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Interview with: Patricia Smith Prather
Interviewed by: Vince Lee
Date: October 05, 2010
Archive Number: OH GS 0017
Vince Lee (VL): Good afternoon. We are at the African American Library today is October 5th, Tuesday, 2010. We are joined by Ms Patricia Smith Prather, and it is in the afternoon, its about 3 O’clock and this is part of the Houston Oral History Project Neighborhood Voices. Good Afternoon Mrs. Prather.
Patricia Smith Prather (PP): Good afternoon Mr. Lee.
VL: For the record could you state your full name, please?
PP: My name is Patricia Smith Prather.
VL: OK and when were you born? When and where were you born?
PP: I was born March 24th 1943 in Houston, Texas.
VL: OK and which hospital?
PP: I was born in what was then called the Houston Negro Hospital. It was one of the only hospitals where children….well it was the only hospital where Negro or African American children could be delivered. And it is now known…it still exists…and is now the Riverside Hospital.
VL: OK. Or I guess it is called Riverside General?
PP: General…Riverside General Hospital.
VL: Could you give the name of your parents? Your mother and father, please?
PP: Yes. My mother was Hortense Dugar Smith; and my father was C.F. Smith, also known as Clifford F. Smith, Jr.
VL: OK, and I see here that you had listed, I guess the area you were born in, you ended up growing up in 5th Ward. Is that correct?
Pp: I grew up in the 5th Ward Community. For the people who don’t know what the history of the wards system is, the ward system was created in about 1940 when the city was…when the government was actually set up and in order for them to get equal representation from throughout the city they set up four wards: Ward one, two, three, and four, centered on Main and Congress [Streets]. And once they figured out how to get across Buffalo Bayou—across meaning north of downtown—then the area acro…north of Buffalo Bayou became known as the 5th Ward. So as a Ward the 5th Ward joined the other Wards and had two aldermen from the 5th Ward joining the two aldermen from the other four Wards to work with the city mayor. Later on the 6th Ward was added and then they…there was a total of 6 Wards. And now we kind of refer to them as Historic Wards because the Wards system was done away with and the city council districts were set up. So I grew up in the 5th Ward, north of Buffalo Bayou.
VL: And could you tell us what some of your earliest memories of…as a child growing up in 5th Ward, or in your community?
PP: Ya, I don’t remember a long way back…uh, I remember, vaguely, my First Communion at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church; only because I have photographs of that. I remember my grandmother very well because for the first six years of my life we lived with my mother’s mother and father; well my mother’s father…ya, my mother’s mother and father, the Dugars. We lived in their house. And my father actually started his electrical business in the house of the Dugars on Luzon St. And so we lived there with them until I was, like I was about, six years old….yes because it was 1948 when my father had his own house built and then he moved his business there. Well actually he had had his business at Luzon St. and then his father’s house on Market St. he had some of his equipment there; and then when we moved to Buck St. we built…he built…our, our house. So I lived from the age of six until I graduated from high school at 4611 Buck St.
VL: OK and he…when you said your father had his house built did he actually have a contractor build…
VL: …design it according to his specifications?
PP: Yes, it was…the house was a custom built house. It was known as ‘the house of day after tomorrow’ because at that time it was one of the best electrically wired homes in the city of Houston. We had touch plate lighting, which nobody did in 1948; and every contractor including the designer…I don’t think they called him an architect…but the designer, the cabinet makers, the plumbers, the electrical people—of course—were all African American artisans. So it was a showpiece, if you will, for African American artistry, at the time.
VL: Did you get a lot of visitors….I mean, even thought it was your home and your father’s home…did you get a lot of visitors coming by…
PP: Ya, we did…
PP: Yes, we actually did and certainly the kids would come in and they would marvel over the fact that they could just touch that plate and the lights would come on. And he even further engineered it into the white plates and the black plates. The black plates actually turned on the outside lights. So it was, it was, quite a marvel.
VL: Could you tell us a little bit about maybe the exterior/interior of the house? What it looked like?
PP: Ya, the house still exists, happily. And we don’t own it anymore but we know the owner. The house started off as a….I believe a brick house, I mean a…I don’t remember the name of it, but a wood house…but that’s not what they called it, but anyways it started off wooden. And not long after we….we…we…he built the house something called ‘Permastone’ came out and Permastone was like a simulated brick. It was very popular in the ‘50s. And so the family had the Permastone added to their house and as I said the house still exists, the house is in excellent shape. I actually used it for three years as a community history center. And the original wooden floors were still there, all of the initial cabinetry that was built by these African American artisans was there. So it was a fine house.
VL: I noticed that you went to school…you were….Phillis Wheatleywas your high school?
PP: Uh huh.
VL: And then you went on to college at Tuskegee. What was your elementary? Which elementary school did you go to?
PP: OK, I started at the Catholic school. We were members of Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School. And I went there until we….until we… what we called junior high. And junior high was a place, a school called E.O. Smith Junior High. And then I left there and I went to Phillis WheatleySenior High, and graduated from there. And then I went on to Tuskegee and got a degree in Biology. And then came back to Houston and worked for the Houston Medical Center and then I never had the biology in my life again. That was my only experience.
VL: I was going to say you have a very interesting career in terms of what the degree you initially went in for, and then actually what…
PP: What actually happened.
VL: …what actually happened.
PP: Well you know, surprisingly enough, I wanted to be a geneticist, back when most of my peers didn’t know what a genetics person was. But I was very interested in flowers and plants. And somehow I found that you could cross breed plants. Of course having parents that were able and willing to do what the two children, there were only two of us, wanted to do, my father went out and actually built me a hydroponics tank.
And I came to the Houston Public Library, well I went to the Houston Public Library downtown on the Nance bus. In those days you could travel by bus by yourself and go all over the city and you didn’t have to worry too much about being…being bothered. And so whenever my parents would let me, I’d get on the bus and go down to the Julia Idelson Build…Idelson? Idelson? Ideson Building and I spent many hours there. So I have always loved libraries. I have always loved learning about, at that time, whatever the subject was. And the subject at that time was I wanted to learn as much about plants…particularly plants….as I could, at the time.
VL: OK, and I’m sure your father had a big influence on that coming from an electrical engineer and science background.
PP: Right. He…he…he supported, and of course he didn’t have any sons, so whatever his daughters wanted to do, pretty much, if he could afford it, he would…he would get it done.
VL: Just going back to the school, could you give us a timeline of when you attended the…I’m sorry…
PP: Wheatley High School?
VL: Wheat…The Catholic School, and then E.O. Smith, and then your years at Wheatley?
PP: I’m not sure I can…
VL: Or just an approximation.
PP: Approximate time? I was born in ’43 so let’s assume I went to the first grade in… 43, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…48 or 49 and stayed there until middle school which was another, maybe, 4 years or maybe 5…ya, probably 5.
VL: This was E.O. Smith was the middle school?
PP: This was E.O. Smith, to the middle school. And then I actually went, I remember the year that I went to Wheatley High School and that was in 1956. And then I graduated in the class of 1960. So that was very easy to remember. That I graduated in, you know, and easy
VL: Nice round…
PP: Even…Round numbered year.
But when I went to school everything was segregated. I mean everything. We didn’t….I never went to school with anybody except fellow African American students. Even the Latino students who were here in Houston at the time, did not go to school with the black children. There were in fact, in some instances, there was a school for African Americans, a school for Latinos, and a school for whites—or Anglos. So, and I never had any Anglo teachers, even Catholic school, even the nuns were…were…were African American. So I never had any Anglo teachers. Actually in most…in most of my whole formal education; because there were very few Anglo teachers at Tuskegee. I don’t remember any in the 60s. There probably were but I don’t remember them.
And so…and I…to revert back to my community, the same with my community, there was never any reason, other then to come to the library or to go downtown to the five and dime store…there was never any reason to leave our communities because they were self contained. Every thing that we needed as young African American students were in our individual communities.
