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Texas Southern University: Born in Sin, A College Finally Makes Houston Listen

By William C. Bryson

(Ed. note: The writer, a member of the CRIMSON news board, is spending a leave of absence in south Texas. Since this article was written, the situation at Texas Southern has become even worse. A policeman was killed in rioting last week, and 488 people were arrested.)

HOUSTON, TEXAS -- To most Houstonians, Wheeler Street means only one thing: Negro. Like Dowling, West Dallas, Gray, and Elgin, Wheeler is one of the main arteries of Black Houston. As with the others, traffic on Wheeler is heavy throughout the day, and during rush hours, it is often bumper-to-bumper. But for the last month, Wheeler, in the five-block vicinty of Houston's predominantly Negro Texas Southern University, has been transformed. The first sign of trouble came one day last month, when Wheeler was filled with people, some three to four hundred chanting and singing T.S.U. students.

Touchy about the possibility of a riot, the police department had blockaded Wheeler and stationed a 300-man riot squad behind a nearby stadium, equipped with tear gas, paddy wagons, and police dogs. The students had begun what turned out to be the largest single Negro protest demonstration in Houston's history.

The demonstration, which began simply as a rally to protest the dismissal of the friends of SNCC (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) as a campus organization and the firing of government instructor Mack Jones, who had been the SNCC group's faculty advisor, rapidly grew into a demand for wide-ranging changes in the University's standards and policies. By the end of the week of demonstrations and rallies, 400 students had marched four and one-half miles to the county court house, the Houston police had braced for a full-scale riot, and three of the protest leaders had been jailed on charges which included threatening to kill police officers.

The following week, their bonds lowered from $25,000 apiece to $1,000, the three arrested leaders were released, and the University administration, pressured by city representatives to end the disturbances quickly, made a number of concessions on the SNCC group's demands.


Though the "trouble" seemed to subside for a while, the impact on T.S.U. and the Houston Negro community was just beginning to be felt.

Ironically, though the T.S.U. administration has always been the epitome of Negro conservatism, the university may become the incubator for social change, either peaceful or violent, in Houston. For the past two summers, Houstonians have been acutely sensitive to the possibility of a riot. This summer is liable to be even more touchy. In an effort to improve, or at least keep a gauge on race relations in the city. Mayor Louie Welch has appointed several high-salaried special assistants, to maintain liaison between city officials and Negro leaders. One of the special assistants, Houston Post science editor Blair Justice, is also on a Justice Department grant to study attitudes of Houston Negroes for possible comparison with those of Negroes in cities which have had riots. Following the advice of his assistants, Mayor Welch authorized programs to upgrade the poorest of Houston's Negro neighborhoods, and to improve police-Negro relations.

Throughout all the turmoil all the turmoil around T.S.U. this year, the university administration has fought a losing battle to keep the surface completely calm. The administration's desperate scrambling during the past week to preserve the university's conservative image is due, in part, to T.S.U.'s unique and uncomfortable legal status. In 1947, the Texas legislature founded T.S.U. (then the Texas State University for Negroes) so that integration at the University of Texas could be forestalled for a few years. The T.S.U. law school, established in 1948, cost the state $100,000 to accommodate the one Negro who had applied to the U.T. Law School. As T.S.U. Law School Dean Kenneth S. Tollett puts it, "We were born in sin."

If its past is not steeped in proud tradition, T.S.U.'s failure is even more in doubt. Faculty members complain that there are no real plans for the future of T.S.U., that no one talks of twenty, fifty, or even ten-year programs for the school. Plans are arranged, year by year, according to the funds that the legislature appropriates. It is likely that the school will eventually be merged with the burgeoning University of Houston. The edges of the two campuses are only three blocks apart.

Meanwhile, those who administer T.S.U. feel themselves in a tenuous position. Dean of Students James B. Jones warned the students that the legislature is meeting right now to consider a cut in the university's already skimpy budget. An active SNCC chapter on the campus, Dean Jones reasons, would certainly not appease the legislators from the segregationist citadels of rural east Texas. Jones added that the university's present fund-raising campaign in Houston might be endangered if radical Black Power advocates gained too much student support, or any form of toleration from the administration. Indeed, if the editorial policy of the Forward Times, a weekly paper of the Negro community, is any measure of the reaction of non-activist Negroes, Jones is probably right. "The young people are impressionable, emotional, crave excitement, and enjoy opportunities to rebel against authority," a recent Forward Times editorial read. "Characters like F. D. Kirkpatrick and Lee Otis Johnson [another demonstration leader] should be ridden out of town on a log with their hands and feet securely tied," it added.

