Essay: Fifth Ward, Houston, 1952 — One Girl’s Story
In this excerpt from her new memoir, “Up Home,” Ruth J. Simmons recalls moving to Houston at age 6 from rural East Texas. She would go on to serve as president of Smith College, Brown University and Prairie View A&M.
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This essay is an excerpt from Ruth J. Simmons’ memoir “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey,” published today by Random House. Simmons, born in 1945 in Daly, East Texas, the youngest of 12 children of sharecroppers, served as president of Smith College (1995-2001), Brown University (2001-12) and Prairie View A&M (2012-23). Watch the Tribune’s Q&A with Simmons on her new book. On September 23 in Austin, she will speak at The Texas Tribune Festival on a panel about race and higher education, and sign copies of her book.
In the summer of 1952, we piled our few belongings into my brother-in-law’s pickup truck and moved 111 miles south to Houston. Latexo had been a happy place for me, a place of starting school, finding friendship outside my family, and beginning to discover what I wanted for my future. Mentors like my elementary school teacher in Grapeland, Miss Ida Mae Henderson — in school, church, and the community — introduced me to an idea of how different life could be for Blacks, even with the limitations of enforced segregation. Moving to Houston disrupted for a time my growing comfort with these new experiences and people. I had never visited my older siblings in the city and felt anxious about this faraway place.
I imagine that my fun-loving, gregarious father, Isaac Stubblefield, looked forward to the move to a large city, but my mother, Fannie Campbell, would have been apprehensive, filled with concerns about how the move would affect her youngest children. In spite of the harsh working conditions, meager pay, trenchant segregation, and minimal services afforded the Black community in the Grapeland area, we managed to have a life that, by virtue of our ignorance of the severity of its deprivation and the company of so many Blacks who shared our state, was satisfying on many levels. Our extended family in Grapeland added to our comfort, for few things tamed our inclination to be anxious better than the presence of scores of relatives nearby. Now we would have to start over without the secure embrace of the Stubblefields and my mother’s clans, the Campbells and the Johnsons. The fact that the help and guidance of my brothers and sister already in the Houston area awaited us was my only comfort.
In 1952, Houston was already a brash, ambitious city, aspiring to be the center of commerce for the Southwest. With its appetite for growth and prosperity, the Texas identity, already much mythologized, extended across all segments of the state’s population, including Blacks and Hispanics. Blacks, too, sported cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats, listened to country music, and spoke Black dialect with a noticeable country twang. The meal of choice was Texas bar-b-que with potato salad and beans, and there never seemed to be quite enough of it in spite of every Black father aspiring to master the art of smoking the meats to tender perfection.
Despite a few big-city refinements brought by a growing array of cultural institutions, Houston proudly cultivated stereotypical Texas roughness and indifference to northern ways. However, Black Houstonians, even those proudly steeped in the cowboy tradition, accepted that their brand of Texas swagger was still tempered by the constraints of segregation and discrimination. Their lives remained separate and unequal.
Arriving in Fifth Ward from the fields of Houston County, we expected little. One of six wards, the area just two miles from downtown Houston had been settled by freedmen following the Civil War. The community bounded by Lyons Avenue, Liberty Road, Lockwood Drive, and Jensen Drive was by 1952 a busy settlement of modest wooden houses arrayed helter-skelter on lots of varying sizes. It was difficult to apprehend an organizing principle in the area. Bounded by those four main arteries, the residents had developed food stores, churches, funeral homes, juke joints, and other essential services wherever space could be found. Two elementary schools, a junior high school, and a high school offered enrollment to the neighborhood’s children, who could, for the most part, walk to one of these institutions. In segregated Houston, all Fifth Ward residents were Black, making the area feel like a much larger version of the Murray Farm in Grapeland. There was little governmental effort to afford residents the necessities that other communities took for granted. Health care had been nonexistent until five years earlier, when private donors and the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception decided to build a hospital to serve the area. Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital stood handsomely on Lyons Avenue, joining E. O. Smith Junior High School as one of the two most distinguished looking buildings in the entire ward.