We’ve identified maybe ten communities within Houston where blacks were concentrated: the wards (because by that time most of the whites had moved to the suburbs and left the inner-city, pretty much) [were] pretty much populated by African Americans, and then you had places like Acres Homes, South Side—Sunny Side, I’m sorry, ya the Sunny Side community, you had a little community called Piney Point. And all these little communities had their own schools, churches, and businesses. Now some of them were so small, like Piney Point, that those students had to be bussed to this community where we are now—Fourth Ward. But for the most part every community had its own educational system.
Of course every community had a Baptist Church and a Methodist Church. Every community. Now the community like in 5th Ward which was larger, we had Catholic, Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, CME, which at the time was Colored Methodist Episcopal—it’s… they changed that. Episcopalian—no! I’m sorry we didn’t have Episcopalian in the…in the… in the 5th Ward, we had Presbyterian. Presbyterian and Church of Christ, which I think had another name when I was growing up. So, all of your churches were represented except for Episcopalian, as far as I know, were in that 5th Ward Community. And now that community has about ten churches that still exist that are over 100 years old. So the churches were the…the churches were the anchors of those communities. And there was no reason for us to leave them. Because we were safe there. Nobody came in there to hurt us—it was unthinkable.
VL: Growing up in this community, going back, who would you say were your role models or who influenced you growing up? Whether it be living in the community or attending school. Could you name some of those people?
PP: Sure I can. Matter of fact, I would say that 99% of the people that influenced me were in my community. Maybe 95% because we were a little more global then most people because my father did have a fellow electrical contractor that lived in Austin that would come and visit us when they would do dual jobs; but for the most part my role models were right there.
One of my best role models was a woman named Brooks. We called her Mrs. Brooks. Her name was Mildred Brooks. She was the biology teacher. And I literally loved her. And she was the one that allowed me to start a science club, I think, I’m sure I was the president of it. We took trips…field trips… We-we were in the lab having lunch, I mean literally I lived in the science lab looking through a microscope. Looking at little bitty microorganisms under there. I was fascinated with that. Because at that time we still had ditches and you could go in the ditches in 5th Ward and you could pick up some dirty green water and it was teaming with life! And I was so excited about that. So, I spent a lot of time with Mildred Brooks….she had a real influence on my life.
VL: And what school did Mrs. Brooks teach?
PP: This was at Wheatley High School.
VL: Wheatley High School? OK
PP: I don’t…the only role model that I can really remember from middle school was Nellye Joyce Punch. She was a very looming figure for everybody.
VL: And she was a teacher at…
PP: She was a teacher at E.O. Smith Middle School. Oh, uh, at that time it was called E.O. Smith Junior High School. And she was very influential with a lot of people. I grew up with people like Congressman…who because a congressman….Mickey Leland. And so…so she was, she was, she was the role model that I remember in middle school. Now in high school it was Mrs. Brooks. And, you know, there were other teachers that I liked…one was the counselor, her name was Mrs. Plummer—and her son and my…my sister and I were all very good friends. And she was influential because she was the counselor and back then the counselor’s role was to work closely with the students who were college bound. And to make sure that they had the right classes so that they would be ready for college.
In those days there were problems…there were problem students…there are always going to be problem students. Because I remember specifically going into the assembly one day and the boys were all made to empty their pockets and there was a box full of…of uh…of pocket…pocket knives. So all the guys back then….a lot of the guys…I didn’t that then, but I know it now because I have talked to them, carried pocket knives. ‘Cause there was some dangers out there. And of course that was part of their manhood. But I don’t know of any girls that were…were having to carry pocket knives at that time.
But those were my two major role models: the counselor and the biology teacher.
VL: O.K. and I noticed that in our previous discussions Girl Scouting also played a big part in your life.
PP: Girl Scouting played a tremendous part in my life. Because Girl Scouting gave us something extra. As I said we were stuck in our communities. One of the stories that I might as well tell now is, the story that sticks out most in our minds that are my age, was that there was a major amusement park in Houston called Playland Park. And Playland Park was situated way, from us, way out South Main. Probably where the Astrodome is now; but that was a long way from us. Well, Playland Park was closed to Negroes. We couldn’t go there. You know, and it was a huge park. I mean, it was, you know, it had the roller coaster and it had the ferris wheel, and the bumper cars, and just a, you know, an amusement park. But we were only allowed to go there on one day a year. And that one day a year was Juneteenth. They would close the park to…to…to all Anglos and whites and they would open it up for us. And we were told they would make more money that one day then they would make all year. But never the less, because we didn’t have an experience with an amusement park in Houston, we would go to that amusement park. So that was really one of the only…only outlets that we could have in the city of Houston for recreation where we could….outside of our community—now the other recreation I’ll get back to the scouts…the other recreation was that we had “sock hops”, and I’ll talk about that when I get to the Hester House.
But the Girl Scouts…I started in the Girl Scouts with my mother being leader and a couple of her friends, when I was a Brownie. So that means I started probably 9 years old.
VL: Can you explain what a Brownie is?
PP: OK the Brownie is the first level of scouting, for girls. You are a little Brownie Scout and you have your little brown uniform on. We had little brown beanies and that was our first experience.
VL: And how old were you again?
PP: About 9.
PP: I that’s when, I think that’s when they took us in. And of course as Brownies what we did was basically crafts. You know, little hand crafts and maybe we had little cookouts at Finnigan Park, which was the park in our…in the 5th Ward. The one park. We had little cookouts where they taught us how to cook outside, and how to build a fire, and how to gather the wood, and we learned a lot of songs. We sang a whole lot of songs…I still know most of them! We did a lot of singing and…
PP: [Cont’d] …just a lot of fellowship. And of course we had to learn all the lore…whatever it was of the Girl Scouts at the time. We had our little Brownie Handbook. And that little Brownie Handbook told us what to do. I don’t really remember what it was, specifically, that we did as Brownies—other then have a lot of fun. But when we got to the next level and we became Girl Scouts, and I don’t remember the names of the…the levels, but then we moved from the brown uniforms into a green uniform. We still had the little green beanies. But this was when we…we…we st…we really started doing things.
I think…the…the thing that stands out in my mind—I had, I think I gave it to you all but…but if I didn’t I will eventually—the…the thing that I really enjoyed, cause I was always very c-competitive and lead…had leadership abilities, and this was where I got all these leadership abilities or I got them honed. Because I LOVED earning merit badges! I mean I just loved it. I had probably more merit badges then anybody in my troop. And I worked hard at it; and of course most of them had to do with nature. So, of course, it all worked out. You know, uh, merit badges had a…had…were…were…were…had a step. So you learn a lot from scouting. I mean scouting doesn’t tout itself enough because I learned all my leadership skills from there. Not only….you know, you…you got a handbook…you have, you have re-requirements to get that badge. You didn’t just get that badge, you had…you have to read a book, or you have to go out and gather specimens or you have to…whatever you had to do. You know it was a 10, 12, maybe 14 step, process. So that taught you organization. And so the—the badges were my absolute favorite part of Girl Scouting.
My second favorite part of Girl Scouting came when I got older and that was in the ‘50s when we got our own Girl Scout Camp. Even the Girl Scouts… OK the Girl Scouts were segregated. You had African American Girl Scout Troops and you had Anglo Girl Scout Troops. I don’t think we had Latino Girl Scout Troops here in Houston. But the…the Anglo…the Anglo Girl Scout Organization let us have troops but they wouldn’t let us go camping with their girls. We couldn’t go camping with the Anglo Girls. So a group of black men…four black, well-to-do, black men in Houston decided they would buy, I’d say 100 acres of land, I’m saying….I…I don’t know what the acreage was but a large plot of land in a place called Willis, Texas which is about 40 miles north of Houston. And they decided they would buy this property, and so we could have our own camp. And a matter-of-fact we named it. I didn’t, but I know the girl who named Camp Robin Wood.
