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Interview with: Vic Samuels
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: December 12, 2007
DG: Today is December 12. We are in the offices of Vic Samuels, interviewing him for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you, Mr. Samuels?
VS: I am doing great.
DG: Good. Mr. Samuels, you were involved we have discovered from interviewing Eleanor Tinsley, in the desegregation of the Houston Independent School District through an organization that you helped form, and we would like to sort of elaborate on what Eleanor has told us by having you sort of fill in some of the details of how that came to be, how Eleanor Tinsley, in a sense, came to be on the Houston School District board. So, go back as far as you would like in the narrative and go forward as far as you would like and sort of fill us in on the details of how that came to be.
VS: I grew up in Houston. I graduated from high school in 1959. The school system was totally segregated, as was the city for most of that time. The school system was all segregated. I never went to school with a black person until I went to college. The way Houston got into it was while I was in college. Got into integrating the system. There was a court case. The NAACP was the plaintiff and the Houston School District was defendant in a court case in federal court here. The first way that the District decided to deal with integration is they sent 2 black teachers to an all white school and 2 white teachers to every all black school. So, they integrated the faculty. That kept the Justice Department off of their backs for, I think 2 years. I am not certain of that date. You can go look that up. And then, the judge started a year at a time integration. Those 2 things happened while I was away. I was away for 6 years, 4 years in college and then 2 years, I was at graduate school 1 year and taught high school while I was in graduate school. And then, I taught high school another year. And then, I came back to Houston for the school year 1965-1966. In that timeframe, there 1st and 2nd grades had been integrated and there were some black children in what had been previously all white schools and some white children in what had been previously all black schools, although not very many white children in what had been previously all black schools. And the plan was that each year, there would be another grade that would be integrated, so the plan would take 12 years until the whole system was integrated. And that plan lasted, I think about 3 years. So that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades of some schools had been integrated. The federal judge who was the judge on this case the whole time declared that that was not, if you remember the term, all deliberate speed in the Brown v. Board of Education case, the 1956 case. And he determined that taking that much time was not fast enough. And so, there were conversations going on all over the United States about how our southern school district is going to be integrated. So, I joined where I know things first hand as opposed to second hand or third.
We moved back to Houston in September of 1965 and the School District still had 2 teachers of the opposite race in each of the schools, the schools that were clearly, you could talk about predominant black or predominant white. By the way, Hispanics at that time were classified as white. There were only 2 classes, white and black. My wife was teaching. She taught at Bellaire High School when we moved back and I went to work in industry. We had been here, we had been in Houston 2 years and there was a bond election. There were 2 parts of the bond election that were going to raise teachers' salaries and to air-condition all of the schools. None of the schools in Houston were air-conditioned. In the spring of 1967, the District had an election and had married those two concepts. I was mostly interested in teachers' pay and teachers' salaries.
The bond issue passed and I had started a little group of people. It didn't seem to me to be very much citizen support of the bond election and so I went to the folks who designed air-conditioning systems, the engineers, and the head of that association gave me $25,000, to spend to advertise in favor of the bond election. It was fairly clear that they would either both pass or both fail, that the 2 issues were kind of harnessed together. And so, we formed a small group of our friends. A small group. There were 12 of us. I think there were 6 couples. We had a lot of fun and we wrote some radio ads and printed some placards saying, "Vote Yes" for the bond issue and it passed. A few months after that, we became aware of a young man who was a Ph.D. physicist working at Shell who was going to run for the school board and at that time, there were 7 members of the board. All were elected at large. There was a black man and a black woman. Hattie White was the woman. And Richard Barnstone. And then, there were 4 folks who were committed basically to a segregated school system. They were doing whatever they could to make it difficult for blacks and whites to go to school together. And there were lots of strategies that were going on but it was very difficult for a black student to go to a school that was predominantly white. And through . . . I don't know if I want to tell the story about George Ozer's election in 1967 or not. George ran against an incumbent on the school board, a woman who had been one of the founders of the Texas Minute Women, which was the Women's Auxiliary of the John Birch Society.
DG: George was the . . .
VS: George was a candidate.
DG: Was he the guy at Shell that you . . .
