around the law school said, “Hey, let’s do the same thing,” and picked out a place to start it. And that was it. And from that point on, I guess in our minds, there was no turning back. From now on, we are going to be involved. I will be involved. I will do something, whatever it is. So, you just kind of reach a point when things are right and when the avenues are there for that participation and that is what occurs.
DG: Who was Emmett Till? You said the Emmett Till situation.
OK: Emmett Till was the young man who was killed over in Money, Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. And then, there were some others: Evil Eye Ingram who was arrested for supposedly looking at a white woman with intent to rape. There were just these outrageous kinds of things. And we knew about them and we talked about them. But in 1960 when we started the sit-in movement, everything came together.
DG: So, you graduate from law school. What year?
DG: You have this heightened awareness of commitment to civil rights and a law degree.
DG: So, what do you do first?
OK: O.K., I went into private practice, again, with my brother and George Washington, Jr., and we represented some of the sit-in participants who were still in school and still being arrested. The movement had not stopped. I sort of got out of it at one point, I said, “Hey, I’ve got to go ahead and finish law school, and I will see you in court. I put in my semester, sort of made the worst grades of my career and let me go ahead and finish.” So, I went ahead and finished and then came back and we were involved. My brother was involved. George Washington, Jr. was involved. And I was involved in some of the trials of the and involved in some of the first successes, victories we had in court at the Appellate level, and I was involved in helping to write the briefs and things of that sort. And then, I became involved much more politically. There was an organization . . . I cannot think of the overall organization that was involved in politics. It was an organization of other organizations that came together and met – I do not know if they met weekly or monthly or whenever –the Council of Organizations. That is what it was. I started participating in that, going to the meetings, speaking out in the meetings, getting involved in political campaign and working in the political campaigns. By this time, Barbara was running for office, so I worked in her campaign. And I became active in the various campaigns of the losing campaigns and there were a lot of losing campaigns before we won. So, whatever was out there to be involved in, I got involved in at that time. The school board campaign Dr. Herman Barnet and others and organizations, I started taking an active role in that way.
DG: And what was the climate in the city at that time for young black professionals?
OK: Well, it was still hard for us to get business. I think there was still an attitude on the part of a number of blacks that you will get a better shake if you go to a white lawyer because they know the system, they know the people downtown. Our little law firm, although we had the brain power, we never got the business that would allow us to be successful. And we just attributed to the fact, again, it was just not quite the time. We do not have the clientele that are willing to come to us that can pay us enough to survive. So, the three of us wound up doing other things at that time. We got jobs basically. I started working with Federal government for a couple of years. My brother took a job. George went to work with a bank and things of that sort. So, we kind of shifted directions a bit. I personally was still trying to be as active as I could within the limits that were imposed by the Hash Act (??) and being a Federal employee. And I did that for a few years until I was able to get back into the sort of private sector where I was freed up to participate more.
DG: Those years are with the National Labor Relations board? Is that correct?
OK: Right. I worked with the National Labor Relations board and I worked with the Veterans Administration.
DG: What was that experience like?
OK: I did not like working for the Veterans Administration because it was kind of a desk job where you sat in a windowless office all day and looked at claims. I really loved working with the National Labor Relations board and had not another opportunity come along, I would have stayed there probably a couple more years because it was a good experience. I was working as a field attorney and this was the first time in a job situation I actually got to work as an attorney and had the freedom of trying cases although before an administrative judge rather than court but it was still a trial and I was still getting that kind of experience. I had the freedom to travel. We were in a region that covered most of South Texas so we went down to the Valley to investigate cases, claims of violations of the Labor Relations Act – things of that sort. We would investigate it and if we found there was a violation, we could file charges against the parties and, a couple of times, in court. So, that was just a good experience because I was working as a professional, I got a chance to meet other professionals . . . I was the first black in this area and maybe even in the south, although I am not sure whether . . . Maynard Jackson worked with the National Labor Relations board also and when I did meet him, we talked about the fact that both of us were working at the same time. We did not decide who was first. But, in any event, I was the only one working in the office here in Houston, the or only black person working in that office. But it was a great experience because, again, on the professional level, the others who were working there, the whites who were there, accepted me with no problem in the office, and no problems in any of the work that I did out the field. So, it was just a good, sort of enriching experience to be able to work in the professional position in a circumstance like that and I enjoyed that greatly.