Well that changed our entire life because now we could get a real camping e-experience. We weren’t just having little day camps and building fires…now we were sleeping in tents, we were taking baths outside, we were…we didn’t have a swimming pool, we were hiking, we were cooking outside. We were away from our parents for a week. So it was…it elevated Girl Scouting to another level. And I can say that probably my happiest times in high school…because I wasn’t even embarrassed about it, you know when you’re wearing a uniform in high school, and the kids tease you because you’re different…that didn’t even bother me. That didn’t even faze me because I enjoyed the Girl Scouts. I enjoyed the Girl Scouts so much that when I got out of college I became a Girl Scout leader. Stayed a leader for years and then after that I became a board member of the Girl Scouts of Harris County. So I mean I loved the Girl Scouts.
That was…the other thing you learned in the Girl Scouts was leadership skills. As I said I already had natural leadership skills because my mother would always have to pull me back, kinda say ‘well let somebody else have a chance’ because I just had that aggressiveness and I wanted to be in front. So the leadership, I probably had leadership skills, but they were honed in Girl Scouting. And we had Girl Scout meetings…we kept…I still have the books, I just found them the other day. I’m going to bring them too. We…we had little ledger book, you know, we paid .10 cents a week or however often we met…and we had the names… So you know, you learned record keeping, and leadership, and…and…and organization, and being away from your parents, and…and uh some type of independence.
VL: Sounds like you learned a lot of life skills that carried over.
PP: A lot of life skills. A lot of life skills. So, that was my…that was my favorite activity growing up. My second favorite activity, well maybe there were on the same level, was swimming. I loved to swim. I mean I learned to swim at the Julia C. Hester House which is now celebrating…however old I am. I…it…the Julia C. Hester House opened the same year I was born, 1943. And they…the Julia C. Hester House had a swimming pool. It was the only swimming pool, public swimming pool, nobody had private swimming pools, it was the only public swimming pool in 5th Ward. However, Wheatley High School had a…an indoor swimming pool. But I learned to swim at the Hester House as a younger girl. I would say, again, 9—10 years old. We…we learned to swim, my sister and I, learned to swim there. And the sw…we had competitions and won medals, and you know, so forth at the Hester House. So by the time she and I got to high school we were, we were, we were accomplished swimmers. So when we got to high school we joined the high school swim team.
VL: Could you describe a little bit about the Hester House? Is it still in existence?
PP: It still exists. The Hester House was a community center. It probably was the first community center in the city of Houston where black children could go.
VL: And it is located where?
PP: It is located in the 5th Ward…it is located uh, on Solo St. It’s located not far from where Barbara Jordan spent a lot of her younger years. It was…it’s…it’s also located near Atherton School which was one of the real popular uh…uh…elementary schools. I didn’t go there because, as I said, I went to Catholic school. But a whole lot of my friends, I think Mickey Leland, they all went to Atherton. And the Hester House was right across the street from Atherton School. On the side of the Hester House was the orphanage for African American children. And it was run by DePelchin. And so there was this little complex. But basically the Scout things kept on going, because at the Hester House we also learned crafts. You know? We all… we did a lot of crafting, building little belts and learned how to weave belts and tool…use the tools to make leather things and ceramics. So the Hester House was a…was basically another place where we could go learn skills, have fun learning skills, learn to swim, swim competitively, among ourselves.
And for those kids whose parents would let them go, mine wouldn’t, cause they were very strict on us as girls, they had the Friday afternoon “Sock hops”. They were very popular…uh, very popular.
VL: What are the “Sock Hops”? Could you explain a little bit about…
PP: Sock Hops where were teenagers could go on a Friday and they could dance. And…and that was back when they still had the old, small, 45 RPM records. You probably don’t even know what that is. They were about this big around and they had a hole in the center. And you…you put them on the turn table, and you know that was back when Sam Cook was popular and this was Motown days. So there was a lot of great music when we were growing up. I mean. And it was all produced by people who were just a little bit older then we were. Diana Ross is the same age I am. But because, you know, she was a star, I always thought she was older. But I come to find out she was…Aretha Franklin is my age. But they were hot, you know, so they all made these little 45 RPMs, that sold for like maybe .99 cents, then….I…if that much. And so they would do the same thing they do now. They would get what they call a DJ who’d get on the stage—they had one large room at the Hester House…like an auditorium and it had a kitchen with it. And then they had all these little smaller rooms for crafts and…and other things that they were doing there. But on Friday nights, you know, they would clear all the chairs and they would make a big dance floor out of it. And the kids would take their shoes off—I don’t know where because like I said I didn’t go—but they would actually dance in their socks. To this music. And I…I found out later, from others that went, that a lot of times fights would break out after it was over, and so that’s why our parents wouldn’t let us go there.
But again, you have to understand that in a segregated society, there are only a…a few things you can do: you can go to school, you can go to church, and you may go to grandma’s house, and you have your friends. But that’s…it’s a very self contained community. There are a few businesses there. And so when you got a chance to go to a Sock Hop that was moving up to another level. When you got a chance to go an amusement park once a year…
Fortunately my parents was very…my parents were more progressive and had a little bit more money than…than some of the other families so we had another form of recreation; my mother like to get…to travel. And so we would get into Daddy’s pick-up, my Daddy had about 7 or 8 trucks at the time, for his business, the C.F. Smith Electric Company. So we could take a truck and we could travel Texas roads. They had friends in Austin, the other man who was an electrical contractor. They had another fr…another set of friends in a little place called Mart, TX. which was not far from Waco…and we’d go to visit them and we would spend….my sister and I would even spend the summers there. So, we weren’t… we weren’t bound to this world of segregation as closely as some of the other kids. We had a chance to travel and get out of the city, and my mother liked to travel. So, so we were able…we were mobile and we had a car.
The other thing is my father usually kept a really nice car, in addition to the trucks. And so we had one of the first ’98 Oldsmobile’s that I could remember. It was a fancy thing. And when we traveled in it the white policemen would stop us and ask my dad if his boss had let him have the car for the weekend because it was unheard of for a black man to have a car like that in the 50s. So of course he would say ‘yes, my boss man let me drive this car for, you know, for the weekend.’ Because safety was of a concern and so you did whatever you needed to do to keep your family safe. And you said ‘yes sir’ and you bowed down…and I’m sure…it was….I’m sure it was humiliating. My…my father said it was humiliating for him to talk to his clients and say my kids can’t go to Playland Park. He said it was humiliating for us to be taking Sunday rides, that’s the other thing we would do, we would take Sunday rides because, of course, we had a car…so we’d either visit somebody or ride out to the country, maybe have a picnic at a roadside park. And…our life was…our life was happy. You know what I mean? We knew what the restrictions were. And we didn’t…we didn’t…we didn’t fight the restrictions. You know, we knew we had to drink out of a colored…colored water fountain. And so it wasn’t humiliating to us…we were children. But I’m sure it was very humiliating to my…my parents.
We had, my mother and…my mother and my grandmother, believed that we should have the best of shoes. Shoes were important to them. So we could go to a place called Neiman Marcus, which was a…was a restricted to black people but they would sell you shoes if you were willing to endure the indignity of waiting until all the white customers had been served. And then once all the white customers had been served then they would buy…sell you shoes.
VL: And this could be like way ‘til like the end of the day or something?
PP: Well, usually it wasn’t ‘cause I’m sure they would take us in the week, mid…you know, mid-week or whatever, because my mother was a housewife. And when it wasn’t too crowded. I don’t ever remember waiting a long time, but once again, it was humiliating for my mother to be…have…she’s got the same money to buy these shoes; but she was willing to put up with the humiliation so that we could have the best of shoes. So there were things that were really important to us. Good teeth…believe it or not. And good feet! And so they would do whatever they had to do to give you those little amenities. And of course those were amenities in those days. ‘Cause not a lot of people had a lot of money. And we had…we…not only did we have a little bit more money then most people, we had a very frugal mother who could really manage money. A matter of fact she had gone to college to take home economics. So she was…she was very good at managing the house. And we had less children. So we were…we were better off…
Oh! The other thing I wanted to say about housing….some people perceived that black people, back in the day, in our day, lived in row houses. A lot of people falsely re…believe that that’s where we lived. But that is a false assumption for people who never came to our communities. We lived in regular houses and many times those houses were built by us. You know, we had our own carpenters and builders and so forth and so on. The row houses were lived in by renters.
