Lost in the Cause
After insisting that he had ordered the racial integration of the very restaurant in which he was now eating lunch, Eldrewey Stearns looked imperiously around his table at the Spanish Village and began spooning hot sauce directly into his mouth. He also began explaining all that is wrong with his soon-to-be-published biography, an advance copy of which sat before him. A short, narrow-shouldered man of 65, Stearns wore green slacks, black patent leather shoes and a purple sweatshirt drawn tightly over his compact dome of a belly. But he had the confident air of a celebrity; he had been using an advance copy of his story, No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston, effectively.
"I showed this book to a white boy," Stearns said, indicating the volume, "and he said, 'Goddamn, I been thinking you were the biggest bullshitter in the world.' "
Stearns's biography was written by Thomas R. Cole, the lanky, bearded historian who sat next to him. Cole, who befriended Stearns in 1984 when Stearns was deep in manic depression in the psychiatric ward of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, had heard most of the criticisms before. A teacher of humanities and medical ethics at UTMB, Cole spent 12 years with Stearns, interviewing both him and those who, with him, had led the early '60s sit-in movement that resulted in the integration of Houston. The day before his lunch with Stearns, Cole had delivered a copy of the book to Stearns's 90-year-old mother, who had nurtured her son through some of his worst periods of alcoholism and craziness. She had wept.
Until Cole came along, no one had really bothered with the story of how Houston came to integrate without the violence that plagued many other Southern cities. Now Cole has done it, and put at its center a man who, because of his mental instability, likely would have been dropped from the story had others told it.
Cole had hoped that helping Stearns relive his past might even cure him -- a fantasy, he now admits, almost as grandiose as those entertained by Eldrewey Stearns himself. In the course of his research, Cole learned much about Houston that had been hidden or underplayed in the city's officially sanctioned history; he also learned that his hope that Stearns would prove to be a selfless hero driven only by noble motives and grand aspirations for his race was naively unrealistic. Not that it mattered, since what he did find was something far more interesting: a brilliant, flawed, passionate, eloquent and grandiloquent man whose political hero was Richard Nixon and who doesn't think of himself as African-American but as a hybrid of African, Irish and Jewish ancestors -- "simply an American, whatever that is." Stearns's story is not just about ideas and issues and leadership; it's also about sex, alcoholism, madness, friendship and family. It's even about Thomas Cole's struggle to understand his own ambiguous motives in writing it.
If it weren't for Stearns's illness, his story would have been very different, and possibly not nearly as interesting. Eldrewey Stearns might have ridden the wave of integration and become prominent, someone like his fellow student leader Curtis Graves, who became a state representative, or Otis King, who was Stearns's roommate when they were both law students at Texas Southern University and who became Houston's first black city attorney. Mention of those men doesn't sit well with Stearns; Cole paid too much attention to such people in his book, he says, and he wasn't nearly hard enough on Barbara Jordan, who called him a moocher after he had helped her. Even Stearns's own supporters grew exasperated with him, accusing him of "pimping" the movement for his own profit. Such criticisms still sting.
"Look," says Stearns, "I wasn't looking for money, fame was my compensation."
Cole's failure, as Stearns sees it, was not to understand just how famous he really is. Cole underplayed important people when writing the book, Stearns complains, people such as Richard Nixon and George Bush. True, Cole does mention that Stearns gained a little notice in 1970 by publicly objecting to a huge diamond that Richard Burton gave Liz Taylor, a diamond mined in South Africa under the oppression of apartheid. But, says Stearns, Cole still doesn't understand how much he has in common with Taylor and why she should be central to his story.
"We were stars all our lives," he says. "I identify with her. We were both child stars."
And Eldrewey Stearns sees his star rising again. He hopes to be giving speeches soon, and he expects to be paid for interviews. For the one at the Spanish Village, he settled on a price of $40. Cole, who had secured financial help for Stearns while researching his biography, had warned that talk of money should be expected.
