I OWE EVERYTHING to my parents and grandparents, to the community I grew up in. They all set fine examples for my two younger brothers and me in terms of family values, civic engagement, and pride in ourselves and our race. My parents, Judson Wilbur Robinson Sr. and Josie Bell McCullough Robinson, met in 1924 when they were students at Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College, a historically Black university in Prairie View, Texas (now Prairie View A&M University). Daddy wanted to go to law school but at that time there weren’t any law schools that Blacks could attend in Texas or nearby states, so he took a degree in business instead, graduating in 1926. Mother graduated in 1929 with a degree in education. I was their firstborn child, arriving on October 7, 1930. My two brothers, Judson Jr. and Jim, were born two and four years later.
My parents were homeowners since the time of their marriage, right after my mother’s graduation from college. Initially, they owned two homes: one in San Antonio near family, where I was born, and the other in Houston. During the Great Depression, many Black men worked on the railroad, and my father was a waiter on the Southern Pacific Railroad. We could not afford to keep two homes at the time, so Daddy decided Houston would be the best location for us to live since the Southern Pacific operated from there. We moved when I was two years old, and my parents offered our San Antonio home to my maternal grandmother, Ida Irene Leonard, whom we kids called Mommie.
Mommie was a stately woman. She was stern yet kind and loving. Mommie taught my brothers and me, by word and example, that we could do anything in life that we wanted to do. Her first husband, my biological grandfather, Stuart McCullough, died when my mother was thirteen. Mommie later married a pharmacist, Dr. A. K. Leonard, and he was the one we called Grandpa since we never met Stuart. Mommie and Grandpa A.K. owned a drugstore in San Antonio, and Grandpa’s brother William Henry owned another drugstore on the other side of town. Both stores served multiracial neighborhoods with mostly Black and Mexican families. Mommie and Grandpa’s drugstore was known as Leonard’s on the West Side and his brother’s store was Leonard’s on the East Side.
When I was about five years old, Grandpa A.K. was killed in a car accident while he and Mommie were on their way home from the funeral of his brother who lived in Corpus Christi. It was God’s will that I wasn’t in that tragic accident. My grandparents wanted me to ride back to San Antonio with them, but for some reason it was decided that I would ride with Mommie’s best friend instead. If I had been in their car, it’s likely that I too would have perished.
Mommie was seriously injured in the accident, but she recovered fully and resumed ownership and management of the drugstore. She was not a registered pharmacist, however, so she had to discontinue the pharmacy services. But Mommie was smart and tenacious, a good businesswoman and administrator. She continued providing her customers with full drugstore services except for prescriptions, selling nonpharmacy items and offering delivery and credit for people who needed those services. Like most drugstores at that time, there was a soda fountain in the store where customers could relax at tables and enjoy ice cream sodas and other beverages.
My brothers and I spent many Christmas holidays and summer vacations with Mommie, and I worked at Leonard’s at the soda fountain making ice cream cones and floats. I also learned to roll cigarettes for customers who wanted to buy one or two at a time. Whenever customers called orders in on the phone, my brothers would deliver the orders on their bicycles. Mommie called my brothers and me official paid workers. “You are earning money for your school clothes,” she would tell us. At the end of each day, I enjoyed helping with the bookkeeping and counting the day’s receipts.
Mommie had high expectations of us. She fully expected my brothers to deliver orders quickly and efficiently, and for me to help manage the soda fountain and to know all of the items in the store in order to serve her customers fully. If a customer wanted something that I couldn’t locate, I went to Mommie and she would show me where to find the item. “You must always do your work with honor and commitment,” she told us, and that’s how she worked. The store was open seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., except for Sundays when she opened later and one evening each week when she closed early. She used her business acumen to ensure that the store was well managed and to always let her customers know that she cared about them and valued their business.
Mommie owned and also lived in the same white frame building that housed her corner drugstore, and a heavy locked door separated her living quarters from the store. Her apartment included a large bedroom, a living room, her kitchen, bathroom, and a fenced-in yard with two red chow dogs that we walked around the neighborhood. She was very proud of us and was never short on praise for how well we did the jobs she assigned us and for serving the community. She had an extensive collection of dolls that she kept on her bed, all types of dolls: antique dolls, fashion dolls, dolls from many different parts of the world. I enjoyed spending time listening to her tell me stories about the history and culture of her dolls. She often invited her close friends to her home to see us and show them things we could do. I remember one time she asked me to sing her friends a song she thought I knew. I remember thinking, Mommie, you know I don’t carry a tune very well. But at the end of the song she said I had sung it beautifully. This was one of so many ways that she and my parents encouraged me and built within me a sense of well-being and confidence in my abilities.
