The Black Cadillac

Alumni story
Lee Grant 1968 1969 Houston
photo of Lee Grant
Lee Grant

Late '60s, Houston, Texas. Tough city. Racially divided city. And there I was, a fledgling VISTA Volunteer. It was the year Martin Luther King was killed, the year Eugene McCarthy and George Wallace ran for President. The Vietnam War and flower power raged. Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and The Doors' "Hello, I Love You" played on the radio.

After training at the University of Oklahoma—I was recruited while a grad student at the University of Oregon—I was assigned to the Latin-American Community (LAC) Project with VISTA volunteers from around the country living and working in Houston's barrios and huge black communities.

The LAC Project was established by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an agency to supervise VISTA volunteers who were building community organizations in poor, underserved Houston neighborhoods. Located in an old, rundown building, VISTAs in Houston gathered there to set strategy, exchange information and form a support system for each other.

The assignment was opened-ended:  find community leaders, call meetings, identify concerns, chart action. The goal was to leave behind an on-going, vital community force.

Soon after I arrived, I was dropped off in the black neighborhood of Harrisburg and told, "Go find a place to live." I began strolling the streets, a white kid from Los Angeles with a beard and a mound of curly hair. I thought, “What would my Jewish mother be thinking right now?”

Harrisburg was a small, isolated, sidewalk-less nook of a community not far from Houston's Hobby Airport. It was pocked with old, often dilapidated single-family homes, an adjacent housing project, an elementary school, a Baptist church and a corner grocery store that charged way more than the supermarket a couple of miles away in the white neighborhood.

I found a roach-infested, partly furnished house, $97.50 a month, and moved in. Now, more than 30 years later, I can recall every room, including the small, showerless bathroom, the tub being the one place for respite from the brutally humid Houston weather. Still, in my mind, I can see the neighbors (one who knocked on my door Christmas day, holding a plate of food and worrying that I was alone), and the kids who hung at my place making sure I was part of their world and they were part of mine.

Here was a poor community (at least in material things) that took me in, often fed me, watched out for me, befriended me ... and I was there working for them!

During my time in Harrisburg, we formed a community organization that took on the local welfare office, with members acting as monitors when folks with little experience approaching government bureaucracy went there asking questions about eligibility and other concerns. We dealt with youngsters not going to school because they didn't have shoes by visiting organizations like the YMCA or large religious institutions in town, letting them know there were kids without the basics. Response was spotty. We also met with the local school staff, which pretty much shrugged off our concerns as facts of life.

We began a tutoring program that focused mostly on reading. Eventually we corralled a group of white students from a local high school who took it on as an extracurricular club to help Harrisburg youngsters after school.

What I remember are the families who often had barely enough to eat but always put a plate for me at their table and the kids. Three in particular would knock on my door late at night, a shelter when the black Cadillac pulled up to their gate. When their mother was entertaining a client, she sent them outdoors, away from the indignity of the work she did to support them.

Though I was there to impact their lives, those folks and that community had an enormous impact on my life. We stood in line for welfare cheese and beans, at county hospitals for treatment that was patronizing and insensitive, at schools where black kids were never told by counselors they could achieve and be somebody.

Those years, VISTA volunteers in Houston were not supported by the white community or the local politicians. We were stopped and harassed by redneck cops, insulted viciously for living in minority neighborhoods. As a diverse group of Anglos, blacks and Latinos, we'd be ridiculed and insulted picnicking together in public parks or having dinner in restaurants. In this big city, we felt safest in our neighborhoods. The folks there were not always sure why we were there, but glad we were.

During my tenure, a community organization was established led mostly by young adults, almost all of them women. It worked to not only better the lives of residents but helped this neglected neighborhood emerge from the shadows of city life. Progress was slow. Success meant a Harrisburg person becoming the first black saleswoman at the downtown Neiman Marcus. It meant folks identifying everyday needs ... a used refrigerator for a family without one, visiting the local junior high to discuss why it was always the black kid singled out and sent home after playground scuffles.

VISTA volunteers participated in a "sensitivity session" with the rough Houston Police Department. We met in a room at police headquarters suspiciously facing each other. They accused us of being "troublemakers" from the north. We, in turn, came loaded with a backlog of intimidating incidents against folks in our neighborhoods.

The day I left Houston and VISTA, a contingent from Harrisburg followed me to the highway to see me off. I recall looking over my shoulder and noticing that each person had a white handkerchief. They were waving them high so I could see.

They told us during training that if we touched one life, we were successful. I hope I touched at least one. For sure, the people in the community of Harrisburg, Houston, Texas, touched this life.

Since serving in VISTA, I've spent a career in journalism as a reporter and editor (I am the arts editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune). I influence the kinds of stories that get into the paper. I pick and choose what I want to write about. I hire people. I spend time with high school kids in the inner city who come to the paper to shadow me. I go to their schools to monitor their work. And, all these years later, that neighborhood, those people, that time, stays in my heart.

My sensibilities, my view of the world, the person I am has been shaped by that Houston, Texas, neighborhood, by the people there, by my time as a Volunteer in Service to America.

Decade: 1960s