Eldrewey Stearnes

Eldrewey Stearnes was the protestor who integrated Houston. Harrassed and brutalized by police, Stearnes fought back and went to the city council and complained, something Negroes didnít do in the segregated south. Eldrewey Stearnes, 65, slumps forward in a broken down sofa in the living room of the Love & Joy Personal Care Home halfway house he lives in beyond the suburban fringe of south Houston. The ranch style home is comfortable enough, though sparsely decorated. The living room consists largely of two sofas, a couple chairs, and a big screen television. Stearnes a tall, slender man with high cheekbones who carries an air of distinction, has dressed up for the occasion, wearing a white tee shirt with the words My Color Is No Color, which is the title of a biography that has been written about him. Eldrewey Stearnes was the protestor who integrated Houston. Harrassed and brutalized by police, Stearnes fought back and went to the city council and complained, something Negroes didnít do in the segregated south. A law student at Texas Southern, he led a cadre of students in the first sit-ins west of the Mississippi. The passive, non-violent demonstrations triggered very violent reactions in the Deep South particularly in Mississippi and Alabama. In Houston, they led to a quiet, behind-the-scenes accommodation engineered by the cityís white and black leadership, desegregating lunch counters, movie theatres, department stores and other public facilities in 1960 without anyone taking note, as recorded in the 1991 documentary film The Strange Demise of Jim Crow.

Eldrewey Stearnes was the reason.


He knows his place in history. "Iím writing my own book," he says proudly, his body rocking slightly as he nods.

There is every reason to believe it wonít happen. Stearnes is diagnosed schizophrenic. He has been treated for TK years with medication, but he no longer functions in the workplace. His hair is matted. His clothes are rumpled. He tells me he has to charge for the interview, $100 for an hour of his time, the rate he earned back when he was an attorney "before I retired."

He knows his story well enough that when I bring Quinton Mease with whom Iím going to talk on the following day, he begins telling a story about organizing a demonstration during the downtown parade for returned astronaut Gordon Cooper. The protest, which would have marked the city as racist in front of the whole nation, didnít happen. Before the mad-as-hell Stearnes could lead his hardcore agitators into the street, Mease called them off at the last minute after the mild-mannered social worker who ran Houstonís black YMCA brokered another backroom deal with the white power structure that included Jesse Jones and Leon Jaworski. And once again, it was accompanied by a news blackout agreed upon by local radio and television stations and newspapers.

The quiet integration of Houston may have permanently damaged Stearnesí credibility as a community leader. Some say itís what drove him to where he is.

Before Eldrewey Stearnes can get really started, before I can get my recording gear hooked up, the woman sitting in the opposite sofa watching a rerun of "Threeís Company" on the big screen TV, glances over, shooting daggers.

"You got permission to do this?"

"Mr. Stearnes gave me permission."
"No, from the owner of this house. You need to talk to her. I canít let you talk to him."

The owner says I have to talk to his guardian. Eldrewey Stearnes says he doesnít have a guardian. But he does have a case social worker. Whoís gone for the day and doesnít return calls over the next few days.

While Stearnes was getting to talking, before he was cut off, a man sitting in a wheelchair had been listening intently. The caretaker watching TV and hassling me allows that it sounds interesting to her too, but she doesnít want to get fired. The owner might be driving up any minute. I shouldnít here when she does. I had to go. So I did. And Eldrewey Stearnes sits at the Love & Joy, silent, perhaps, but not forgotten by at least a few, fallen through the cracks, lost in the system.

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