What's Wrong With Wheatley?

It has history, it has heritage. But does Wheatley High School have a real future?

Dutton and other black politicians such as Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee, state Representative Al Edwards and former HISD board member Wylie Henry remember when Wheatley was arguably the finest black public high school in the South, when it brimmed not just with great athletes, but with extracurricular activities, when its students excelled in speech and debate and drama and music, when students showed up at seven in the morning for an extra college-level algebra class taught by an inspiring teacher. In spite of the limitations imposed by segregation and poverty, Wheatley produced leaders, and Dutton and many other black leaders like him simply cannot accept the decline of the school that prepared them so well.

When it was completed in 1949, the new Phillis Wheatley High School was touted by the Houston Chronicle as being "the finest Negro high school in the South." It was also the most expensive high school in Houston, costing $2.5 million. For architects, the Houston School Board had picked the up-and-coming firm of MacKie & Kamrath. Houston architects Karl Kamrath and F.J. MacKie Jr. had designed the federal housing in Allen Parkway Village, but they're better known for the homes they built in River Oaks. Wheatley reflected their modernist, Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced approach: Situated on a 14-acre campus at 4900 Market Street in the southern section of the Fifth Ward, the new school had a 1,500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool, a gymnasium and a complete industrial arts facility. When it opened in May, Barbara Jordan, "a student who excels in speech activities," according to a news report, gave an appreciation address.

Enrolling 1,700 students, the new school relieved the overcrowding at the old Phillis Wheatley on Lyons Avenue, which had become so overpopulated that students were attending in shifts. When the new building was ready, an itinerant faith healer who was holding meetings on Jensen Drive caused concern for a few days by spreading a rumor that the old school was going to blow up. It didn't; instead, it was eventually converted into a career center and E.O. Smith Middle School, named for Wheatley's first principal, a tough-minded teacher who worked on the docks during his summers off and organized a local of the longshoremen's union in 1913.

The late 1940s were exciting times for Houston's newly emerging black middle class. In a desperate attempt to stave off the integration of the University of Texas law school, the state legislature had created Texas Southern University, and many of its first graduates, among them Barbara Jordan, were drawn from the Fifth Ward and Wheatley. Houston's school board lavished attention on the new high school, at least in part to shore up the argument that segregated facilities could be equal.

Despite the obvious fallacies in that argument, segregation had built a strong sense of community among black Houstonians. Though it was known as the "bloody Fifth" for well-publicized acts of violence, the Fifth Ward in the '40s wasn't nearly as blighted with poverty as it is today. Segregation meant that it was home to all segments of the black community -- black professionals and business leaders could count on African-Americans to use their services and shop in their stores and patronize their clubs and businesses. Integration meant more freedom and equality, but it also meant that blacks began shopping in traditionally white areas, while the black middle class and their successful children moved, just as the whites did, to the suburbs. As the '50s became the '60s and the '70s, Wheatley students who had once greeted their teachers in the streets and shops of the Fifth Ward were less and less likely to see them in their neighborhood. Today, not a single Wheatley teacher lives in the neighborhoods from which the school draws its students.

Talk to African-Americans who grew up in the Fifth Ward during segregation, and they inevitably evoke a nostalgia for their high school. Wylie Henry, class of '63 and director of the Fifth Ward Multi-Service Center, is one of those. His father graduated in Wheatley's first class in 1929, and his brother, Forest Henry, was named principal of Wheatley in 1985, when Wylie Henry sat on the school board.

"Wheatley was like a second home," says Henry. "Through the clubs and organizations we learned the social graces. My first formal dinner was a High Y event at the Third Ward Satellite Club."

One of the biggest events came at Thanksgiving, when black Houstonians filled Jeppeson Stadium to watch Wheatley and its cross-town archrival Yates High School play football. Wheatley was not a consistent football power, but it dominated black high school basketball in Texas, and its trophy cases are still loaded with awards from the annual state tournament at Prairie View A&M.

When Texas held its first integrated state basketball playoffs in 1968, a Wheatley team coached by Collin Briggs beat a largely white Thomas Jefferson High School team from Dallas 85-80 in overtime, capping a perfect 36-0 record. That same year, the school held its 23rd annual arts festival, in which students put up an art exhibit, the school orchestra played works by Shostakovich, Bach and Mendelssohn, the drama club enacted excerpts from Jean Anouilh's Antigone and the choir sang parts of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana Fantasy. In the mid '60s the school was packed, graduating as many as 600 seniors a year.

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