(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.
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.