DG: Was the Federal employment more of a meritocracy than perhaps the local . . .
OK: To a certain extent, yes, it was, because, again, being part of the Civil Service Program and you had your GS grade levels and all of that, yes. But it was very clear when I went to interview with the National Labor Relations Board, that they were under pressure to hire a black person or a minority person in this area and I think at that time, we were dealing with the order from the presidential Executive Order with regard to integrating the Federal Services. So, there was pressure. There was pressure on them to hire someone. So, I went in at the right time.
DG: Now, eventually you became city attorney for Houston. Give us the chronology after you left there to . . .
OK: O.K. After working with the National Labor Relations board, I took a job with a project called Project Happy. It was Houston Austin Planned Program for Youth. It was the Manpower Program. And that was a job that just came about because of people that I had met along the way but what I would be a good director for this program that they had gotten funded. I worked there for about two and half years, then again . . . a lot of things in my life just seemed to happen. I was not even thinking that much about getting into law school but the dean called me and said that two people had left him, had quit, without notice, without much notice, and he needed somebody, and he remembered I was a good student, would I be willing to take a job just like that? And I said, well, I have committed myself for a couple of years to this position. When I took it, I told them I would work here through until the end the program. And so, he said, “Well, can you teach part time?” I said, “Well, let me talk to the people here and see if they will allow that,” and they did. And so, I taught a class from 8 to 9, sort of on the way to work to the other job. And, again, I just really fell in love with it. The first time I walked in a classroom and started teaching, I said, oh, this is great. I like this. And so, that was kind of my beginning into the area of academia. After teaching there a couple of years, the Manpower Program sort of phased out. I went full time with the law school. Again, I decided that if I was going to teach there, I needed another experience; that it was not fair to be a TSU undergraduate, be a TSU law graduate, and then to teach at the TSU law school. That was just too much in breeding. So, at that point, I decided, well, look around and see what is available for another degree for a master’s degree or LLM. I found out about the program at Harvard, and this really fit in because at that time, I really wanted to be involved in being a trial lawyer or teaching trial law, and so this was a program that just was tailor made to that because it was then was what was called clinical legal education. I said, great. So, I applied for that, I was accepted, and went to Harvard for one year. And that was 1969, 1970, I believe? So, my thinking was that when I came back from that, I would run the legal aid program that we had at the law school but as things would happen, when I came back, I became dean of the law school. And that is a long way around but this is kind of what led on to my becoming city attorney. My good friend and roommate, fraternity brother, Andrew Jefferson, had been involved in getting me back as dean because by that time, he was a member of the board of regents. So, O.K., I became dean of the law school and, I guess, what now, we are in 1970 . . . about 1975, 1976 . . .
DG: 1970 to 1976.
OK: Right. So, 1976, I get this call. We are into the new law school building, we are all trying to get settled in there and really do a good job over there and I get this call from the mayor. Just sort of out of the blue, he says, “Otis, if you will accept it, I want to appoint you city attorney.”
DG: Which mayor?
