Make Haste Slowly: Moderates, Conservatives, and School Desegregation in Houston by William Henry Kellar. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999. 256 pp. $38.95 cloth)
In public memory and academic history alike, the dramatic and violent confrontations in such places as Little Rock, Arkansas, manifest most visibly the school desegregation battles of the 1950s and 1960s. In Make Haste Slowly, William Kellar examines the lesser known but arguably more representative story of desegregation in Houston, Texas. Although it featured no dramatic stand in the schoolhouse door, no mass violence, or deployment of federal troops, this story deserves to be remembered for the way that internal and external pressures brought about desegregation without ultimately fulfilling the wider ambitions of civil rights advocates.
When the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in its landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, the city of Houston operated what may have been the nation's largest Jim Crow school system. Kellar begins by tracing the development of this system. Black Houstonians certainly did not choose to send their children to separate and decidedly unequal schools, but they did what they could to make them as good as possible. By the 1930s, the Bayou City's black schools had outpaced those of the deep South. Its school system, crowned by a black junior college, were lauded by one African American educational leader as "the best Negro school system in the South." In the 1940s, as the Supreme Court slowly chipped away at segregation's legal foundation, activists and black schoolteachers pressed for higher salaries, better facilities, and greater funding. Although they won many small victories over the years, Houston's black schools remained overcrowded, under-funded, and decidedly inferior to their white counterparts.
The Brown decision opened the door for more sweeping reforms, but with it came a vigorous opposition to desegregation of any sort. In the 1950s and 1960s, white moderates, conservatives, and the occasional liberal battled for control of the Houston school board, as they did across the state. With a few notable exceptions, such as Governor Allan Shivers' 1956 use of the Texas Rangers to prevent school integration in Mansfield, Texas did not witness the massive resistance that characterized other former Confederate states. Most Lone Star congressional representatives, including then-Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, refused to sign the 1956 "Southern Manifesto" that pledged steadfast opposition to Brown. Grassroots politics, however, were more contentious; for a time, deeply conservative anti-communist activists controlled Houston's school board and blocked any progress toward desegregation.
Pressure from black Houston--a lawsuit and 1960 sit-ins led by students from Texas Southern University--forced the issue, however, and evntually Houston's business elite ceased their active defense of Jim Crow. Here, Kellar's account is at its most impressive, placing these business leaders' decisions in context with the struggles over civil rights across the South. Simply put, segregation was no longer worth the cost of maintaining it. The prospects of places such as Birmingham, Alabama, were crippled by their adamant and violent defense of Jim Crow. Houston would derail its chances for further economic growth if it went down the same path. Thus, the Houston Independent School District began desegregation on September 8, 1960, when Tyrone Raymond Day reported for class at Kashmere Gardens Elementary School.
Kellar is right to call this account the history of "desegregation" rather than "integration." As his last two chapters make clear, Houston avoided the worst sins of the intransigent South but neither did it hand civil rights activists a great victory. By the 1990s, "[a]ll traces of the segregated school system had been eliminated, and African American school children were free to enroll at any school in the district without the fear of being rejected because of their race." But at the same time, the growing non-white population within city limits, "segregated neighborhoods, and the steady stream of whites and then of blacks moving to the suburbs have rendered the concept of integrated public schools nearly impossible to achieve." Today, the Houston Independent School District struggles with a decaying physical plant, a shrinking property tax base, and tensions over the de facto segregation of magnet school programs. The battles over desegregation so vividly described by William Kellar are really the middle chapters of a still-unfinished story.
Benjamin H. Johnson teaches history at Southern Methodist University.