As sharecroppers and farmers migrated to Fifth Ward in the ’40s and ’50s, the area began to earn a reputation for the more outrageous misdeeds of some of its denizens. Many of the new arrivals were so poor that they had to live communally. Dotting the erratic, unzoned grid of this area were mostly small shotgun-type houses with little appeal beyond the shelter they afforded. Combined with the shabbiness of some houses and the open ditches that ran along the streets, the neighborhood had a look of neglect that I noticed even as a six-year-old. It was fitting, then, that the Southern Pacific Railroad would build a large train yard in the area, completing the sense that “anything goes” in Fifth Ward.
My oldest brother and sister, Elbert and Atherine, having married twin siblings, Erma Mae and Herman Hicks, had initially purchased a house together to facilitate their move to Houston. They lived in that home until they could build separate houses on the lot. After they settled in these new homes, the original property was available for a succession of relatives transitioning to the larger city.
The house we moved into sat on a lot with residences housing family members who had moved to Houston earlier. It was common to jostle more than one house on a lot with little space between them, and that was the circumstance of 4513½ Lee Street. Elbert and his family lived in a five-room house at 4513 Lee Street; my brothers Wilford, Albert, Ruben, and Clarence lived in a rooming house next door; and my parents and us four remaining girls moved into Atherine’s former house, in the rear of Elbert’s house. Elbert’s brother-in-law, Floyd Hicks (another of Erma Mae’s brothers) lived on the other side of the rooming house. This compound arrangement was typical of the way many Blacks were able to move to cities.
Our house was typical for the area: it had a parlor, dining area, kitchen, two bedrooms, and one bath. This pragmatic and efficient layout would be replicated in all of our Houston houses: my parents had a bedroom, and all the girls crowded into the other bedroom, two abed. There was no lawn to speak of and merely the hint of a porch that extended the available working and leisure space of the small house. Still this house was evidence of improvement in our family’s fortunes: an indoor bathroom, a kitchen with running water and a modern range, and a separate dining area bespoke a luxury I could not previously imagine.
Although we had been allowed to roam the fields in Grapeland and Latexo freely, our parents quickly determined to curtail our freedom once we moved to Houston. We might as well have been confined to a jail cell. The chief reason for their caution may have been the proximity of Lyons Avenue, notorious for its drinking and carousing. However, with the number of residents in our compound, they needn’t have worried; many were attentive to our movements. The crowded lot that accommodated Elbert and his family, the Floyd Hicks house, and the rooming house bordered the train yard. For some reason, the noise of the trains did not unsettle me; new to city noises, I relished the hum of activity and the bluster of freight trains. I also drew comfort from the fact that our compound included nineteen family members: Elbert and Erma and their three children; Floyd’s family of four; my brothers in the rooming house; and the six of us in our house.
In addition to the three Hicks siblings who lived on this lot, another child of Miss Rosa Lee Hicks (Elbert’s mother-in-law) was intertwined with our family. Nora had married my uncle. Aunt Nora had a bombastic personality. Big and brash with a raspy voice, she always spoke as if she was talking to someone at a great distance. Her imposing figure and protruding stomach matched her forceful spirit. Capable of issuing warnings with such vehemence that children would quickly scurry to follow her directions, she was an almost mythic figure. I found it odd for my brother and sister to have married the Hicks twins and for another of their siblings to be my aunt.
Erma Mae was much smaller in stature than her older sister, Nora, and far more refined. Next to my former teacher Miss Ida Mae, Erma Mae had the greatest influence on me when I was in grade school. Although Erma Mae was from Grapeland and had been shaped by the farming culture, her belief that she deserved the best life could offer set her apart from other women I knew. Had the times permitted her a fair chance for a professional career, she would surely have grasped it, so strong was her desire to rise to the middle class and beyond. In that era, few Blacks from Grapeland would have dared to be so explicit about their aspirations, but Erma proudly revealed her goals to all. She spurned laziness or excuses of any kind and insisted that hard work and ambition could overcome the discrimination that seemed to paralyze others. She was especially adamant that her children set high goals, remain in school, and become responsible and independent. Her pride and pragmatic spirit would later have a significant impact on my outlook. I began to follow her exhortations about what girls’ lives could be: independent, useful, respected. I especially took to heart her insistence that education could lead to the kind of life I could be proud of. My working hard in school was no doubt a result of her insistence on how important this would be to me. She was right.