OK: Fred Hofheinz. But I knew Jeff had been involved again because Jeff had worked as his co-campaign manager or something of that sort. So, I thought about it. I said, “Well, I am really flattered, I appreciate that, but I have to talk to the president and a couple of other people. My wife and all.” So, that was how I got appointed. I guess we are now, what, the summer of 1976? That, again, was one of those really, really great groundbreaking experiences. I sort of did not want to go at that time because I did not want to leave the law school, I said, well, you know, because I really felt like I had brought the law school along, I needed to stay here and get this functioning. But, I said, I cannot turn this down. I mean, again, I did feel the pressure that, hey, this is an opportunity for a black person show that he can function effectively, efficiently in this position and that I just will have to put aside whatever else I had in mind. Of course, I was proud to have been asked and so I did accept. Again, it was a question of O.K., what are you going to be faced with? You are going into a situation where, up until then, there had only been 1 or 2 blacks in the office of about 50 lawyers and you are going to be in charge. And I thought, I said, well, if have been able to deal with these 30 superegos of law professors, dealing with the normal superegos of regular lawyers should not be that much of a problem. And what I learned and what I found out when I got there is that people respect the position and that is what dawned on me. I said, if you occupy the position and the position of city attorney is one that is respected, one that is respected by the other lawyers, and you show you can fit into that position, you will have no problem. And that is what happened. That is what happened. I was accepted. I made some good friends there, friends who I consider friends even now, 30 years later. It turned out to be just really a good experience. Again, I got a chance to show that hey, here is a black guy who knows what he is about and I am a person who can get along with other people and do a good job. That was just, again, a great experience. I was pulled a little bit at the end because the new mayor, Jim McCann, asked me to stay on. He said, “If you would stay on as my city attorney, I would like you to do that.” And I said, “Well, I kind of promised the law school I would go back there,” and that is what I did.
DG: Any particular issues that you dealt with as city attorney that stick out in your mind?
OK: Well, of course, I dealt with the single member district case. This was a case that I was hoping would kind of be settled before it went to court because it was a case that was kind of pulling me both ways. This was the case where Moses Leroy, an old civil rights warrior, had filed a lawsuit, he and others, filed a lawsuit against the city saying that the system of the electing councilmen at large . . . all of the councilman were elected at large and although some are considered district councilman, they represented a particular area but they were voted on by the whole city. So, all 8 of them were elected at large. He said, “This is unconstitutional. We can’t have this. It is denying minorities fair participation in a fair amount of the services and the resources of the city.” And so, put in the position . . . I said, “Well, you know, I represent the city. It does not matter how I think but let me study this,” and as I studied it, I came to believe that the city was not wrong, and that the city as it existed at that time under Fred Hofheinz, was not making a distinction between areas of the city based on racial consideration. So, the more and more I got involved in it, the more I believe we could win it. But some members of the City Council thought that because of who I was and what my own personal feelings might have been, that they needed to hire someone outside of the city attorney’s office to represent the city. And I had a meeting with them and I was able to convince them that I would do a good job because I did believe that we were right on that point, but I did warn them, I said, “We will win this battle but you will lose the war because as soon as you annex some other territories and you bring in additional whites, the Justice Department is going to be on you and you are going to lose.” So, I was sort of suggesting why don’t you go ahead and let’s go with the single member district? That was why they were thinking that maybe I should not try the case. But I tried the case and it was against people I knew, people I had great respect for – Bill Lawson was one of the witnesses I had to cross-examine and Moses Leroy himself and people like that. But I had one particular day in court where as we were getting set up, I said to Mr. Leroy, I said, “Are you still fighting the good fight?” And he just looked at me and he said, “Yes.” And then, he said, “And you are, too.” And I felt very good about that, that he understood that I was doing a job and I was representing the city because basically I said, “Hey, you guys are responsible for me being here, you know, all the stuff that you have done, all of the good work you’ve done. And so, although we may be sitting on opposite sides of the table, we are really not opposing each other.” And so, that was really a good moment.
DG: I would imagine so. It is an example of civility that is not always present in public debates.
OK: That is true.
DG: You served as dean of the law school from 1970 to 1976, then from 1977 to 1980.
OK: That is correct.
DG: What do you consider to be your main accomplishments there?
