A Growing Family, a Wider World
CHUCK AND I WERE MARRIED before a small group of family and friends on June 27, 1951. Chuck wasn’t Catholic, so he had to take marriage preparation counseling to learn how marriage is viewed in the Catholic Church. He had to promise that our children would be baptized and raised in the Catholic tradition. This was before the Second Vatican Council, in 1957, which among other things made it possible for Catholics to pray with other Christian denominations and encouraged friendship with other non-Christian faiths. We were not allowed to be married inside the Church, so with permission our wedding ceremony was officiated by a priest in front of the Blessed Mother’s Grotto at my home parish, St. Nicholas Catholic Church. We wanted our family and friends to celebrate with us, so we held our wedding reception at my parents’ home in Pleasantville, a new subdivision and housing development on the outskirts of Houston that my father and his partners had developed while I was in college. The community had public and private housing opportunities; my parents bought a home in the private housing section, and my mother managed the public housing section. Their new home was perfect for our reception.
We decided to spend our first summer as a married couple with Chuck’s parents in San Antonio, taking occasional trips to Houston to visit my family. Later that summer we would head to Boston, where Chuck would be very busy pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering and mathematics at MIT. When would we have another opportunity to see our families?
Chuck’s parents were kind and caring. Like my dad, Chuck’s father, Miles T. Johnson (known as M.T. by his family and friends), had been a railroad man. M.T. was a solidly built, dark-skinned man who was meticulous and methodical and rather reserved in personality. Though long retired when we married, M.T. still worked every day. He got up at the same time each morning and came to the breakfast table neatly dressed in well-pressed pants and a clean white shirt. He ate breakfast, drank his coffee, then picked up his leather-bound ledger and his tin box and walked through the kitchen to a door that led to a section in the garage that served as his office. There men would come to elicit his help with their financial matters: taxes, budgets, and all manner of financial concerns.
My mother-in-law, Hattie Johnson, was just as meticulous and methodical in her routines as her husband, but she was far more personable and always had a warm and ready smile. Mother Johnson was a classic homemaker. She got up early every morning, made breakfast, and then spent her day cleaning, cooking, and baking bread. On laundry day, she washed her family’s clothes in an old-style wringer washer and hung the sparkling clean laundry out to dry on a clothesline in the backyard. She treated her work lovingly, as though it were simply her daily work and not a chore.
Mother Johnson treated me like a daughter. She was kind to me. We talked about many things. She was a religious woman and was very concerned about the souls of her six children, and she cared about my religious health as well. One of her treasures was an old copy of Ebony magazine with a picture of a Black Jesus on the cover, which she kept on a bookcase in the living room. Ebony was a rather young publication at the time, its first issue published only six years before in 1945. We were all proud of this magazine whose purpose was to address African American issues, personalities, and interests in a positive and self-affirming manner. But Mother Johnson questioned the authenticity of Jesus as a Black man. Back then, there weren’t many people who considered that Jesus could be anything but white. It was common knowledge that he was born and lived in the Middle East where people have dark skin, but the only pictures we saw of him depicted him as a white man. The reality that Jesus most likely had dark skin escaped us.
Chuck was not a regular churchgoer, and Mother Johnson wanted her son to be “saved” to ensure that there would be a place for him in Heaven when he passed away. I think she may have hoped that she could influence me to encourage him to attend church more regularly. She once said to me, “I would rather see him go even to the Catholic Church than not to be saved.” I was taken aback for a moment and didn’t know how to take her words. Having been born and raised Catholic, it had never occurred to me that some people viewed Catholicism as a substitute for what they considered to be “real” religion.
