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Wednesday, March 29, 2023


UH’s history of segregation still apparent


The Roy G. Cullen Building, named for Hugh Roy Cullen’s only son, was just one contribution of a total of $11 million the white supremacist made to UH. | Courtesy of Kianat Haider

While UH celebrates its diversity, its history is littered with anti-black racism and segregated city streets, the impact of which still reverberates throughout Houston.

Our University originally opened as Houston Junior Collegea community college funded by Houston Independent School District. Across the street lay the only local option for people of color to receive higher education: the Houston Colored Junior College, now known as Texas Southern University.

As the two colleges grew, they became private four-year universities, both aided in part by the work of Hugh Roy Cullen, a man whose name remains a fixture on campus.

For the white school, the millionaire provided funding for “working men and women and their sons and daughters.” To the black school, he donated 53 acres of land located in the Third Ward, making sure to separate the schools across racial lines.

Do not mistake this for a gesture of goodwill. Cullen was a white supremacist who referred to the New Deal as “The Jew Deal,” according to Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money.”

He supported southern Dixiecrats’ push for segregation. His funding of each college was, in his eyes, the privatization of the separate but equal doctrine he believed in so much.

By funding the white school and relegating the school for people of color to 53 acres of undeveloped land, Cullen’s message was clear: White people should be supported for success, and black folks were meant to fend for themselves in another part of town.

This trend continued through the fight for racial equality in education, as the Houston Colored Junior College integrated and became the publicly owned Texas State University for Negroes.

The University to become UH, however, still supported in large part by Cullen’s wealth and the wealth of his family, remained a private school, meaning it was not required to integrate and continued to turn away potential students who were deemed too dark. They were sent several blocks away into Third Ward to attend TSU.

Even now, decades after UH integrated and became public, there are visible signs of the division of the past.

We have well-kept grounds, plenty of options to eat at the Student Center and incredible facilities, but if you take the METRO bus two stops in any direction, you will encounter parts of the city that were left underserved throughout the 20th century and to a large extent remain abandoned today.

It’s very clear that UH, while integrated and diverse, serves those who can afford to make it here while profiting from the exploitable labor of the communities around us, who serve as staff in restaurants and groundskeepers around campus.

One can look at the campuswide service projects we put on to see the parasitic relationship we profit and privilege from. For free, the University gets the opportunity to leverage advertising hundreds of thousands of work hours directed at a wide variety of projects in nearby communities.

Of course, the work we do is important and valuable, but the University does not act out of a sense of duty. Instead, it shops the images of our goodwill around to donors to continue the University’s outward growth.

This system fuels further gentrification and redlining, which forces the families who already fight so hard for survival to leave or die trying. In this way, our efforts to improve the lives of people who are struggling are co-opted into programs that make it more expensive to live in some of the most run-down portions of the city.

By trying to solve the symptoms of the problem, it allows us to pat ourselves on the back and ignore the long-term implications of our history. By employing people from the communities we impact and hosting the occasional service event, we permit ourselves to be complicit in the ongoing violence we benefit from.

If we are to really try to make a change, we need to abandon the desire to keep Third Ward alive for our own ends and resolve the conditions that allow for the abuse of Third Ward in the first place. We should prioritize improvements to the funding for public services instead of individual services.

Not only will this help to improve the communities from the ground up, but it can help to make the need for individual-level service unnecessary.

Our history should not damn us to continue the violence endorsed by our predecessors. It should fuel our desires to move forward and improve the status quo. We have a responsibility to fix the mistakes that have led us to the conditions that we subject others to.

I want to encourage those of you who are interested to not simply look for ways to give superficial service, but to fundamentally change the lives of those in need. We need to focus on teaching people to fish rather than simply feeding them.

Without an approach that emphasizes long-term sustainability, we will continue to simply set Third Ward for continued failure. No longer can we idly stand by as we watch our University use the poverty nearby as fuel. We have to do something more.

Staff writer Cameron Leavitt is a communications freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]

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