VS: Yes, he is the guy at Shell. I did not know George. I went to a mutual friend's house and there was a party to meet George and I got involved and most of the other 5 couples that I have talked about who had done Citizens for Better Schools was the name of our organization, and we supported George, and George led - I don't remember the numbers exactly but there were 6 or 7 candidates in that race and the incumbent got 33%, 34%, 35%. George got about 10 points more than that, 44% or 45%. And then, the other 5 candidates got the remaining, so that there was a runoff election. And the short version of that story is that a few days before the election, I got a call from . . . I was selling corrugated boxes at the time and I got a call from one of my customers who said, "There is a man here who wants to talk to you," and he told us that Dr. Ozer was not going to be listed on the ballot and that the absentee voting was to start in about 3 days or 4 days. And so, George's team hired an attorney and that attorney went to Austin and met with the State Supreme, the Texas Supreme Court. And, at that time, the Texas court system had a very strong policy that they did not get involved in elections in process. And so, they went there on a Friday . . . how I knew it is that the linotype operator for the printing company had seen that George's name was omitted from the ballot. And so, the group/lawyer, went to Austin and talked to the Supreme Court and said, "This is about to happen to us and we would like for you to enjoin the School District from putting out this ballot." And the Supreme Court's general position was that they haven't done anything to you yet and therefore, there is nothing we can enjoin. You haven't been injured yet. And so, our attorney says, "But as soon as the election starts tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock or whatever time it was and as soon as somebody has voted, you are going to say that you are not going to deal with the case because there is an election in process. And so, we need you to enjoin them until we can see the ballot and delve into that." And the feds said, "No." So, we set up an arrangement. The Supreme Court agreed to . . . and this, we - I was not involved in this. I was not involved in George Ozer's campaign other than I helped recruit some volunteers and I did some volunteering there but I was not in any kind of a leadership position. And the court agreed to meet a few minutes before 9 o'clock the next morning. And so, we were to have someone who would see a ballot and then we would call our attorney and our attorney would say, "We have been injured. George Ozer's name is or is not on the ballot." And sure enough, the next morning, at about 30 seconds after 9 o'clock, there was a phone call to our attorney who said that our name is not on the ballot, we would like for you to have an injunction against this election moving forward, and about 3 or 4 minutes after that, the lawyer for the Houston Independent School District received a call saying that 2 people had already completed voting, at which point, the Supreme Court said, "Sorry, we don't get involved in elections in process." The unfairness of that galvanized a group of people into saying, you know, this is really dirty business and why was George not included on the ballot, but there was a court case later and it had something to do with he was registered in precinct something or other and he actually lived - that is where his parents had been and he actually lived in a different precinct. I think that was the issue. And they said, "So, he was not a proper candidate." And, of course, the incumbent woman won reelection. The person on the ballot that she was opposed, first of all, had not planned on being on the ballot and it had only gotten 2% or 3% of the votes or something like that. So, a group of us got together, the people who had supported George Ozer and the people that had been part of a campaign that we had something to do with for the bond election, and we started an organization called Citizens for Good Schools. And when we started it, we thought we were going to be an education group. We were going to talk about the positive things that could be done for the community and for the society by improving the educational skills of our children. And we did a lot of research. Most of the people who were involved were very young. We were, I think all of us, under 35 and most of us were in our 20s.
DG: Do you remember names?
VS: Who were some of the people? Mary Ann Andrews was our chief researcher. She was a friend of George. Steven Coffman was involved and Mark Crusberg, Jonathan Day, Andrew Jefferson. Judge Andrew Jefferson. He wasn't the judge yet. Marian Ford, I had a friend, a black dentist, Marian Ford. Vickie and Bob Berenbaum. _______. And I could name a number of others. Did I say Jonathan Day?
DG: You did. Was Kenny Friedman _____ at that point?
VS: No, Kenny wasn't involved at that stage. Jonathan and Barbara Day, Jonathan's sister, Antonia Day, and there were a bunch of us. We were mostly young. We put out research papers probably 1 a month. Maybe that is a little exaggeration. Maybe it was 8 a year, with the goal being certainly we were going to support George Ozer when he ran in 1969, when he ran 2 years after that election. And I don't remember exactly when it was but in that first year in which Citizens for Good Schools was out there, the NACP who was the plaintiff in the Houston Independent School District segregation case submitted a plan for integrating the Houston schools and that plan was written by a Harvard sociologist who never came to Houston. He had developed a crosstown bussing plan which was kind of what was going on and in many places in the United States. But Houston's minority population, most cities at that time had a very black center of town and as you moved out in concentric circles, it got less and less and less black. Houston's doesn't look like that. The distribution of the black population in Houston, there were, at that time, about 30% of the folks in Houston were of color, and if you start in the northeast quadrant of the city, the black population comes down from there through the Fifth Ward, Wallaceville Road and all that and to the Fifth Ward, then you get to downtown Houston and the Fourth Ward takes a western turn and goes to about Shepard. And then, you come back to downtown and then from there, going south and east out what is now MLK; at that time was called Chocolate Bayou Road. So, that you could integrate the Houston schools by having people who live very near each other go to schools. You can integrate those schools. So, Citizens for Good Schools opposed . . . oh, I didn't tell you what the Harvard sociologist designed. He designed that the people who lived in the Fifth Ward, they would pair a school in Meyerland and a school in the Fifth Ward, and grades 1 through 3 would be in, I believe, the Fifth Ward. I don't remember which way it was paired but I think the Fifth Ward got the young kids, and grades 4 through 6 were in the Meyerland school. So, you would bus the children from Meyerland, the Anglo children from Meyerland, and they would take 610 around to the Fifth Ward. And then, you would bus the kids from the Fifth Ward, the kids of color back and they would go to . . . their older brothers and sisters would go to the school, so that both of the schools would have reasonable equal numbers of children of color and Anglo kids. And our group thought that that would be terrible for the school system, that there would be huge white flight if that plan were put into effect. And there had been riots all over the south in school districts that had put in what were commonly known as crosstown bussing plans. And they were extraordinarily unpopular everywhere. So, our group debated against the Houston Independent School District and there were 2 of us in our group who did the debating - Jonathan Day and I - and there were 2 for the District who did the debating - the president of the Houston School Board, Bob Eckels, the father of the recently county judge for Houston, and the lawyer for the Houston School District. And I think I debated over - I don't know how long it was, maybe 7, 8 weeks, maybe 40 times against one or the other, in groups as small as at peoples' houses; as large - there must have been maybe 1,000 people when I debated against Mr. Eckels at the Miller Amphitheater. And our position was we are for integrated schools but we don't think this is a plan that will work in Houston. We think it will tear the community apart. I guess the people we were debating to were the judge and the NAACP lawyers. And the NAACP backed off the case and said that there would be other ways in which we could integrate the Houston schools.
