When Kristi Columbus cried after she was not chosen for the Stingarettes drill team at Texas City High School last month, her father initially put it down to disappointment. But when his 15-year-old daughter, an honor student who has her future as a radiologist mapped out, told him she wanted to drop out of school or transfer to a less racist district, Karl Columbus started listening.
"My daughter shouldn't have to be fighting these battles," said Columbus, 57. "These battles have already been fought. I have done my best to raise her by myself since her mother passed, and I don't want things like this to hurt her."
Blocks away, Mike Roberson was holding a similar conversation with his tearful daughter Chelsea, another honor student who didn't make the team. Chelsea and Kristi took dance lessons together in preparation for tryouts for the team, which performs half-time routines decked out in short sequined dresses, cowboy hats and boots. The girls practiced drills, high kicks and splits for hours a day on quiet streets in front of their houses and in their living rooms, hoping to become Stingarettes.
When Roberson found that none of seven black girls who tried out had made the team, he was worried. When he discovered that all of the judges who chose the team members were white, he was even more concerned.
"At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I think something is wrong when not one of seven black girls can make a dance team," said Roberson, 39, who owns the Cabo restaurants downtown and on the Richmond Strip. "That is like seven black guys who can't make a basketball team."
Roberson and other African-American parents in this largely blue-collar city known for its refineries are organizing, visiting the principal's office, filing complaints and charging racism because no black girls were chosen. Some want to sue the school district. Roberson is considering organizing a strike of black football and basketball players until black girls are included on the Stingarettes.
"We are not just going to let this go," said Chelsea's mother, Felicia Roberson. "We will take it all the way to the supreme court if we have to."
The superintendent, school board members, principal and drill team instructor did not return calls from the Houston Press. They referred all calls to the district's public relations representative, Stephen Hadley.
"There have been some concerns raised, and certainly, every time we get concerns raised, we do everything we can to get to the bottom of the matter," Hadley said. "We are doing what we can to determine what happened and take appropriate precautions. These are very serious allegations and we are going to consider this very carefully. This is not something we take lightly."
Texas City High School is 18 percent African-American, 26.8 percent Hispanic, 54.2 percent Caucasian and less than 1 percent Asian and Native American, Hadley said.
This year, no blacks made the Stingarettes. In 2002, one out of 54 team members was black, Hadley said. In 2001, four of 54 were black. In 2000, three of 60 were black, and in 1999 four out of 50 were black. In 2002, 15 Hispanics made the squad. In both 2001 and 2000, 16 Hispanics were included, and in 1999, 12 were selected. One Asian has made the team in the past five years.
The judges were all white this year, Hadley said, with one judge from Clements High, one from Klein High, one from La Porte ISD and one from Tomball High. Hadley said the judges, all drill team instructors, are hired to rate the participants in categories including showmanship, precision, style, grace, spatial awareness, coordination, rhythm, memory, timing and alignment.
Chelsea and Kristi aren't the first black girls upset because they weren't included in the Stingarettes. Girls who have attended the school say the drill team has a reputation for excluding blacks, and in the mid-1990s, the exclusion of one black girl from the team came close to resulting in a lawsuit.
Janice Weatherspoon filed a complaint charging racism against the school district after her daughter Jayla was not selected as a Stingarette by an all-white group of judges. The school redid the tryouts under the supervision of the Texas Education Agency, Weatherspoon said, and with a diverse panel of judges, Jayla was chosen. It was only the school's commitment to having a diversified panel to select the drill team that kept her from suing, Weatherspoon said.
Hadley said he knows little about the complaint except to confirm that one was filed in the 1990s and that a lawsuit was threatened. He said the only administration official who has information on the complaint is out of the country.
Weatherspoon is furious that the same situation appears to be taking place again and said she intends to sue the district.
"They want skinny, rich white girls," she said. "They want the parents to have a certain standing in the community. Maybe they just don't understand, but we've got rhythm. If somebody doesn't understand our rhythm, they may be like, nhaa, nhaa, nhaa. But we are good."
