Houston icons: Eleanor Tinsley

Eleanor Tinsley

By Alex Wukman

Eleanor Tinsley helped transform the City of Houston from a racist, sexist, homophobic Good Old Boy oil town into the largest city in the US to elect an openly gay mayor. Just scratching the surface of what she accomplished in her years of public service is enough to leave the generations that grew up after the battles she fought had been won in utter disbelief. But to understand who Tinsley was it is necessary to understand the times that helped create her and to do that we have to go back over 50 years to Brown v. Board Of Education.

Once the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not use the “separate but equal” line of reasoning it became their responsibility to desegregate their facilities. In some places desegregation was easier than in others, in some places it took marches and the military for black children to go be able to attend all white schools. However in Houston that was not the case. Some local historians like to cite the fact that Houston ISD didn’t face the outright violence that other districts did, but that reading ignores the reality of what happened.

Many of those opposed to school segregation in the late 1950s and early 1960s were veterans of the Red Scare movements of a decade before and were familiar with organizing anti-communist campaigns; which meant that they were able to bring groups like the John Birch Society into the fold very quickly. Part of what attracted groups like the JBS to the fight was the belief that the government had overstepped its bounds. Then Governor Allan Shivers of Texas put the anti-segregation viewpoint very succinctly in 1955 when he told the Associated Press that when the Supreme Court “said how cities like Houston and Woodville were going to operate their schools it stepped outside the role of judicial interpretation.”

Allan Shivers

In an argument that eerily mirrors modern day Tea Party thinking, Shivers said “Nine men sitting 2,000 miles away are not going to tell Crossroads, TX how they are going to run their schools.” He went on to describe school desegregation as “only one in a long attempt to centralize government.” Less than a year later the Houston Chronicle reported that “uproarious crowds” disrupted an HISD board of trustees meeting dedicated to discussing desegregation.

In the book Make Haste Slowly William Henry Kellar recounts how political pressure groups like the Citizens’ League for School Home Rule “pledged to use ‘all lawful means’ to block desegregation in Houston.” Part of those lawful means included shouting down integrationists, waving flags and singing Dixie at school board meetings. It is impossible to overinflate the animosity proponents of integration faced; in the fall of 1956 one HISD trustee, James Delmar, actually referred to the prospect of a Federal lawsuit forcing integration as “creating a holocaust right here and now.”

Local segregationists referred to a lawsuit filed in December 1956 seeking the enrollment of three black girls in all white schools as being brought by “anti-Christ groups.” In 1957 HISD released a report recommending that the district be fully integrated by 1960; the 16 person committee behind the report cited various obstacles, including a lack of public support, preventing faster integration. However, by the fall of 1960 the New York Times was reporting that HISD had engaged in “ingenious procrastination” to avoid integrating schools. Over the next five years HISD and various community organizations fought a long slow battle in Federal courts over how long it would take to desegregate public schools. Part of HISD’s strategy was a variation on pleading poverty. The trustees argued that the district didn’t have the facilities to integrate, so they undertook multiple building campaigns spending nearly $90 million to “alleviate the overcrowding that would result from integration.”
By the late 1960s HISD had stalled large scale integration so successfully that Federal courts had devised four separate plans, including one to integrate one grade a year and a Freedom of Choice plan that allowed students to go to any school in the district they chose. In 1969, a full 15 years after Brown v. Board, the vast majority of HISD’s 231 elementary and middle schools were still 95 percent black or white; this led the Nixon administration to step in and ask the US Department of Justice to void yet another of HISD’s flawed desegregation plans.

The year 1970 was a pivotal one for HISD; it was the year Federal Judge Ben C. Connally ordered the district to adopt a policy of zoning to desegregate schools. It was also the year that Eleanor Tinsley won election to the HISD board. Her tenure on the board was a tumultuous one, after the ruling that forced HISD to adopt zoning laws many of the city’s richest families transferred their children out of the district. Among those who transferred his children out of the district was Federal Judge James L. Noel, Jr.

