3.15.2010

Silencing Houston’s Jim Crow: TSU students led a courageous battle 50 years ago

by Serbino Sandifer-Walker
Pioneers standing with Houston Historical Marker on March 4

Call them social revolutionaries, freedom fighters or trouble makers, but to the Texas Southern University students who defiantly marched over a mile to a grocery store lunch counter to initiate Houston’s first sit-in, they were just ordinary people who wanted to be treated like citizens. Their story of courage and struggle, like TSU's story, is one we should not soon forget.

Some would simply paint the TSU students as agitators, but I would argue that they were modern day American heroes who championed civil rights and played a vital role in silencing Houston’s Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow was a phrase used to describe a system of Southern laws that denied blacks basic rights. These laws were strongly enforced between 1896 to 1964.

With little more than a burning desire for immediate social change, these young justice seekers began a crusade on Friday, March 4, 1960 to protest the unfair treatment of Houston’s African-Americans.

From a flag pole on TSU’s campus 13 students that grew to 17 met. They lined up in pairs and marched 45 minutes to their destination -- 4110 Almeda Road, Weingarten’s Supermarket. As the students marched, they sang several black spirituals and other young men and women along the path joined in their crusade for justice and equality. They arrived at 4:30 p.m. with a simple objective –to be served at the lunch counter. However, for hours the students sat quietly---never to be served.

However, just as American soldiers stand at the ready on the frontline staving off impending international threats to the preservation of the civil peace that Americans hold so dear today, the TSU students stood undaunted by the barrage of racially charged insults flung at them like shrapnel filled grenades.

“We felt our time had come,” said John Bland, TSU student and desegregation organizer. “We just wanted to be treated like American citizens.”

In their make shift “war room”, the students mapped out their plan of attack against Houston’s Jim Crow laws.

“The war room was usually someone’s apartment, like Eldrewey Stearns’. This is where we planned out activities,” said Otis King, the city of Houston’s first African-American attorney and desegregation organizer. “We felt at last, we had an opportunity to do something about the issues that had been troubling us for so long.”

Many attribute the initial success of the movement to Eldrewey Stearns, who was a TSU law student. He became deeply passionate about desegregating Houston after he was stopped by a Houston Police Department officer in August of 1959, placed in jailed and severely beaten.

“Eldrewey Stearns had a brilliant mind,” said Bland, one of Houston’s first black transit employees. “He put all of this [sit-in strategies] together.”

However, unlike many of his contemporaries who went on to become successful professionals, Stearns became lost in “the cause” and succumbed to a mental illness.

“The movement actually stole the brother that I once knew,” said Shirley Stearns, Eldrewey’s sister. “But we are so proud of him because he gave his life to the movement. I don’t want anyone to forget that.”

Damaged but not broken by bipolar disorder, Stearns, who now resides in an assisted living home in west Houston, vividly recounted the movement. [READ MORE]

(Serbino Sandifer-Walker is an awarding-winning journalist and journalism professor at Texas Southern University. For more about the TSU student movement go to www.houstonstudentmovement.com)

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(All photos of the 50th Anniversary Historical Marker Ceremony courtesy of Serbino Sandifer-Walker)