VL: Oh, OK.
PP: So what would happen is some white guy would come in and build a row house, a set of row houses and then he would collect rent from all of these people and that’s how the row house came to be. But it was rental property. But people like myself, my father, businessmen, the… the medical doctors—oh the medical doctors had fine ho—houses. My house wasn’t fine, it was just well built. But there were…there were other people who had two story brick houses that was a big deal. You know, like Gladys Ford’s house. See, Gladys Ford had a two story house because her father was a doctor and because they entertained a lot. There was no place for us to go for entertaining, we couldn’t go to the hotels downtown. So we…we…we took that restrictiveness and made it work. We didn’t sit around and cry ‘oh boo hoo hoo I can’t go to the Rice Hotel’. It’s like, I can’t go to the Rice Hotel, I have to entertain my friends so I’ll entertain ‘em at home. Or, in the case of the Protestant Churches they would en…they would have church entertainment halls. And so that’s how…but…but like…as I said, I’m not trying to prove to anybody that we were unhappy. But we weren’t unhappy we were just restricted.
VL: So the row houses that we find in the communities such as Freedman’s Town and in the Fifth Ward, those were occupied mostly by tenants and…
VL: …then the owners of…owners of homes actually had their own homes built?
PP: …homes built, for the most part…if you remember looking in the Red Book and you see where W.L. Davis lived, who was the principle of Gregory School, was a fine two story house with a garden…you know they talked about the garden and how he had a garden, a rose garden. And every day he would have a rose in his lapel. And every day he was dressed in a suit. But that’s not the image that the outside world had of us. The outside world was seen through the eyes probably of those people who came in and collected that rent.
VL: The landlords of the…
PP: The landlords. And so…and e-even in this community, which is Freedman’s Town, the….the…the people who owned the homes, they left. And they left the people who were renting and that’s how all the Italians and other people who…who owned the houses, that’s how they ended up owning all the property out here, because it was rental property. But the people who had their own homes they either died or moved out. So that’s one major perception of the African American community that I try to put to rest whenever I can. We did not live in row houses. Row houses were rental property. The rest of us lived in houses that we built. Frenchtown, which I…I…I don’t think I took you to Frenchtown…where a lot of the Creole French from Louisiana came out of…they were all from builders…they were all carpenters. So they…’you need a house? OK, we’ll get over there on a Sunday and we’ll… How many rooms you need?’ You know, they didn’t have any plans…they just knew how to build rooms. So they would build the rooms…the…the…the wives would fix food and beer. And they would build a house on…on a weekend. And they’d go back to work.
VL: I wanted to uh, run back on one question in regards to uh, the Girl Scouting. You said land was actually purchased for uh, African American schoolgirls to be…have a place to go for Girl Scouting. Do you know the gentlemen that had purchased the land? Or…
PP: I do.
VL: The four gentlemen you had mentioned earlier?
PP: Ya, I can’t call all of their names right now…one was Mr. Jemison—whose name you know very well.
VL: Oh, J. H. Jemison
PP: J. H. Jemison.
VL: Of the Franklin Beauty School.
PP: One was, I believe Carter Wesley who owned the Houston Informer. One was the man who owned the El Dorado Ballroom Club, Mr. C. A. Dupree. And I forgot the fourth one. But they were all prominent business men.
And to just show you how mean spirited the Girl Scouts were…they took the land, the land’s probably worth millions now. They took the land [and] it became a property….the men…the men deeded it to the Girl Scouts….they took the land and it became a…a…a San Jacinto Girl Scout camp. The white girls could go there, but they would go there when we weren’t there. In other words, if the…they…one week was for the white girls to go…because it was the Girl Scouts’ camp…so even with the fact that the black men gave the camp, the camp itself was still segregated. And…and I think that’s just very mean spirited.
VL: Now, when you said “they took” was it the city or the government…
PP: No, no! They didn’t take. I’m sorry. The four men bought the property and then they deeded it over to the Girl Scouts. They deeded it over to the Girl Scouts so it became an official Girl Scout camp. But they only did it to al…to have a place for us to go and camp. Because the…the Girl Scout council would not let us camp at their sites.
VL: But it ended up being, even though they gave it…it ended up being…
PP: But even though they gave it to the land…
PP: …they still segregated the…the campers on that…
VL: What would you say your experiences or… perhaps role would be, as I know that, you…you said you’d graduated from Wheatley in 1960…
VL: …and I think that’s right towards the beginning of the…well I’m sure it started earlier but the beginning of what we know as the Civil Rights Movement?
VL: What were your experiences, whether in high school or even college…with that occurrence of those events?
PP: Well, I actually had no experience in high school. Because the…the…the Brown V. Board of Education decision was made in 1954. And because they said you…you can integrate with all due….there’s a name for it….all due…there is a name for it….but anyway….uh…they…the states and the cities could do it on their time. There was no time table for integrating these schools. With all deliberate speed was the word. You can integrate your schools with all deliberate speed. Well, they didn’t give you a time frame so of course what did the southern states do? Well, they didn’t give us a time table so we won’t integrate. So I was still in high school…you know, I wasn’t even in high school in ’54 but I was in…I was in high school in ’56…but none of the schools in Houston had integrated by that time. So the Civil Rights Movement had no effect on us.
Now after I left they s-l-o-w-l-y started. They started at the first grade; they integrated the first grade, I don’t know what year that was, but probably 60…late 50s…early 60s they integrated the first grade of all the schools. And then they integrated the second grade of all the schools. So, ‘deliberate speed’?
PP: So I was not affected at all. Now when I got to…when I got to Tuskegee, now I’m in Alabama now…
VL: Oh! By the way what…what…what made, what was the decision that prompted you to choose Tuskegee over, let’s say, any other…
PP: Any other school…
VL: Any other schools…local…
PP: OK because my father graduated from Tuskegee.
PP: And my father had been given a national alumni award when we were in high school. And we had an occasion to go to Tuskegee with him; and of course I was just enamored with the campus. And Booker T. Washington had started the school and it has this beautiful campus on rolling hills, all the buildings were beautiful, had been built by, you know, black artisans back when the kids….but the kids actually built the school back in the 1880s and afterwards, so, ya…I just…I just wanted to go there ‘cause I…it was one of the only black schools I saw. Texas Southern hadn’t started yet. Prairie View was available but I just…I wanted to go to…to Tuskegee. So that makes….I think I just went ‘cause my dad had gone there and it was such a beautiful place and it was way to get miles and miles away from authority [laughs].
But the Civil Rights Movement when I was there…1960…was relatively quiet. Let’s see….the sit-ins started, I want to say 62…something like that…or…but we didn’t…we didn’t have an occasion to have sit-ins there because Tuskegee was the…was the…was the town; and even though there was some restrictions, once again, I mean, we had our own hallway [where] we ate, we had our own theatre where we could go see movies, we had our own everything. So it wasn’t really an issue. But now later on when Martin Luther King and all of them started marching in Selma, Alabama and places like that, I had already left.
VL: You had already left Tuskegee.
PP: See, I had already left.
PP: So, I…I wasn’t really that involved. Now they had started some marches while I was there but my dad called and told us not to be marching and that was the end of that. My father said…told my…my sister…by that time my sister had joined me. And he didn’t want us marching; and he told us why. I won’t say it on camera but he…he didn’t want us marching…and so he didn’t want us to march and so we didn’t march. So the Civil Rights…the Civil Rights Movement didn’t really hit me smack in the face until I got to Washington, DC and Martin Luther King was killed. Now, that’s when it hit me smack in the face. Because I’m in Washington, DC, it’s 1967…
VL: And what were you doing in DC? Uh, what was your job then?
PP: OK, when I left Tuskegee I went to Washington, DC and immediately started getting into public relations. I believe my first job there was working for something called a National Business League. And the National Business League was a national organization of black businessmen that had been started by Booker T. Washington. And the man that hired me was just so enamored with me because I had been to Tuskegee and I had this contact with Booker T. Washington, not really but you know, the whole…uh…and so I was hired to handle their public relations. And I didn’t know what public relations was.