VS: . . . not coming to me. He was pretty much Mr. Evil to me at the time. The head of the school board before was Joe Kelly, and they named Butler Stadium after that guy.
DG: So, the debates that you are having - you mentioned the 1,000 people at Miller Outdoor Theater. Nowadays, it is hard to see a whole lot of interest at school board elections and then there is a small group of people that cared. Was the city paying attention? Was the small group of Concerned Citizens paying attention?
VS: Well, it wasn't just about schools. It was the primary issue and struggle about integrating the community, integrating America, integrating the United States. And the battleground was primarily the schools. But it had to do with neighborhoods and Houston had already gone through and there are other people that can tell you about that; where we integrated the public places -- movies, restaurants, hotels, etc. That had already been accomplished. And the primary battleground. So, it wasn't just that this was about the school system. This was about neighborhoods. It was about the American society was being pressured and the battlefield was over the schools. But it wasn't necessarily about educational policy. Now, our position was that it was about educational stuff but the opposition, the folks who were actually running the schools at that time, it was a lot more about social policy than educational policy. So, let me chat briefly about some of these debates.
Houston had put into a situation at that time the way that the schools were being integrated was called Freedom of Choice. And there were a number of Houston, over 100, southern school districts who used Freedom of Choice. And basically, it said if you live within the school district, you can go to any school within the District. At that time, we had 212 schools, about 235,000 students, and Freedom of Choice was anyone could go to any school in the District in the whole HISD district if they could get the approval of the principal in whose district they were, in their home district, and the approval of the principal of the school to which they wanted to go. And so, it was wonderful for public relations but the principal of the school, most of those requests were for black children who wanted to go to predominantly white or totally white schools. And principals of the totally white schools did not give the permission. So, it was on the books that anybody could go to any school but there wasn't much integration going on. At that time, I think we were up to the 4th grade and we were about to . . . maybe we had gone from 4th grade to all grades? I don't remember exactly when that happened, but there weren't many minority students either white students in predominantly black schools or black students in predominantly white schools. And so, one of the arguments that we had in this set of debates that I talked about, in addition to Mr. Eckels, Joe Reynolds was the school board attorney. And so, one of the primary issues that we negotiated, we would argue about, debate about, is he would say, "Well, you know, anybody can go to any school." He was out there selling the concept of the freedom to go anywhere and we were out there saying that the schools weren't integrated yet, and that we didn't want the federal courts to tell us that this was how we were going to integrate schools. We, in Houston, had a better option than that, where you didn't have to leave your neighborhood. And, you know, if you've got elementary school kids and you've got a 30 minute bus ride, it doesn't matter if you are taking white kids into a black neighborhood or black kids into a white neighborhood - both sets of parents are unhappy about that. I live 4 blocks from the school, how come I have to go to school someplace across town? And that was what was going on all over the United States. So, HISD had sold its big all black high school for the Fourth Ward. They had sold that property and Allen Center is on that property today - the people who bought the land from the District built Allen Center. And they had relocated the replacement school or they had located the replacement school on the corner of Taft and West Dallas. So, the very eastern part, the eastern edge of the Fourth Ward; it is no longer part of the Fourth Ward but when the school was there, it is where Allen Center is and the western edge of the Fourth Ward was Taft. And west of Taft, the students were mostly Hispanic, some Anglos, and east of Taft, 1 block away, nearly all of the kids and adults were black. And so, I would argue when I was in these debates that, let's take as an example how well Freedom of Choice - let's talk about . . . at that time it was called Abraham Lincoln Junior/Senior High School. I would say there are 130 kids who live within 1 block of that school who are not black and there were 2 or 3 kids in the school who were not black. So, one day, I was debating on J.K. Hackleman's show. He was a newscaster in Houston who had a talk show, one of the early talk shows. And we were debating on his program and I was debating the president of the school board, Bob Eckels. I gave my statistics that there were these 100 and some odd nonblack children who lived within 1 block across the school, whatever. He said, "Well, that's just not the case. There are 273." I don't remember the number that he used but it was a big number. And so, we went off the air for a commercial break and I said to him, "That is just a lie. Those are not the numbers. There are 3 or 4," whatever the number was that I said. And he said, "Well, do you think I am going to give you a good debating point?" at which point, when we came back on the air, the guy who ran the show, J. Ken Hackelman, who had a big-time reputation in Houston . . . I mean, I think people saw him as an honest, fair interviewer and he interviewed all kinds of people . . . said, "Well, we had an interesting conversation. While we were off the air, Mr. Samuels said, no, my numbers are correct, and Mr. Eckels said, "Well, I'm not going to get in to you for a good debating point," at which point, Eckels then denied that he had said that and for the next 40 minutes or how ever long that hour show was, I didn't say very much. I mean, sometimes people would call in and ask me a question but most of the conversation was now an argument between the host which was a whole lot better thing that a young whipper snapper like me who had no public position . . . talking to a man who had been elected to the Houston School Board, I don't know how many times - probably 15 years worth of times. And so, I felt very comfortable about that. The end of all of that, the NAACP withdrew their suggested proposal.