With the book scheduled for a mid-June release, Stearns said he was figuring out a way to get on Oprah. Cole was skeptical. He suggested that the best thing for Stearns to do would be to lay low and not get too excited.
Stearns looked at Cole with all the haughtiness knowing your place in history can bring. "Son," he said, "you don't have the purview I have. You have been inside writing all this time, and I've been outside, thinking."
In 1984, when he first met Eldrewey Stearns, Thomas Cole had been teaching in the medical humanities department of UTMB for two years. A graduate of Yale and the University of Rochester, Cole considered himself the classic "guilty Northern liberal." He was revising his doctoral thesis on the cultural history of aging in America, a broad, densely annotated survey of American attitudes that would eventually be published in 1992 by Cambridge University Press. He thought his next book should be about autobiography and aging, and when he encountered Stearns in a class that introduced medical students to major psychiatric illness, he believed he had found his subject matter.
Stearns, who had been brought to the hospital by the police, had been found in an alcoholic stupor on a Galveston beach. He had what was diagnosed as a classic case of manic-depressive illness; before he showed up at UTMB, he had already been treated for the disorder at hospitals in Austin, Washington, D.C., and Galveston. Doctors had given him prescriptions for lithium, but Stearns said he preferred booze. A psychiatric resident in the UTMB class recalled having seen Stearns before at the hospital's crisis clinic, once for having tried to circumcise himself with a razor. Stearns was proud of what he had attempted, for he claimed to be the great grandson of Adolphus Sterne, the Jewish-German merchant who had helped fund the Texas revolution. It was a claim, Cole would discover, that's probably true -- and a claim that ended up helping create a bond between the Jewish historian and the part Jewish mental patient. Other claims followed: that Stearns had graduated from Michigan State University and received a law degree from TSU and that he was "the original integration leader in Texas."
As these assertions tumbled out of Stearns's mouth, Cole could feel the doubt and suspicion in the room. What the medical students knew for a hard fact was that this was a man who slept on his mother's couch in a tiny wooden house north of Broadway. And delusions of greatness are one of the characteristics of manic depression. For most of those observing him, Eldrewey Stearns was simply a collection of symptoms. But something about Stearns resonated with Cole. His talk was often incoherent, but it was just as often eloquent, even dazzling and seductive at times. Cole suspected there might be something to Stearns's claims, and asked permission to check him out. What he found was confirmation of at least part of Stearns's story: Newspaper clippings that Stearns had at his mother's house confirmed that he had indeed been a leader of student sit-ins.
Stearns had long aspired to write his autobiography and had even made a few abortive attempts at the project, giving his work titles ranging from The Playboy Messiah to No Color Is My Kind, the latter of which had come to him in a vision when he lived in the relatively colorblind society of Belize. Stearns knew exactly what kind of book he wanted to write, or have written for him. He had been inspired by the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the Renaissance goldsmith and sculptor who dictated an episodic account of his triumphs and disasters with dukes, duchesses, popes, rival craftsmen and artists. On every other page Cellini seemed to have his hand on his sword hilt as some new character, usually described as a brute and villain, tried to cheat him out of what was rightfully his. When Cellini was down and out, he wrote poems, as did Stearns. Cellini's work was a work of pure egotism, and in him Stearns saw a kindred soul. Now all he had to do was find someone who could let his own soul out. When he met Cole, he felt his search was over.
Shortly after their initial meeting, Cole opened his office to Stearns for weekly and sometimes twice-weekly taping sessions. Cole thought it might take him a year to piece Stearns's story together sufficiently to edit it into a book. Three years later, he had 150 hours of confused audiotape and was in despair. Stearns had tested the limits of his patience and that of Cole's colleagues, his friends and his wife.