But because I’m a self starter and asked a lot of questions…there was a lot of older guys then me. They taught me how to write press releases and how to deal with the press and how to have press conferences. And so that was my job, I worked for the National Business League for about…I don’t know…three…four years. And every body who was anybody that was black in America came through there, including Jackie Robinson. I mean it was just….it was just teaming with business men from all over the country. You know, men who had traveled…would travel and come…go to the national conventions. I…I also would set up the press operations at the national conventions. So I met everybody!
I met all of the first black men who got job offers in the government. You know, appointed positions. And this was when, who was in office? Who was the president? I guess Nixon. Let’s see…[Pause] But anyway I…I met all of those people through the National Business League. Because the National Business League was kinda like the hub of…of all the business men in…in America…so it…it really raised my self esteem in terms of being able to deal with high level people. And I used to go to…I remember I went to the hearings when Adam Clayton Powell was on the hot seat for doing something. I think they finally kicked him out of congress. But I was there. And so I was kind of a wide eyed, young, person who was thrust into this world of high level black men. Mostly men. And so I just got…I just never looked back once I started doing public relations I was in a city of public relations; it was in a city of press…press conferences—every day there was a press conference in Washington, DC. And so…and I got a…I got my press license… or whatever…press badge. So once you get your press badge you can go to everything. So I used to go to everything that was going on in DC where press could get in. All your big $100.00 a plate dinners back when… $1000.00 a plate dinners…That was a long time ago, that was 30—40 years ago. So that’s when I…I think my….I was never a shy person, but I believe that’s where my leadership abilities started to…to bubble up. Because I had to deal with these people on a daily basis. I…then I worked…the final…I…ya, I think the job before I came to Washington…back to Houston…was I worked for something called the National…well I worked for the Republican National Committee.
PP: And the way I got that job was really interesting. Uh…a man named Arthur Fletcher, who had been named the first assistant Secretary of Labor—ever, I think, ever. You know, as a black man. Was a powerful man, he was a ….just as tall…football player build, very demanding, commanding voice, very commanding presence; and my dad used to talk about him all the time because my dad was involved in some Washington things and he also admired Mr. Arthur Fletcher. Well I was in a conference and Mr. Arthur Fletcher was one of the presenters. And uh, I said gee I’d like to work for that man. I was looking for a job. And I had my resume with me and so I just walked up to the podium and I said, “Mr. Fletcher I’m looking for a job, can you help me?” And he said, “sure come see me next week”. And he hired me! He was looking for somebody to run his office at the Republican National Committee—he was a consultant for them by this time, he was no longer the Secretary of la….uh the Secretary of…Assistant Secretary of Labor. And so he was looking…he was a consultant for the Republican National Committee back when they were trying to expand to get more blacks in the party. I mean, they were really trying to get more blacks in the party.
VL: Within their base, right.
PP: Right. And I mean, they were, it’s not like they were lip servicing, they were really trying. So they started something called the National Black Republican Council. And I was the one that did all the work. You know, I…I… I produced a newsletter that went all over the country, I collected dues, I was like the Executive Secretary of the National Black Republican Council. And that got me in contact with a whole lot more people who were in….matter of fact Mr…Mr. Fletcher asked me one day, every time he told me to call somebody I knew them, and he said, “how do you know all these people?” Because when I was at the…when I was at the…uh, National Business League Office, it was the same people. Because these were all your elite business men from all over America and they were the natural group of people to come into the Republican Party because the Republican Party’s…the Republicans were very comfortable with these men who they used to dealing with. They’re used to dealing with business people and high level people. So it was the right fit. So that’s what I did in Washington, basically I was involved in politics and the media.
And then when I moved back to Houston I had to have a job. So I took a job with the Exxon…it was not Exxon…Mobil then. And that was in 1977. I moved back to Houston…
VL: How long were you in Washington prior to that, would you say?
PP: I was there from 1965 until 1977.
VL: A good 12 years then.
PP: Ya, so I was there, I was really a part of it…matter…matter of fact I ran into Mickey Leland when I was leaving, he was…he had just…he was just going in. I didn’t know Barbara Jordon because she was so much older than I was. Although I did meet her and I did talk with her because I was from Texas, but I didn’t really know her. But I knew Mickey Leland very well and so he had just been elected from the 18th Congressional district and he said, “why don’t you stay here and work for me because you already know, you know, the scene.” But by that time I had made up my mind it was time for me to come back home because my parents were getting up, what I considered [up in] age and I just wanted to be closer to them.
VL: OK, I was going to say what was your turning point or decision in terms of going…leaving Washington?
PP: Leaving Washington? Well part of it was I was getting divorced. So it was a great time for me to make a move. That was…that was…you know, that was…there were two reasons…I needed to get back home and I was…my…my marriage had fallen apart. So I came back to Houston. And I needed a job because I left my house up there and I needed a job so…uhhhh…believe it or not George Bush, who was the head of the Republican Party at the time, wrote a letter for me to Exxon…
VL: And this was George Bush, Sr? Was it?
PP: Uh-huh. So you know, somebody like George Bush, Sr….And that’s how I got in. I don’t hide it.
VL: And your position at Exxon/Mobil was?
PP: I was…uh, well I, when I first….I was…I was still in Public, I was still in Public Relations, in the Press Corp. And I became the first African American to be an editor of one of their publications. So I was a writer. I was a…I was always a writer. I was… I always had a newsletter, even when I was with the National Business League. I used to put out a newsletter every morning when we had conventions. And then I had that National Black Republican….then I had something called Black Viewpoint that I was doing independently, where I was sending information about African Americans in Washington all over the country. So I was always writing. Never had a writing class, to this day, it was just a gift. And so, you asked me how did I get from Biology to what I do? It’s…I think it was just a gift. And once I realized I had the gift, and people kept paying for the gift, you know…here’s somebody who can write like the…like…like of course Exxon was glad to have somebody like me because all their people were…were uh…were engineers. And they didn’t have anybody in there who was not an engineer but had a technical background. And so I could go in and I could interview them and I understood because I had had science background, I could talk their language.
VL: And break it down.
PP: And break it down to something that the lay-person could understand. So that worked out really well. And I would have stayed there except that I didn’t like corporate America. It was too confining and I didn’t like it. But I stayed for six years. And it allowed me to buy another house. I never looked back [laughs]. And then, let’s see, I left Exxon and then what did I do? I guess…what did I do?
VL: Tell me…tell me a little bit [about] how you got into being a historian. That…that…that whole shift…
PP: OK, oh, OK ya, that’s right…OK…
VL: and the Texas Trailblazers.
PP: OK…that’s…OK…that…that…that’s…I’m glad you asked that question because I…you know…you’re not used to talking about your life and you forget what you did. OK What I did was, I left Exxon and by this time I had my own house. And I…my mother died. I was 40…I was 40 years old.
VL: Do you know…do you know what year or the date was? If you can remember?
PP: Ya, it was, uh…27 years ago…27 from 2010.
VL: OK, so that would have been…
PP: [Murmuring, counting]
PP: It was…Ya, 80…83.
PP: 83. 1983 my mother died very unexpectedly, had an aneurism. And my…my father was…was devastated. And so I decided I would go to work with my dad. So I worked at the C. F. Smith Electric Company. And what I did was run the office. Ya know, kept the books. Uh, made all the contacts with the public about jobs. Actually set up the jobs with the guys. Scheduled jobs. And did all the paperwork, did all the banking work, worked with CPAs, opened us an account at one of the local banks to try to get us some business there. Wrote…wrote contracts for bigger jobs. So…
VL: So you were administration basically? You…
PP” So I was…I was the administrator of C. F. Smith Electric Company. And I did that from 19…what did I say? 1983 until he died in 1989. But in the meantime I had a lot of time on my hands when I was working for my dad. And a lot of the people that we worked for were old…women. The way I got into history was, the ladies didn’t have bank accounts and so whenever they needed to pay they would call up and ask someone to go pick up the money. And I happened to be the person.