At some time between the 1967 election and the 1969 election, and I don't remember exactly when, Citizens for Good Schools decided that we weren't going to convince the community to improve the schools and integrate the schools at the same time with this school board. And so, we decided to run people for school board. There were 4 seats that came up in 1969. A majority. There were 7 people on the board, as I said before. We started, in addition to being for a good education and to improve the educational component of the school and to raise the standards and to have better financial standards for how the District was managed, in addition to all of those things, we were for our integrated schools. And so, our tag line for 1969 became "quality integrated education." We decided to run a ticket of 4 people on a ticket. And 4 of those people would run together. They would advertise together. We decided to do that, we needed to have people who were not just our age. We needed some people who had reputations. And so, one of the first things that we did after deciding that we were going to run folks for school board, is we recruited an advisory board of about 40 people - Democrats, Republicans, mostly moderates are liberals but some conservatives, who fought that what was going on around the country - in Birmingham, in Atlanta, in Chattanooga, in other places, was so bad for the society that we needed to get over the hump of having segregated schools or having mostly segregated schools. And so, we recruited a bunch of people who are a good deal younger than I am today, who we thought were old folks, at the time, and they helped fund our efforts and they brought a lot of wisdom and history. Again, we were mostly young people, mostly people under 35. But we were talking about either the children we had or we are about to have. And we were looking not just for improving the city and not just for what was good for the community, but also for our children. We wanted our children to have a certain kind of education, and we wanted it to be more serious than we thought was going on at HISD, although most of us had grown up in the HISD system. And, at the time, it wasn't just about integration. There were all kinds of goofy things that the Houston School Board built their policy around. One of the things is you could not mention the United Nations in the Houston School District because that was a Communist plot to take over the world. And we in Houston did not take any federal money. Zero federal dollars. Because that was the way that the federal government was going to drain the energy of the people in Houston. And take away our ability to run schools the way we wanted to run the schools. So, this was not just liberals versus conservatives. It was, certainly from our perspective, Right Winger folks who were on the edge against moderates, at least that is how we thought of ourselves.
DG: And so, we entered into a time where we started preparing the things that we thought we could do to help them improve the education in the Houston School District? And we started interviewing people to be candidates. We started this whole process knowing that we wanted to run George Ozer. So, we needed to recruit 3 other people into running. And Houston School Board politics were so nasty that it was difficult to find candidates. The sides were drawn and the folks in power basically ignored the folks who were not in power and kind of rubbed their nose in the fact that they could not make much change. So, it was the toughest political situation in the Houston area. I mean, the battles were much more covered by the media and people took sides a whole lot more about School Board issues than they did City Council issues or County Commission issues - things like that. And our goal was to have 4 candidates, one of whom was black, one of whom was George Ozer, one of them was to be a . . . responsible but the only paper's I've got that tell anybody that I am responsible is her will. I can't get her to sign those papers. I will try one more time but I don't think she is going to sign any papers for me. And again, she never says no, she just says, "O.K., let me take a look at it." And maybe she doesn't want to talk about _______. That is the other issue. I have no authority to turn off the machines if that ever happens which is 1993.
VS: My parents' generation believes that talking about death encourages it or wills it. So, they consider it superstitious, I guess. Well, I guess I have been responsible for 4 people in this regard. She is the fifth. And this is clearly the most difficult; clearly, clearly, the most difficult.
DG: You were talking about the slate. You knew you wanted also then . . .