Though Cole is a historian, not a psychologist, his relationship with Stearns quickly evolved into something like that of therapist and patient. When he was deep in his psychosis, Stearns was sexually obsessive and made crude comments, not only to Cole and his wife, then a psychiatrist at UTMB, but also to female staff at the university, who eventually protested his visits and insisted that Cole meet with Stearns elsewhere.
Early on, Cole had convinced a Galveston philanthropist to help support Stearns while the book was being written, but the largess didn't make Stearns any easier to deal with. Cole began to realize that Stearns wasn't really interested in putting together a coherent narrative, and it exhausted his patience.
"I had heard every story at least three times," Cole recalls "and he still wanted to go on. I had a gradual sinking feeling. Then I realized that the facts of his life didn't square with his vision of who he was. I had to get other people into the story."
Cole called a halt to the taping and renegotiated a deal with Stearns and the University of Texas Press, which had signed on as publisher. Cole was no longer going to be Stearns's helper in creating an autobiography. Instead, he was going to write his own book, a biography of Stearns that would include more than just Stearns and his memories. Cole would expand his research to include interviews with other players in the student sit-in movement of the '60s that helped lead to the integration of Houston.
That part of Stearns's story began -- almost inevitably, it now seems -- with the issue of interracial sex. In 1959, Stearns was attending law classes at TSU and working nights as a waiter at Houston's Doctors' Club, an exclusive white social organization. Although he looked boyishly young, he was 27 and had already served in the Army and graduated with a degree in political science from Michigan State University. One August night, he was stopped by police for a traffic violation; the wallet he gave to the officers had no driver's license in it, but it did have a picture of a white girl he'd known at Michigan State. Stearns expected to be given a ticket and sent on his way, but when a cop asked who the girl was, he defiantly replied that she was his girlfriend and what did he make of that? Stearns got a rough ride to jail and a rougher time in the drunk tank, where he was beaten with billy clubs.
The incident would probably have gone unnoticed, but Stearns showed up at the next pop-off session of City Council, neatly appointed in a suit, a bow tie, a shirt with French cuffs and facial bruises. He protested forcefully and eloquently that he had been beaten and repeatedly called a nigger; the police, of course, denied his claims and, following an internal investigation, exonerated the officers involved, saying Stearns had been injured because he was "belligerent." Nonetheless, the story made Stearns a sudden celebrity. His story made the three Houston daily papers, and he was interviewed by a young TV newsman fresh out of Sam Houston State University, Dan Rather. Stearns was beginning to taste fame.
He was also beginning to taste the results of fame. The Doctors' Club fired him, but Stearns quickly found a job at the South Central YMCA on Wheeler Avenue near the TSU campus. The Y was run by Quentin Mease, who five years earlier had persuaded the white YMCA leadership to build a decent facility for African-Americans instead of putting them in rundown rental buildings. Mease had created a black business and professional organization that met at the Y, which was one of the few places in Houston where black and white business leaders could sit down face to face to solve problems. Mease had taken a firm but quiet role in the leadership of the black community.
The times, though, were beginning to favor less silent black leaders. It had been five years since Martin Luther King Jr. had begun the Montgomery bus boycott, and three years since federal troops had been called in to guarantee the integration of Central High in Little Rock. Most important for Stearns, February 1960 saw the beginning of the sit-in movement that would soon sweep the South. Four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at a whites-only lunch counter and triggered a massive change in the tactics of integration. One night that same month, while helping Mease set up an NAACP dinner, Stearns took up a microphone and tested it by reciting the Gettysburg Address. Stearns wanted to know what Mease thought of it, and the older man told him, "Well, Drew, that's pretty good, but why don't you quit sounding off and organize students here, like they're doing over in North Carolina and Georgia?"
Stearns took the admonition to heart. Four TSU undergraduates were already holding organizational meetings, and when then senator Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying Texas "nigras" were too complacent to demonstrate, Stearns joined them. Quickly, he was head of a student protest movement determined to make Johnson look like a fool.
