Example essay

Why Houston forgot Eldrewey Stearns. And why we should remember.

One morning in 1984, while I was attending a conference with 30 medical students from the UTMB to review psychiatric cases, a man was brought down from his room in the closed ward of the hospital.

He was black, about 50, wore painter’s pants and sported salt-and-pepper hair. His name was Eldrewey Stearns. At first glance, Stearns appeared to be a disheveled, vulnerable and angry man whose life had been spent under the stress of poverty, racism, alcoholism and mental illness. Yet he sometimes spoke in scholarly, even eloquent phrases.

A member of the psychiatry faculty interviewed Stearns. For educational purposes, he checked off the criteria for his diagnoses of bipolar disorder (manic depression) and alcoholism. During the interview, Stearns said he was the “original leader of integration in Texas” and announced that he was writing his life story. The students rolled their eyes and Stearns was led back to his room.

“What about the patient’s story, his desire to write an autobiography? I asked, outraged at the omission of the patient’s perspective. The room was silent, as if I hadn’t asked the question. There were many days, even years later, when I wrestled with this same question to despair. How do we listen to and learn from our elders when it is not easy, when mental illness and painful histories of racism add to the difficulties we may have in communicating? Finding the answer seems so urgent now that the racial calculus set in motion in 2020, after the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and many others, has morphed into an entrenched conflict over “critical race theory” and how history is taught. I can tell you that the answer is not easy.

The day after that lecture 25 years ago, I took the elevator to the locked room and asked to speak to Stearns. An assistant led him into the common room, where Stearns looked at me with a fierce glint in his eye. I introduced myself and said I appreciated the chance to learn more about him at the medical student case conference. He told me that he had been invited there to give a lecture.

“Looks like you have an important story to tell,” I said. “I’d love to help you put it on paper.”

“I doubt you’re up to it,” he said.

Still, Stearns started coming to my office every week to work on his autobiography together. It soon became apparent that he could not write due to severe tremors and could not formulate a plan or goal on his own. I did some background research and found that between 1960 and 1963 he was indeed the militant student leader of the sit-in movement and a major player in the dismantling of Jim Crow in Houston.

Stearns, an Army veteran, was then a law student at Texas Southern University – bright, charismatic, erratic, filled with boundless energy and ambition. On March 4, 1960, he brought together about fifteen well-dressed students around the university mast. They sang the stars and stripes, walked to the nearby Weingarten supermarket, sat at the lunch counter and asked to be served. Thus began the first sit-in demonstration west of the Mississippi.

Although the students were trained in non-violence, they were haunted by the fear of white violence. Three days after the first sit-in, a 27-year-old black man named Felton Turner, was captured near the site of the sit-in by masked whites, beaten and taken to a secluded wooded area. They took him to a tree, hung him upside down, and carved two rows of KKKs into his abdomen. The police never found his executioners.


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Over the next few months, Stearns and his comrades felt isolated and uncertain. One night, Stearns and Curtis Graves called Martin Luther King, Jr. and asked him to come to Houston. King hesitated for a moment. “I’m going to talk to God about it,” he said before hanging up the phone, according to Stearns.

Behind the scenes, however, white and black businessmen, and some political leaders, were quietly laying the groundwork for maintaining peace and managing the desegregation process. After the Felton Turner incident, for example, Police Chief Carl Shuptrine assured TSU President Sam Nabrit that student protesters would be protected from violence.

The Weingarten sit-in marked the start of three years of unrelenting student protests against segregation at food counters, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, sports venues and public transportation. White students also joined the protests. By 1963, after three years of extensive strategizing, planning and protesting, these sites were mostly integrated. And Stearns – already seriously troubled and suffering from bipolar illness and alcoholism – began to unravel. He spent the next 20 years wandering the country, in and out of prisons and mental hospitals, trying to resuscitate his political career. But the story had moved on.

Eldrewey Stearns was then virtually unknown, and the story of Houston’s desegregation had gone untold. For more than a year, we tried to reconstruct an autobiographical account of his life. I submitted a draft to the University of Texas Press, who rejected the autobiographical project but said they would publish it if I wrote it as a biography. This put Stearns in a difficult position, as it meant he would have to give me handwriting control his life story. Stearns decided he had to trust me and gave me permission to write the book — on the condition that he get a three-quarters advance and that I incorporate his voice into the text. I agreed, but told him that as a historian, I should do my own independent research and write about Houston’s desegregation and its role. in it – and that I should write about his mental illness. He agreed and thus began a difficult journey that culminated in “No Color Is My Kind: Eldrewey Stearns and the Desegregation of Houston, originally published in 1997 and recently published in a new edition in 2021.

For over a decade I worked with Stearns, interviewing him and trying to understand him, capture his perspective and piece together his life story. Ours was a confusing, tumultuous and emotionally difficult relationship, greatly complicated by issues of mental illness and race. At first, he refused to take his medication or return to see a psychiatrist. Yet he came to my office every week without fail. “I look forward to seeing you every Monday almost like the flowers want rain,” he said in a hopeful moment. Yet after a long experience of working with him through moments of manic swings and psychotic breakouts, I realized that I had to tell the story as I saw it, incorporating his voice into the narrative, while using my own judgment and my integrity as a historian, a medical humanist. , and writer.

My research on the civil rights movement in Houston was also initially difficult. When I sought to interview former protesters and some NAACP members, I was told that was not my story to tell, being white and from the Northeast. White businessmen, politicians and journalists were also skeptical. But I gradually won the trust of blacks and whites, who spoke to me freely.

But racial identity is complicated. Stearns and I weren’t just “black” and “white.” The title “No Color Is My Kind” is Stearns’ expression and reflects the knowledge that he comes from a multiracial ancestry – African slaves, Native Americans, an Irish plantation owner and a German Jew. He didn’t consider me simply “white” either. One afternoon while driving to lunch with Texas Monthly editor Greg Curtis, I asked Stearns what he thought of a white man writing a book about a black man. “You’re not white,” he replied. “You are a Jew.”

What can my experience telling Stearns’ story teach us about the seemingly intractable problems we face today, not only in addressing injustices, but also in our ability to speak out about them? Listening is hard work. It can take years. You may feel more hurt than healed. You may walk away wiser, but the transcendent moment may slip away. Above all, you must listen with an open heart and be prepared to challenge stereotypes of your racial identity as well as the identity of others.

Over 60 years ago, Stearns was imprisoned and beaten by the police. Shortly after, while protesting his treatment in front of the Houston City Council, Stearns pointed to the words “freedom, justice and equality” printed on the doors of the council chambers. Although this arrest spurred him to action and sparked the desegregation of Houston, words await fulfillment.

Stearns died on December 23, 2020. He is buried in Houston National Cemetery, where he received a military salute. I believe that trying to understand Houston’s original integration leader in all of his complexity – his triumphs and his long illness, his audacity and his complex views on race – will help our city come closer to the ideals we let’s marry.

Cole, Ph.D., is a professor at McGovern Medical School and spiritual director of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston.

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