Just Listen

Most of T.S.U.'s 4,500 students are from Houston, with shaky educational backgrounds acquired in Houston's Negro high schools; other large student contingents even worse prepared, come from East Texas and Louisiana. Many courses are remedial, and most are taught directly out of textbooks. The beginning freshman English course is entitled "Oral Communication." Students claim that most freshmen flunk English at least once, and one girl is reported to have taken the first semester of the course nine times before finally passing with a D. Many instructors teaching remedial courses are on one-year, renewable contracts, and students complain that they are often more concerned about their jobs than about their students. "I'm not here to interest you or stimulate you," one instructor reportedly said. "I'm here for you to listen to what I've got to say."

Much of Texas Southern, as one member of the English department puts it, is veneer. Yes, there is a library, but it is very small, and woefully ill-equipped for serious research. Yes, there is a bookstore with an extensive selection of sweatshirts and greeting cards, but the only books open for browsing are a haphazard batch of used paperbacks on a card table at the rear of the store. Many of the courses listed and described in the catalogue year after year are simply never given.

These deficiencies have existed since the beginning, but as long as nice looking buildings have kept going up, no one has much minded. Until this year.

This fall, the school paper, the T.S.U. Herald, suddenly began to print articles and editorials highly critical of the administration and, in some cases, of the faculty. The monthly Herald had previously been the equivalent of the sad product of countless small college journalism departments, where the students learn type sizes and newspaper lingo by transcribing the college's official press release. But, under the editorship of Charles Johnson, the Herald underwent a change that was quite disturbing to the administration.

In the November issue, Johnson had Mack Jones, the government instructor and SNCC advisor who was subsequently told that his contract would not be renewed, write a long, scathing editorial on the inadequacies of the T.S.U. approach to education. "The achievement level of students entering Texas Southern hovers somewhere around the junior high school level," Jones wrote, "and the achievement level of the average graduate of this institution is something less than the twelfth grade."

Jones attacked the intentional clouding of the "achievement gap" between Negro and white college students. "If a student has done well in high school, notwithstanding the fact that he has only reached the eighth or ninth grade level, and if he continues to do well in situations where he is judged on the basis of a curved score, he has no reason to think that he is something short of brilliant. Thus the student will likely make less effort to close the gap.

"The T.S.U. student," Jones concluded, "must distinguish between the trappings of higher education and higher education itself."

In the January issue of the Herald, an editorial appeared quoting an unnamed professor as saying, "I don't care what anyone says about me in this school . . . I have failed a whole class before, and I can still do it. I can harm you, while you can't do me a thing."

Not Nice

And in the February issue, the Herald printed another editorial attacking poor teaching at T.S.U. "Students who are really interested in their education," the editorial advised, "can stay away from these instructors and their classes, because by helping them to keep their jobs, we are only hurting ourselves and our future job opportunities."

Finally, Dean Jones called Johnson, and Hera'd faculty advisor Mrs. Mary V. Mabry into his office and, according to the account which the Herald subsequently printed of the meeting, Dean Jones "reprimanted [the Herald representatives] for printing allegedly controversial subjects." Jones charged, the Herald reports, that the paper was 'negative,' and he 'suggested we write about nicer things than we have been reporting.'"

Students have long chafed under the restrictive, and highly centralized administration. Dean Jones, a member of a local draft board, has been accused by students of using his influence within the Selective Service System to intimidate male students, and to get rid of troublemakers. Herald editor Johnson is presently classified 1-A, because, he charges, the University never forwarded his II-S deferment papers to his local draft board.

The administration has also been accused of bugging phone lines of students suspected of "troublesome" behavior. Faculty AAUP meetings are always attended, one professor reports, by a few administration "plants." And during the demonstrations, Dean Jones openly told the students that other students and plainclothes policemen would be circulating among them with tape recorders and cameras, and that any evidence they gathered would be used against the demonstrators.

Since their formation in the wake of Foreman's October visit, the Friends of SNCC have been a small thorn in the administration's side. Dubbed a "provisional campus organization," they were allowed to meet in the religious center, and, theoretically, to use university facilities, just like any other full-fledged campus organization. But in March, the administration apparently thought it had found the issue with which it could gracefully get the Friends of SNCC out of its hair. A group of Negro performers, known as the Gospel Singers, were arrested in East Texas, and allegedly beaten by local police. The next week, the Friends of SNCC organized a march of T.S.U. students downtown to protest the police brutality and demand an investigation by the assistant attorney general of Texas, whose office is in Houston. About 100 persons marched from the campus to Houston's M&M building, their chants of "Black Power, Black Power," getting big play in the Houston papers.

The week after the march, Dean Jones told the Friends of SNCC they would no longer be considered a campus organization, and would no longer be allowed to use any campus facilities for meetings. At the same time, Mack Jones, the faculty advisor of the Friends of SNCC, was told that his contract would not be renewed the following year. The administration indicated that Jones had been fired for academic reasons alone; that the university had a surplus of teachers in his field, international relations, and that Jones had promised to obtain his Ph.D., and had not yet done so. Jones says he will receive his doctorate on schedule this June, in spite of the fact that he has been teaching a full load of courses all year. In his letter to the chairman of the division of social sciences, Jones wrote, "I am sure that my association with the campus-based Friends of SNCC had nothing to do with my firing. After all, Texas Southern is committed to the emancipation of the Negro. And we do not bow and scrape simply to please powerful persons external to the University."

