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Houston: A semisweet land of liberty

"Houston: A semisweet land of liberty" Continued...

Within a one-mile radius of her home lived a cornucopia of family members—cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents. A kindergarten classmate not from River Oaks visited her house one day and exclaimed, “It’s a mansion.” (“That’s the first time I thought I had more home than others had.”) She flew to Colorado on private planes: “I knew that not everybody had a plane, but didn’t realize how crazy that was.” Her consciousness of special status slowly increased, and when in third grade a limousine came into the carpool line for her, she “was so embarrassed.”

Aldrich professed faith in Christ under high-school Young Life tutelage and increasingly wondered about “over the top” extravagances, such as when a helicopter picked up cheerleaders from the roof of a Houston skyscraper and delivered them to the football field before a big game. She decided to attend Wake Forest University in North Carolina: “No one knew my family name. It was great.” Then came work in Washington, D.C., marriage and a move to London (and an Oxford degree), followed by a move back to Houston, where she works part time across from a building designed by her great-grandfather’s firm and within a mile of Scurlock Tower, a medical center named after another great-grandfather.

But the Aldriches decided not to live in River Oaks. They adopted two African-American boys: One is now 3 and the other almost 2. They’ve put their 3-year-old in a River Oaks preschool but live in a middle-class neighborhood several miles away. The Aldriches own land and plan to build in a neighborhood close to low-income areas but not in them: Their lot is between the homes of two African-American professionals who own private equity firms. “We want to live authentic lives,” Aldrich says, not in a tiny shotgun home but not in a gargantuan mansion either.

Meanwhile, she spends a lot of time in her car, shuttling between family, friends, and preschool in River Oaks, and points east where she lives and chairs the board of Agape Neighborhood, a Christian poverty-fighting charity. Houston is a city where people reinvent themselves, not in the Great Gatsby sense of running from the past, but with the goal of having roots but sometimes transplanting them.

SAGE: Lawson at his home.
Photo by Nathan Lindstrom
SAGE: Lawson at his home.
WILLIAM LAWSON AT AGE 85 remembers the past. With his dignified bearing, short-cropped hair, long jaw, and rail-thin frame within a sweater and suit pants, he could be an elderly professor or lawyer—but when we stopped at Rose of Sharon Baptist Church in a close-in area of Houston where ex-slaves laid brick streets, the pastor hailed him: “You’re our sage, the sage of our community. We want to get you back to preach over here.” Lawson responded with a smile, “No, you don’t want that.”

Lawson grew up in Missouri and came to Houston in 1955 to work as Baptist chaplain at Texas Southern, a then-new university established by the Texas legislature for African-Americans in an attempt to avoid integration. In 1962 he started with 13 others a church, Wheeler Avenue Baptist, that now has more than 5,000 members on its rolls. Lawson pastored it for decades and now, retired, lives in a comfortable home with walls full of African-oriented art and photos of his three children—he’s been married for 57 years—plus one of himself and Martin Luther King Jr. (“His life was on the line every day. He knew what he was facing.”)

Lawson with Martin Luther King Jr.
Lawson with Martin Luther King Jr.
Lawson recalls how Texas Southern students, not the NAACP, “dragged” him into the civil rights movement. They told him, “Reverend Lawson, kids in North Carolina are doing sit-ins, we want to sit in here.” Lawson told them, “Do you realize why your parents sacrificed to send you to college?” But they insisted, and Lawson over the years worked to achieve integration without violence. Once, when police surrounded a university dorm amid reports that students were armed and ready to shoot, officials brought Lawson to defuse the situation. (Later, police found only one .22 pistol.)

The reason Houston escaped big race riots, Lawson says, was not black or white but green: “Houston was not Klan-oriented, Houston was money-oriented.” City leaders met upstairs at the Rice Hotel downtown and agreed that the new Astrodome, space center, and other innovations were attracting big businesses to Houston, but “if we have Birmingham [racial conflict] in Houston, that’s gone.” They agreed that all businesses would “quietly desegregate. All the department stores would simply let customers come in and try on clothes. All the restaurants would just open their doors and people could just come in. They would take down the ‘white’ and ‘colored’ signs off of buses and drinking fountains.”

— Houston segments on our daily radio/podcast show, The World and Everything in It, are scheduled for Feb. 19, Feb. 26, and the weeks of March 3 and March 10. You can access it through a podcast app on your phone or tablet, or by listening to the clips posted below.


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