Quentin Mease: A Modern Houston Founder

QUENTIN MEASE
Born: October 25, 1908
Died: February 24, 2009
A Modern Houston Founder

As important as Sam Houston was to the act of establishing the ground we needed to start the city that adopted his name, there’s someone else who deserves the credit for leading our beautiful city out of bondage to segregation in the early 1960’s. Had it not been for the late Quentin Mease, Houston would not be the city of opportunity and diversity it has become in 2017. The man’s as deserving of a bronze statue downtown or in Hermann Park every bit as much as General Sam – and he won’t need a high horse to stand tall. All he will need is a broader public awareness to the sensitive and effective ways he engineered the smooth end of all segregation policies in Houston (between 1960-1962) in time for the coming of major league baseball – and in response to his accurate reading of the then all-white power structure at the local government and business community level that they too wanted a smooth transition for Houston – and no part of the race wars that had exploded in a few other major American cities from blind racist resistance.

By 1960, two factors stood in the way of exponential growth in Houston. One was weather, the heat and humidity of the city’s seven-month summers, and the other was racial segregation. Houston was not going to become a big time international city with little relief from the heat and humidity – nor was the stench of racial segregation going to attract a crowd from any sub-group except that bunch that prefers white bed sheets for everyday dress.

Iowa-born Quentin Mease, then age 52, understood the importance of these conditions in 1960. His natural intuition and broad education had prepared him for the moment. Growing up as the son of an Iowa coal miner. Mease served in the army during World War II, rising in the ranks to Captain by the time of his post-war discharge from action in the Pacific war theater. He returned to school, earning a master’s in social work administration from George Williams College in Chicago. Upon graduation, he accepted a job as executive director of the Bagby Street YMCA in Houston, Texas. There, he launched a successful building campaign for a new facility, which became the South Central YMCA. As leader of the new YMCA, Mease founded the Houston Area Urban League, the Eliza Johnson Home, and the Houston Council on Human Relations. These institutions led to the peaceful desegregation of Houston’s public facilities.

Enter the spirit of Jackie Robinson.

By early 1960, Mease knew that Houston was sitting on the brink of getting an MLB franchise. He also figured that big MLB stars like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron would not react too kindly to the notions of segregation in a city that had declared itself ready for big league baseball. He also knew that the white-owned  business establishment did not want any violence, bad publicity, or loss of sales from resistance to integration in grocery and department stores, movie theaters, or restaurants. The legacy of Jackie Robinson was in flow – even in the heart of another southern city. Breaking the color line was never about the baseball game alone. It was about how we live our lives. Period.

Quentin Mease understood something else. It was something he had to have diagnosed from his everyday contact with the white people of Houston. White Houstonians, by and large, were not racists. They simply had little to no daily contact with black Houstonians 0ver their entire lifetimes due to the vast geographical area that covered the city’s physical reach. It has always been possible to grow up in Houston and only meet the people who live, work, and shop in your particular area. So, in effect, segregation in Houston was largely form – and not something bubbling in a cauldron of hate. And that was a big realization for someone who had not actually grown up here.

Mease lent his mentoring assistance to TSU student Eldrewey Stearns and 13 classmates as they staged their first lunch counter service sit in at Weingarten’s grocery store on March 4, 1960. Weingarten’s responded by quietly closing down lunch counter service.

The next day, March 5, 1960, the students tried the same sit in approach at a nearby Mading’s Drug Store. They got the same treatment. A quiet shutdown of lunch counter service to all.

Before the students could upgrade their plans to take these protests downtown to major businesses, Quentin Mease made sure the right people downtown got the word about what was coming. He both wanted and expected the power structure to have the chance for their own participation in positive change.

Mease got what he hoped for, indeed.

Hobart Black, a black entrepreneur; Bob Dundas, vice-president and head of publicity for Foley’s Department Store; and John T. Jones, publisher of the Houston Chronicle all got together for a plan they proposed to all downtown stores:

Integrate quickly and in unison!

Dundas also got all local radio/tv and print media to …

totally ignore all coverage of the move to total integration for a solid week.

And it worked! In a week’s time, the major resistances to full integration in Houston simply melted away to change. Major places of commerce had been peacefully integrated. Oh sure, there were odds-and-ends redneck hold out businesses in the hinterlands that may have resisted, but they didn’t last long against the tide of permanent gains established by what Dundas always referenced as “The Blackout!”

Quentin Mease got it right, all the way down the line. And because he got it right, Mease helped Houston get it right in a way that spread and shared the credit for getting rid of the ugly flesh of racism that was obvious public discrimination and segregation based upon the color of one’s skin.

Someday, when the City of Houston builds that statue of Quentin Mease, which they really should, they also need to include the names of the people mentioned here and all others, black, white, Hispanic, or Asian who helped end segregation in our city, but let’s don’t over-politic the identity of that public symbol of honor and thanks.

The face on that statue belongs to Quentin Mease.

Quentin Mease passed away in 2009 at the age of 100. The Quentin Mease Community Hospital, 3601 North MacGregor Way, Houston, TX 77004 is named in his honor.

Rest in Peace, Quentin Mease. And thanks for all you did for the City of Houston. We would not be the city we are today without you.

____________________

Footnote on Bob Dundas: Earlier in his career, Foley’s executive Bob Dundas was an announcer and local program host for KPRC-TV in Houston. As a kid, Dundas became a favorite of mine when he hosted “Seems Like Yesterday”, a local program on historical events of the earlier 20th century. His stories always concluded with Dundas using this scripted line, adapted to time and event in this form:

“It’s now been 13 years since the Hindenburg burned to the ground upon landing at a base near Manchester, New Jersey, but it Seems … Like … Yesterday!” 

____________________


Bill McCurdy

Publisher, Editor, Writer

The Pecan Park Eagle

Houston, Texas

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One Response to “Quentin Mease: A Modern Houston Founder”

  1. materene Says:

    Excellent Bill, very nice article and Tribute to the man who deserved it.

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