Playing Hardball

Quentin Mease's drive to desegregate the Dome gave rise to a new black power in Houston

At first, the photo looks dull. On a stage stands a gaggle of men in suits, plus somebody's wife. Big deal, you think.

But the longer you look, the weirder it gets. The banner on the stage proclaims the event to be the groundbreaking for the "World's First Air Conditioned Stadium," that wonder of the world later called the Astrodome. The date is January 3, 1962.

Suddenly you realize that this group is integrated, and that in 1962 Houston, it was downright remarkable to see black men and white men standing together on a stage. In fact, the group is more than just integrated. The whites -- the Harris County commissioners, one of their wives, plus an oil millionaire -- stand in back.

Tenderfoot: Quentin Mease (front right), breaking new ground.
Courtesy of Quentin Mease
Tenderfoot: Quentin Mease (front right), breaking new ground.

Front and center are three black men.

They are smiling for the camera.

And they are holding guns.

It's not what you think.

In the photo, Quentin Mease is the black man on the right. Now 92, Mease is a compact, courtly man who spends most of his time serving on boards. He offers me coffee and invites me to take a seat in his home office, where award plaques cover the paneled walls. A photo of LBJ signed by Lady Bird sits on a side table, across the room from a framed drawing of the hospital named after Mease.

Normally, people whose offices are covered in plaques are eager for you to fully appreciate the grandeur of their accomplishments. Mease, though, seems embarrassed by his plaques. He used to keep them all in a closet, he says, but after his wife died, his visiting nieces hung them up. Public displays are not his style. When Mease made history, he did it quietly.

In 1960, a month after black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, famously staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter, Mease quietly challenged Eldrewey Stearns, a law student at Texas Southern University, to follow suit. Stearns organized the Progressive Youth Association, and he led fellow students in sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters across Houston. The protests alarmed the city's white civic leaders, and TSU forbade the students to meet on the school's grounds. Mease, the executive director of the YMCA's South Central branch, gave them permission to meet at the Y.

The South Central Y was the secular seat of black power, and Mease served to connect the student protesters with moderate black businessmen. Mease wanted desegregation as much as the students, but he stayed quiet about his ties to them; even in the black community, they were considered radical. Instead, Mease openly cultivated the business crowd. As one of the founders of the Houston Business and Professional Men's Club, he helped organize the city's richest, most powerful black men. By the time of the sit-ins, the club had become a political force.

And with the Astrodome -- or, as it was then known, the Harris County Domed Stadium -- Mease saw an opportunity to use that power. To win a major-league baseball stadium for Houston, former mayor Judge Roy Hofheinz and his partners proposed to build what was then a technological marvel: an air-conditioned stadium to protect fans and players from the city's brutal summers.

The stadium would be financed by county bonds -- assuming that voters approved. That was Mease's opening. If the domed stadium was nonsegregated, it would serve as a wedge to desegregate the rest of the city. After all, you couldn't ask Willie Mays to check into a segregated hotel.

Mease met with Hofheinz and Bob Smith, the judge's oilman partner, and told them that the Business and Professional Men's Club would support the bond referendum if the new stadium was integrated. Hofheinz and Smith promised. The Business and Professional Men's Club were "moderates," businessmen, guys with whom a politician could cut a deal.

The club kept its end of the bargain, and the referendum passed largely thanks to black support. It was then that Mease began to worry.

With the election over, he lacked leverage to see that Hofheinz and Smith kept their promise. So, as executive secretary for the Business and Professional Men's Club, he wrote a letter to the National League. He began with pleasantries, saying that the group was gratified that Houston might land a team. And then, in the politest language possible, he escalated to a threat.

The league could count on black fans' support, he wrote -- assuming that the new team and stadium were integrated. If not, the Business and Professional Men's Club would oppose the franchise and would be forced to contact black leaders in other cities.

Mease didn't explicitly threaten to organize a boycott by black baseball fans -- a boycott that could have sorely hurt the National League's profits. But he didn't have to. He knew the league would understand his quieter version; he preferred to deal with the matter quietly. Politely. Like a gentleman. A business matter, between businessmen.

Later that year, the league awarded Houston the franchise with the stipulation that it be integrated. When Hofheinz returned to Houston, triumphant, he phoned Mease and asked about the letter: Had it really been necessary?

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