A Black History Month salute to African-American trailblazers

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(Last Updated On: February 27, 2020)

Photo caption: Martin Luther King Memorial, Atlanta, Ga | Credit: Pixabay.com

As we round out Black History Month, Empower Magazine pays special tribute to individuals who broke down barriers, blazed new trails, and dedicated their lives to serving others – leaving an indelible imprint on society in the areas of community activism, education, politics, law, medicine, and architecture, because of their courage and vision.

1. John Henry (Jack) Yates

Community Activism

EM Salutes Jack Yates for his example of leadership and courage in leaving an indelible imprint on the Houston landscape as a religious figure, landowner and advocate for African American empowerment

Rev. John Henry (Jack) Yates was born in Virginia on July 11, 1828. He was taught to read (which was an illegal act at the time) by the children of his slavemaster and often stole away to the fields to read his bible and songbook. He went on to become a Baptist preacher and was called to lead Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, the first black Baptist church in Houston, which was organized in 1866 by Rev. Crane, a white preacher. Under Yates leadership, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church purchased Emancipation Park on Dowling, in 1872, to give blacks a place to celebrate Juneteenth in recognition of their emancipation. Yates would leave Antioch to start Bethel Baptist Church in 1891 because of a disagreement between church leaders on the method for funding redevelopment of the church, according to Texas State Historical Association archives.

The TSHA also cites that in 1869, less than five years after slaves were emancipated, Yates purchased several lots of land and built his home on one of the lots. The house was donated to the Harris County Heritage Society by Yates’ granddaughter, Martha Countee Whiting, and was relocated to Sam Houston Park where it was restored to its original configuration and includes some of the family’s original furniture. The home is available for tours through the Harris County Heritage Society.

He would go on to organize the Old Land Mark Association, the first Baptist association for blacks in the Houston area. Later, he organized Houston Academy, a school for black children in 1885 and assisted in placing Bishop College in Marshall, Texas after unsuccessful attempts to locate the college in Houston.

In 1926, Jack Yates High School was named in his honor to commemorate his legacy and contributions to the African American community. Emancipation Park, which was spearheaded under Yates’ leadership, was rededicated in June 2017, after undergoing a major $33.5 million renovation to revitalize the historic park.

Source: Handbook of Texas Online, Olee Yates McCullough, “YATES, JOHN HENRY [JACK],” accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fya07. Fair Use

2. Hattie Mae White


EM salutes Hattie Mae White, who blazed a trail for justice and equality in education.

When Hattie Mae White reportedly heard a fellow parent declare that the time had not yet come for a black to hold a seat on the school board, she took note. White would go on to launch a campaign in 1958 that would result in the Huntsville-born native becoming the first African American elected to the Houston Independent School District (HISD) school board and the first African-American public official elected in Texas in the twentieth century.

White’s vision and tenacity would lead her to champion the fight to desegregate the district’s schools and exert pressure on fellow board members to accept federal funds to improve the quality of education in Houston schools.

White was a vocal voice for educational and racial equality in the district and used her platform to keep Houstonians informed on issues during her three terms on the board. Her historic election also inspired many minorities in the Houston area to seek political office.

Her legacy was honored when the Houston Independent School District’s Administration Building was officially named the Hattie Mae White Administration Building. HISD renamed the building the Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center after making renovations to the district’s headquarters.

In 2018, White’s likeness was included on The Sacred Struggles/Vibrant Justice mural, in honor of her fight for equality and justice in education. Other honorees, included Christie Adair, Heman Sweatt, Rev. William Lawson, Barbara Jordan, George Thomas “Mickey” Leland, and Ada Edwards. The mural is located behind Pilgrim Congregational Church on Blodgett facing the Columbia Tap trail.

Attendees at the mural’s unveiling included Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Congressman Al Green, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, ABC News Anchor Melanie Lawson, various officials, members of the community, and family members of the honorees.