VS: We wanted Dr. Rozier and we wanted a black person on the ticket. We wanted a really strong community volunteer person. And then, we wanted a downtown big-time business person or a lawyer, a professional person. Early in the process, before anybody from Citizens for Good Schools had knowledge of it, a black Baptist minister, the Reverend D. Leon Everett, filed and he became our candidate, although his . . . [end of side 1]
VS: He became our candidate and in the process, someone introduced me to Eleanor Tinsley. I interviewed about 200 people for these jobs. There were a bunch of us who did the interviewing but I interviewed everyone, and other people did some. We could not find a substantial downtown business type person who would go on a ticket. This was the first time in Houston a multiracial ticket had been put together, and we couldn't find anybody who would do that. And so, that person ended up being Leonard Robbins, a suburban Jewish doctor. And so, our 4 people on the ticket were Ozer, Everett, Robbins and Tinsley. We became kind of like a children's crusade. We weren't children, we were all young adults, and we ran a campaign that was aimed at one vote at a time through meeting our candidates. We had lots of yard signs, 2 billboards, a little bit of radio, no television, and we spent a high number for that time - I don't remember exactly but I think we spent about $160,000 to elect the 4 of these folks.
DG: Where did that money come from?
VS: It came from people . . . most of it came in thousand dollar, the lion's share came in thousand dollar amounts, and we had huge numbers of coffees or pardons, so that the candidates sometimes singly but usually 2 at a time, would go to someone's home and there would be, maybe we would have invited 100 couples and maybe there would be 25 people there or 20 people there, something like that. And so, the strategy that we used was 1 vote at a time; that this was a hugely important event for the city of Houston but the city of Houston didn't see it as a hugely important event and quite frankly, I think there were very few people who thought that we could win, that these youngsters were going to beat the old established, experienced members on the school board. And so, we believed that yard signs were really important because if you put a sign in your yard, you became invested . . . we would get 2 votes from that house. And maybe we would get 4 or 5 other votes on the block because these people liked the people who had the sign in their yard. And so, we would have these coffees and we would have 4 coffees a night for each candidate. And they would go to these and maybe spend a half hour there and give their speech and answer questions. So, we could do 3 or 4 a night if we started early enough. And if the numbers were correct, then we would see a couple of hundred people a night. If there were 25 at each one and there were 2 candidates there, they would see 100 people and the other 2 candidates would see 100 people. And we kept meticulous lists of who was there and we asked everybody who came to one of our parties to send to their Christmas card list a letter saying that they were in favor of our candidates and they would appreciate the vote. So, we were picking up basically a Ponzy scheme. We were picking up a few votes. And everybody who came wasn't enthusiastic but there were enough who became enthusiastic that we became kind of a movement. We had 1 paid employee in the whole process. Everything else was volunteers. We had businesses who would let us use their phones. There were a couple of lawyers' offices and businesses that where we could maybe use 10 to 20 phones at a time and we would send people there and they would make phone calls. And as we got closer to the election, the phone calls were to people who were on what we called the friendly list, and the friendly list was anybody we had touched. It was lots. We had done a lot of block work, particularly in the black community. We got endorsed by the Black Baptist Ministers Association. We appeared, and the we's here . . . there were about 4 or 5 of us who talked for the organization in addition to the candidates. We had put the candidates through Citizens for Good Schools school where we had basically prepared an hour talk and what the candidates would do is give 6 or 8 minutes of that talk at each stop and then open up for questions and if we had done it correctly, then they had a 45 to 90 second sound bite to answer each of the questions. We had already thought through about how our group felt about those things. It was pretty impressive. We led all 4 of the races. At the first election, I think George Ozer won outright and the other 3 were in a runoff and we scrinched them in the runoff and we won fairly large. Again, there was no other reason to go to the polls. Our people, who were feeling like a children's crusade, were motivated to vote and the other side's folks were not as motivated. And so, what we did is we elected a majority of the school board. The superintendent resigned - I don't remember if it was 2 days or 2 weeks after the election before our group took over, and his resignation day was I think about 2 weeks or 4 weeks, I don't remember, after they actually came into office.
DG: Was that in protest or to give you the chance to hire your own superintendent?
