Bob Feldman : Population Growth and Civil Rights Victories in Texas, 1940-1953

Herman Sweatt was the first African American to attend the University of Texas after a 1950 Supreme Court decision. Photo courtesy of UT Press / Daily Texan.

The hidden history of Texas

Part 12: 1940-1953/2 — Population growth and some significant civil rights victories.

By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | February 18, 2013

[This is the second section of Part 12 of Bob Feldman’s Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]

As Texas’s manufacturing industry expanded to produce more weapons and supplies for U.S. government needs during World War II, the need for factory workers in Texas increased; and more people in Texas moved from rural areas into cities and towns between 1940 and 1953.

By 1950, over 7.7 million people now lived in Texas and around 60 percent of all people in Texas now lived in urban areas. By 1950, for example, 596,163 people lived in Houston, 434,462 in Dallas, 408,407 in San Antonio, and 278,728 in Fort Worth; however, Austin’s population was still only 132,459 in 1950.

According to Alwyn Barr’s Black Texans, “World War II almost doubled the number of black industrial workers” in Texas — from 159,000 to a peak of 295,000 in 1943. But during World War II “the Consolidated Vultee plant” still “segregated its assembly line; and Baytown oil refineries paid blacks less than whites for the same work,” according to Randolph Campbell’s Going To Texas.

Many Texas-born African-Americans continued to leave white supremacist Texas society between 1940 and 1953 for states in the Northeast, Midwest, or West in which racial segregation was not legalized and where they had often been able to find factory jobs during World War II. But in Houston — where the total population had grown from 384,514 to 596,163 between 1940 and 1950 — the “black population increased from 86,302 to 125,400” during the 1940s, according to Merline Pitre’s In Struggle Against Jim Crow.

And — despite an anti-black riot by white racist Texans that occurred on June 15, 1943, in Houston — African-American civil rights activists in Houston and elsewhere in Texas between 1940 and 1953 began to win a few victories in their campaigns for an end to legalized racial discrimination, white supremacy, institutional racism, and interpersonal racism in Texas society and daily life.

In 1943, for example, a Houston NAACP “boycott against Winegarten Store [Sic: Correct spelling is “Weingarten’s”] led to the dismissal of one of the store’s security guards, who had struck a black customer” and “an NAACP-led demonstration made it possible for blacks to attend a production of Porgy and Bess at the Houston Music Hall and be seated on the same floor levels as whites,” according to In Struggle Against Jim Crow.

In addition, “on Apr. 6, 1943… representatives of the Negro Committee of the Houston Teachers Association presented the school board with a petition for pay equalization” and “on Apr. 13, 1943, rather than take a chance on a… lawsuit, the Houston school board agreed to make the salaries of black teachers and principals equal to those of their white counterparts who possessed the same credentials and performed the same duties,” according to the same book.

Then in 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Texas’s white Democratic primary law to be illegal in its Smith v. Allwright decision in a legal case that African-American civil rights groups in Texas had initiated. And in 1946 — when 5,000 new members were recruited into the Houston chapter of the NAACP — African-American civil rights activists in Texas began to challenge the racist admissions policy of the University of Texas in Austin.

As In Struggle Against Jim Crow recalled:

Lulu B. White… executive secretary of the NAACP’s Houston branch, and the NAACP’s state director… led fight…to integrate the University of Texas… Urged on by the NAACP and accompanied by Lulu White and other supporters, Herman Sweatt attempted to register at UT in Austin on Feb. 26, 1946. After a discussion with [then-University of Texas] President Theophilus Painter and other university officials, Sweatt left his application at the campus and returned to Houston… Sweatt sued university officials on May 16, 1946 for denying him admission…

In April 1949, Joseph J. Rhoades, president of Bishop College, organized a mass registration attempt sending 35 black college seniors from across the state to apply to various professional programs at UT… When they arrived at the registrar’s office seeking admission, they were told that they could apply at TSUN [Texas State University for Negroes; later renamed Texas Southern University]. These students then decided to stage a demonstration, marching from the university to the State Capitol. They carried placards… One sign read, “Texas Can’t Afford a Dual System of Graduate and Professional Education” Another proclaimed, “Separate and Equal Education Is a Mockery.”…

The Supreme Court announced its findings in Sweatt v. Painter on June 5, 1950. In a unanimous decision the Court ordered Sweatt admitted to UT.

Also, “during the summer of 1946… the death of a black man gave rise to the largest mass protest demonstration that the city of Houston had ever witnessed” and “the NAACP… converted the funeral for Berry Branch, killed by a white bus driver, into a rally” in which “all labor unions in the city were represented,” according to the same book.

Yet despite the legal victories, there was still a poll tax in Texas that was utilized to block many African-Americans from being able to vote and the “only civil service positions” African-American residents were allowed to hold in Houston before 1945 “were in the post office,” according to In Struggle Against Jim Crow.

In addition, in 1948 only 15 of Houston’s 503 police officers were African-Americans and the “custom” of “the most blatant among the Houston companies” in its discriminatory policies between 1940 and 1953 — Hughes Tool — was still “to hire whites at 60 cents an hour and blacks at 50 cents an hour, although they were performing the same tasks,” according to the same book.

And,  “Austin in 1951 changed its city council representatives from geographical districts to an at-large basis which guaranteed control of all seats by the white majority,” according to Black Texans.

The number of African-Americans who lived in Texas only increased from 924,391 to 977,458 between 1940 and 1950, as many African-Americans left Texas for the West Coast, Midwest, or Northeast; and as late as 1945 there were still only about 45,000 people of Jewish religious background who lived in Texas.

But by 1950, the number of Latinos of Mexican descent living in Texas — 1 million — now exceeded the number of African-Americans who lived in the state.

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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