The neighborhood Mommie lived in was racially mixed, mostly African American and Mexican. Many of her customers were Mexican, but I don’t think she spoke Spanish. She did, however, understand it well enough to be able to serve her Mexican customers. My best friend in San Antonio was a Mexican girl who lived across the street from Mommie, and we spent lots of time together biking, talking, and playing at each other’s homes. I remember vividly that she did not want me to learn Spanish. “I don’t want anyone to think you’re Mexican,” she would say but would not explain why. I thought that was so strange since we were friends. Her family moved away when the girl and I were about thirteen and I never saw her again.
There were lots of churches in our neighborhood, and my family was interdenominational—Daddy was African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and my paternal grandfather was a Baptist preacher. Mommie was also Baptist, but her two children, my mother and my Uncle Jim, later converted to Catholicism. I don’t know why they converted. Back then, and in fact until Vatican II in 1962, Catholic teaching did not allow us to visit other churches. But my mother did not impose that restriction on us growing up. We usually didn’t attend formal Sunday services in other churches because we went to Mass in our own church on Sundays. But we did visit those other churches with our friends, including the Church of God in Christ where we heard spirited gospel music and people shouting.
There was a Catholic cathedral a couple of blocks from the drugstore where we went to Mass when we visited Mommie. My mother felt strongly about going to Mass on Sundays. Even though my father attended AME services, he also often reminded us, “If you are too ill to go to Mass, I guess you are too ill to do anything else that day.” One Sunday morning when I was in my early teens I fainted in church. We had gone to Mass after having arrived in San Antonio very late that Saturday night. When Mass had ended and I got up from the pew to go outside, the next thing I knew I was surrounded by Mexican women who had revived me. They were all speaking Spanish and I didn’t understand a word they were saying. I will never forget the smiles on their faces or the love in their voices and their eyes when they saw that I was okay. That experience taught me the universality of love.
During the school year, we lived in Houston. Our first home there was on the northern end of the Second Ward. The ward system had been a common political tool in the early nineteenth century, and Houston’s civic leaders had divided the city into four initial wards in 1839. The Fifth Ward was added in 1866 to accommodate the city’s growth, and the Sixth Ward was added around a decade later. The city’s form of government changed in 1906, but the wards have remained a cultural touchstone, especially in the areas that have remained primarily Black residential areas—the Second, Third, and Fifth Wards. The wards disappeared from Houston’s city maps altogether in 1928, but area residents still identify certain communities as wards, with ward identification appearing on signage and in casual conversation between Houstonians. Today, they are cultural rather than legal identities.
Our house on Rusk Street was built high off the ground, and there was a space underneath the front porch where my brothers and I and our friends would hide and play. Inside the house were our bedrooms, living and dining rooms, and the bathroom. Our parents’ bedroom had a large picture window that looked out onto the porch. The house was near the homes of Mommie’s two sisters, my great aunts, Josie and Ninny Sasser—my mother was named after her Aunt Josie and I was named for my mother. I continued the tradition by naming my youngest daughter Josie, and then my middle daughter, Norrene, named her daughter Josie. So far there are five Josies through five generations of my family.
The northern end of the Second Ward was an industrial area with warehouses and railroad tracks. Both of my great aunts owned rooming houses there for white workers in the area. Mommie and her sisters were very light-skinned. One could surmise that Aunt Josie and Aunt Ninny were passing for white, because in the segregated South, Black men did not drive trucks or operate trains. Visiting my great aunts, which we didn’t do often, was quite a treat; when we visited we had to enter their homes through the back door and stay in the kitchen. The only reason we were given was that the front door was for the renters. Aunt Josie was my mother’s favorite aunt, and I have fond memories of our visits with her. The best thing about our visits was that Aunt Josie had a sugar sifter—a large jar that was placed on a stand and was filled with sugar. There was a lid on the bottom of the jar with a handle, and when you turned the handle, the sugar would sift out. We loved to spread butter on bread and then sprinkle sugar on top. It was delicious.