One evening when a visitor was leaving the Johnsons’ home after an enjoyable evening, M.T. offered to drive him home. Mother Johnson climbed into the backseat so that M.T. and his friend could continue their conversation. For some reason, she stayed in the backseat after the friend got out of the car. While they were on their way home, a policeman stopped him. Then, as now, police randomly stopped Black men while they were driving—his appearance, character, or station in life did not matter. “Where you goin’, boy?” the policeman demanded. He shined his flashlight through the car and stopped it briefly when it reached Mother Johnson’s face. “Why is this white woman in your car?” he demanded. M.T. replied, “I was driving Miss Spears home.” The policeman didn’t need to know that the woman in the backseat, whose skin was so light that she was frequently mistaken for a white woman, was M.T.’s wife of many years. It was simply another example of how the police continually harassed us as well as an example of our creativity in avoiding conflict with them. From then on, the family jokingly called Mother Johnson “Miss Spears.”
We left Texas in August 1951 and took a train to Boston. I remember that it took forever to get out of the state of Texas, but we seemed to travel through the other states rather quickly. We stopped in Washington, D.C., and spent a few days with Chuck’s sister, Helen, and her husband, George Holland, whom I later learned was from St. Paul, Minnesota, and held a high level position in the federal government. This was two years before the Supreme Court’s District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co. decision that would end segregation in Washington, D.C. restaurants, housing, businesses, and schools—a case that in many ways was a forerunner to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in public schools. Needless to say, things were already heating up there when we arrived.
We were very much aware that well-paying federal jobs had drawn a growing number of well-educated middle- and upper-income Black professionals and skilled workers to Washington, D.C. Chuck’s brother-in-law worked in government finance and his sister was a teacher. We also knew that the city was deeply segregated and had some of the nation’s worst living conditions, schools, and services in its African American neighborhoods.
In 1950, the year before our visit, Mary Church Terrell, an eighty-seven-year-old Black woman who chaired Washington’s Coordinating Committee, had discovered along with attorneys in the Lawyers Guild that a number of laws from the Reconstruction Era that outlawed segregation had never been repealed. Mrs. Terrell led a small group into a restaurant called Thompson’s Diner and requested a table. As expected, the manager promptly refused to serve them. The Coordinating Committee thrust the issue of segregated eating establishments onto the legal and social stage of the nation’s capital. By the time Chuck and I arrived in D.C., the issue, while not resolved until two years later, in 1953, was already having positive effects; Blacks were getting far better services. I remember one day while I was waiting in line at a pharmacy the counter clerk, a Black woman, called me to the front of the line, deliberately ignoring the white customers who were ahead of me. While ringing up my order, she said, “Now I hope they understand what we have gone through all these years.”
Helen and George were active in the changes that were happening in Washington, and they generously shared their knowledge with us, engaging us in constant conversations. Being with them reinforced what Chuck and I had learned while growing up and while we were students at Fisk. George was an older man and had been engaged in the struggle for a very long time. I remember him saying, “The thing that keeps me engaged is my clear understanding that every man puts his pants on the same way: one leg at a time.” He believed that kind of realization kept him in the struggle and kept him believing that someday everyone would appreciate that fact. And it helped me continue to grow in my commitment to my people.
We stayed in Boston three years until Chuck was drafted into the U.S. Army. Our first year in Boston we stayed with a wonderful family from Arkansas, the Taylors, who welcomed us like we were members of their family. Their daughter, Alice Sanford, and I quickly became dear friends. We were in the same age group and were both college graduates. Alice went to Wellesley College, and we had many interesting conversations about our Southern backgrounds and family values. The differences in her Seven Sisters alma mater and my historically Black alma mater were the topic of many conversations.
Chuck and I had the misfortune of losing our first baby a couple of months after our arrival in Boston. My recovery from the miscarriage was slow, and I was in Massachusetts General Hospital for a long time. The Taylors were so kind to me during that difficult time. My mother was unable to travel because of her heart condition. Alice’s husband was in the service by then so Alice was able to spend time with me. Mother was so grateful that I had found such a loving family to nurture her daughter in her absence.
