Quiet desegregation of Waco's public facilities

Joe L. Ward Jr.

Following the ruling in 1954 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. The Board of Education, the Waco Independent School District was ultimately integrated under a Federal Court Order, under which the school system was operated until a year or so ago (this being written in 1996).

The manner in which this was done was extremely unpopular with the vast (white) majority, the fear being that the quality of public education would be severely damaged. Without question, separate was certainly not equal with regard to the way in which public education had been made available to the blacks, and the rationale for the destruction of neighborhood schools and the busing of kids back and forth all over town in order to create a racial balance was that the quality of black education would be raised to that of white education.

However, in my opinion, the ultimate result was to lower the quality of all public education to that of the least common denominator, and in the process the quality of public education was almost completely destroyed and was abandoned over time by most of those white children whose parents could afford to send them to a private school. The foregoing is to partially explain the nature of the racial animosity that already existed and had thus been further exacerbated at the time of the following recounted integration of public facilities, those being lunch counters, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and city boards and facilities.

In order to promote racial harmony by serving as a liaison between the white and black communities to assist in the addressing of the problems of the latter, in June of 1961 a sub-committee of the Committee of Fifty (a group of "senior civic leaders"), named the Inter-Racial Sub-Committee, was created with Earl Harrison, Vice President of the First National Bank, as the original chairman. For some reason that I do not now recall, not long thereafter I (Joe Ward) became chairman and Earl Harrison remained a member of the committee.

Other members included Russel Cox of R. E. Cox Co., A. M. Goldstein of Goldstein Migel Co., Jack Kultgen, owner of Bird-Kultgen Ford Co., Harry Provence, editor of the Waco News Tribune, Virgil Walker, president of Behrens Drug Co., Avery Downing, superintendent of the Waco Public School District, Abner McCall, president of Baylor University and Cullen Smith, Naman-Howell law firm partner. In addition, Paul Marable and Leon Dollens, manager and staff member respectively of the Chamber of Commerce, worked closely and effectively with the Committee throughout its existence.

This was done surreptitiously, as it was thought that the less the publicity the greater the possibility of success in whatever events might follow. In this regard Harry Provence subsequently earned the undying gratitude of those involved in not only making this possible but also in keeping us informed of what might be about to take place, of which we would otherwise have had no knowledge in time to forestall adverse events. This was possible with the Waco News Tribune being owned at that time by Harlon Fentress, but it would certainly not be possible today under the present ownership.

The action outlined above was precipitated by Virgil Walker, chairman of the Committee of Fifty, having been approached by Dr. J. H. Adams, president of Paul Quinn College, who advised that he had been confronted by the NAACP regarding the lack of progress being made in integrating Waco, Waco being (according to them) the largest city in Texas not having been integrated.

It was felt that this situation could be initially addressed by the Committee by arranging the immediate integration of the lunch counter facilities in Pipkins East Waco Drug Store, located in the vicinity of Paul Quinn. Mrs. Pauline Garrett, the owner, was approached and she agreed, provided it occurred in an orderly manner without publicity and that she first have time to prepare her employees, all of which was accomplished to the mutual satisfaction of those involved.

Mrs. Garrett felt it was unfair to make her business the sole target. Dr. Adams soon thereafter mandated that the lunch counters of all downtown Waco stores should be integrated by Dec. 20 (1961).

At a committee meeting, the situation was explained to the major downtown merchants along with the suggestion that voluntary action would be to everyone's benefit in lieu of the sit-ins and whatnot that were taking place in other parts of the country.

C. B. Williams, owner of Williams Drug Stores, stated that he would accept the proposal. Monte Lawrence, representing Goldstein Migel, also agreed but felt that the members of the Waco Restaurant Association should also agree to integrate. All of those present whose lunch counter facilities would be affected by integration agreed to begin serving "colored people" (as they were known as in those days).

The Committee resolved to request of Dr. Adams that he arrange the creation of a committee composed of influential representative blacks to work in tandem with our Committee, which he did forthwith. The members of the Progressive Community Council thus established were:

  • Reverend Marvin Griffin, Chairman
  • Reverend M. L. Cooper
  • Mrs. J. O. A. Connor
  • Van Pell Evans
  • Reverend L. F. Hardee
  • Dr. L. H. McCloney
  • R. L. Penrice

The two committees were able to work together closely and successfully for the next two or three years until our mission was accomplished. It was really a great pleasure to work with Marvin Griffin, a well educated, reasonable and very able black minister, whom I ultimately came to regard as a good friend. It was a real loss to Waco when he moved to Austin.