One day when Aunt Josie didn’t have any renters, she let me see the house. I was impressed with how lovely her home was. The rooms on the first floor were large and filled with antique furniture, including a beautiful white baby grand piano in the living room. The bedrooms on the second floor were as beautifully furnished as the rooms on the first floor.
There was also a corner store on our side of Rusk Street where we children could buy candy and gum. The store was owned by a person with light skin, possibly white. Except for the owner of the corner store, we were a small, Black, close-knit community. Everyone looked after the children on the block, and we could be chastised by any of the adults or reminded to behave.
There were railroad tracks on the next street over from our house on Rusk. The homes on that block were shotgun-style houses, houses made of cheap materials and designed so poorly that if you looked through the front door you could peer all the way to the back door with no obstruction, seeing the bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom on either side of the hall. We knew all the families on that street, but we knew the Mills family better than the others. One night a train caused a terrible fire in the Mills family’s home. My parents invited them to stay with us until they could figure out what to do. Their daughter Ola, who was my age, lived with us for several years and became like a sister to me.
One of my deep memories from our Rusk Street home was the night my brother Judson Jr. took very sick and had a seizure. I must have been about five years old. He was two years younger than I so he must have been about three. I clearly remember how frightened my poor mother was. Somehow, word got out and our home was soon filled with neighbor ladies who took charge. A couple of the stronger women brought a galvanized tub into the middle room, our living/dining room, and filled it with water. The women placed my little brother in the water and, true to an old wives’ tale from that time, they placed a spoon handle in his mouth to prevent him from swallowing his tongue. It seems that the water treatment was very important because they kept bathing him until the seizure stopped. I remember standing in the corner crying and praying silently that my little brother wouldn’t die as I watched my mother—oh, how she cried and cried. Thankfully, he recovered. My father wasn’t home that night. In those days, for his railroad work, he was away two or three times a week.
I have fond memories of going to the depot to pick up my father after his shift. His train usually came in at night, so Mom would dress us in our pajamas and pile us into our old dark gray Lincoln and off we’d go. At the station, we’d sit in the car and listen. Eyes lighting up, we would squeal, “Daddy’s coming!” when we heard the rumble of the train pulling up to the station, accompanied by the mournful sound of its whistle. We waited as patiently as children wait for anything while we watched people leave the station, passengers first and then the workers. The porters and waiters were always the last to get off. We were so delighted when we finally spotted our tall, handsome father. “Hi children,” he would say, greeting us with hugs. Then he would climb into the driver’s seat and kiss Mother as she moved over to the passenger seat. “Daddy, will you take us to Galveston?” one of us would always ask. Daddy knew we would be asleep before we got home, but in his wisdom he also knew we would be very disappointed if he said no. We loved going to Galveston. It was a recreation city, and when we went there we had so much fun playing in the Gulf of Mexico, building sandcastles, collecting rocks, and going to the hot-dog stand. But Galveston was fifty-six miles from Houston and in those days, long before freeways were built, fifty-six miles was a long way away, so we didn’t go very often. “Sure,” he would respond, laughing as he drove away from the curb to take us home. “We’re off to Galveston.”
I will never forget the time one evening when we were on our way to pick up Daddy. It was dusk but still light enough outside to see. We were stopped for some reason, and I remember looking up and seeing a Black man crossing the street. He stepped aside and tipped his hat in deference to the white people he encountered while crossing the street. His demeanor changed once he got to the other side of the street, and we could hear him using language that showed his true feelings about having to accommodate white supremacy while crossing that street. I remember being so struck by seeing that even as a child.
When I was five or six years old, we moved out of our house on Rusk Street to a home on the corner of Nagle and McIlhanney Streets in the Third Ward. That house was much larger than our home on Rusk: we had a screened-in porch, a garage, a backyard that was surrounded by a picket fence, and each of us kids had our own room. We did our laundry on the porch where our washing machine sat with tubs for rinsing beside it. A side door led from the screened-in porch to the outside. I remember that the city had to put drains in the streets because of flooding that occurred when it rained, and how I crawled through the pipes with my brothers on days when it wasn’t raining. I could do anything they could do even though I was the only girl. One day they blocked the ends of the pipe and I couldn’t get out. They only kept me in there long enough to scare me, and indeed I was frightened and very angry with them.