Once I recovered, I found employment as a computer operator in Harvard University’s aircraft experimental lab, reviewing recordings of flight maneuvers. I worked there for a year and then in a computer lab at MIT for another year, helping to introduce new users to computers. I also worked at Polaroid as an administrative assistant for a brief period. Looking back, I think now that I should have bought stock in Polaroid. Their cameras were innovative at the time and very popular.
In the years leading up to Brown v. Board of Education, there was turmoil regarding school desegregation in cities all across the nation. Boston was one of those cities. Its schools were deeply segregated, just like schools in the South. Black parents wanted to get their children into schools with the best resources for educational growth: smaller class sizes, up-to-date books, good school buildings, and quality teachers. Those schools were in white neighborhoods, particularly in South Boston, a neighborhood known to be deeply racist. In 1953, I was elected president of the Iota chapter, the graduate chapter of Delta Sigma Theta in Cambridge, and we were very active helping Black families with this new directive regarding school desegregation. We worked with parents to help them understand what a ruling would mean. We studied transportation and other issues of what quality education would look like for their children.
The Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional on May 17, 1954. Two weeks later, on June 2, Chuck and I were blessed with our firstborn daughter, Patrice Yvonne.
We left Massachusetts in July 1954, when Patrice was almost two months old. Chuck’s graduate studies at MIT had led to a teaching fellowship at the University of Michigan. But just when we were about to move to Ann Arbor, he was drafted into the Army. Because of his expertise in engineering and mathematics, the Army stationed him at the Los Alamos National Atomic Laboratory in New Mexico. Los Alamos is best known as the site of the Manhattan Project, the research and development project that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.
The weather in Los Alamos was unusual to us. It was hot, dry, and windy in the daytime and very cold at night. I remember that laundry I hung out to dry was covered in sand when I brought it back inside. Chuck was very concerned about how the baby and I would fare in that climate, so we decided that it would be best for Patrice and me to stay in Houston with my parents. Los Alamos was close enough to Houston that he was able to visit frequently, for a few days every month or so. I decided that since I would be in Houston for the two years that Chuck was in the service, I would take some courses at Texas Southern University (TSU).
Texas Southern is an important institution both historically and for my family. My father and brother Judson Jr. both served on its Board of Trustees, and my other brother, Jim, earned his law degree there thirty years after my father had been denied his dream of studying law. Today, TSU is one of the largest and most comprehensive historically Black colleges in the nation and one of only four independent public universities in Texas. It has the distinction of being the only historically Black university in Texas, recognized by Forbes magazine as one of America’s top colleges. It is the leading producer of college degrees among African Americans and Hispanics in Texas and ranks fourth in the United States in doctoral and professional degrees conferred to African Americans. But that was not always the case.
In 1927, the Houston school board established separate junior colleges because the state’s public facilities were segregated. The board created two colleges, Houston Junior College and Houston Colored Junior College. The main provision of the authorization was that the colored college would need to meet all of its instructional expenses from tuition fees.
The first classes were held on summer evenings at Jack Yates High School, where my brothers would later go and graduate from. Enrollment that first summer was three hundred. The number dropped to eighty-eight students in the fall because many of the summer students were teachers who had to return to their jobs once the school year began. Nevertheless, the Houston Colored Junior College progressed fast, and by 1931, it was approved for accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Three years later, in the summer of 1934, the school board changed the junior college to a four-year college and changed its name to Houston College for Negroes. The first class of sixty-three students graduated in 1936. The college was able to add a graduate program in 1943. Two years later, the school district severed its relationship, and management of the college was vested in a newly developed Board of Regents. The college continued to operate at Yates High School, but by 1946 it had grown to an enrollment of approximately fourteen hundred students and needed room to grow. With the help of local philanthropist Hugh Roy Cullen, the college obtained a fifty-three-acre piece of property in the Third Ward. Then, with the support of two sets of large donors, Mrs. T. M. Fairchild and Mr. and Mrs. C. A. Dupree, along with the African American community, the college raised enough money to construct the first building on its new campus. The college moved to its first building, the T. M. Fairchild Building, in 1946.