At the time we moved to Houston, Mama had seen very little outside of East Texas. Devoted to her one remaining brother and two sisters in Grapeland, she saw them as often as she could, but she took no time to make friends outside the immediate family. In many ways, she was temperamentally suited for a simpler time. Indifferent to modernity, she would have been a contented frontier woman, settling new land isolated from well-populated areas. She was devoted to family and fueled by a few basic principles: be fair, respect others, and live a godly life.
Elbert, on whom she had depended so often for assistance with the other children, was now but a few steps from our home, and his presence must have been reassuring to her. In addition, Wilford was finally back home from the war in Korea and living in the rooming house in front of us. If Elbert was the son on whom Mama relied for good sense and stability, Wilford was the son she treasured for his kind and giving nature. With both boys living on Lee Street, she was comfortable that the move to the city could work. What I did not know was that she had been diagnosed with severe kidney disease and had already lived well beyond the years the doctor had predicted for her. She must have been comforted by the thought that if her health eroded, we younger ones would be safely near her most trusted and mature children.
As I settled into the neighborhood, gradually learning my way around, Elbert and Erma’s oldest daughter, my niece Elma, became my daily companion. Born a month before me, she would be in my class at school. Starting second grade at nearby Atherton Elementary School, I knew that her presence would make me feel less out of place, and I was grateful for her company. Being a child of the city, she spoke properly, dressed well, and was liked by those I found so intimidating. I had the air of a country child, in manner, in speech, and, of course, in dress. I was still wearing the cotton sack dresses my mother had made, while Elma and other children in Houston wore enviably mass-produced store-bought clothes. Their clothes were also made of finer fabric in bright colors with complementary trimmings.
I knew that Elma was prettier and more refined than I. This was underscored one day, soon after I arrived in the city, when I heard children’s voices at my brother’s house and ran over, planning to join in the play. As I approached, I recognized Elma talking about someone with another girl from the neighborhood, and my instinct told me to slow down and listen before revealing my presence. I was taken aback that they were talking about me and my sisters and how ridiculous we looked in our country clothes. Having a sense of how others viewed us made me cling even more to Elma’s example as we went off to school together.
Thick, crude plaits protruding in different directions, ill-fitting shoes that gave me a strange waddle, and the home-made dresses that I wore repeatedly made me the object of laughter. I was anxious to learn how to imitate the behavior, appearance, and speech of these children who were making fun of us. Elma offered the best example of what I should strive to become. Not only did she have her parents’ good looks and the poise one would expect of Erma Hicks’s oldest daughter but, even at age seven, she had an aura of confidence. She was expected to succeed in anything she tried. I envied everything about her. Being aunt and niece in the same class made us a noticeable duo. Teachers had a tendency to compare us, stoking our competition but pointing out that Elma was the star.
Atherton Elementary School was just four blocks from our compound. I was excited to attend a school that did not require an extended school bus ride. Though only an elementary school, it was as big as the entire kindergarten-through-high-school building of W. R. Banks School for Colored Students in Grapeland. It was also newer, fancier, and more amply supplied, and had many more activities. I was especially impressed with the festive school assemblies on special occasions, the thoughtful promotion of school spirit, and the extensive involvement of parents. Thanks to Miss Ida Mae, I arrived in Houston at second-grade level and was easily able to do the work. Going to school no longer aroused in me the excitement it had in Grapeland, but, determined to keep up with Elma, I applied myself to succeed in this new setting.
Across from Atherton Elementary on Solo Street was the Julia C. Hester House, founded in 1943 to provide character-building, athletic, and intellectual enrichment programs for Black youth in the Fifth Ward. Over time Hester House became a prominent part of my life, opening doors to opportunities that I could not have known otherwise. A modest one-level wooden structure that could barely contain the activity when many children were present, Hester House allowed us the chance to meet others our age through activities such as sports and dances. What I most loved, however, was its small library, where I could borrow books. I imagined this as my own library, where I could have access to books as often as I wished. The period, reading level, or genre did not matter; access to the wealth of words in books such as Little Women and Jane Eyre was almost as important as the stories and characters they offered. I was still on a mission to acquire as many words and meanings as possible. The festooned curtains and furnishings of the red-room described by Jane Eyre set my heart aflutter. If I could describe things with a similar precision, I could express confidently who I was and who I sought to be. I saw a way forward.