The first operation took place at Woolworth's lunch counter, when at the appointed time two or three blacks chosen by the Progressive Community Council sat down at the counter and ordered a cup of coffee. As I recall, the only untoward reaction by the whites already there was for those in the adjacent seats to get up and move to seats further down the counter.

There was a time when blacks were known as "colored", a term apparently agreeable to them. Then "negro" became the acceptable appellation, succeeded by "black" and "African American." I do not recall that I ever used the word "nigger," which in my youth was common terminology and did not bear the political correctness opprobrium that the "N" word now does. But I did use the "nigra" which I somewhat painfully converted to "negro." Apparently my southern accent in the pronunciation of "negro" was not suitable to one of the professional blacks, who challenged me for my use of the term during one of our joint meetings. I advised him with some asperity that both his and my accents left something to be desired.

At this time Waco had two military installations that constituted a significant part of the local economy, James Connally Air Force Base and the headquarters of the Twelfth Air Force, each having a number of black personnel. One day a pronouncement came down privately from Washington that, unless all public facilities throughout the city were made available to all air force personnel, both installations would be closed and moved elsewhere. (This ultimately occurred, but not both at the same time, and, although in each case it was a severe blow to the economy, the town managed to overcome the loss.) When word of this got around in the business community, it was quickly determined that, as unpopular as it would be with the merchants involved as well as the general public, it would be the better part of valor to bow to the inevitable and take the necessary steps to get it done with as little turmoil as possible. Thus our efforts were made much easier.

As a result of this the Inter-Racial Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty became the Community Relations Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, with me as chairman. The other members were Avery Downing, Earl Harrison, Jack Kultgen, Abner McCall, Harry Provence and Virgil Walker, all a carry-over from the Inter-Racial Subcommittees, plus Glyndon Hague, head of the Veterans Administration Regional Office, and Brad Hoover, executive director of the Cooper Foundation. Paul Marable, manager of the Chamber of Commerce, and Leon Dollens, a member of the Chamber staff, worked closely and very effectively with the Committee throughout its existence.

The Progressive Community Council submitted a request that the Waco Chamber of Commerce use its influence for the immediate integration of the Waco Public Schools and to also do the following, which requests were referred to our Community Relations Committee for handling:

  • Desegregation of public facilities: parks, swimming pools, playgrounds, YMCA and YWCA.

  • Desegregation of privately owned facilities coupled with a public interest: restaurants, theatres, hotels, motels, recreation facilities, Baylor University, business and other trade schools and hospitals.
  • Unrestricted employment in such privately owned companies as: soft drink, milk, beer, bakery, wholesale grocery, potato chip, meat packing, department store, automobile and furniture, bank, savings and loan and public utilities.
  • Unrestricted employment in all tax supported entities: tax collector, police and fire department, court house, highway and public welfare departments and the Texas Employment Commission.
  • Appointment of blacks to boards and commissions: Urban Renewal, Housing Authority, Zoning Board and Park Board.
  • Promote black representation in local government by: electing councilmen from single-member districts and returning to the strong mayor form of government
  • Provide underpasses and overpasses on Interstate I-35 to provide free access to downtown

Our initial response to these requests was that, with regard to restaurants, we had ascertained that nearly all restaurants were willing to integrate provided that, on the initial visit to each restaurant, there would be a party of no more than four people who had previously made reservations with the owner or manager and who would arrive early in the evening before the establishment became crowded. Also the same standards of dress and behavior would apply as to the regular clientele. The Council was agreeable to these stipulations.

The problems involved in the integration of the Waco public facilities were (1) the white public generally speaking were less than enthusiastic about it, (2) it was anticipated that the personnel of the establishments involved would be even less so, and (3) the owners were fearful of the impact that the process might have on their respective businesses.

Our modus operandi was for the committee and the council to meet jointly to address a proposed operation, then separately to plan for the exercising of the responsibility assigned to each, and then again jointly to coordinate the plans. The meetings of the Community Relations Committee and the joint meetings with the Progressive Community Council were held in the directors room at the offices of the Chamber of Commerce between Fourth and Fifth streets on the south side of Franklin.

The procedure was to designate a proposed location to be "integrated", then for our Committee to contact the owner or manager of the establishment to explain the situation to him and get his permission and cooperation, and then for the Council to choose some willing blacks that would be acceptable as customers, people who were properly dressed and who would not attempt to make a scene out of their presence. A joint meeting would then be held to apprise both groups of the plans and select a day and time of day at which it would take place. The owner or manager would then be advised of the target date and time, and in the meantime he would educate his personnel as to the treatment that was to be accorded the first black customers with whom they had ever been confronted.

All of this cloak-and-dagger stuff probably would appear ridiculous today to those not around at that time, but it took a great deal of courage on the part of the merchants and probably even more so for the black customers that were involved.