Source: Based on citations from Handbook of Texas Online, Cary D. Wintz, “WHITE, HATTIE MAE WHITING ,” accessed February 08, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwh47. Fair Use

3. Barbara Jordan


EM salutes Barbara Jordan for her powerhouse advocacy and leadership for equality and civil rights

Barbara Jordan was born on Feb. 21, 1936 in Houston’s Fifth Ward. She graduated magna cum laude in 1956 from Texas Southern University and went on to obtain her law degree from Boston University in 1959 before opening her own law practice in Houston.

Jordan was a powerhouse voice for justice and equality and achieved a number of firsts in her lifetime. She was the first black woman from a Southern state to be elected to Congress in the twentieth century. In 1966, she won election to the Texas Senate in 1966, becoming the first black state senator elected since 1883. She was known for her eloquence and was the first African-American woman and first African American to be chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic national convention.

Jordan, in her role in the Texas Senate, and Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, in her role in the Texas House, co-sponsored the successful ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment by the state legislature and moved further to propose an amendment to the Texas Constitution to guarantee equal rights for women which Texas voters approved. President Lyndon Baines Johnson took note of Jordan’s leadership skills and used his influence to facilitate her rise to higher office, according to Texas State Historical Association Online archives.

Her leadership also paved the way to include Hispanics in the extension of the 1975 Voting Rights Act, opening the doors for a new generation of Hispanic leaders in political offices across the nation. She has been lauded for numerous achievements including induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, National Women’s Hall of Fame, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Source credit: Based on citations from Handbook of Texas Online, Mark Odintz and Mary Beth Rogers, “JORDAN, BARBARA CHARLINE,” accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fjoas. Fair Use.    

4. Heman Marion Sweatt


EM salutes Heman Marion Sweatt for his courage, perseverance, and sacrifice in opening doors of admission to the University of Texas Law School and advocating for equal rights in education

Heman Marion Sweatt was born on Dec. 11, 1912, in Houston, Texas. He graduated from Jack Yates High School in 1930 and earned his undergraduate degree from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas in 1934. A plaque in Sweatt’s honor dedicated by Travis County summarizes the pivotal lawsuit that Sweatt was involved in regarding segregationist admission policies at the University of Texas at Austin.

The plaque reads:

Despite outstanding academic credentials, Heman Marion Sweatt, a black man, was denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law in February 1946 because of his race. In May 1946, Mr. Sweatt challenged the university’s segregationist admissions policies by filing suit against T.S. Painter, the President of the University of Texas, in the 126th Judicial District Court of Travis County, Texas supported by the NAACP. Thurgood Marshall, a future United States Supreme Court Justice, argued the case of Sweatt v Painter here in the Travis County courthouse. The trial judge ruled against Mr. Sweatt and upheld the university’s policy of refusing to admit persons of color.

On June 5, 1950, after a four-year court battle, the United States Supreme Court reversed the 126th District Court and ordered Mr. Sweatt admitted to the University of Texas Law School as its first black student. By his courage, perseverance, and sacrifice, Heman Marion Sweatt helped ensure the opportunity to achieve higher education for all persons in Texas and throughout the United States.

The plaque is installed outside of the Travis County Courthouse where a judicial official originally ruled against Sweatt’s case. The courthouse has now been renamed the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse.

Sweatt is not only remembered for his famous lawsuit but is considered responsible for the establishment of Texas State University for Negroes (later renamed Texas Southern University), a college for blacks that included a law school, according to the Texas State Historical Society archives.

Decades later, in 1987, the University of Texas at Austin began holding the annual Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights and later renamed one of the university’s campuses, the Heman Sweatt Campus and established a $10,000 scholarship in Sweatt’s memory at the UT law school.

Source credit: Based on citations from the Handbook of Texas Online, Richard Allen Burns, “SWEATT, HEMAN MARION,” accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsw23.  Fair Use

5. Dr. Edith Irby Jones


EM salutes Dr. Edith Irby Jones for breaking down numerous barriers in the field of medicine for African Americans and serving the medical needs of the Houston community

Dr. Edith Irby Jones was born on Dec. 23, 1927, in Faulkner County, Arkansas. Jones suffered several personal losses as a young child, including the death of her father, the loss of her older sister at the age of 12 to typhoid fever and her own battle with rheumatic fever, which were instrumental in Jones pursuing a career in the medical profession.