Judge Ben C. Connally (appropriated from Life Magazine under Fair Use Provisions)

By all accounts Tinsley, soft-spoken and extremely polite, was one of the most effective trustee’s the district had at the time. So effective in fact that just two years after being elected to the board she was named president of HISD’s board. And her gentle style of leadership was needed because almost as soon as she took over as president a coalition of Houston’s wealthiest citizens set about trying to secede from HISD and create the Westheimer ISD to avoid integration. Almost as soon as Westheimer ISD was created Judge Connally issued a ruling preventing the organization from holding elections for three years.

However, Connally did not live to see that enjoinment through. After Connally’s death in 1975 the case was passed to Judge Noel, who was much friendlier to desegregationist interests. Noel used a variety of legal tricks to block HISD’s attempts to stymie the development of the Westheimer ISD. One of the most blatant tactics Noel employed was delaying a ruling. According to Texas Monthly, in September 1976 Noel issued a ruling that he would not consider an injunction preventing Westheimer ISD from holding elections until all state appeals had been exhausted. Noel issued this ruling orally and told both parties that he would provide them with a written ruling soon, the written opinion being needed to begin filing the appeals. However, Noel held off on issuing his ruling until January 17, two days after Westheimer ISD held their elections.

Noel’s delayed ruling, plus his own history of removing his children right when HISD was being ordered to adopt an actual desegregation plan, led many to assume that he was tacitly supporting Westheimer ISD’s bid. However, the entire exercise was considered moot when Edward Levi, the US Attorney General at the time, filed a motion in Houston to nullify the election results. The motion was Levi’s last official act; he filed the paperwork on inauguration day 10 minutes before Jimmy Carter took office and replaced him with Griffin Bell. Levi’s motion argued that under the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which was extended to Texas in 1975, Westheimer ISD was prohibited from drawing political boundaries because they would discriminate against African-Americans and Hispanics.

In 1977 a three judge panel on the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Levi and found that Westheimer ISD was simply a veiled attempt by rich white people to prevent their children from having to go to integrated schools. Of course by the time the Westheimer ISD was shut down Eleanor Tinsley was already out of office, she lost a 1974 re-election bid, but she was already eyeing the next arena and the next big fight. Tinsley is best known in Houston for being one of the first women elected to citywide Houston political office in 1979; however she was not the first. In 1977 Kathy Whitmire was elected to the position of City Controller.

Both Whitmire’s and Tinsley’s first runs for city office hinged on a relatively small, but very vocal and involved, segment of Houston—the Gay population. Houston gay activism in the 1970s was, to put it mildly, fragmented. The political organizations ranged from the militant Gay Liberation Front who wanted spouted Anarchistic rhetoric about liberating everyone from Hispanic janitors to housewives to Integrity/Houston who worked quietly, mostly behind the scenes, to accomplish goals like getting free venereal disease tests from non-judgmental medical staff. However, in 1975 a new organization was created the Gay Political Caucus.

Founded by Ray Hill, “Pokey” Anderson, Bob Falls and Jerry Miller the GPC found the balance between the radicalism of the GLF and the behind the scenes maneuvering of I/H. And more importantly the GPC was not afraid of playing political hardball. Most of the other Gay organizations in Houston had stayed away from making political endorsements for one reason or another. However, within a few years the GPC was holding rallies and contributing money to candidates that shared their goals. The first truly big success came in the election of Kathy Whitmire to City Controller; Whitmire’s election was followed by Houston Mayor Jim McConn officially recognizing Human Rights Week—the closest they could get to a Gay Pride Week—in 1978.

Jim McConn

But it was with Tinsley’s 1979 campaign for an At Large City Council district that the GPC really had its coming out party. Tinsley’s campaign was one of the watershed events in Houston GLBT history. Tinsley was running against a Frank Mann. Mann, who was first elected in 1960, was a hard line anti-gay politician. In the nearly 20 years he’d been in office Mann pursued an anti-gay agenda that gave tacit approval to police raids on gay bars and actively discriminated hiring gay people whom he referred to as “oddballs and queers.”