I was nine years old when World War II started, several years after we moved to Nagle Street. The government encouraged citizens all across the country to plant victory gardens to help prevent a food shortage. It was also announced that DuPont’s nylon manufacturing would be used exclusively to produce war materials. DuPont ceased production of nylon stockings and switched to parachutes, airplane cords, and ropes, and women were asked to save used nylons. Tobacco was also rationed and citizens were encouraged to save the metallic material inside cigarette packs.
Certain foods were rationed, and the planting of victory gardens helped ensure that there would be enough food for soldiers fighting around the world. The gardens also helped people stretch their ration coupons, provided by the government to limit the amount of certain items that people could have. Being a civic-minded man, my father saw the importance of participating in this effort. He also saw it as an opportunity to teach me gardening as an act of civic engagement. We grew lettuce, mustard and collard greens, tomatoes. I remember going out to the garden every morning with Daddy with watering cans, picking ripe vegetables for Mother to cook.
At dinnertime our family was proud to eat the vegetables Daddy and I grew in our victory garden. We always ate breakfast and dinner together, even when Daddy was away on a railroad trip. Dinner always began with grace being said, and every day our parents asked how our day had been and listened carefully as each of us answered. Mother always cooked more than enough food and often there were neighbors or Daddy’s colleagues at our dinner table. My parents were avid followers of the accomplishments of Black people, and dinner conversations were always lively and informative, whether we had company or not. For instance, though I was only six years old when Jesse Owens won the Olympics, I remember Mom and Daddy discussing his victory and white people’s negative reaction to it.
I don’t remember a time when my parents didn’t instill in my brothers and me the importance of civic engagement. Throughout my childhood, Daddy organized and served on multiple boards and committees, including the NAACP. He also helped organize the first Urban League affiliate in Houston and was president of the Railroad Waiters Union.
My mother was what is known today as a stay-at-home mom, but she too served the community. When we were young, she acted as a sort of community social worker, advising and helping out whoever needed help. She earned extra income teaching uneducated, middle-class white women to read and write. I clearly remember going with her to those women’s back doors and sitting with her in their kitchens while she gave them their lessons. Later, when Jim, Judson Jr., and I were in high school, she volunteered to teach African American history at the segregated Black Catholic school we attended. She put her education degree to full use after we were in college and was an early pioneer in the concept of early childhood education. She created a nursery school that became a model for educating small children: she not only listened to the children and talked with them but also cared for their young minds, teaching them reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her school became a practicum placement for education majors at Texas Southern University. I remember feeling so proud of her whenever I visited her school when I was home from college for holidays and summer vacation. I simply couldn’t get enough of watching how completely and naturally she engaged students who wanted to learn how to teach children who were so young.
Mother made our home the center of our community. I remember her calling out to our neighbors on her way out of the garage, “Hey, Miss So-and-so, I’m going to the store. Do you need anything?” For a short while, she raised chickens in the backyard of our house on Nagle Street. Rather than confining them to a coop, she converted a small space in the yard so that the chicks could roam free. When they grew to broiler size she sold them. This only lasted a year or so because Mother felt badly about growing the chickens only to sell them, knowing they would become someone’s meal.
My mother was an incredibly energetic woman, which is remarkable because she suffered rheumatic fever as a child that damaged her heart. She may not have had as much strength as she appeared to have, but she never let it stop her. I can remember her feeling very ill at the end of some days. She wasn’t herself at those times—her energy was subdued, as though it was being drained from her. We were so worried when we saw her like that and feared she was going to die. In those days, doctors prescribed digitalis to heart patients. Mother would place the small pill under her tongue and go straight to bed. Following an episode she would begin her next day an hour later but would soon be back to her routine. I never saw her spend an entire day in bed.
Mother and Aunt Josie were very close. When Mother wasn’t feeling well, Aunt Josie would tell us that we must take care of her. When Aunt Josie herself became ill and was no longer as independent as she had once been, Mother, concerned that she may not eat as well as she should, took her nutritious home-cooked meals nearly every day.
