Galveston was touted as the Ellis Island of the South, but can it be characterized as such today? Some BOIs say Hurricane Ike was the dividing point, or when our island’s community changed. After Ike devastated Galveston in September 2008, three public housing units on the north side of Broadway and west of 25th Street, where mostly black residents lived, were flooded and subsequently demolished. The rebuilding of the public housing projects was met with fierce (and racist) opposition at first, resulting in a painfully slow process and is still nowhere near pre-Ike numbers of public housing units. Twelve years later in 2020, many people who once called Galveston their home have not moved back. The demographics of our island shifted.
Ella Lewis, retired principal for Galveston Independent School District (GISD) and adjunct professor for University of Houston Clear Lake, grew up in one of our island’s public housing units. While she was a board member for the Nia Cultural Center, Ella developed an idea to “give a view of public housing that is sadly missing in current discussions.” In 2013, she printed a souvenir booklet titled, “Products of the Projects”. The booklet is a compilation of letters from past residents of their memories and experiences of living in those three, Ike-demolished, public housing projects: Cedar Terrace, Palm Terrace, and Oleander Homes. In the booklet, David O’Neal, a past president of the school board for Galveston Independent School District, shared a childhood memory in his letter of when men pooled their monies to help each other pay the poll tax so each could vote. Other letters were submitted by a teacher, two school principals, a counselor, two engineers, a nurse, an executive director, and a meteorologist. Who would these Galvestonians have become without public housing when it was needed? Would they have been able to reach their levels of success without the temporary assistance lent to their families in their childhoods?
Angela Wilson, of the Galveston Daily News, is a BOI who describes herself as a “product of the projects”. She lived in one of those three public housing units for four years when she was 21 and had two, young children to raise on her own. Angela said, “I utilized it for what it was for. For people to say nothing good comes out of the projects is a lie.” While working for Texas’ oldest newspaper, Angela serves as the first African American on Galveston Daily News’ editorial board. She is also the newspaper’s first African American to be its Community News Editor. Angela has weathered narrow-minded, racial comments (e.g., “black token”), but her internal fortitude and determination prevail. Galveston is a lucky city to call her one of its own. Eight years ago in February 2011, Angela married another BOI, Greg Wilson, who at the time was incarcerated and served 15 years in prison. Released two years after marriage, his story through Redemption Ministries is relayed in another article in this issue of Culture Clash. Together this husband and wife team actively give back to their community. She says, “When you’re in a position to help people, just help them.” Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it, G-town?
Recently I was at a small outdoor concert off Broadway. Knowing I would be writing for this issue of Culture Clash, I was hyperaware of the crowd participants. All night long when I looked around me, I saw diverse faces, ages, and skin tones. The experience humbled me. Our island offers daily opportunities to humble and awe us, in so many different ways. Each of us can work on discovering and cultivating these senses by confronting our prejudices, starting conversations, and really listening. “Humility recognizes both our own faults and encourages us to accept others.” Try practicing humility. Try starting off relationships with believing in the other person. I will. It can only enhance our communications with community members, regardless of each other’s race and ethnic diversity. Pay attention to the public housing needs on our island. Read the stories in our local newspaper. Listen for the lost stories from this island’s people. And as Angela says, “When you’re in a position to help people, just help them.”