OK: Well, I think that my main accomplishments were in sort of bringing the law school out of the darkness into the light. When I became dean, we were struggling with 2 classrooms, an office or so up on the 2nd floor of Hannah Hall and I really became very frustrated. We had a very little budget that all of our people wanted to pay and so I felt very frustrated that here is the reason for the creation of this entire university and yet, this law school has been totally completely neglected. And I was very, very upset about it and I made my arguments to the board, to the president, that we needed more space, we needed more money, of course, and we just had to fight. It was just a fight tooth and nail all the time. The coordinating board of higher education was trying to close us down, the legislature was trying to close us down. Everybody was saying, you know, the law school is a duplication of that at the University of Houston. And I said, “Well, how can that be since we are the senior institution?” but, you know, that argument did not go over too well with a number of people. But in any event, we started – I guess it was about 1972 or so, to fight back and say, well, we are just not going to take this. And I had reached a point where I was right at the point of resigning in protest of the way we were being treated. And I talked with some of the other faculty members and I talked with myself sort of and said, “Well, if you are going to quit anyway, why don’t you go down fighting?” So, we resorted to the old tactics. We said, O.K., we will sort of have a protest. And the students had a meeting and they decided, well, let’s march out of the law school. I went to the meeting; it was sort of a meeting of students and some of the faculty. I said, “Well, wait a minute, I am in charge, I am the dean. If we are going to do this, I will lead it.” So, I went to the meeting and said, “Hey, you know, if we are going to do this, I will be at the head of the march.” So, we marched out of the University in protest of the way we were being treated, and we held classes, I think, for 2 weeks at St. Mary’s Catholic Church at the South Central Y. And we got their attention. And we got a commitment that the University, if we came back in and settled down and everything, the University would build us a new building. And so, we were able to do that and as a result of winning that battle, a lot of other good things started to happen. We started to get more money from the Legislature. We learned how to fight our case in the Legislature. James Bullock and I would travel to Austin and make our argument. We got more money. We were able to finish filling out the faculty, getting good faculty. We got the building. And we got the enrollment up from, at the time when I was a student, I guess it was about 50 or 60 and when I first started as dean, it was about 90, and we got the enrollment up eventually to about, I guess during the time I was dean, to about 350. So, we became a real law school. We became a real law school. And I really felt that, you know, my efforts and the efforts, of course, of those who were willing to go out on a limb and risk their jobs and their reputations _______, were willing to do this and were willing to fight, and so I sort of feel that I am responsible for building the law school and bringing it to being in a position where it could become what it is now.
DG: You made a comment I would like to sort of back fill for the purpose of this project. You said that the law school is the reason the University is in existence. For people who do not know that story, would you fill in . . .
OK: Right, O.K. There was a postman named Heman Marion Sweatt who, in 1946, filed for admission to the University of Texas School of Law. During that period, the country was still under the constitutional pronouncement of separate but equal, but there was no separate facility in Texas for the study of law by black citizens. So, the law court, instead of mandating that Heman Sweatt be admitted to University of Texas sort of gave the Legislature time to deal with this. And the Legislature decided that we will create a law school. Well, there was no place to put a law school. The only black university at time was Prairie View and A&M and Prairie View was part of the A&M system, so A&M was not about to bail out the University of Texas. It said, “Oh, no, you can’t put the law school here.” So, we did have Houston College for Negroes that was functioning in Houston and had just moved into a single building, the old Fairchild Building at the site where Texas Southern is now. So, the Legislature negotiated to buy the Houston College for Negroes from the Houston Independent School District and created overnight Texas State University for Negroes and put it . . . and in the legislation creating it, gave it the power to establish all of the schools that existed at the University of Texas in Austin including the law school and the medical school. The medical school, of course, never got established because the whole thing was to get a law school. So, the law school was created but in 1950, the case was decided and the Supreme Court ruled that that facility may be separate but it is not equal. And this was the first time that the Supreme Court had ever ruled that a separate facility established by the Legislature to accommodate blacks was not equal to the state university. And so, Sweat got in anyway. So, all of a sudden now, the state has this whole law school on its hands but it did not accomplish its purpose. So, I said we were conceived in sin and born a bastard and a black bastard at that! And then, the little black bastard did not do the one thing it was created to do which was to keep Sweat out of University of Texas. He got in anyway. And so, it was a case of not benign neglect, studied neglect of the law school because the Legislature said we did not really want a law school. We did not really want a law school at that institution. We want a law school that would keep Sweat out but since he got in anyway, what are we going to do? And they said, “Well, basically, we will do nothing. We will starve it to death.” And so, when I went in, it was kind of at that point – not still being starved to death because we had managed to get a little bit of money, but living on a subsistence _______. And I felt very good about being able in the years that I was there, 10 years that I was dean, to be able to bring it into a class of being a fairly good law school.