Things were moving rapidly. Less than a month had passed since the Greensboro sit-in when Stearns and his associates selected their first target: the lunch counter at a Weingarten's grocery store on Almeda, which was within walking distance of the TSU campus. To this day, Stearns admits he felt both terrified and called by God to lead Houston's first sit-in. Though most of the customers at Weingarten's were black, the lunch counter served only whites. The students went to the Reverend William Lawson, then a TSU chaplain employed by the Southern Baptist Convention. Lawson was horrified by their plans, and tried to talk them out of it. But Stearns wouldn't be dissuaded.
On Friday afternoon, March 4, 1960, Stearns and a dozen other well-dressed students gathered at the flagpole fronting the TSU administration building and walked down Wheeler Avenue to Weingarten's, uncertain of what might happen next. During the walk to the store they were joined by four other students; most of the people they encountered, however, threw their leaflets back at them. As soon as they arrived at Weingarten's, Stearns rushed to a pay phone and called both the newspapers and the police to inform them what was happening. Within 15 minutes, the white customers had left, the students were sitting down and the management had put a Closed sign on the lunch counter. A crowd gathered outside to watch. The students stayed at the counter until the store closed at 8:30 p.m.
The stories that went out across the nation that evening noted that the sit-in movement had arrived in Houston. The first demonstration had been notable for its lack of violence, but the following day that threatened to change. Two carloads of white toughs drove in from Galveston to express their displeasure with the idea of integration. When they arrived, they found Stearns and the other students sitting calmly at the second of their targets, a Mading's Drug Store. But at the moment violence might have erupted, a Houston police officer came into the store accompanied by press photographers with flashbulbs popping.
The following Monday saw the most violent incident in the history of Houston's integration movement. Two masked white men kidnapped a 27-year-old black man named Felton Turner, took him to a field, beat him and carved the initials KKK into his belly twice. The incident provoked outrage, and Stearns, seeing an opportunity, quickly presented Turner with an award on behalf of the student protest movement.
In the iconography of the civil rights movement, images of violence abound: police dogs snapping at children, demonstrators being clubbed, officials standing in doorways with arms folded. Houston police chief Carl Shruptine had police dogs and riot squads, all right, but he kept them out of sight, and during the early, tumultuous years of the 1960s, he never used them on demonstrators. The students, for their part, let the police know about their demonstrations, and when they were arrested -- as eventually some were -- they went peacefully. As he dug into the history of how Houston was integrated, Thomas Cole found that the city's story was one in which demonstrations provoked compromise and negotiation rather than violence and confrontation. And that at the center of much of the negotiation was Eldrewey Stearns.
Throughout 1960 and 1961, Stearns devoted himself completely to the protest movement. Though no copies or recordings of his speeches remain, the student protesters and reporters Cole interviewed recalled Stearns as a charismatic speaker who could mesmerize crowds. Though right-wing activists howled about Communist influences and outside agitators, the truth of the matter, Cole found, was that local middle-class black leaders, many of them people who would never have dreamed of carrying a picket sign themselves, were nurturing and funding the student protest movement.
Soon after his first sit-in, Stearns dropped out of law school and formed the Progressive Youth Association to carry on the protests. In a period of weeks, the PYA could point to the integration of the Houston Public Library, the city's buses and Jeppesen Stadium as quiet victories. To meet another of the protesters' demands, a Weingarten's in the Fifth Ward promoted two black employees from stockers to cashiers. By June, only three months after he'd begun, Stearns and his protesters were marching on downtown department stores, demanding not just the integration of lunch counters, but better jobs for black citizens.
In April, mayor Lewis Cutrer had formed a 41-member Citizens' Relations Committee to deal with the demands for integration, but it accomplished little, and by summer it was disbanded. A far more effective response to the protesters was instituted by a Foley's department store executive and political fixer named Bob Dundas. As a teenager, Dundas had seen the aftermath of Houston's 1917 Camp Logan riot, in which black soldiers and white civilians were killed. Dundas had gone to the morgue and viewed the bodies himself, and he didn't want to see anything like that again. When Cole interviewed Dundas he was in his nineties, but he could still remember clearly how he had helped broker an arrangement to integrate all of Houston's lunch counters in one fell swoop. And he could tell Cole a surprising, little-known nugget of Houston's civil rights history.