Diagonally across Lee Street from our house was a bar called the Dew Drop Inn. On weekends we could hear the noise from its drunken customers. Couples often launched into loud quarrels that I could hear late into the night. My brothers paid a visit to the Dew Drop from time to time — without Mama’s knowledge. The bar entered the annals of Houston crime one dark day when Tommy Head, whose family owned the Dew Drop, killed several members of his estranged wife’s family. But in general, by day, my area of Fifth Ward was an ordinary neighborhood where residents went to work in the morning and returned at night to quiet lives behind their unlocked doors.
My father found a job as a custodian at Bama, a maker of jellies and preserves. At the time Bama was a particularly challenging place to work because white workers frequently baited Black workers with racial comments. In Grapeland, even I had noticed Daddy’s compliant behavior toward whites. Lacking the surliness that many men adopted in the face of racial discrimination, he seemed to relish playing a subservient role and happily stepped off the sidewalk when a white man or woman passed, saying “Yas-SUH!” and grinning constantly in the presence of whites. These well-practiced strategies contributed to his adapting well to the environment at Bama. He was a popular and permanent fixture there until he retired. Honest, hardworking, and reliable, he had job stability almost immediately, an unusual circumstance for a Black man at the time.
Mama had never learned to drive, so her movements were severely circumscribed. Somehow, that suited her. When she was not working, she spent her days preparing meals and performing household duties that, with access to certain conveniences, were far less burdensome than in East Texas. No more boiling clothes in the yard, making lye soap, or curing meat in the smokehouse. Now she had to purchase everything. Peddlers traveled up and down the street selling fruits and vegetables out of their trucks and wagons. Mama would buy just enough potatoes, tomatoes, or other produce for a day. Additional essentials—insurance, shoes, knives, spices, soaps—came via traveling salesmen. Occasionally, Mama would send us to Schweikardt Street to the Chinese grocer, but most of the time my father did the grocery shopping.
My father insisted on holding on to all the income in the house. When my sisters and brothers got jobs, they had to give him all their earnings. Daddy believed that children should become responsible for themselves as soon as possible, even if it meant dropping out of school. With an eighth- grade education, he had only the most rudimentary sense of where education could lead, and he identified it as a privilege we could ill afford. Like others traumatized by the depression, he was parsimonious in the extreme. To petition him for money was a terrifying and futile act. In the city school system, students’ families were asked to provide many things: supplies, gym uniforms and sneakers, clothes for special events, and so on. We learned quickly that we would have to tell our teachers we could not get many of these things. When my sister Nora, only sixteen, went to work cleaning houses to earn money to pay for school needs, my father exacted a major part of her earnings. So she steadily increased her hours to net more income. Eventually, after the tenth grade, she asked if she could stop school to work full time. My parents agreed. Had it not been for legally enforced school attendance, most of the younger siblings would not have finished school. The lax enforcement in Grapeland meant that almost all of the older children had stopped school to work. Once we moved to Houston, all the youngest of us except Nora were able to finish high school without feeling pressure to drop out. But my father would not help us with school expenses.
Mama, however, was more attentive to our needs. She had no more education than Daddy, but she understood how embarrassing and painful it was for us to go to gym class and not be able to participate because we did not have a proper uniform. Intuitive and smart, she did the only thing she could to make sure we had as much as possible: she went to work as a maid.
Yet in spite of all that she was doing for us, the more I saw of city life, the more I began to feel that my mother’s old-fashioned standards and lack of style stymied our enjoyment of Houston. For me, her plainness was a growing source of irritation and embarrassment. Perhaps I transferred onto her the embarrassment I felt about being a misfit because of my clothes, speech, and manners, but she was definitely a contrast to the mothers of my schoolmates, who dressed stylishly and wore makeup and modern hairdos. Mama did not seem to understand or care that the city required a new approach. My sister-in-law Erma Mae, however, was different.