And I started going to their houses and seeing books and old stuff, and papers, and you know….I had a little interest in history because my mother had taken us to Louisiana and told us who we were. And plus I had that interest in genealogy, I mean…interest in…biol…what did I say? Genetics. And so I had a little interest in genetics and I had a little interest in genealogy, because my mother had taken us, when we were in high school, to Louisiana to meet our people—so we would know who we were. So I had at least that connection to history.
So I guess that was just enough for me to start asking these ladies “what is that” and “what is that” and “what is that” and “let me read this” and “let me have that”. And I just got interested in what…what these older women had been through in 5th Ward. You know, what churches they belonged to, what kind of business their dad…that their husbands were in. I remember…the first lady I met’s husband was a printer and she didn’t have any children. And she had this very rare book…she had a Red Book, it was the first time I had ever seen The Red Book printed in 1915. She had it and I was just enamored with that book. I had never seen anything like it. And she was going to give it to me but the minister of her church got the word that it was out and of course he wanted it. So she didn’t give it to me but it turned me onto the fact that we didn’t all live in row houses, we weren’t all poor. Because now I’m seeing doctors and lawyers and business people and laundresses and I’m seeing all these peop…and these houses that these people had in The Red Book, and it just opened up a whole different world to me.
And so, one day I was having lunch with a friend and I was just so excited about all these women that I knew and all this information and I…”so what are you going to do with the information?” And I said, “I don’t know it’s just information.” I was just glad to have it. So she said, “why don’t you tell somebody about it.’’ I said, “OK. I will.” So I called up the Chronicle. [Laughs] You know, go for it! And so when I first went to the Chronicle they told me “no we don’t buy…we don’t…no we don’t buy stories from outside.” And I said “well…I didn’t…for number one I didn’t ask you to pay me, and number two, you haven’t seen my work, yet.”
Well by that time I had met a woman named Constance Houston Thompson. Constance Houston Thompson was…well somebody that looked like she was out of the movies. She had a beautiful house in 5th Ward with porches…the porch that went up to, you know…with steps that went up to the porch. She had beautiful furniture. She and her husband had been the people where some of the traveling dignitaries had stayed, back during segregation. She had a beautiful kitchen set-up with four or five different sets of china. She didn’t have any children. So, Bob Lee and myself got to be very good friends with Constance Houston Thompson. She was in love with Bob….you know…because he was a man and she was…she thought she was still cute….she was 90 years old! And Bob and I used to take her everywhere she had to go. She was a very…very much of a socialite. And she said “well anytime you all want to have something you can have it here.” And I mean, it was a beautiful house with all this beautiful furniture everywhere.
PP: There was a piano in her house that her father had bought for her mother when they married, back in…1900? She had portraits of all four of her grandparents! She was born in 1901, I think. So you know she wasn’t no ordinary…like us….
VL: She could trace her lineage way back?
PP: She had her lineage and she always, as a teacher, at Wheatley High School—even though she wasn’t my role model when I was going there—but she always had a car…you know, she always had a big car and she always dressed well. And she always had this perfectly coiffed hair. So she was nothing like us. So the fact that Bob and I, now young people, who probably admired her growing up but never thought we would meet her…you know, she was way out of our level, and so, she…you know, she was getting older and she was just happy that these young people were hanging around her. So sh…she mentions one day in passing, “you know if ya’ll ever want to do anything, this house is available for events.” I must say…one thing led to another. So I had a good friend in public relations, he had been the head of the public relations for the Re…Democratic National Committee when I was the head of the National Black Republican Council for the Republican National Committee, we became very good friends.
VL: Despite being of different…
PP: Ya, because we were both black. You know we…So he and I had become very good friends and whenever somebody was coming to Houston, that he thought needed to have some special…whatever…he would call me. So Tony Brown was coming to town. Tony Brown’s Journal, and he called me up and he said “Tony’s coming to town; he’s gonna have some extra time, can you do something for him?” And I said “Oh sure…no problem.” So we…we uh… we got Miss Houston’s house. Don’t ask me where we got the food…I’m so resourceful I probably went to Fiesta, or someplace because…I’m very resourceful…I mean I…I did this so much when I was in DC. You know, just find stuff…
VL: Probably from your mother as well.
PP: Probably from my mother as well. And...or maybe cooked it…I don’t know what we did. But we had…you know…we had…we had a reception for Tony Brown.
VL: Could you explain who Tony Brown is? Just…
PP: Tony Brown was a…was a…was a man that I always looked up to…he’s still alive. Tony Brown…when I first met Tony Brown he was a very articulate…man. He…he…he was working in Washington, DC. He was working at Howard University. And I guess he…I guess he was the head of their communications department. Back when they started. I’m guessing that. But he was in communications and he was the communicators’ communicator. Well by the time I moved back to Houston he had his own television show, called Tony Brown’s Journal. And it came on every Sunday morning, all over the country. So he was well known. He was very well known at the time. And when did I say where we were now? We’re up to the 80s. And uh…so I didn’t know Tony, but I had always admired him from afar. And he was a very easy guy to know. I picked him up from wherever he was staying and told him we were going to have this reception. Well we had everybody who was anybody in Houston was there. I don’t know, now again, how we got the word around. You know, we had [a] US Congress person, we had elected officials, we had heads of organizations, and you know… he was impressed.
VL: And all this was at Constance Houston…
PP: All this was at Constance Houston Thompson’s house!
VL: Thompson’s house….How many people would you say were there?
PP: I would say, 50.
VL: Full house?
PP: Uh-huh. People were milling around…
VL: And her house was able to accommodate most of the people?
PP: Oh ya, it was a huge house.
PP: She had a huge entry room, a…a huge kitchen, a bedroom, and a big dining room. See, she was used to feeding traveling football teams. So she had a huge dining room…and the dining room overlooked the gar…the formal garden. She had been married in that garden; in her beautiful chiffon dresses…we had pictures of that. I mean, she was just like…a black woman I had never met in my life!
VL: OK…and her house is still standing I take it?
PP: N-no, it…they…they finally, somebody…that’s a long story….it’s no longer standing. It stood for a long time. Well after that, or around that same time, we decided to formally start The Texas Trailblazer Preservation Association. And at the same time her…her grandfather had been the personal body servant to General Sam Houston. So this is big. Well, when we were growing up we had always thought that Constance Houston Thompson was blood-kin to General Sam Houston because her skin was very light. But she told us in no uncertain terms no she was not a relative that her grandfather had been his personal body servant; had lived with him, had traveled with him, all the time he was governor. Had lived in the Governor’s Mansion—he was his man.
VL: And her father was Joshua…
PP: Joshua Houston.
PP: That was her grandfather.
PP: So, I became fascinated with this story about Joshua Houston. And the first story that I wrote for the Chronicle was about Constance Houston Thompson. Think back….it kinda all worked. And at the same time, or somewhere around the same time, someone had asked me to write a book about Joshua Houston. It kind of all happened. And so that…that was in ’93, I believe, that I wrote the book. Well at the same time I think we started Texas Trailblazers in her house, right after we had the reception, we started The Texas Trailblazer Preservation Association. We got our 501C3, we became formal, and then we started publishing these one page profiles of Texas Trailblazers series.
VL: And the 501 C3 is a non…that’s…that’s a non-profit
PP: It’s…it’s the non-profit…that’s what the…that’s what the…
PP: …IRS calls a non-profit organization.
