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Texas Standard

Book highlights Eldrewey Stearns, a Houston civil rights leader almost lost to history

eldrewey_stearns.jpg
Courtesy UT Press
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"No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston" was originally published in 1997 and then went out of print. It's now back on shelves with an update to Stearns' story.

From Texas Standard:

Eldrewey Stearns did not get the same recognition as other civil rights leaders in the 1960s. He started Houston's sit-in movement, and seemed likely to live out the rest of his life in obscurity until he developed a friendship with a University of Texas Medical Branch professor while staying at a Galveston psychiatric hospital in 1984.

That professor, Thomas Cole, ended up collaborating on a book with Stearns, who had struggled with mental illness for years. Through the 10-year process of writing the book, "No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston," Stearns began to reconnect with his past, recalling his boyhood and time as a civil rights leader. Stearns died earlier this year.

The book was published in 1997, and had been out of print for years. But now it's back on shelves with an update to Stearns' story and reflections on police brutality.

Listen to the interview with Cole in the audio player above or read the full interview transcript below to learn more about Stearns' life, his civil rights activism, his experiences with mental illness and his collaboration with Cole.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: Tell us about Eldrewey Stearns and his impact on Houston, and why he isn't as widely known as other civil rights leaders. 

Thomas Cole: Stearns was born in Galveston in the 1930s – grew up on the island in segregated educational institutions, spent four years in the country taking care of his aunt and then eventually graduated from high school here in Galveston and then at University of Michigan. And he went on to law school at TSU [Texas Southern University], and while he was at TSU he initiated the sit-in movement, which had already begun, starting in North Carolina in March of 1960.

Stearns had a moment that shaped the rest of his life: he was brutalized by Houston police. What happened, exactly? 

Cole: He was working at the Doctor's Club here in Houston, and after work he was driving home, taking his boss to where his boss lived, and he was stopped by the police who looked at his wallet and found a white girl's picture in his wallet, who had been a friend of his at Michigan State. And that was unacceptable to the police, and unacceptable in those days to have interracial dating. So they took him to the Houston police station and really beat him up badly. When he got out, he used the beating to begin the public discourse and movement for the desegregation of Houston. And it's very reminiscent of what happened with George Floyd, who died, of course, was murdered by police. In some ways, things haven't changed, but in other ways things have changed. And that's the police beating that allowed Stearns to launch this civil rights sit-in movement.

How did you come to meet Stearns? 

Cole: I was a humanities teacher at UTMB [University of Texas Medical Branch] in Galveston, and I took part every Wednesday morning in a psychiatric case conference in which a psychiatrist interviewed a patient in front of students and went through the diagnosis, the prognosis and treatment. These were hospitalized patients. Patients went back upstairs, and on this morning, in 1984, Stearns came down. He was floridly psychotic. He was wearing painter's pants. He was disorganized. He might have still been drunk. And the psychiatrist interviewed him and explained to students what the symptoms were and diagnosed him with what we today called bipolar disease.

During the interview, Stearns had said he was the original Texas integration leader, and everybody rolled their eyes and thought it was irrelevant. But I was interested in life stories. I was always interested in civil rights. And so I said to people, "What if that story is true?" And they just didn't care. So I went up to the sixth floor and asked permission to meet him, and he came out of his, in the locked ward, he came out of his room, and we started talking. And he said he was trying to write his autobiography, and I offered to help. And he sized me up and thought, oh, well, what do I have to lose?

Stearns clearly seemed to understand what his role was. So, how did he feel about his lack of recognition – something of which he was also clearly aware?

Cole: It was tough because after 1963, he just fell apart and he lived on the streets and he was psychotic much of the time. He was in and out of mental hospitals. And that led people to stay away from him. But he always resented the fact that he didn't get his recognition, and he actually really felt better about himself after the book came out and the accompanying film, "The Strange Demise of Jim Crow." You know, it didn't cure his mental illness, but it gave him a sense of self because his story had been recovered, and [his] importance in the history of the city was recovered.

Describe the process of collaborating with Stearns on this book.

Cole: We began meeting regularly when he was still sort of deeply disorganized, and I had once asked him, "So, what do you think about this? How can we do this together?" And he said, "Well, you know, you're a Jew; Jews are liberal," and that's, in part, why he began to trust me. But at the same time, we had these tremendous disagreements about what to cover, about whether to discuss his mental illness in addition to his life and the desegregation of Houston. So it was a difficult but very real collaboration over many years.

And in terms of my being a white, Jewish guy and his being a so-called Black guy, in some ways that was relevant, and in some ways it wasn't because the title of the book, "No Color Is My Kind," came straight out of his mouth. He was descended from many racial backgrounds, American Indians and Irish and Jewish and African American, and he knew that, and he knew the idea that he was African American or Black didn't make any sense, right? Because he was multiracial. But in those days, according to the "one drop" rule, everybody had a race and just one. And so he was forced into that niche, which part of his genius was that he understood he was multiracial.

But part of his craziness was he thought he could live that in a culture which only accepted Black and white, and he rebelled against it. And I understood that. And so we negotiated. A lot of the collaboration was negotiation. And in the book, I do everything I can to, in boldface, express in his own words what he was thinking in dialogue with me. And so I tried not to write it as a monologue, but write it as a dialogue with what they call a multi-voice discourse.

How do you feel Stearns should best be remembered?

Cole: I think he should be remembered as the primary figure who launched the desegregation movement through the sit-in movement. There were many other leaders, but he needs to be remembered for his leadership in the sit-in movement because that's what initially led to desegregation. And sadly, I think he should also be remembered as a vulnerable, impressive man with mental illness. But he shouldn't be, it shouldn't be reduced; his life should not be reduced to the mental illness. That should be one aspect of a much more important public life in which his leadership was exemplary and really shaped the history of Houston.

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