Courage: Overcoming discrimination, racist attitudes required extra character for many
On any comprehensive town history list must be the experiences of those who suffered or were held back in any number of ways simply because of their skin color or race. Midland was never immune to discrimination. African Americans and Mexican Americans were often forced to hear words of hate common during the time, or they were hidden away in theater balconies unable to sit in floor seats with whites. Even flaming red crosses burned on lawns during MISD’s desegregation years.
Those kinds of instances — and likely more — occurred in Midland. Failing to acknowledge that part of our past is to pretend wrongly that it never happened.
Longtime Midlander Sid Trevino, the first Hispanic detective on the Midland police force, investigated a burglary at the Yucca Theatre in the 1950s. Two weeks later, Trevino’s sisters, who lived in South Texas, visited Midland and decided to see a movie at the same theater. The manager insisted the women sit upstairs where the other non-whites were sitting. When they refused, the women asked for their money back. They were denied.
Trevino arrived at the Yucca a few minutes later after receiving a call from one of his sisters. The manager remembered the detective’s assistance in investigating the burglary, but did not yet know who the women were.
“He asked me if the three women were related to me, and I said, ‘Yes, they’re my sisters.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s okay, they can sit downstairs.’ I told him, ‘They don’t want to sit downstairs. They want their money back.’ He said, ‘No problem, we’ll get your money back. No problem.’”
Many blacks in Midland were sequestered in their own neighborhoods south of the railroad tracks near a place that, through the years, has come to be known as “The Flats.” Not many realize the name is considered derogatory and refers not to the entire southeast side of Midland, but to a small patch of cement upon which African Americans often gathered on Lee Street.
African Americans in Midland experienced the same kinds of discrimination and treatment found elsewhere in America — including two crosses that burned on lawns during the years Midland was desegregating its school system. Incredulously, Midland law enforcement passed the incident off as the work of “pranksters,” according to a Reporter-Telegram article at the time. The desegregating of Midland’s schools itself was long a sore point and took 12 years to fully implement, an unnecessarily lengthy transition, many felt.
Today, although we remain far from perfect, many African Americans will talk openly of Midland being a place of opportunity for people of all colors. Pastor George Bell of Greater Ideal Baptist Church, who grew up and spent most of his life here, calls Midland “one of the most God blessed cities I have ever seen.”
Director of the Texas Education Agency Michael Williams refers to his hometown in much the same way as Bell.
“I cannot imagine another city in this country that would have taken a kid who was black, who is out of law school by the age of 25, and by the time he is 27 would have served on the boards of directors for the United Way of Midland, the Midland Chamber (of Commerce), and the Midland County Housing Board. Where else could that happen?” he said.
And then there’s Austin attorney Novert Morales, a Midland native and brother of Mayor Jerry Morales. Several years ago, Novert purchased the Ritz Theater on Main Street — 40 years after his parents, Felipe and Celia Morales, were confined to the balcony because of their race.
“When Celia and I were dating a long while ago, I took her to the Ritz Theatre downtown,” said Felipe, who has always spoken highly of his adopted hometown. “They would always tell us to go upstairs to sit. We were originally from San Antonio so we’d never experienced anything like that. Many years later, our son Novert bought that theater. I just thought, it’s funny how you can buy a piece of property where you used to be told you could only sit upstairs. It made me feel very good when he bought that building.”
Exerpt from “A History of Character: The Story of Midland, Texas”
Longtime Midlander Joe Chavez described his experience in Midland public schools in 1938:
I remember being in the eighth grade. The school I went to was near downtown, and I loved school. I’ll never forget how two days before I finished the eighth grade, my teacher came to me and said, “That’s all. There’s no more school for you after next week. But since you like school so much, you can repeat the eighth grade if you would like.” Chavez was crushed. At that time Mexican Americans in Midland attended their own separate public school, which ended at eighth grade. It was not until 1946 that Mexican Americans were allowed to attend junior high and high school with white students and continue with their education through the 12th grade. The first Mexican Americans graduated from high school in Midland in 1952.
Another public school in Midland was just for African American students. Carver School, which opened in 1933, was later expanded and eventually included a junior high and high school. Its first 12th graders graduated in 1943. However, African American students were not integrated with white students in Midland until 1968.
Chavez fought through the limited educational opportunities afforded him and others of his descent during those times. He and his wife raised three children, all of whom not only graduated from high school, but now have master’s degrees. The Honorable Sylvia Chavez, a child-protection associate judge in Midland, is their daughter.
“A History of Character: The Story of Midland, Texas” will be published in September by The Abell-Hanger Foundation and the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum. For information about a presentation on the book for your civic organization or church group, email email@example.com.