Weatherspoon said when she asked the administration to let her see her daughter's score sheet after the initial tryouts, she found there wasn't one. "They already knew who they wanted," Weatherspoon said.
Jayla went on to attend Sam Houston State University, majoring in dance.
Roberson said he hopes he doesn't have to sue the district. But he said he will do what he must to change the situation, including organizing all the black football players and basketball players on Texas City teams in a strike.
"I think if we got the athletes to quit playing until the school district gave black girls a fair chance to be on the drill team, we might get their attention," Roberson said.
Roberson attempted to persuade Principal Bill Doughty and drill team instructor Traci Mills to hold new tryouts with a diversified panel, but they told him no, he said.
Mills was rude and arrogant to him, and the principal wasn't cooperative, he said. Mills told him she couldn't find a "Stingarette constitution qualified" judge who was African-American to help pick the team.
"I thought that was just hilarious," Roberson said. "These people take themselves so seriously they are quoting from their 'constitution.' And they can't find a qualified black judge in all of HISD or the surrounding areas. It's ridiculous."
Roberson said he told Doughty he would be persistent, and gave him the choice to resolve the situation the easy way or the hard way. "He told me, 'We're going to do it the hard way,' " Roberson said. "He just threw his nuts over his shoulder and didn't want to give an inch.''
Roberson said all he wants is for his daughter and other black girls to have a fair chance to participate in all school activities, including the Stingarettes.
"I have raised my three daughters to believe they can do anything they want to,'' he said. "I am the first person that gets mad when a black person blames what happens to him on being black. But this is an issue of fairness.''
A self-made man raised in the northeast Texas town of Daingerfield by a father who worked in the steel mill and a mother who was on kidney dialysis for years, Roberson started as a waiter. After working his way up in management in the Landry's chain, he purchased the trendy Cabo restaurants and is in the process of opening branches in the former Crossroads Bookstore in Montrose, in The Woodlands and in Dallas.
He has taught his daughters that it's all right to fail as long as long as they've tried, he said. "I've failed," he said. "I've gone bankrupt. I know failure often comes before success. If I thought it was just a matter of my daughter performing poorly, I would tell her to work harder and try again next year. But I think it is more than that."
Chelsea's older sister, Angelica Roberson, a junior varsity basketball player and cheerleader, said the Stingarettes have a reputation for being racist. Their oldest sister, Bianca, now a student at the prestigious, traditionally black Howard University, said she had warned Chelsea about the group.
"I think the Stingarettes are a racist organization," said Bianca, who was a vice president of her senior class in Texas City and a varsity basketball player. "Before my sister tried out, I told her not to get her hopes up, because black girls hardly ever make it. Lots of black girls don't even try out because they don't think they have a chance. It is a huge problem and something that has been going on for years. I never bothered with it myself because I never wanted to be a Stingarette. I think it may have opened my sister's eyes up to what goes on behind closed doors. I actually think all seven black girls should be added to the team."
When Karl Columbus met with the principal to complain about Kristi not making the team, he brought along a "Stop racism" banner from a recent anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in nearby Santa Fe. He said Doughty took issue with the banner. But some Texas City blacks think it isn't far off the mark.
"The school is known for its racism," said Patsy Booty, whose granddaughter, Cecilia Ann Booty, didn't make the team this year. "We are at war, and people of all different colors are getting killed. It's time for this racial stuff to end."
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Raena Harmon, 16, said she was angry she wasn't selected as a Stingarette but plans to try until she is picked.
"A lot of black girls practiced hours a day every day, and yet none of them made it," Harmon said. "It kind of makes me sad. What is the point of going through all that if you don't have a chance?"
Weatherspoon said it's time for the school to take a serious look at why there are so few black girls on the team.
"There is just no way there ain't a black girl good enough to make that team," Weatherspoon said. "I mean, honey, what they're doing ain't that hard. It is a public school, and the drill team should represent the community. Why can they have a bunch of black guys on the football team, but no black girls dancing in front of them?"