Erma Mae was the epitome of what the modern woman could be: attractive, fun-loving, forceful, direct, independent of mind, and ambitious. Erma said that women could do their own thinking. Education was the key, and her girls were going to be educated so that they could be successful in their own right. As devoted as Erma was to my brother Elbert, she did not believe marriage required blind subservience. She was rearing Elma, Lawanna, and Beverly to be self-assured girls who set high expectations for themselves. I wanted to emulate Erma.
I don’t know if Mama was aware that I was discrediting all that she stood for. Perhaps I showed it in the flip answers I learned to give, in the airs I adopted in imitation of others, or in the way that I idolized Elma and Erma Mae. I began to develop a manner of speaking that was affected and stilted, reminiscent of actresses we saw in the movies. I later modeled my speech after that of Tallulah Bankhead, a prominent actress at the time. I was openly dismissive of practices that evoked country living. It certainly did not occur to me until years later that Mama would have had more appealing cloth- ing and a more polished appearance if she had not put our needs ahead of hers.
I continued to do well at Atherton Elementary School, making perfect grades and following rules for student behavior and good work habits. As a result of the continuous positive feedback I was receiving, my confidence grew. At first I feigned confidence, but eventually my comfort with who I was became real. I met friends, broadened my experiences, and began to realize the potential to achieve beyond what my parents imagined for me. Watching Elbert and Erma every day, hearing how they conceived of the future, made me think that their vision might be within reach. Too young and inexperienced to understand how to piece it all together, I nevertheless absorbed Erma’s insistence that the future of girls would be different if we would only take charge of it.
A couple of years after we had become accustomed to our first Houston neighborhood, Daddy decided to move us to another implausibly crowded lot, on Sam Wilson Street, just east of Lockwood. There, the landlord, an aspiring real estate magnate named Mr. Woodrow, had constructed or moved to the site a number of shabby houses for which he exacted unreasonable rents. My new neighborhood was like the Lee Street area without the railroad yard or the Dew Drop Inn—rows and rows of poorly kept wooden houses that families rented from landlords unable to maintain them properly. Aunt Aggie, the youngest of Mama’s sisters, moved into a house in the rear of ours. Though just a few blocks from Lee Street, this home was much farther from Atherton School, where I remained enrolled through the fifth grade. On Sam Wilson Street, we created a new compound with a different extended family. Mama’s warnings about outsiders remained in force, and Aunt Aggie’s children substituted for Elma and her sisters.
The Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, located on Lockwood two blocks from our new house, had welcomed Daddy as an assistant minister. My discerning mother liked the pastor there, the Rev. Emmitt Thompson, a tall, handsome, and well-spoken young minister who was well educated and dedicated to keeping children interested in the church. All of the pastors I had known before were older, self-taught, and not interested in young church members. I admired Reverend Thompson not only for his attentiveness but for his youth and appealing way of preaching. The bombastic preachers of Grapeland were all about form, but he delivered intelligent, well-composed, thoughtful messages and was among the most charismatic speakers I had ever heard because he did not instill fear about going to hell but, rather, spoke in moving ways about how we should live up to our values. He seemed so perfect that I hoped I would be as lucky as Mrs. Thompson and find a husband with his temperament, good looks, and style. He was a great contrast to my father.
Some time before, Daddy had been “called” to the ministry. He felt that God had revealed to him his duty to follow and disseminate the word of God. Studying the Bible, he apprenticed with ministers and was eventually ordained. Neither a gifted orator nor a commanding singer, he was somewhat awkward in the pulpit. When my father read from the Bible, his delivery lacked feeling, the words stumbling from his mouth with little effect or meaning. His singing was just as unrefined. He would talk halfway through the hymns and hit the especially important notes in a veritable half- shout, distracting listeners from the fact that he was off-key.
A Black Baptist minister of that era who could not sing had little prospect for a promising career. However, being called to the ministry was a venerated tradition in the Black Baptist church, so people tolerated these limitations. Reverend Thompson invited Daddy to serve in a quasi-official capacity as an assistant minister, which meant he was able to be seated in the pulpit every Sunday. I mentioned to my mother that it was strange to see Daddy in the pulpit, occasionally reading the scripture, and cheering on Reverend Thompson when he preached, given what we saw of him at home, ordering her around and inflicting punishment on his children. She chastised me for speaking ill of him and told me that I was never to do so to others. Still, I began secretly to question the legitimacy of my father’s calling. How could a man of God fall so short in his personal life and still have the audacity to teach others how to be godly?