VL: A non-profit…ok
PP: …and you have to be…you know, you have to…you have to…jump through hoops—literally—to get it, but we had ours. And uh…all of this kind of happened at the same time. The Texas Trailblazers Preservation Association started in 1990. We started the series, I think in ‘93. The book came out in ’93—the Joshua Houston book. And like anything that you’re building with no money it…it…just it’s…it’s…a step. You see, and one step led to another. And then those Trailblazers became so…Oh! And then…OK I wrote that first article for the Chronicle. They got such a response to it that I wrote another article. By this time they were paying me. By the third article they were sending a photographer with me. So, and then…then the churches in the Fifth Ward were hanging the…were laminating the…the…the…the…the uh….articles and putting them in the foyers of their churches. So as…you see…you see how the word gets out? You know, one person, “Oh do you read Patricia Smith Prather? Oh well she wrote this article…well she’s on the Texas Trailblazers series.” The other thing we did was we had hundreds of copies of the Texas Trailblazers series printed and we would take them everywhere. Any event…any public event you could see a stack of them. I took them to schools…I took them to my son’s school…matter of fact the kids at school “Mrs. Prather do you have another one of those Texas Trailblazers?” So, it…so the Texas Trailblazer Preservation Association really got it’s notoriety with the Texas Trailblazer Series. They were one page profiles, Bob Lee and I had traveled all over Texas to get the basic data. And…I had a printer that worked with me, one printer, I had one lady who did my type setting, like Allison [Allison Zaragoza]. And I had a man who could take my pictures for me. That was before scans. So I would take them to his photography shop and he would actually shoot a picture of my portrait that I had borrowed from the school or whatever.
VL: Of the person being profiled?
PP: Of the person being profiled…and so, you know, I had a little team of people. And so we were able to just [snaps her fingers]…once we got going, we just popped ‘em out! We were just poppin’ ‘em out!
VL: And I guess with your PR background that helped putting it all together.
PP: Right, my PR background. Then Ron Stone, who was a very popular T.V. newsman, at the time…he got wind of it and he wanted to do a piece on the Texas Trailblazers and how we traveled Texas roads. So we actually went to Huntsville, which was where Joshua Houston was…no…no…no…no…we didn’t go to Huntsville. Ya…let’s see…where did we go? No, we didn’t go to Huntsville, we went to Jasper, Texas. This was before James Byrd [Jr.] was murdered there. Because Jasper, TX was where Bob Lee’s people were from. And so we decided….and it’s not far from Houston. So we decided to take Ron Stone and his crew to Jasper to do a piece for the Eyes of Texas [television show]. Well, that gave us state wide notoriety.
How do you do this? How… and in…in fact when…when I was doing the interview with the grandson of one of the first educators, so usually most of the time the Texas Trailblazers were educators. Many of them were ed…educators. Many of them had gone to Prairie View—it wasn’t planned that way it just…the natural leaders in those towns usually ended up either being a minister or an educator…and sometimes it was both.
And so Jasper…the educator there was a guy…guy named Roe. And the…and the high school is named after Mr. Roe. And that’s kind of the way that it was; they were the principals, then when they died the schools got named after them. So they were natural trail blazers. So we went to…we went to Jasper and we were on the Eyes of Texas. We were interviewing the grandson of Mr. Roe. And I said, “so tell me about your grandfather.” I said “Why is he just…why is he buried over there and not with all the other black people?” He’s like the only black…white…black that was buried in the ‘so called’ white cemetery. And he said, “oh ‘cause my grandfather was very well thought of here in Jasper.” He said, “as a matter of fact my grandfather was the only black man that could park his car on Main St.” It was like an ‘ah-hah’ moment. You know? It was sort of like, my god I never even thought about in a small town a black man couldn’t park his car on Main St.
So anyway, that…that particular piece was…got on…you know, state wide television. So now we got state wide coverage. And then the book also got state wide coverage. We were…we were featured in the San Antonio daily paper, the Houston Chronicle, the…the Dallas, uh, daily paper. Got a lot of notoriety with the…with the book From Slave to Statesman [the legacy of Joshua Houston, Servant to Sam Houston], but we didn’t make any money on it [laughs]. Got all the notoriety. It was…but it was a lesson in uh…writing a book number one is a challenge. You know, marketing a book is a challenge, but I learned a lot about publishing. And it’s not fun. People who want to get wealthy…you know…so…so that was it! So it was the Texas Trailblazers, the book came out just about the time we…well, it…it started in her house. And then the Trailblazers [series] came out and the book came out and then we got local coverage and then we started getting state wide coverage. And…we’ve been doing it for 20 years.
VL: Who was the first person you had profiled for the Texas Trailblazers?
PP: Believe it or not it was Joshua Houston.
PP: And when we profiled him, I believe it was ‘92, that one page…and people, when I first started doing it people said “why you just doing one page?” I said “because that’s all I have.” These people lived, you know… Joshua Houston was born in 1840-something…you know, where you going to find information on a black man that was born in the 1840s? Except that you know his granddaughter who happens to have his portrait…and who happens to know a little bit about him. So we started with him and then…and…and all we had on him was on that one page. Within eighteen months I guess, we had a book on him.
And the reason we were able to do the book is because I teamed up. Bob Lee was always in the background, but he went to Huntsville and he met the mayor, and her name was Jan…Jane Monday. And he said when she was speaking he said he...she reminded him of me. He said that lady is just like Pat Prather, she’s…you know, very energetic…and you know [laughing]…just…just what…she’s just like Pat Prather. So he goes up to her, shakes her hand and say “I have a lady I want you to meet!” And so I…we met. Bingo! We hit it off and she said she wanted to write a book about Joshua Houston’s son, who was the great educator in Huntsville. His name was Samuel W. Houston. The high school, the colored high school, was named Samuel W. Houston.
Well Jane Monday knew the family there. Well and she wanted to write a story on Samuel W. Houston. But when she met me and she said “would you like to co-author this book with me?” And I said “sure, but I’d like to go back another generation…I’d like to go back to his dad.” So [she said] “OK, ya, we can do that.” So she got the publisher from North Texas Univ…she was good friends with the publisher of uh…North Texas State Press. And uh…we’d get on the phone every…and I had uh…you know, I was doing all the composing and she was doing all the research. So every morning at 6 o’clock…or 5 maybe we’d…we’d talk about what we were going to do next.
Because we just made it biographical. When was he born…and I had found before I even wrote the book, when I was doing the Texas Trailblazers Series, I had actually found where Joshua Houston had been the slave of Margaret Lee Houston’s daddy in Alabama. And when Margaret Lee married General…General Sam Houston, Joshua came with them as her slave. So I went back to his…her father’s will and found out in the father’s will, he had willed “my slave Joshua to my daughter Margaret.” Well that was phenomenal. To find a will that had been done in the 18…40s? Maybe 50s…So I guess that was a sign, you know that we…and so…I found that piece of data and then Jane Monday, because she had been may…she was the mayor…well she wasn’t the mayor then, but she had been the mayor …she was very well thought of, she knows a lot…she knew a lot of people around the state. She knew Sa…General Sam Houston’s descendents, and one of ‘em was writing a book on her…her…her… Margaret Lee Houston and it was based on a bunch of letters that had gone back between Joshua and her when Joshua had gone to be a United States Congressman. And so she just happened to share these letters and every time she would run across a…a…a…a reference to Joshua Houston she would…she would give it to us.
VL: And that’s just a wealth of information.
PP: Yes, so I mean it was just amazing. I mean it was like the dyn…dynamic duo, you know. I did all the writing and she did all the research.
VL: And also had connections to descendents…
PP: And she had all these connec… The other thing she found in…in this research was in Huntsville. You know there…there’s a college there, Sam Houston State University. Well of course she knows all those people. And the archivist up there found a little book that said “Colored” or “Negro”…it was a little notebook. And in this notebook this white woman had chronicled all the Colored people that she knew that were prominent at the time.
So see everything that’s happened in my life, basically has been spiritual. She just happened to find this book…you know what I mean? We just happened to find the descendent of Joshua Houston, who didn’t really know that much about her grandfather. But matter-of…but she had all these pictures. She had the picture of her mother and father when they married in 1900. And in that picture was Joshua Houston. Uh…uh…her moth…her brother’s brother who was Samuel W. Houston, the great educator, and there were some women in there—we didn’t know who the women were. So when we took the picture t—to Mrs. Houston, she said “I don’t know who they are.” She said, “But I have a cousin that’s 90 years old.” We just…we sent her a Xerox of the…of the….of the picture and she wrote in the names of all the people. They were all her aunties.