VS: Yes. So, we had gone, and something I was involved with . . . I actually thought we were going to win. There weren't many others who thought we were going to win. Jonathan Bay ran the campaign. He was the campaign manager. I was just the president of the organization, although a lot of the strategy had come from a course that I had taken in graduate school on state and local governments at Reed College. So, a few weeks before the election, I went to the . . . Maryann Andrews who was, I said, kind of an intellectual guru of what we did . . . and I said, "You need to come up with something that, after we win, we can put into effect quickly and 6 months later, have something to show for it." And this is a wonderful story because it wasn't that we came up with this great idea in looking for great ideas - we came up with a great idea to solve what I thought was a political issue, that this new bunch . . . I said, "We are going to win and that we've got to be able to put our hands on something and saying, this is something that we have done." And Maryann read about an obscure program that was going on in Philadelphia in which there were volunteers from the community who went into the schools and did various activities for the schools. I think the educators in the group among whom I included myself, having been a school teacher for 2 years, knew that schools that let people in, let community people in, either they were the best schools because they let the people in or they let the people in because they were the best schools. And it didn't matter. And so, we were very much in favor of that. Maryann read about this group out of Philadelphia and we started Volunteers in Public Schools, VIPS, about 3 days after the election, is when we started, O.K., this is what we are going to do. Where do we get the money to do it? How do we organize it? Whatever. I learned a lot through that process. And we got the money from Houston Foundation who thought this was a worthy idea. We were asking for some huge sums like $5,000. And, you know, the foundations probably had little or no expectations of much coming out of it. And VIPS has been going ever since. VIPS is a big deal. First of all, the volunteers do wonderful things with the children. Some, one-on-one tutoring, some group tutoring, some reading to elementary schools, but some, they know about engineering issues and they work on reengineering something at the school. The VIPS people do all kinds of things in the school and it has opened the schools up to volunteers.
We hired an attorney. We had 2 attorneys at the very first board meeting. Let me state here that from the time that the school board was elected, Citizens for Good Schools who had been supporters and had gotten them elected, melted into the background and they became the 4 members who were doing what independent school board members did. And so, we, the CGS people, were no longer involved in the same way as we had been before. We basically had become a political party and from that, candidates ran on "our ticket." Afterwards, they became independent members of the school board. They hired a new superintendent, George Garver was his name. We hired 2 attorneys: 1 was to be the school board attorney, Kelly Thrells, who is still the Houston School Board attorney, and through various political groupings, has remained the school board attorney. We actually hired his boss but he put Kelly in charge of doing it. Kelly was very young at the time. So, what is that - 38 years ago? And then, we hired a silver-haired, mature lawyer whose name is escaping me at the moment, to be in charge of integrating the schools; in charge meaning negotiating with the judge, Judge Singleton. And so, he went to the Justice Department and said, "O.K., you don't have to force us to integrate - we want to integrate. Let's work out the best way for Houston to integrate the schools." So, we went to the Justice Department and said, "Let's work out a good plan for Houston. Let's not turn it upside down." We were the only city who did that. All the other cities kind of were pushed by the Justice Department through the federal courts and they were doing an inch at a time, moving it slowly as we can. We, on the other hand, said, no, we want to do this. This is part of what we want to do. First of all, we were claiming that we were not a southern city, we were not like Birmingham or Charlotte or Atlanta or whatever; that we were a southwestern town and we did not have the same opinions. Houston was growing by leaps and bounds. The growth was nearly all inbound people who had come from other places in the United States, and we were beginning to look more or less like the United States as opposed to people who had grown up in Houston. We tried very hard not to run as liberals but to run as progressives. There was no such term in Texas at the time. There were 3 parties in Texas at this time: there were the Conservative Democrats, the Liberal Democrats and the Republicans. And pretty much at this time, the only people who held office were either Liberal Democrats or Conservative Democrats. Republicans were just beginning to make some sort of headway. And the strategy was that we needed to get one-third of the vote of the Anglo community south of Westheimer, west of Main Street - in that quadrant of the city - and we needed to get one-third of the black people in town to vote, of the registered black people, to vote. We ended up getting about 35% turnout of the black community. We got, I think, about 38% of the vote south of Westheimer and west of Main Street.
It was exciting times. We were in a time, it was kind of anti-war time, anti-Vietnam war time, post-Kennedy, Johnson is pushing the American government to do all sorts of things to integrate all kinds of things. James Meredith is doing his thing. There are some bad times. Martin Luther King is assassinated and both Jack and Bobby had been assassinated and there had been riots in northern cities - lots of riots there, and Houston who was in boom town, boom town economically, had pretty positive, moderate racial issues. And there are other people who can talk about the other parts, all of which those of us involved in CGS kind of knew about and maybe we did something but as an organization, we did not take positions on anything other than the Houston Independent School District. We did not take positions on the Spring Branch School District or North Forest School District or any place else. The ultimate goal was to offer a quality education, to raise the quality of education for each student in the Houston Independent School District, and to do that in such a way that we could all be proud to tell our children that we had fought for equality. We thought we could make large changes in the community and in the body politic. We made some changes there. We opened up lots of opportunities that weren't there before.
