By the middle of the twentieth century, the pursuit of equal civil rights became a focus for African Americans across the country. A primary goal of the effort was the desegregation of public accommodations and included transportation options, educational facilities, and city services. In Texas, the state branch of the NAACP provided leadership and legal assistance for local campaigns and contributed to some notable successes during the 1950s. In Beaumont, a court order ended segregation of public parks in 1954. Corpus Christi voluntarily desegregated the city’s public pool two years later. While informal segregation of Houston’s public transportation system continued throughout the 1950s, the city at least stopped enforcing the rule after 1954.
In Galveston, civil rights efforts gained momentum in the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1943, Jessie McGuire Dent filed a successful lawsuit on behalf of the black teachers’ union for equal pay for black educators, administrators, and custodians. In 1949, the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston admitted its first African American student and three years later, the Galveston Bar Association admitted the first African American attorney.
Kelton Daniel Sams, Jr.
Photo courtesy of Rosenberg Library.Kelton Daniel Sams Jr. was born in Galveston on August 3, 1943, the only child of Kelton and Letha (Jack) Sams. His parents met in Galveston after they relocated from Louisiana during World War II in search of better job opportunities and were married in 1942 at Mount Olive Baptist Church, founded in Galveston in 1876. Kelton Sr. worked as a longshoreman, one of the highest-paid jobs available to African American men at that time, and Letha was employed as a domestic worker for a local family.
As a sixteen-year-old student at Central High School, Kelton Sams Jr. was a leading Civil Rights activist who organized Galveston’s department store lunch counter sit-ins in 1960. Inspired by the news of protests in Houston on March 4, 1960, led by Texas Southern University law student, Eldrewey Stearns, Sams organized peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters across the island that began on March 11, 1960, at the W.F. Woolworth’s on the corner of Market and 23rd Streets. Over the next two weeks, Sams organized more sit-ins while meetings were held between the all-white Galveston Ministerial Association, the all-black Galveston Ministerial Alliance, local business owners, and community leaders. As a result, on April 5, 1960, lunch counters were opened to everyone across the city of Galveston.
A new challenge arose in October 1960 after a Dairy Queen restaurant opened on the corner of Broadway and 26th Street opened. Sams led a group of students to the restaurant, where they ordered food from a window designated for black patrons after which the group entered the restaurant dining room and sat down to eat. When Sams and the students refused to leave at management’s request, they were arrested and charged with loitering. Mrs. T. D. Armstrong, standing in for her husband who was out of town, paid their bail. On October 28, 1960, the charges were dropped and Dairy Queen’s dining room was opened to all patrons.
After Sams graduated from Central High School in 1961 he attended Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics in 1966. Sams remains a staunch advocate for equality and is still involved in the community and religious affairs. He lives in Houston where he worked as a construction project manager for the City of Houston until his retirement in 2008. In recognition of his achievements, Sams was awarded the Excellence in Servant Leadership Award, presented in 2015 by UTMB, and First Union Baptist Church’s presented Sams with their Image Award. The NAACP named Sams an Unsung Hero Honoree and on January 29, 2015, the City of Galveston’s Mayor and City Council issued a proclamation that declared the date Kelton D. Sams Day.
In 2015, Sams published his autobiography, Growing up in Galveston Texas- Walls Came Tumbling Down. An oral history that recounts his life was recorded by Sams in partnership with Texas Southern University in 2016. The recordings are available online through the Portal to Texas History, a gateway of shared history administered by the University of North Texas in Denton.
Eldrewey Joseph Stearns (1931-2020)Eldrewey Stearns was born in Galveston on December 21, 1931, the first of five children born to Rudolph and Devonna Stearns. After he graduated from Central High School in 1949, Stearns enlisted in the U.S. Army and served until 1953. He enrolled in Michigan State University when he was discharged and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science in 1957. With the intent to become a lawyer, Stearns moved to Houston and enrolled in the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at TSU.
After he was stopped by Houston police one night in 1959 for having defective taillights, Stearns was arrested and beaten for having a picture of a white girl in his wallet. In response to the injustice, Stearns encouraged thirteen fellow students at TSU to join him in lunch counter sit-ins held across the city. On March 4, 1960, Stearns led the group to Weingarten’s Super Market at 4110 Almeda Road for their first demonstration at the market’s lunch counter. The peaceful protest at Weingarten’s would become known as the first successful sit-in in Texas.
Empowered by their success, Stearns led the students in other sit-ins that targeted lunch counters, movie theatres, restaurants, and transit stations. During the protest movement, the Progressive Youth Association (PYA) formed and Stearns was elected as the group’s first president. Stearns and the TSU 13, as they became known, continued to protest across the city through 1964.
During the 1980s, the Houston chapter of the NAACP honored Stearns for his contributions towards social and civil equality for minorities. In 1984, Stearns was introduced to Dr. Thomas R. Cole, a professor at the Institute for the Medical Humanities at UTMB in Galveston. Over the next thirteen years, Cole and Stearns collaborated to write Stearns’ autobiography, No Color is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston, published in 1997.
The city of Houston and TSU paid tribute to Stearns and the TSU 13 in 2010 with the placement of a State of Texas Historic Subject Marker at the site of the old Weingarten’s that documents the historic event. A scholarship in his name was also established at the University of Houston at Clear Lake by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
Stearns’ last public interview was conducted in 2012. He died on December 23, 2020, in Texas City. His dedication to the Civil Rights movement slowly integrated Houston and as a result, he will forever be known as Houston’s first civil rights leader.
Shared from Galveston Historical Society