Critical to the integration plan was keeping it quiet, at least until it was a done deal, too far gone to attract violent protests from whites. That meant a local news blackout. In what today seems like a startling arrangement, Dundas won the cooperation of John T. Jones, then president of the Houston Endowment and publisher of the Houston Chronicle, and Oveta Culp Hobby, publisher and editor in chief of the Houston Post. They agreed to run no stories on the lunch counter integration for ten days. George Carmack, editor of the old Houston Press, was reluctant to go along with the plan until Dundas threatened to pull all Foley's advertising from his paper; Carmack then saw things Dundas's way. Even Dan Rather, who was climbing in the ranks of Channel 11, agreed to turn a blind eye to the news, as did Channel 2, which was owned by the Houston Post. When Foley's lunch counter was integrated, Dundas was on hand with guards to personally see that the students were served and that there was no violence. Any Houstonians who knew what had happened learned of it through talk on the street, or else from Time or wire stories in outside papers.
While the blackout, and a subsequent one over the negotiated integration of Houston's movie theaters and restaurants, helped prevent violent opposition from segregationists, it also robbed the student protest movement and Eldrewey Stearns -- the forces pushing Dundas -- of recognition for what they'd done. Quentin Mease and black business leader Hobart Taylor used Stearns's ceaseless organizing and speechmaking to prod the white leadership into negotiations. But when the agreements were made, Stearns was in the background.
As Stearns's work intensified, the first symptoms of his mental illness appeared. He would work all day and drink all night, compulsively moving from one woman to the next, unable, he says now, to remember with whom he had slept. His response to a crisis was simply to stay constantly awake, a sign of a manic phase.
By 1961, cash was flowing into the PYA, and Stearns, who had quit his job at the Y, pocketed some of it for himself. His fellow students became wary and resentful, finally wresting control of the association's finances away from him. Stearns was growing progressively more irrational; when James Farmer and the Congress for Racial Equality announced they wanted to organize in Houston, Stearns went on local radio to denounce the move as a takeover of his work. Then Stearns's fiancee broke off their engagement. Feeling robbed of recognition from the news media and in despair over the breakup with his fiancee, Stearns broke down. Friends urged him to take a vacation, and he disappeared into Mexico, drinking and running up hotel bills he couldn't pay.
Rescued by friends, he returned to Houston, and ultimately regained some of his credibility. By the spring of 1963, Houston had still not desegregated its movie theaters and restaurants, so Stearns and his former roommate, Otis King, organized what would be Stearns's last hurrah, a demonstration designed to embarrass the city, garner national publicity and take one giant step toward complete integration. Houston was sponsoring a downtown parade in honor of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, who had just returned from orbiting the Earth. A hundred students from TSU and Rice with signs hidden under their coats were prepared to scatter themselves along the route. At an appointed moment, they would jump out of the crowd, halt the parade and display their placards demanding the end of segregation. As with most demonstrations Stearns organized, this one was planned with military precision. The students were broken into groups, and the group leaders were to check in at set times to confirm that nothing had changed. When Bob Dundas and the Houston Endowment's John Jones were informed of Stearns's plan, they worked feverishly to get theater and restaurant owners to agree to integrate, with the same news blackout as before. At 10:30 a.m. on the morning of May 23, Mease called Stearns to tell him they'd won; the restaurants and theaters would be integrated in 30 days if the demonstration was called off. The final check-in for the group leaders was at 11 a.m., and when they called, Stearns told them to fold up their placards. Once again, he'd accomplished his goal. And once again, few people would ever hear about it.