My brothers and I went to St. Nicholas, a historically Black Catholic school in the Third Ward managed by nuns from the Sisters of the Holy Family, an order of African American nuns founded by free Black women in New Orleans in 1842—twenty years before the Civil War and before it was legal for such a congregation to exist. Education was the assignment of the Houston branch of the Sisters of the Holy Family, and indeed we received a high-quality education. Our principal, Sister Anselm, and the nuns she managed were strict, insisting that we be orderly and treat one another and our school building with respect.
Our home was near Jack Yates High School, a large public Black high school that had sports, shop, and other subjects that our small Catholic school did not have. After I graduated, my brothers transferred to Jack Yates, though I’m not sure why my parents waited until I graduated to allow my brothers to attend that school.
The city parks were segregated, but we knew that the swimming pools in the white parks were deeper and better serviced than the pool in Emancipation Park, the Black park, allowing white kids to dive if they wanted to. My brothers were good swimmers but were limited by the shallowness of our pool. Our playground equipment was also notably inferior to the equipment in the white park. Black families were invited to visit the white parks on special days such as Juneteenth, the day celebrated every June to commemorate the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. We did not attend. Our parents believed adamantly that we would not honor the days that whites said we should honor. I remember them saying, “If you can’t go to their park every day, you can’t go on special days either.”
We often went to visit my paternal grandparents, Henry and Willie Robinson, who lived nearby. Grandma Willie had long white hair and I enjoyed brushing and braiding it. Grandpa Henry had only finished eighth grade, but he somehow managed to go to “college.” Back in the 1800s, when he attended Huston-Tillotson in Austin, the school only went through eighth grade. Later it became Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black university. Whenever Daddy or his sister, my Aunt Verona, wrote letters to their father, he would return them marked all over with corrections in red ink. He wanted to be sure his children could read well, write legibly, and use proper English in their writing as well as their speaking.
Grandpa Henry was a preacher. My brothers and I were told stories of Grandma Willie standing in the back of their Baptist church watching and listening while Grandpa Henry preached his sermons. If she heard anyone in the congregation say anything negative about him, she quickly corrected them. Grandpa was what we called a “travelin’ preacha.” He traveled to many communities near Houston teaching Black preachers the Bible and effective preaching methods.
When I was in my teens, we took frequent road trips from Houston to San Antonio to visit Mommie in Daddy’s old Lincoln. We noticed water fountains and restrooms with signs that read “White Only” or “Colored Only.” There were even rest areas on the road that were designated as “Negro areas.” San Antonio is 197 miles from Houston; in those days the speed limit was forty-five miles per hour, so the trip took about five hours. Mother packed food to take on those trips, and we stopped at the homes of friends along the way to rest and use the bathroom. Though our parents taught us much about racism and taught us pride in who we were, directly experiencing the things that we had been told about brought them to life for us. Daddy tried to ease our concerns by making up stories or telling jokes about why we couldn’t stop. I don’t remember his words, just a feeling of joy as he told his stories.
Daddy was a real pioneer and trendsetter. In 1943, when I was thirteen, he became the first African American to manage Kelly Courts, a public housing project in the Fifth Ward. The following year he took me with him as he went knocking on doors in our neighborhood and in the projects to fight for voters’ rights. I remember us going door-to-door collecting signatures to do away with the oppressive Poll Tax, a tax implemented throughout the South to prevent Blacks from voting.
Three years later, he was promoted to manager of the Cuney Homes project located in the Third Ward. He also became the first Black realtor in Houston and the first Black man to own an insurance agency there. He had many friends and supporters for all of his endeavors, both political and business, and I remember that white men in his business called him Mr. Robinson. They never called him by his first name unless he gave them permission to do so. Mother was perhaps his strongest supporter and cheerleader. She encouraged everything he wanted to do, somehow finding financial support for all of his efforts. Initially, he managed his business out of our home, and I was his first secretary. He had a map of Houston that hung on the dining room wall. I will never forget the day he got his first pair of reading glasses. He walked up to the map, put on the round, metal rimmed spectacles, and a big smile spread over his face. “I can see!” he exclaimed.