One of the things that our group did that I had nothing to do with, but we had some conversation about, O.K., how are we going to make people in Houston want to go to an integrated school? We said, well, let's just make it a special school. And if the school is special enough, then people will want to go there no matter who the other people in the school are, who the other students in the school are. And so, what we now know as the Magnet program started as a program to integrate the schools. We had the Singleton ratio which meant that each of the Magnet schools, every Magnet school, had to have - and I don't remember exactly when Hispanics became a group, I don't remember when that happened - but initially, it was just blacks and whites. And so, let's say there were 35% black students in HISD; there needed to be between 25% and 45% of every one of the Magnet schools, had to be black. So, whatever that number was from the prior year's percentage, you could be somewhere between 10% lower and 10% higher. And so, we developed HSPVA and we developed the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the DeBakey School for Medicine and the School of Health Professions and the School of Engineering and various schools, special programs. Bellaire was the first IB, international baccalaureate school in Houston. So that there were lots of schools that specialized in math, schools that specialized in the arts, schools that specialized in language. And the way you got into those programs is you applied. And so, what ended up being a fabulous educational, innovation is a little strong but there were specialized schools in other places in the United States, but what started as an integration plan -- how are we going to want to make first graders go to school with people of a different race? -- and you do that by having a better first grade, and the parents flocked to those programs. Then, the issues became, well, O.K., how come everybody that we know who wants to go to this school, can't go to this school? Well, because it was done through the courts as an integration program, not as an educational program.
DG: The perspective, looking back now . . . this interview thing _______ the Houston Oral History Project, so we have a Houston centric approach to a few of the events, whether they occurred here, whether they occurred elsewhere and had impact here, obviously this occurred here and helped define . . . our school system helped define education. You could say that integration was inevitable, whether we wait 12 years or 4 years or whatever, but to the extent that you felt you were codifying public opinion as opposed to leading public opinion, were you convincing people to care, were you changing minds? How much blatant support do you think you tapped into as opposed to sort of when it gets maybe the prevailing view to force the acceptance or to accelerate the acceptance of an idea whose time has come? Given the perspective of the years, what do you think happened, what do you think you accomplished in terms of public opinion as it existed at that time?
VS: I think we created or helped create the impression that Houston was a modern, late 20th century, open society, and what the folks who were the Chamber of Commerce people, were pitching, is come here and you will find that we have less hatred and more mutual caring for each other, and the fact that there were no riots here . . . somebody would argue about the Texas Southern University riot which lasted a few, somewhere between minutes and hours . . . had something to do that we were open, we were working to integrate the schools to make education better for everybody, and the primary issue there, of course, is that there was never any unemployment in Houston. We did not have the same kind of unemployment numbers that most cities, both north and south had; you know, were 35% or 50% of young black males were not employed. If you wanted a job in Houston, you got a job. On the other hand, I think that we affected the way people thought about the city as being very progressive; not liberal, not conservative, but progressive. This is happening everywhere and we are trying to control as much of it as we can as opposed to having those issues forced on us. How did . . . over a long period of time, I have been disappointed in the results. I have always been very proud of my involvement, in this movement in Houston, and it is one of the major ways in which I define myself but in terms of the history, today, there are very few Anglos in the Houston Independent School District. There have been 2 movements that have affected that, of course. One is the city has spread out and so there is this ring of mostly Anglo neighborhoods who are not in the Houston school district. They are in Cy-Fair or they are in Spring Branch or they are in Fort Bend County or they are in Conroe, they are in Montgomery County, and then, there are lots more private schools in Houston than there were at the time. And so, I have been disappointed that the Houston School District has not been The Beacon of how the various peoples who make up the United States today can live and work and be educated together, although I think if you take the whole Houston area, if you take the 5 million Houstonians today as opposed to the 2.7 million or whatever the number is who live within the city of Houston, that we are, in fact, very progressive. We are still very progressive and we are open and it is better for all kinds of different kinds of people here in Houston than it is in many places in the United States. But the Houston Independent School District is totally integrated legally and yet, there are just not enough Anglo students in the district.
DG: In the course of conducting other interviews, there is a recurrent theme that sees Houston's history, particularly as it relates to race issues, as benefitting from a benevolent patriarchy of white business leaders who took it upon themselves to put the interests of the city first and to, I think, guide the city through some of its potentially contentious times, especially related to other cities. The story you have related is not that at all, it is a bunch of late 20, early 30 citizens who got together without a Jesse Jones or a Cullen family behind them . . .
VS: Or George Brown.
DG: Or George Brown. Without somebody writing a million dollar check to make something happen. It is, as you say, 100 thousand-dollar checks, it is coffee meetings. We understand how the benevolent patriarchy to what extent that was true has defined Houston but what do you think is the lesson of your experience in desegregating Houston schools in terms of defining Houston? What does the Citizens for Better Schools' story say about Houston as a city?
VS: It is a can do place and I don't think those things are in opposition to each other. You know, there were some of those people, not the people you particularly named, who supported us. The de Menil family was a heavy financial supporter and encouraging supporter, through lots of encouragement of what we did. Nina Cullinan was involved with us and felt good about her involvement. But I think that Houston is a can do city and there are lots of can dos. So, those, that patriarchal group 9F - what is the number?
DG: That was before this time but yes . . .