Harrowingly dull, Daddy’s sermons ambitiously tried to imitate the cadence and pattern of great preachers, but he would lapse into a droning voice halfway through. Try as he might, he could not achieve the magnificent crescendo to which great sermons generally built. Mama would listen appreciatively, though, no doubt thankful that her husband was trying so hard to follow the straight and narrow after a youth of hell-raising. Daddy’s sermons made Azella, Ozella, and me quake with suppressed laughter. But if Mama caught us ridiculing Daddy, we were sure to be punished. Yet we persisted in our antics because making fun of him gave us great comfort at the end of a week in which he would have beaten and berated his children as well as ordered my mother around.
In spite of his harsh, mercurial nature, my father could be generous from time to time—a gift without a special occasion, a kind word unanticipated. His raucous laughter was the best gift. He continued to regale us with his fables, although he was still first in line to laugh appreciatively at his own tales. Despite his obsequious “Yas-SUH!” routine for whites, he was a fierce defender when any of his children was attacked or threatened. My sister Nora came home crying one day after a man on the bus accused her of stealing his wallet. The bus driver asked a woman passenger to search Nora. When Daddy heard this, he took his pistol, gathered my brothers, and followed the bus route, overtaking the bus. He ordered the terrified driver to tell him who had falsely accused my sister. This irrational act seems extraordinary for my meek father, but there were many such stories of his confronting men, Black and white, who had offended one of my sisters. Although this reckless behavior worried me, it also periodically tempered my disappointment in and anger toward him for the way he expected subservience from Mama.
By the time I was 11 years old and about to enter the sixth grade, Daddy had moved the family from Sam Wilson Street to Liberty Road. His wanderlust was puzzling since, for the most part, the quality of our houses didn’t improve. Liberty Road offered more space for us, however. The large white house had a sweeping veranda along one side, and there was an ice cream shop attached to the front. Just sitting on the grand porch watching people pass on a busy thoroughfare was a whole afternoon’s delight. Inside, there was enough room for all of us. Arnold, back from his army service and married to Fronette, moved into a house at the rear of the property. Azella and Ozella, a year ahead of me in school, could walk from our house to nearby E. O. Smith Junior High School. I had to transfer to a new school, which, for the first time in my life, I would attend without my sisters. Though I was fearful of this change, in the end I found it easy to adjust to the Quitman Avenue Elementary School and, a year later, I started junior high at E. O. Smith.
E. O. Smith Junior High School was a large stucco building on Lyons Avenue that came to have iconic status in the Fifth Ward. It had been the site of Phillis Wheatley High School until the student population outgrew its capacity and the high school was moved to a new building on Market Street. In the tradition of other Fifth Ward schools, the teachers of E. O. Smith shaped generations of achievers in the Black community. Segregation drove Black teachers to Black schools, affording students the best minds that the Black community produced during the pre-civil-rights era. Exceptional teachers at E. O. Smith made learning challenging and enjoyable for me, and one of them, Mrs. Modria Caraway, my social studies teacher, had a significant influence on my direction in life.
Mrs. Caraway was very dark, with a broad forehead that was even more exposed because of her thin hair. Her skin was beautiful, and she was scrupulous about makeup that enhanced her looks. One couldn’t say that she was a beauty by any means, but her dress, makeup, and hair made us aware that she was a person who was attentive to every aspect of her appearance. She had a droll and entertaining wit that often prompted her to make shocking comments to her classes. There was little temporizing in her approach; her tongue was sharp and her criticism quick and unmoderated. She spoke to us about sex, about associating with the wrong types of friends, and about the importance of making something of our lives. Insisting that our success would rest on whether we understood the lessons of history, she forced us to memorize important dates and events. She would regularly remind us, “You cheerin had better listen to me and do your work, or you’re going to be just as ignorant as those niggas you see standing around on Lyons Avenue.” We would laugh delightedly at her outrageous, though racist, comments.
