The Houston History Bus - a modified, open-aired, yellow school bus that is essentially a mobile classroom - frequently rolls over downtown Houston’s streets. The teacher in this school-on-wheels is R.W. McKinney, better known as Mister McKinney. Think of him as a snazzier-dressed, faster-talking version of Mister Rogers.
McKinney explained to the Houston Press why those very streets are named the way they are, for the heroes and glories of the Republic of Texas, rather than the traditional 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd street model. “They’re done that way because the Allen Brothers needed to market the city to win their vote back in 1837 when they were voting on naming the capital,” McKinney said.
“The Allen Brothers were pretty creative. They weren’t frontiersmen, they were New Yorkers. They had boots and buckles and top hats. And they always wanted Houston to be a major metropolitan city. That was the idea from the very beginning, to be the largest city in Texas, to be the hub of the south. And it happened.”
It did indeed and Mister McKinney has made it his business to know how it happened. He’s been able to share this knowledge with students and others for 15 years, when a volunteer talk for the Houston Area Youth Council blossomed into his life’s work, a non-profit educational program called Mister McKinney’s Historic Houston. Over the years, he rented various vehicles to conduct free tours of the city. But this summer, McKinney unveiled the Houston History Bus, a program and vehicle dedicated to touring all who are interested through Houston’s roots.
McKinney uses digital photos, PowerPoint presentations and his plethora of self-taught knowledge to instruct the bus’s riders. He says he’s accommodated 1,000-plus riders since August, impressive since the vehicle holds just 20 people at a time. Even more impressive, every tour is customized for its riders.
“We don’t have a regular route and that’s very important for people to understand,” he said, explaining that most of the tours are tailored specifically for students near their own schools and neighborhoods. "I'm talking about micro-history. We go into neighborhoods with kids and we teach them about local history - their neighborhood, their area, so that when they walk to school the next day or when they drive around the neighborhood, they're teaching their parents about local history."
A tour of these areas allows him to explain why the area grew, how commercial development would follow an influx and make an area established. He said these discussions allow him to "peel the onion back" on pockets of the city for those who reside in them.
These tours are a little different from the introductory tour, which he describes as "a downtown tour, a historic and architectural tour where I'll talk a lot about the city of Houston's founding, the Allen Brothers, of course. It goes back to the Republic of Texas days, from 1836 to 1845, and that's a fun tour. I give that to adults, I give it to out of town folks at the request of Houston First and different organizations that will ask me to entertain dignitaries."
"I've been doing this for a long time and it's a lot of fun. It's really enjoyable because you're giving someone a gift and the gift is knowledge," he said. "Especially with young people, but even adults, too, you can see the knowledge they gain and the appreciation they have for Houston."
Mister McKinney is a native Houstonian. He stumbled into his vocation at a young age, he said. "When I was in middle school, my mom's a single parent and she didn't have a lot of money, you know. AstroWorld was our Disneyland and Galveston was our Florida beaches," he recalled. "She was a hairdresser and she would drop me off at the Julia Ideson building downtown - that's our library - and I would just be in the Texas Room looking at old maps of Houston.”
He was further intrigued by Houston's sprawl, how even a routine errand meant a long drive across town and how the infrastructure for the city developed from that. He continued his research, leaning hard on tomes like Dr. Stephen Fox's Houston Architectural Guide and never missing an episode of Ray Miller’s Eyes of Texas.
Once he started Mister McKinney’s Historic Houston, he began doing more work with and for preservation groups. He’s been the resident historian for KHOU-TV's Great Day Houston since 2008. McKinney said he's slated to become the official historian for Houston City Council District I, which boasts the largest concentration of historical sites in the city. He is president of the Bellaire Historical Society and holds memberships with or advises for The Heritage Society, Harris County Historical Commission and the Julia Ideson Building, bringing him full-circle.
His background isn’t in teaching, it’s in the arts, and he tells Houston’s history with great verve. Whether he’s recounting the original Houston Zoo’s main and only attraction, Billy the Bison, or telling stories about Jack Yates or Joseph Meyer, he does so with high energy.
“It’s always been a city of immigrants,” he says. “Houston only knows one color and that’s green. Because of that focus on green, on money, on commerce, from the very beginning, that’s why you have people that look past any kinds of differences – with the exception, of course, of Jim Crow days. But we look past those and we focus on ‘What can you do and how can you do it, and can you do it better and can you make money at it?’”
"As I started to learn more about Houston's history, you had these amazing characters. Jesse H. Jones, Hugh Roy Cullen, Walter Fondren. You had these individuals even going back to Sam Houston,..(I) started learning about these heroes and they become humanized in my world and the dots start connecting as to how these people are all intertwined."
He’s still learning so he’s interested in how his world intertwines with bus riders. For instance, he’s done many tours for seniors and adults holding high school reunions.
“We take them on board the open-air bus and they teach me. They tell me, ‘Oh, there was a soda shop over there, there used to be a gas station over there, that actually was our bowling alley over there,’ and they tell us the story of their neighborhood and that’s an oral history that I would never be able to get; but, you get that oral history from the concentration of people and they bounce ideas off each other. The bus takes everybody back to memory lane together.”
He acknowledges there have been some bumps in the Houston History Bus road. Specifically, the bus took on four feet of water during Hurricane Harvey and resembled a swimming pool afterwards. It required mechanical and cosmetic repairs.
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He can’t run the budding enterprise alone, either, so he asks for donations to keep the trips free but help pay for the services of his bus driver, Miss Alice, and his lead mechanic and fleet manager, Mark Day. His most pressing need is finding a place to safely store the vehicle. He said anyone interested in booking the free trip is encouraged to send a Facebook message or to e-mail him at email@example.com. Groups must have at least six riders and all the riders must “like” Mister McKinney’s Facebook pages, since the posts there are designed to enhance the trips.
McKinney admits he works so hard to promote Houston history because, at least in part, he wants to be part of it. “When you think of Mattress Mack, when you think of Hakeem Olajuwon, if you think of Houston history I want you to think of Mister McKinney. That’s what I’m hoping my legacy will be,” he said.
Of course, there’s a larger reason, one that always starts with a question, especially for the students he tours. “What do you know about Houston? What do you know about the neighborhood? It’s ‘Well, my dad said this’ or ‘My dad said that,’ and that’s good, that’s a starting point. And then from there we get into the facts, and then we get into the show-and-tell, we take the kids where the history matters.
"Another reason I'm doing this is I'm trying hard to breed future preservationists,” he said. “What I’m noticing is the kids now have an appreciation for the history in their neighborhoods and they understand the differences between replicas, architecture and why it’s important. I’m seeing their eyes open.”