Probably the most significant occurrence at a dining establishment was the serving of the first blacks at George's Chef (the name subsequently being changed to The Surf and Sirloin), when two black couples went in at the appointed time, were shown to a table, properly served and departed without incident. This was Waco's premier restaurant at that time and George Williams was really a good citizen.

We also felt that it would be possible to integrate the motels and theatres, most of the latter being owned by Interstate Theatres. When the local Interstate manager was approached we were told, "When the City desegregates parks, playgrounds, swimming pools and other facilities and the schools desegregate, we will desegregate. We do not want to be first or last."

At our request, two or three of the top officers of Interstate Theaters then came down from Dallas and met with our Committee, and we importuned them to go along with our program. They expressed great reluctance, saying that the situation in theaters was different because of the proximity of the patrons to each other over an extended period of time, but in the end they agreed. Ultimately Interstate agreed to go along, the usual procedure was followed and, other than occasionally those in adjacent seats getting up and relocating, there were no significant repercussions.

We were very fortunate in having the complete cooperation of the Waco News Tribune in not reporting anything in connection with this, although a great deal of "news" could have been created by so doing. Unfortunately, this would not have been the case under the present ownership of the paper. One incident occurred that could have completely blown the whole project and created a great deal of turmoil by a "crusading" reporter working for an editor with no regard for the consequences as to how a news story was treated. Word having gotten around among the blacks as to what was taking place, a group of Paul Quinn students took issue with something involving the Williams Drug Store across Elm Street from the campus in East Waco and created a potentially dangerous incident. That sort of thing is to a great extent done for and thrives on publicity, but the paper completely ignored it. As soon as we heard about it while it was taking place, the Council was notified and, also realizing the possible danger to our program, they managed to calm the troubled waters and things returned to normal.

Most of the establishments were cooperative, and within a reasonable period of time it was possible for a black to patronize most restaurants, theaters and motels in Waco without incident, although there were a few owners who said "no niggers better come into my place". There was never any day-to-day public recounting of the activities of our committee, but there are still people around who heard about it at the time and comment to me about it on occasion. All in all, I consider it to have been a successful operation that made some contribution to racial harmony, or at least lack of racial disharmony, in our community.

We further advised the Council that we considered it to be feasible to attempt to accomplish the integration of the City parks and playgrounds but not the swimming pools, and that we would lobby for representation of blacks on the Urban Renewal Board and the Zoning Board. We requested that the Council supply us with a list of names of those people that they considered to be qualified to serve on those boards. Ultimately all of these requests were met.

In response to the request for the creation of job opportunities for blacks, the Community Relations Council created and submitted to individual employers "A Program for Increasing Job Opportunities for blacks in Processing and Distributing Industries". The initial statement in this presentation was "This is a voluntary program" and further that "participation in the program was motivated by the philosophy that a voluntary effort by white employers to create better employment opportunities for qualified negroes is in the best interest of their community." In its implementation, "no employer could be expected to dismiss any present employee who was performing satisfactorily in order to hire a negro, create a new job not considered to be economically sound and necessary to his operations in order to hire a negro" or to fill any job with an unqualified person.

This program was submitted to a number of companies in the category for which it was designed and, while it most certainly was not universally accepted, it did put it on the minds of the business community and several employers undertook immediate implementation by creating the Major Employers Equal Opportunity Committee. This Committee, which met monthly at the Chamber of Commerce, was made up by representatives from Universal Atlas Cement Co., J. M. Wood Mfg. Co., Owens Illinois-Glass Co., General Tire & Rubber Co., Texas Power & Light Co., L. L. Sams Co., The Veterans Administration Hospital and Regional Office, James Connally Air Force Base, the Texas Employment Agency, The Building Trades Council, the Central Labor Council and the City of Waco.

In January of 1964, the Community Relations Committee came out of the closet and made a full reporting of its activities over the previous three years to the Board of Directors of the Waco Chamber of Commerce, after which the written report, signed by each of the nine members of the Committee, was released to the news media. The report stated that during the existence of the Committee the following had occurred, and in most instances the services of the Committee had been utilized to some extent by those involved: desegregation of the Waco Public Schools and Baylor University; desegregation of all City park and recreation facilities except swimming pools; desegregation of all lunch counter facilities and most suburban eating establishments; desegregation of some hotels, motels and suburban theatres; the institution of an orderly desegregation program in both major hospitals; and the creation by several employer groups of equal opportunity programs.

This concluded the major efforts of the Community Relations Committee, although it continued to function spasmodically for sometime thereafter in an effort to wrap up some unfinished business and as circumstances required.

Joe L. Ward Jr. is a retired businessman and former Waco city councilman.

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