Images of America: Past v. Present

It’s interesting to see any American history book speak upon racism, discrimination, and segregation in the past tense. You could take basically any sentence from Images of America: African Americans of Houston by Dr. Ronald E. Goodwin, switch it to present tense, and not much would change (This isn’t a criticism of Goodwin. After all, he’s writing a book based in history). Goodwin’s book is illuminating in its photography, research, and descriptions. There’s a great deal of beauty and victory in Houston’s Black identity that is traced in the book’s photographs, giving image and context to what needed to be done by African Americans in Houston in order to survive and ultimately, thrive. But as a Houstonian myself, there’s too much blight I cannot un-see as a result of Goodwin’s discussion of historical racism, segregation, and discrimination, all of which haunt Houston, and America to this day.

Courtesy of the Houston Public Library

In fact, let’s start with page 2 of Goodwin’s book. There’s this haunting, black & white photo of the Ku Klux Klan parading down a bustling street, American flags in full display and the white of KKK robes as blinding as the glowing orbs of streetlights. The caption underneath reads:

“The Ku Klux Klan played a significant role in suppressing the rights

of blacks throughout the South during the 19th century. While the

organization was subdued during the Progressive Era, the Klan

returned in the post-World War I years in demonstrations throughout

the country. In Texas, the Klan made their presence known, effectively

suppressing the rights of the city’s black population.”

This caption can be updated as such:

[White supremacists] play a significant role in suppressing the rights

of blacks throughout the South during the [21st] century. While

organization[s] [were] subdued during the Progressive Era, [white

supremacists] returned in the post-World War I years in demonstrations

throughout the country. In Texas, [white supremacists] ma[k]e their

presence known, effectively suppressing the rights of the city’s black

population.

(According to a 2006 FBI Counterterrorism Report, “…white supremacist groups have historically engaged in strategic efforts to infiltrate and recruit from law enforcement agencies.” According to a 2015 FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide, “…domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers…” In 2001, two Williamson County law enforcement officers were fired for their Ku Klux Klan ties. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 55 active hate groups in Texas alone as of 2017)

As of this writing, the America we live in has constant ‘demonstrations’ that show white supremacy maintains a hold on the nation’s conscience. I don’t mean to rewrite Goodwin’s book for kicks; on the contrary, I want to highlight how important it is to note that the history he highlights is so important because it affects us to this day, particularly for us Houstonians.

Courtesy of the Houston Public Library

On page 7, there’s a photo of a lobby exhibition at the Majestic Theater which features African images often used to oversimplify the peoples of Africa, such as spears, topless indigenous women, and men in tribal uniforms that: “reinforced the commonly held belief in the 19th and 20th centuries that black Africans were barbaric and somehow less civilized than the poorest whites in America.” One apt assessment from Goodwin stood out to me, saying that these types of exhibitions, “served as [white citizen’s] only insight into black culture.” The photo is said to be from “around the 1920s.”

In March of 2017, I attended an opening at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston for the works of Ron Mueck. There were gorgeous sculptures everywhere that depicted white people as glorious in their averageness: two awkward teenagers on a date; an elderly couple laying down in swim suits; a newly born baby; a woman carrying groceries in both arms. However, there was a single sculpture of a black boy with a knife wound on his torso, its description reading: “The boy wears contemporary clothes, his unbelted, low-rise jeans slipping to reveal his briefs. He lifts his shirt to display a stab wound, implying a larger narrative of urban violence and danger.” What follows is an attempt at a deep reading that confers a religious iconography status, but it’s much too little. The question arises: why do the white figures get to be average, but the black figure inherently covets a larger narrative of urban violence? Is this the sole insight into black culture from a predominantly white institution? Yes, the days of signs declaring Whites Only are exquisitely gone, but these unresolved aspects of our collective history arise as hints that not all is squared away. The crux of photography is that it can only show what’s there; a photograph cannot show what’s not there. The present shows what is here and now, but not how it came to be. With Goodwin’s commentary, the book is almost like a roadmap to navigate everything in Houston that has changed but unchanged as well.

Courtesy of the Heartman Collection, Texas Southern University

There’s also plenty of joy and victory from this book as well that’s just as important, if not more so, as the injustice and oppression. There’s this glorious picture of Heman Sweatt, for instance, a Houston mail carrier instrumental in challenging ‘separate but equal’ laws and beginning the sequence of lawsuits that would lead to the desegregation of American schools. Dr. Goodwin provides context to the photo, detailing not only Sweatt’s contribution to history, but also the backdrop of events that lead to his lawsuit, such as the reason why Texas Southern University was built in the first place (White people went to great lengths to maintain the purity of their institutions). Perhaps you know, but I didn’t. It’s inspiring to know that Houston played a role in civil rights advancement.

On another page, there’s a picture of black men and women graduating from Texas Southern University, dressed in their caps and gowns. No matter how much America wanted them to fail, to stay uneducated, we see this image of victory. In another picture, there’s a posed photo of black men and women business owners and professional leaders dressed to the nines; it’s a photo of righteous joy, that even segregation, discrimination, and racism cannot stop the ambition of black communities. Of course, there’s portraits of well-known (and perhaps not as well known) black Houston leaders, such as Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland, Julia Hester, Al Green, El Franco Lee, Sylvester Turner, Priscilla Slade, etc. Goodwin has a beautiful sentiment echoed throughout these moments in that black joy and innovation happen without, or even in spite of, the approval and/or support of whiteness. This is not a new idea by any means, but it’s one Americans all should know the history of if they didn’t already.

Courtesy of the Heartman Collection, Texas Southern University

Understandably, not every aspect of Houston’s black history is covered in this book. That requires a much larger tome or a dedicated series, one I hope to read one day. But Goodwin’s book provides a quick and insightful primer for the non-historian that is every bit as useful because of how accessible it is. But what’s breathtaking is just the expanse of Dr. Goodwin’s curation. On one page, there’s a photo of young black men and women, all students, lying face down on the grass at Texas Southern University as police ransack their dorms in search of a gun that didn’t exist— except in the white imagination.

On another page, there’s a photo of two black children, a smiling girl dressed as a dancer and a boy dressed as a lion, walking down the street along with the Texas Southern University homecoming parade. Houston is capable of racist, horrible acts against the black community, as much as the black community creates celebrations of joy and opportunities of progress. If only we could take out the former and maintain the latter today.

Courtesy of the Heartman Collection, Texas Southern University

I love Houston. It’s my city that I rep proudly, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need some progress. Thanks to Goodwin’s book, I can see how far Houston has come through photographs and contextualization from a savvy historian. The phrase ‘if we don’t study history, then we are doomed to repeat it’ doesn’t seem to fit here. It is more like ‘if we can’t visualize the joy of the oppressed, then how can we fulfill it?’ If we see something that we don’t like in these historical photographs, what are we doing to change that history? Goodwin provides photos that make this visualization possible of a better, more just Houston.


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Reyes Ramirez is a Houstonian. In addition to having an MFA in Fiction, Reyes won the 2017 Blue Mesa Review Nonfiction Contest, 2014 riverSedge Poetry Prize, and has poems, stories, essays, and reviews (and/or forthcoming) in: Queen Mob's Teahouse, december magazine, Texas Review, TRACK//FOUR, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine, Houston Noir, Southwestern American Literature, Gulf Coast Journal, Origins Journal, The Acentos Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. You can read more of his work at reyesvramirez.com.


Purchase Images of America: African Americans of Houston by Ronald E. Goodwin and Arcadia Publishing here.