Over the next month, carefully selected black leaders and students attended movies at formerly whites-only theaters and ate in formerly whites-only restaurants. The newspapers and television stations said nothing. Quietly, Houston was integrated. The next year, Lyndon Johnson presided over passage of the Civil Rights Act to outlaw racial discrimination, but not with Stearns's support.
"I was opposed to it because my rights were already in the Constitution," Stearns says now. "I was an integration leader, not a civil rights leader. Civil rights belong to everybody."
Eldrewey Stearns says that his biography should have started something like this: "Eldrewey Stearns is the first black man in Texas to rise up against white power."
"That would be a good lead," he notes. "I was trying to topple white power. But I was ill, mentally, I couldn't do it."
After graduating with mediocre grades from TSU law school in 1963, Stearns made a halfhearted attempt to practice law. Then, for 20 years he drifted through madness and alcoholism. Stearns claims he spent three years living in the women's dorm of New York's Columbia University, where he slept with a different woman every night. The story, like much of what Stearns has to say about his life from 1964 to 1984, strains credulity. In the middle of a conversation he breaks into a long, disjointed story about a fight he had with a New York bartender over a Jewish girl. The story centers on sex; these days, almost any conversation with Stearns inevitably turns to sex.
"Race," he explains, "is a sex problem. We can't be brothers if we are afraid to be brothers-in-law."
So what can we do about it? His answer is cheerfully emphatic: "We're going to fuck our way out of it."
In his book, Cole does little to smooth over Stearns's rough edges, something for which he's already been criticized. Cole discusses Stearns's boyhood sexual encounter with a farm animal, and his being forced to have oral sex with a white man at knifepoint. But, argues Cole, these elements were necessary to establish just who Stearns was -- a lonely and vulnerable boy who, because his family had no money, was shipped from his hometown of Galveston to the East Texas countryside for three years. A resentful and resourceful young man who returned to Galveston to grow up in a climate of racial segregation. A servant and chauffeur for a wealthy and alcoholic white man. Stearns seemed, in important ways, tied to white power.
At Michigan State, Stearns says, he became a young Republican, and he still recalls meeting Richard Nixon at a whistle stop in the late 1950s and having the then vice president shake his hand. Nixon spoke at his graduation ceremony too, says Stearns, urging him and his classmates to go home and do great things. It was as though Nixon, through the handshake and the speech, had conferred a personal mission of leadership on Stearns.
"I voted once in my lifetime," he says, "and it was for Richard Nixon. That was because I knew him and I didn't know Kennedy. But when Kennedy died, I cried a full five days."
Now, like more than a few Americans, Stearns has become something of a xenophobe. The race problem, he says, has become mired in black versus white, when blacks and whites should be united against Asian and Arab immigrants. In the '70s, Stearns says, he tried to organize boycotts of immigrant merchants, but his personal problems got in the way.
But that's not what Eldrewey Stearns is likely to be remembered for. Instead, it will now be that part of his life memorialized in Cole's book. No Color Is My Kind is due in stores in mid-June, when a wave of publicity for Juneteenth will wash over Texas. Stearns has made his contribution, and so has Cole, in depicting Eldrewey Stearns as neither hero nor pariah, but a complex, effective, bewildering, fascinating man who changed Houston forever.
At the Spanish Village, Stearns looked over at his white collaborator. "He thinks he made me famous," Stearns said, pointing to Cole. "But I made him famous."
"Maybe you'll write a book about me, Eldrewey," Cole bantered back, "and I'll give you as much shit as you've given me the last 12 years."
After talking almost constantly for an hour and half, Stearns seemed to sink in his chair. He had barely touched the bowl of menudo he had ordered in softly spoken Spanish.
"It's painful going through all this," he said. "I've been through the most amazing time, but that didn't give me any peace."
"You've earned your rest, Eldrewey," said Cole. "You have earned your rest."
"Thank you," said Stearns with a sigh, "for saying that.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.