VL: So she was able to help you identify all the…everyone?
PP: So it was…to me it was a spiritual jour…journey. It…it doesn’t matter that we didn’t get paid for it. It doesn’t matter whether you get paid if you are [an] African American historian. What matters is you leave it to the next generation. Because there’s no way…until I picked up The Red Book and I didn’t think about it until I was doing an interview…I guess that was that pivotal moment where I said, ‘gee I never knew black people lived like this in 1915. Because I had the same image of black people that white people had been showing me all the time and that was us in the cotton fields, and us in wagons, and us in overalls; there were no pictures of us dressed finely, that I was aware of. Well there were, because they were in my family, but I didn’t make the connection. And so the di…I think…I think finding that Red Book was probably the turning point for me as to when I decided that someone needs to save this history. And literately, most of the people I have met in my journey have been older, black, women. I have gotten very few…little information for older black men.
VL: I was going to say why…why would you say that would be the case, the women being the keepers of the…keepers of the history, or keepers of the knowledge, as opposed to the men?
PP: I think just because that’s their nature.
PP: And the men are busy working and bringing home the money. And the ones that were fortunate like…like my mother, to be a housewife and mothers. Or like Miss Constance Houston Thompson didn’t have any children…like Miss Thelma Scott Bryant didn’t have any children. See…see none of the people…most of the people that I really hooked up with didn’t have children. They were teachers. So they felt it necessary for them to pass this information on, orally, because that was the tradition. The men, on the other hand…and I’ve had one or two men, E.O. Smith’s son stands out in my mind. He was a…a wonderful source of information before he died; but for the most part most of the information has come from these women teachers. And that’s what they do….that’s their role. Miss…Miss Thelma Scott Bryant taught me up until the day she was laying on her death bed—literally—she was still giving me information.
VL: OK. So we’ve reached…
VL: …basically come full circle…
VL: from the beginning up until the current point.
PP: I would say so.
VL: Would you say, are you, are there any particular projects you’re working on right now or any types of publications you’re thinking about pursuing or firing up?
PP: Ya, I’ve got…I’ve got two things I want to do and I’ve…I’ve…I’ve really wanna get on it. I took the summer off, but…the next major project I need to work on is to chronicle the history of the 5th Ward. No one has actually done that; someone did a film on it but it was…it was…once again it was on the hip hop…whatever….thuggish…you know, this side of…that side of 5th Ward. Well, that’s fine. That was a legitimate part of the 5th Ward, through the eyes of the young man that did it. But he missed the history.
Nobody has told, really, the history of the churches, the history of the schools, the history of the people who were influential like the Nellye Joyce Punches, the early black businessmen, see they…way back I’ve been able to get the name of black barbers. They were some of the first black businessmen, were barbers. And so I have all of that information; I have it compiled, I’ve already got it…I’ve already got my chapters…chapter on medicine, a chapter on recreation, a chapter on education… But I just haven’t come up with a venue. ‘Cause the children don’t read. I mean, the whole idea of me being in my 60s and want to leave the information to a younger group of people, is that I have to find a way to leave it to them in a…in a…in a format that they…they understand. And they don’t read books. And I think it took me all summer to work through the fact that I don’t need to write a book. I need to find a way to impart information to young people.
Now the other thing in that Texas Trailblazer Series that also gave us notoriety was… I developed a relationship with the Houston Independent School District’s television crew. They had me on for an interview, and I don’t know what the first interview was about, but Ms. Sanchez and I just hit it off. And she became enamored with our Trailblazer Series and so she decided to produce a series on our Texas Trailblazer Series. It was called HISD Heritage Trails. And I think we produced four. One on Jack Yates, one on James Ryan…Ryan Middle School. In other words, we…we…we…we took those one page Trailblazers and we produced a half hour piece on that person, who has a school named after them and their environs. So that…that…that’s…that’s a part of history that I think you have some of…But I…I need to get all of that.
VL: They’re doing a documentary on your organization and the work that it’s done is that…what…
PP: No! No. They were doing, this is over, this happened years ago. In that process…they est…they…they realized that our Trailblazers were educators from HISD. So they decided they wanted to take the information to another level. And so they produced these…with my help, of course, these little half hour pieces on four people who have schools named after them. And I called recently to see if they would send me copies of them so I could give them to you and I…they never sent them so I could call them back. So…but like I said, it…it almost became like a little mini-empire. You know first you had the one page piece, then you had a statewide piece, then you had somebody from HISD dis—discovered that we were doing it on their school names so then they picked up a piece of it. And uh…and uh…so I can’t quit because I still have a lot more to go.
I also have a statewide project in mind. And the statewide project would be that all of the…during…during…during integration, in small towns, there were two high schools—one for the white and one for the black. When they integrated they merged the schools into a fault…the black school was merged into the white school. And so therefore, the black school disappeared. There were over 500 African American High Schools in the state of Texas that merged, and were therefore lost to history. And so one of my lofty goals…it’s not as lofty as it sounds, because I’ve already done most of the research, is to somehow impart that information. For the hist…for the record books, that there were 500 High Schools, at least, that were assimilated into a system, and in a sense, erased from history.
So those are the two projects that I am looking at. And also to continue to work with [the] African American Library at the Gregory School. Because The African American Library at the Gregory School is…we have the same basic mission. And that is to preserve Harris County African American History.
PP: And so, my…my mission is still to continue to work with the Houston Public Library because the sources of information are basically endless. Every day someone gets to be 80 years old. And every day somebody prominent gets to be 80 years old. We got hundreds of retired teachers here in Houston that have information about their families, about their teaching experience, about their…their…their star students, about their churches. And so…so my mission is to continue to work with the African American Library as a volunteer so that we can both help accomplish our…our…our…uh…our mission. And then in the meantime I’ve got at least two other projects that I need to find funding for and go do! [Laughs]
VL: I guess in concluding, uh…what…where would you say, or what…what advice would you give to young aspiring historians or professionals that are thinking about entering the field…and…any ideas on how they could take the existing body of work to the next level? Or to make it…
PP: Well that’s the whole purpose, I mean the whole purpose of…of…of continuing, on the mission with The African American Library at the Gregory School is so that when they get to be 40, because basically they don’t get it unless they happen to be a history student. Then they will say “Wow, I remember my parents…” and this is what I tell to the parent…to the people my age…you know you may not think you…you’re old enough to give your collection but the truth is, if you don’t give your collection…if your children don’t really understand… then it goes in the trash can and we’re trying to avoid that.
So my door is always open to young African American historians. I met one, last Sunday. They all know me, they all call me. The news media calls me, literally, all the time for background information. So I am…I am currently, probably along with Mrs. Gaye and now Deborah Sloan, we’re the sources of African American History as we have been able to take it from Thelma Scott Bryant. We…we are basically Thelma Scott Bryant’s students. And she expected us to carry on this work. So we’re carrying on her work, and I don’t know about them, but any young person that calls me— I just told Hellena [Hellena Stokes], she said she was con…reluctant about giving my phone number, I said that’s not a problem. Any young African American that’s w-w-wants to learn their history: my door is open. And they call me, I would aver…say an average of once a month…they’re either…they’re working on a project, my name came up, they call me, I meet them. I…I…I kinda take on…you know…and say this is what you need to do.
VL: Or consult or they may want to bounce some ideas off of you or something…
PP: They might want to bounce some ideas and the door is never closed to them. It’s just…that’s just because Thelma Scott Bryant told us.
VL: And she set the example or precedence?
PP: And she set the stay…she—she…she almost… I think she told us in those terms that she expected us to carry on.
PP: And so that’s where we are…we’re caring on the legacy of Thelma Scott Bryant.
VL: OK, I thank you this afternoon Mrs. Prather, thank you for coming in for the oral history interview and for the Neighborhood Voices Project.
VL: Thank you!
PP: Well I’ve enjoyed it! Thank you! Good luck with all your work.
VL: Thank you!