She blazed numerous trails in the field of medicine for African Americans, including becoming:

  • the first African American to be accepted as a non-segregated student at the University of Arkansas Medical School
  • the first African-American graduate from the University of Arkansas Medical School
  • the first African-American accepted to complete the first residency at a hospital in Arkansas
  • the first African-American intern in the state of Arkansas
  • the first African-American woman intern at the Baylor College of Medicine Affiliated Hospitals
  • the first woman to chair the Council on Scientific Assembly for the National Medical Association
  • the first woman president of the National Medical Association.

Jones relocated to Houston where she started a private practice in Houston’s Third Ward to provide health care to individuals in the inner city who could not access medical care elsewhere.

Throughout her medical career, she made numerous notable achievements, including induction into the University of Arkansas College of Medicine Hall of Fame and was among the inaugural group of women inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame. Jones also received the Oscar E. Edwards Memorial Award for Volunteerism and Community Service in 2001. Jones was one of the founders of Mercy Hospital in Houston and one of the 12 physician-owners and developers of Park Plaza Hospital.

Among her many accomplishments, Jones also had the honor of having two international hospitals in her honor: Dr. Edith Irby Jones Clinic in Vaudreuil, Haiti, which she helped to found in 1991 and Dr. Edith Irby Jones Emergency Clinic in Veracruz, Mexico.

Source credit: Wikipedia – text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 

6. Dr. Blanchard Tucker Hollins


EM salutes Dr. Blanchard Tucker Hollins for his commitment to excellence in serving the medical needs of the Houston community

Blanchard Tucker Hollins was born Nov. 3, 1929, in Houston, Texas. He graduated from high school at the age of January 1945. He obtained his bachelor of science degree in chemistry in 1949 from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas and graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1953. He was the first African-American physician board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology in Texas.

Having grown up in Houston’s segregated Third Ward community, Dr. Hollins embraced the opportunity to serve the residents of these communities. He joined the staff of Third Ward’s Houston Negro Hospital (later renamed Riverside Hospital), Fifth Ward’s St. Elizabeth Hospital, and Lockwood Hospital.

He was part of a group of African-American physicians who broke ground to build the Lockwood Professional Building in northeast Houston.

His professional affiliations included the National Medical Association, The Houston Medical Forum, and the Chi Delta Mu Medical/Dental/Pharmaceutical Society. In 2008, he took part in the People to People Citizen Ambassador program as a member of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Delegation to China and Tibet.

An avid golf fan, Tucker would become the first Black amateur golfer to play in the Houston Open.

7. John Chase


EM salutes John Chase for breaking down barriers in the field of architecture

John Chase was born in Annapolis, Maryland, on January 23, 1925. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in architecture from Hampton University in 1948. Chase achieved a number of notable firsts during his lifetime, according to the Texas State Historical Association Online archives.

He was the first African American to enroll in the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture; the first African American licensed to practice architecture in Texas; the first black to be a member of the Texas Society of Architects and Houston Chapter of the American Institute of Architects; became the first African American to serve on the United States Commission on Fine Arts (appointed by President Jimmy Carter); and, served as the first black president of the University of Texas Exes alumni association.

Some of his notable architectural design projects included Texas Southern University’s Ernest S. Sterling Student Life Center, the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and the Martin Lukter King, Jr. Humanities building. Chase also collaborated on the design of the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Washington Technical Institute and assisted in the design of the Links, Incorporated, and Delta Sigma Theta national headquarters buildings. He also was commissioned to design the United States Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia.

The accomplished architect was elected to the AIA College of Fellows and received numerous awards, the AIA Whitney M. Young Citation and the NOMA Design for Excellence Award (4 years in a row.

Source credit: Based on citations from the Handbook of Texas Online, Merline Pitre, “CHASE, JOHN SAUNDERS,” accessed February 25, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fch83. Fair Use

A Black History Month salute to African-American trailblazers