Mrs. Caraway took a special interest in me and Elma, my niece, who was again in my class. She thought Elma was perfect, and she said so with some frequency, always adding parenthetically that I was smart, too, if not as smart as Elma. The two of us assisted her with special classroom tasks, such as collecting assignments, cleaning the room, and writing on the blackboard. During the summers, she invited me to her home. Her husband owned a dry-cleaning shop in Third Ward, and her sister, Mrs. Dorothy Peters, also became my mentor and friend. Mrs. Caraway’s exceptional interest in students and their lives made her stand out among my teachers. She spoke to us of life, of the risks we faced as Blacks, of the problem of teen pregnancy, of the racial issues we would face, and of the hopeful possibilities that might exist for us. Although her outspoken humor invariably prompted laughter from her classes, she was exceedingly serious about serious matters. Once I got past her odd speech and mannerisms, I began to learn much about the subject she taught and benefited from her personal commitment to her students.
Counselors like Mrs. Punch, the principal, and teachers like Mrs. Caraway at E. O. Smith helped me to understand that, by working beyond the curriculum, which they freely admitted was tailored to students of less ability and interest, I could prepare myself for a much more challenging academic experience. Although they did not offer algebra, one teacher, Mrs. Washington, took it upon herself to introduce me to the subject. Indeed, every teacher sought out books for me and designed extra assignments, pushing me to the next level even when it meant that they had to spend time outside of class.
Mrs. Caraway alerted me to the need to follow current events and brought in newspapers and magazines to demonstrate that there was much to know beyond what the social studies textbooks covered. I especially enjoyed national news coverage of President Dwight D. Eisenhower since we had an Ike in our family. The contrast between the two evoked many jokes in our household. The continuing fallout from the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating public education led to animated discussions in Mrs. Caraway’s classroom. Cultural awareness was no less important to her than the approved curriculum for which she was responsible. Though limited in what we could do in segregated Houston, her emphasis on Black activists, cultural figures, and literary works helped us understand what might be possible in a world of broader access.
In junior high, we again had to buy extras. Sorting out how I was to secure the needed items was an ongoing challenge. With considerable dread, I came home one day to tell my mother that I had to have a pair of tennis shoes for gym class. Asking my father was out of the question. It pained me to know what those tennis shoes would cost my mother in toil and sacrifice.
From time to time, when I was not in school, I would accompany Mama to her job to help out in small ways. Observing her at work was enlightening. She went about her work cleaning other people’s houses with the seriousness and pride I had always seen her apply to her chores at home. She showed me how to complete the work satisfactorily and insisted that I never “half-do” anything. Whether folding clothes, sweeping and mopping floors, or making beds, she taught me how to do chores precisely and correctly. That she was showing me this in another family’s house was unsettling. I wanted Mama to resent having to clean white people’s houses, but she showed no hint of anger or resentment about her work. Her employers treated her with respect, although I did not like them calling her “Fannie” and her having to address them as “Miss Such-and-Such.”
As we grew older, Mama’s being so strict about our involvement in activities became more and more of a problem. My junior high classmates were beginning to go to dances and date, but these were out of the question for me. I was starting to like particular boys, but I was terrified of what Mama and Daddy would say if any boys wanted to visit me. I had a crush on Mickey Leland when I was at Atherton, and I continued to worship him and his cousin James from afar. Mickey reminded me somewhat of Baby Brother; both were fair-skinned. He later went on to great fame as a civil rights fighter and congressman. Despite such attractions, I deflected the overtures of most boys, focusing instead on my studies and on the activities that I was allowed to participate in.
When I graduated from E. O. Smith Junior High School, the theme of the ceremony was “The Responsibilities of Our Generation.” Elma delivered the Class Pledge, and I gave a brief speech of thanks from the graduates. I was surprised to learn that I was the highest-ranking student in the class. While I had been aware that I was doing well, I had not realized I was doing better than Elma. I didn’t celebrate that fact but took it as a fluke, anticipating that my niece would ultimately achieve more than I. Nevertheless, we were both on our way as Erma Mae wanted.
The words on the front of the graduation program, by Harriet Ware, spoke to the new power we felt:
This day I will be conscious of my heritage!
I am a child of Him who made the sun and stars.
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