It was my family that started me on the lifelong path of fighting for social justice, and they strongly supported my efforts, but there were other things that helped solidify my path. Growing up, my best friend was a girl named Joyce Mouton. We had so much fun together—we walked to school together and often dressed alike. Her mother worked weekends, so Joyce essentially became part of our family and, in fact, became my eldest daughter Patrice’s godmother. We are still the best of friends.
When I was in high school, Joyce experienced a crushing emotional trauma that affected her so deeply that she still feels it today. Her strongest, and perhaps only, desire growing up was to join the convent upon graduating high school and become a nun. We both worked hard to do everything right so that I could go to college and Joyce could enter the convent.
By the time of our graduation, I had been accepted to Fisk University and Joyce was eagerly looking forward to joining the convent. But a week before graduation, she received a letter telling her that she had not been accepted. Her biological father and mother were not together. Her mother and stepfather had tried to get the marriage to Joyce’s biological father annulled, but the church refused them, saying that they did not view her biological father as a Christian. They used this to deny Joyce entry into the convent. It was a horrible blow. Friends and family had selected all of her graduation gifts with the convent in mind, and she had to give them to someone else who was accepted to the convent.
Many years later, one of our deacons at church went to a class on annulment and learned that there was a form Blacks were required to fill out in order to be granted annulment. No one had told Joyce’s parents about this form; even worse, the deacon learned that whites were not required to take this step. It was horribly shocking to learn that even in the church discrimination existed. We were keenly aware of the unjust gender discrimination in the church; priests were allowed to walk through society without their collars on, but nuns had to wear their habits at all times and were not allowed to ride buses unless accompanied by a chaperone, usually a parishioner. Further, priests were allowed to take meals wherever and with whomever they wished but nuns were not. I remember thinking, “This is so unfair.” Like nuns everywhere, the nuns at St. Nicholas took vows of poverty, charity, and obedience. But true to her activism and community spirit, Mother often invited them to our home for meals. Honoring their vow of privacy, she allowed them to take their meals in our breakfast nook with the door closed. But it wasn’t until the deacon attended this class that we learned of the laws that existed within the church that permitted such blatant racial discrimination.
This was especially shocking because we learned that the Catholic Church had their own racist rules. We remained loyal to the church, but looking back I often wonder that my reaction was so strong. As such a young person, I didn’t know how to bring justice to that situation, but I attribute my awareness to things I had learned at home; for instance, I knew of the work of Thurgood Marshall and Adam Clayton Powell. What happened to Joyce brought my awareness of the discrimination that was happening in my own life to the surface. Joyce was the smartest girl in our class. Her mother was a consistent volunteer at school and in our church. But at the time, because her rejection was blamed on her biological father, Joyce wondered if there was something essentially wrong with her. She wasn’t able to see back then that it was not about her at all. It was all about discrimination.
Today Joyce is able to see that there was a blessing in her inability to attend the convent. She graduated from Xavier University, the only university in the United States that is both Catholic and a historically Black university, and she taught religion courses in her parish until her retirement. She married a wonderful man, and they have five children who now are all nearing retirement. Whereas Joyce was denied the opportunity to be a nun, the love and commitment to service that she carried with her could not be denied. The discrimination she suffered did not destroy her.
I too worried over Joyce’s experience in the church and the hurt that she felt in being denied her dream. I didn’t fully understand at the time the connection between her denial and racism. When I later learned it was a matter of the church not sharing important information with Joyce, my feelings toward the church and its role in supremacy became an important issue. I needed to begin paying closer attention to the universality of supremacy, even in my own church.
Even as I grieved Joyce’s predicament, I was still excited to start preparing for college life. I initially wanted to go to Howard, but Mother thought it was too far away from home. She wanted me to go to Fisk: being in Nashville it was closer to home, and a lot of Fisk people lived in Houston and were very much engaged in the community. Happily for us both, I was accepted to Fisk. That summer before leaving for college my friend Edwina’s mother, Mrs. Gray, took me, Edwina, and another friend, Anita Jemison, under her wing to prepare us for life at Fisk. “Fisk students represent their families, the university, and indeed our community both on and off campus,” she reminded us. She met with us regularly for several weeks and taught us grooming and etiquette. I think of it today as her own private finishing school for emerging Fiskites. At the end of summer—and at the end of Mrs. Gray’s teaching—I was off to Nashville.