DG: Yes, sir. One more thing I should have asked – I apologize –but your moment there with Moses Leroy, who won the case?
OK: The city won the case as I told the City Council we would but, you know, now we do have single member districts and I told them, I said, “O.K., we are going to win the battle but you are going to lose the war” because I could see that as soon as the City expanded again, that the Justice Department was going to find it in violation of the Voting Rights Act and demand that it create a single member district which is what it did.
DG: So, you left TSU. Was there a name change at the TSU Law School under your ________?
OK: Yes. While I was there, we decided that the law school should have a name, the new law school. If we were going into this building, we were going to have this dedication. There was a little bit of sentiment to name it after Sweat because I used to refer to it sometimes as the house that sweat built. And some people were pushing for that but, in my mind, Sweat had never really affiliated himself with us and, in fact, to a certain extent, had sort of cast aspersions on the school and sort of the people who worked there and sort of said, well, you should not have done that, you should have just told them no, we are not going to accept the school and keep on fighting. But, in any event, we decided that we would name it for Thurgood Marshall, but we decided that we would not name it for him unless he was willing to accept the honor and participate in the dedication. And we had some little bit of difficulty in maneuvering that. Another story here . . . that at that time, Joe Greenhill was Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. Joe Greenhill had been the lead council for the State of Texas in the Sweat v. Painter case against Thurgood Marshall who tried it for the NAACP. But, as you were talking about that civility in these trials, they had become good friends. They did not hate each other. They realized, hey Joe, you are on that side, I am on this side. And so, we asked Joe Greenhill if he would call Thurgood Marshall. So, he called Thurgood Marshall, told him it was a fine school and he ought to be honored to have it named for him. And so, we got him to come down and that was in 1976. We had this whole ceremony and he spoke at that and we named the school for him.
DG: You left TSU as dean in 1980 and this is 2008.
OK: Right. At that point, I returned to the faculty full time. My sort of parting speech was that old law professors neither die nor fade away, they become tenured members of the faculty. And so, I became a tenured member of the faculty and worked in that capacity until the year 2000. And in the year 2000, I retired but continued to work part time up until last year. So, I worked part time teaching one class until last year. And now, I am fully retired and teaching no classes in 2007-2008, and I do not think I am going to teach one for 2008-2009. That is still pending though.
DG: You have seen a lot of changes from your position within the legal profession, within this city and you played an important role in bringing about change. How would you describe the Houston of today in terms of some of the battles you have fought, in terms of some of the changes you have seen?
OK: Well, the Houston of today, I think, is a good place, a good place to be, for any ethnic group. It is certainly a good place to be for blacks, a good place to be for black attorneys. I can recall a time when I guess I was in law school, that black lawyers could not even eat in the little basement cafeteria downtown in the courthouse. And now, it is almost impossible for me to go downtown around the courthouse and not see one of my former students. And they are doing everything. Al Green, of course, who is a Congressman, is one of my former students. Craig Washington is one of my former students. So, it just makes me proud to see how far we have come during the time that I have been involved in the practice of the law and the teaching of the law. And it is a good feeling because I think that the University and particularly the law school, has had a lot to do with that.
DG: Does this city have a spirit? Does it have a culture, a personality and if so, how would you describe it?
OK: Well, I think the city does have a spirit. I think we used to characterize it as being a place where you could make it; that if you had something going for yourself as a professional or as an entrepreneur or whatever, that we have brought Houston to the place where you could make it. And while there still may be some roadblocks for minorities, they do not come even close to being the major hurdles that we had to overcome. I just don’t see that. And, in fact, I have had to change my focus. I am 73 now and I have two sons and I have grandsons, and I had to start looking at things through their eyes. And they see things entirely differently from the way I saw them and the way I was still seeing them until I said well, hey, wait a minute, wait a minute – how do they live, how do they interact every day? And I think Houston is a really good place to be. And it is hard for me to imagine that I would want to live or see them live anywhere other than here.
DG: Thank you very much.
OK: Thank you.