When Tinsley decided to try and knock off Mann her campaign manager advised her not to seek or accept the GPC’s endorsement for fear that it would cost her votes. Tinsley, taking the long view of history, reportedly told her campaign manager that the GPC endorsement would get her as many votes as it would cost. It was the first time a candidate had been openly endorsed by the gay community and it came at a substantial risk, mere months before the election HPD conducted a raid on the legendary and now defunct gay bar Mary’s. Many in the press credited the GPC endorsement with helping Tinsley squeak out a victory over Mann.

After taking office Tinsley proclaimed that she was firmly in favor of ending the culture of discrimination that saturated City government and HPD. However, like the school desegregation battles ending discrimination against Houston’s GLBT community would not happen overnight. Tinsley’s first year in office would be marked by some of the biggest victories and one of the biggest tragedies in Houston gay rights’ history.

In 1980 Mayor McConn conceded to one of the gay community’s biggest demands and appointed Fred Paez, a local gay rights activist and the GPC’s secretary, to serve as a community liaison with HPD. However, Paez’s tenure was destined to be short lived.  Late on the night of June 28, Paez, 27, wound up staring down the business end of off-duty HPD officer K.M. McCoy’s gun. How McCoy and Paez wound up in that situation is one of the things that still remains disputed. However, what is not disputed is that McCoy shot Paez in the back of the head.  McCoy claimed that his gun went off accidentally after Paez made a pass at him; an explanation that was endorsed by the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office but that didn’t satisfy Houston’s gay community at the time, and still doesn’t satisfy some.

Some members of the community still believe that Officer McCoy intentionally executed Paez while others willing to accept the accidental discharge story but wonder why McCoy felt the need to pull his piece at all. The events of the night of June 28, 1980 will never be fully known, but the fact that Paez’s death came days before Pride Week, which saw HPD conduct another raid on Mary’s, didn’t help the matter. The death of Paez and the continued harassment of Houston alternative lifestyle practitioners, plus the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s, helped galvanize the gay community in a way that had never been seen before. The outcome of GLBT community’s new cooperative effort was the election of Kathy Whitmire to the mayor’ office, an event that helped mark the GPC as a serious power player in Houston politics.

Kathy Whitmire election night 1981 (from the Houston Chronicle appropriated under Fair Use Provisions)

Despite the inroads that had been made by the gay community Tinsley herself still faced discrimination in City government. When she arrived at City Hall she was not allowed to office with the other at large representatives; for two years she was forced to office with the City Council members who represented specific geographical districts. It wasn’t until 1981 that she was invited to the at-large office, an offer she refused to take until the office name was changed from Councilmen to simply Council.

During her 16 years on Council Tinsley and her staff spearheaded policies and programs that were vehemently opposed by citizens and business interests. Among the most politicizing was the policy of fluoridating water on Houston’s East Side; a policy that resulted in her getting death threats. Another fairly controversial policy was banning smoking in government buildings; which brought lobbyists from large tobacco companies who argued against it citing everything from work place productivity to free speech concerns.

Tinsley was not afraid of running afoul of Houston’s considerable business interests, such as when she helped push a billboard reduction program. When Tinsley introduced the billboard ordinance in 1980 Houston had over 15,000 billboards in the city limits; an amount so large that it earned the city the nickname “Billboard capital of the US.” Thirty-years later it is estimated that there are only around 1,500 billboards in the city limits.

Tinsley’s legacy stretches throughout city infrastructure, from her push to create the 9-1-1 network to the creation of the SPARK parks program; which helped pool city, school district and private sector money to maintain city parks. When Tinsley passed away in February 2009 local media wrote that she was one of the people who created modern Houston.

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