Two events took place just days apart on Houston’s hot August calendar. Yet they were separated by nearly a century in time and our city’s incomplete mission toward racial and ethnic harmony.
On August 18th, several thousand Houstonians gathered at Miller Outdoor Theater in Hermann Park for performances and children’s games as part of the third annual Unity Day celebration. Unity Day Houston was loosely modeled after a similar celebration in Philadelphia, with a goal to promote better understanding between Houston’s diverse communities.
I don’t know what prompted the City of Brotherly Love to begin their event in the late 1970s. By 1985, I was newly-married and moving to Houston to begin a 20-year career in the oil patch. Soon, the Texas Sesquecentenial celebration was in full swing, sparking my interest in local culture and history.
As a white male, I answered the call to support the Unity Day celebration because I believe racial tensions in Houston are simmering just beneath the surface and could boil over into social unrest if left unaddressed.
Go back 90 years to the night of August 23rd, 1917, just after the U.S. entered World War I. The 24th infantry of the 3rd Battalion, an all black unit drawn mostly from northern states, was ordered to Texas to stand guard over the construction of Camp Logan, a site we now call Memorial Park. After only two weeks under Jim Crow conditions and repeated provocations, 118 soldiers mutinied. Armed with rifles and seeking revenge, they marched toward downtown on San Felipe Road — today W. Dallas — indiscriminately killing 15 whites and injuring 12 others.
Most Houstonians I ask, regardless of race, know little to nothing of this tragedy in Houston’s past. Are we destined to re-live dreadful history because we don’t know where we’ve been? Who can tell?
It appears that for much of the last century the races in Houston managed to find a tolerable, yet un-equitable, equilibrium. In August of 1917, that tender balance was upended by the arrival of large numbers of black soldiers who bristled under the status quo.
While circumstances are vastly different today, Houston is now home to 100,000 evacuees from New Orleans. And, thousands of Hispanics with little education arrive in our city every year in search of a better life. Will these new arrivals, unfamiliar with Houston’s ways of getting along, upset the delicate social balance? There are already warning signs within, and between, the races. What will be the consequences?
We all have a role to play in the outcome. Let’s remember our past and work for greater understanding and tolerance. Let’s build one Houston.
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