That same year, an African American mail carrier named Heman Marion Sweatt applied to enroll in the law school at the University of Texas. He was denied admission due to segregation and later, with the support of the NAACP, filed Sweatt v. Painter, a lawsuit against the University of Texas and the State of Texas. Believing the separate but equal doctrine would carry the day, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 140 on March 3, 1947, providing for the establishment of a Negro law school in Houston and the creation of a university to surround it. This bill was complemented by House Bill 788, which approved $2 million to purchase a site near Houston to house this new college and support its operation.
Texas lawmakers initially considered Prairie View A&M College, the college my parents graduated from in the 1920s, as the location of the new law school. However, on June 14, 1947, two months before I left for Fisk University, the decision was made to use the site of Houston College for Negroes, with its new campus at the center of a large and fast-growing black population. Thus the Texas State University for Negroes was born. The new university was charged with teaching “pharmacy, dentistry, arts and sciences, journalism, education, literature, law, medicine, and other professional courses.” The legislature stipulated that “these courses shall be equivalent to those offered at other institutions of this type supported by the State of Texas.” In 1951, the name was permanently changed to Texas Southern University.
Initially, my plan was to go to the School of Social Work at TSU. But somewhere along the line, I decided instead to take courses in the department of education where I was able to focus on the educational needs of Black children and theories ascribed to learning. I became deeply interested in education and decided to get a teaching certificate. I’m not sure what influenced that decision. Being married with a small child may have played into it, because I would be able to complete a program within the two-year time frame that Chuck would be in the service. My mother’s passion for educating our children was certainly also an influence. The nursery school she opened when I graduated from high school had been identified as a model for nursery school teachers, and as it turned out TSU students who were studying early childhood education did their practice teaching there.
By the time I returned to Houston with Patrice, my parents were well established in Pleasantville. Mother continued to work daily, managing the project, in spite of her heart condition. She was fortunate to have hired Marie Taulton, a woman who in spirit, love, and support became like family. Marie took care of Mother and her home. When I moved in with my parents, she also helped with Patrice. By the time Mother and I felt that Patrice and I were settled enough, Patrice knew Marie well and loved her. I felt so blessed. She was the sweetest person and a wonderful babysitter. She made it possible for me to go to school. I could leave home after nursing the baby and I knew Marie would take care of Patrice and my parents’ house. I was able to complete my courses and my practice teaching without worry.
After Chuck was discharged from the Army and we left Houston, I always made sure to look in on Marie and her sisters whenever we went home to visit. I remember how devastated I was when her sisters told me one visit that Marie had died tragically. She had gotten obese as she grew older and had died in a fire in her home, in part because she was unable to escape the house to safety. The tragic death of the woman who had been so kind and loving to my mother and Patrice was beyond belief.
The environment of activism at Texas Southern and in Houston culture in general was strong, and being steeped in that culture in that particular moment in history was very meaningful to me. I spent a lot of time with fellow graduate students and Houston friends discussing current events, hearing Thurgood Marshall’s lectures again, and discussing the Supreme Court school desegregation decision. The courage of Rosa Parks and the determination of the people who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott reinforced the sense of possibility that my parents had instilled in me as a child, which was solidified at Fisk—the hope that we as a people would someday achieve freedom and equality.
I completed my teaching certificate in June 1956 and our second daughter, Norrene Elaine, was born on October 8. This was shortly before Chuck was discharged from the Army, and I laugh when I remember the day my brother said to him, “You’re almost out of the Army and you have a family. You’re going to have a find a job, man.” It wasn’t long after that Chuck applied to Honeywell in Minnesota and was hired as a research engineer/mathematician. And so when Patrice was two years old and Norrene was just six weeks, we packed up and moved to Minneapolis.