VS: I think they had a lot to do with setting the personality of the place but what I have always thought about Houston is that it may be the last of the old west in that competence is treasured here, not pedigree. And so, I think the people who are leaders in my lifetime, certainly in the last 30 years in Houston, you did not have to be born rich, you did not have to grow up rich; probably to have a huge amount of influence, you had to be rich, but there were lots of ways you could be rich. Either do it through medicine. You could do it through oil and gas. You could do it through retail. There were lots of ways to do that. And that, Houston doesn't say, "Oh, how long have you lived here? Well, no you can't be head of the opera society, you know. Your grandparents weren't born here." We don't have any of that in Houston. If you are willing to work hard enough and to give your energy and your resources, financial and other resources, you can do whatever. I think that is the answer. Is there an old boys group in Houston? I think there are probably a bunch of old boys groups in Houston and I think some of those old boys are women today. There is not one group that has kind of the geminy. I don't think that is how it works. You want to get involved in the community, you want to support children's issues, you want to support religious issues, you want to support intergroup relations - just go do it. And if you are smart enough and willing enough and willing to work hard enough and willing to either give or get the money to make it happen, you can do whatever here, and it doesn't matter who your grandparents were. It doesn't matter if you were born in Germany or Germantown, Pennsylvania. It doesn't matter. We are pretty much a meritocracy. You can get stuff done by just meriting it.
DG: Anything else you want to say about the Citizens for Good Schools I wasn't smart enough to ask? As you look back on it . . . you mentioned the early people. You mentioned some key supporters. Any other heroes stick out in your mind that ought to be remembered when people think about that time period?
VS: _________ was a really important character there. Well, there are a lot of people who define themselves by their CGS involvement. Mary Margaret Hanson. Sally, now Lear. Martha Vincoats, now Northington. I mean, if I sat down and thought about all the people . . . a huge percentage of my current friends - my wife's and my current friends are people we met at Citizens for Good Schools, and we marched together. Not literally marched but we figuratively marched. And yes, with that strategy, it is still how you get elected mayor of Houston. It is still the same strategy. Fred Hofheinz who was my brother's best friend spent a lot of time hanging around Citizens for Good Schools to see how to do it. And then, he ran for mayor 2 years later. He ran for mayor in 1971. Lost and then won in 1973 and 1975. Clearly, all the mayors since Citizens for Good Schools have looked at the strategy that I described and decided, is that the strategy I want to pursue and if so, how do I do that? Or, can I beat them with a different strategy? Can I beat that strategy with a different strategy. But the city is still progressive. The county is not but the city is. And so, most elections look pretty much like what I described, and that is not how they looked before that.
DG: This is a story that deserved to be told in a sense I am speaking with you because of Eleanor Tinsley and her narrative, so it may be a good way to bring this interview to a close, is to ask you to comment on your friend, Eleanor Tinsley and what she has meant not just to Citizens for Good Schools but to the city of Houston because, you know, she is too modest of a woman to say those kinds of things about herself. What do you want people to know about Eleanor?
VS: Well, I recruited Eleanor into politics and when she decided, not my thought, her thought, to run for the City Council at large in 1979, I chaired her campaign. So, Eleanor and I go back a long way and we touch pretty much at shoulder, hip, knee and ankle. The term I have always used for Eleanor is that she is the only candidate I have ever supported who outperformed my expectations. I am very optimistic and I always think people are going to be fabulous. And sometimes they are. And sometimes they are Eleanor Tinsley and they are better than fantastic. Eleanor is an interesting character for the history of Houston. She is a lady in every sense. She is quiet. She talks low. You sometimes strain to hear her and yet, she has a will of steel underneath that. So, you would have to think about Eleanor who came to maturity way before the Women's Movement started. And so, she grew up with one kind of set of expectations and she lived her public life in a different time. She was a fabulous feminist, quietly. Quietly saying, no, we are going to pay women who work for the City of Houston the same money we pay men who do that job and we are going to recruit more women into working for the city and we are going to see how the jails look for women. And then, she did all those fabulous things. Half of the Houston water system has natural fluoride and the people who were getting that half of the water had way stronger teeth and less dentist bills. And so, she worked to do that. She built the connection between the parks and the schools so that we had these Sparks parks in over 100 schools, I believe, today. She worked at getting sister cities in South America so that we would have commerce between them. And she worked really hard to recruit good folks into all kinds of jobs but particularly in the police department. And the quality of our chief, of several of our chiefs, has gone up. I mean, Eleanor was an important character for 30 years in public office in Houston. She had a lot to do with . . . well, when she was on the school board, she is the one who brought forth the Community College system, made it part of HISD, got it to become part of HISD. It was not prior to that. And then, she spent a whole lot of effort raising the level of educating the folks who go to Community College; the part-time students and the students who had not grown up always thinking they were going to be college students. So, Eleanor is one of my great heroes.
DG: Thank you for your time. Thank you for your comments.