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Segregation ends in Houston and Galveston County

Segregation ends in Houston and Galveston County

In Houston, bottom-line business interests trumped race bias. A few political leaders possessed sufficient influence and independence to implement reforms without waiting to be prodded by the courts. Roy Hofheinz, the millionaire real estate developer who served as mayor from 1953 to 1956, ordered the desegregation of restrooms, water fountains, and waiting areas in the city’s new airport, directed the removal of “whites only” and “colored” signs from restrooms at city hall, and arranged the integration of the municipal golf course. Only the last of these executive actions was a response to a federal court order. Mayor  Hofheinz broke the initial resistance to this step by reminding the members of the city council that it would be very expensive for the city to build a separate-but-equal “colored” golf course. Schools were another matter – the Houston and Galveston County school districts took decades to desegregate, and only by federal court order. The last segregated class graduated from Dunbar in 1966.

Pocketbook issues were also in evidence when, during the nascent African American students’ sit-in movement of 1960, Houston’s political and business leaders conspired to keep news of civil rights protests out of the media spotlight. This was possible, at least temporarily, because Houston’s newspapers, television stations, and radio stations were owned by a relatively small number of influential individuals or families. The owners of businesses facing protests concluded that racial strife might damage the city’s self-promoted progressive image and hence harm its economic prospects. As a result of their agreements with local black community leaders, who were similarly business-minded, most of Houston’s major downtown businesses were desegregated during an orchestrated media “blackout.”

Was the process smooth, as compared to other places?

The desegregation of Texas, and especially Houston, was comparatively quiet and peaceful, but only comparatively. Little Rock, Arkansas, became the well-publicized site of “massive resistance” in 1957, while the Houston businessmen seemed to have snuck desegregation by the resisters in the dead of night. That did not mean that Houston was a particularly racially tolerant or progressive city, per se, but only that the resistance was less massive and monolithic. Rural areas (especially in East Texas) featured more deeply ingrained racial prejudice.