After Dean Jones' announcement that SNCC had been kicked off campus, the Rev. Kirkpatrick and Millard Lowe, student co-chairman of the Friends of SNCC, along with Lee Otis Johnson, a former T.S.U. student, and Franklin Alexander, the DuBois Club chairman from Chicago, organized a protest rally. When Jones answered the SNCC group's appeal with a letter saying that he could not reconsider his decision, Kirkpatrick called for a boycott of the school. Johnson, who was indefinitely suspended by Dean Jones in December for making boisterous speeches in the university's coffee shop, led a march through the halls of campus buildings, warning students in the classrooms that if they did not join the boycott, they would be locked in. Several of the university's main doors were boarded and chained closed, and students blocked off Wheeler Street, protesting the "highway through our campus."

Concerned about the potential explosiveness of the situation, a group of faculty members recommended the next day that the administration reinstate the Friends of SNCC immediately, issue a statement clarifying the circumstances of Mack Jones' dismissal, and promise not to call the police. The administration, however, refused. At the meeting of the T.S.U. chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the faculty members voted to ask the AAUP's special committee on academic freedom investigate the circumstances of Jones' release.

The SNCC group began to draw up a list of grievances which students, throughout the period of the boycott, had begun to voice. And they agreed to call off the boycott until negotiations could be arranged with the administration on the following Monday. Late Sunday afternoon, however, the administration filed charges against Lee Otis Johnson, for disturbing the peace. He was taken to the county jail, and quickly released. Arguing that the administration had "played dirty," the Friends of SNCC resumed the boycott Monday morning, and released a far more comprehensive list of demands, including increasing teachers' salaries, changing women's curfew hours (freshmen must be in every night at 9 p.m.), improving the food in the cafeterias, keeping the library and coffee shop open later at night, and having Dean Jones removed from the Draft Board.

The next morning, a number of students were ready to march on the County Courthouse, and demand that their leaders be returned to them. But just after noon Dean Jones came out to speak with the demonstrators in Wheeler Street. "We have had no specific demands presented us," Jones told the crowd, "We have a right to meet our petitioners face to face over a bargaining table," he said. "There should have been names of all those signing the petition of demands." The students, however, wanted to hear what T.S.U. acting president J. B. Pierce intended to do about the charges he had filed against Kirkpatrick, Alexander, and Johnson. Pierce, when he spoke to the crowd, was non-committal. First, he read a prepared statement, saying the administration wished to "carry on a dialogue with the students." Then asked whether he would drop the charges, Pierce said, "I'm not a lawyer, I don't know the law.... I don't know what's going to happen," and walked off the stage.

At that, the students poured out of the auditorium and began massing to march on the courthouse. Some 200 persons marched around the University of Houston campus to enlist the support of Negro students there, and then headed downtown. One of the marchers shouted up at Lee Otis Johnson, who was heading the four-block long line, "Hey, Lee Otis, from now on, we're callin' you Moses. You're leading the brothers out of the ghetto." Johnson's reign, however, was short. Moments later, as the marchers passed by the riot cars which had been parked during the last week on 24-hour alert at Jeppesen stadium, about eight Negro police officers rushed up to Johnson, grabbed him, and dragged him to a waiting car. Two plainclothes officers waved a submachine gun and a riot gun over the crowd, and then retreated running across Cullen Boulevard.

That night, about 75 of the demonstrators slept on the sidewalk, awaiting word whether the university would try to drop charges against the three prisoners, or whether the hearing would be moved up to the next day. City representatives had reportedly been trying to contact Justice of the Peace Jack Treadway, in whose court the case was scheduled to be heard, but Treadway could not be reached. Neither Treadway, nor the district attorney, Carol S. Vance, were expected to be amenable to any suggestions, whether from the mayor's office, or from the university, that charges be dropped at this point. One onlooker, among the group of well-dressed whites watching the demonstrators, remarked, "If Treadway lets them niggers go, he'll get killed in the next election."

"Mrs. Wallace wouldn't never let 'em get away with this," another bystander said.

An off-duty fireman remarked, "If I had my fire hose, I'd wash all this trash down the street."

The next day, just after noon, Millard Lowe and Dr. Archie L. Buffkins, who had agreed to replace Mack Jones as advisor of SNCC, drove up and told the group that the university had dropped charges, and that they should all clean up the area and return to the campus. Under the impression that the three prisoners would be freed presently, the demonstrators complied. When they reached the campus, however, they learned that President Pierce had released a statement saying "I... have met with the mayor and his staff, and ... have requested that ... their bonds be reduced to an amount that can be raised

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