INSIDE LOOK: What it means to be African American in Galveston
Gregory Wilson is a long time Galvestonian who’s working at the heart of what he sees as one of the biggest issues facing his community: MENTORSHIP.
A founding member of Ironman, a community-focused group offering father-figure guidance for children in Black communities through Turning Point Church, Wilson was able to draw upon his own struggles growing up in Galveston to become a focal point of the kind of change he wants to see in the city.
Wilson took time to speak to Culture Clash about his personal experiences growing up in Galveston, and to talk a little more about what African American citizens in our community face today.
Many urban centers seem to be struggling nationally, certainly, but what challenges do you see as unique to Galveston?
I don’t see a bunch of opportunities if you don’t have a certain skill set, or if you don’t know certain people. There’s not a lot of advancement. I think there is a lack of equality for African Americans in certain areas. I think when the people from Galveston grow up inside Galveston and they become successful, they leave. People feel like they have to get out of Galveston to be successful. So I believe that the future can be as bright as we make it, if we actually get involved and get things going. But it’s very limited here, in what kind of jobs we have, how far we can go if we don’t create it.
And growing up here, how long have you seen that as a trend? I mean, it even to this day looks like the neighborhoods are split up. What was it like growing up in that?
Well, my father taught school for 35 years, and my mother, she was a nurse at UTMB, and she had her own daycare center. For the most part, everybody has a sense of family. In the black communities, we all grew up knowing each other. We go to school together, we all play sports. . . we grow up with a sense of, like, I know this person. But I think that you grow up as a child with a limited sense of how far you can go. Right up the street there was an area called Sandpiper Cove, and there’s people I grew up with who still live there. And it’s a low income area. And how it affects you . . . some people in Galveston, they’ve lived in Galveston they’re entire life, they haven’t been on certain streets in Galveston.
Really? And what is the reason for that?
I think that growing up with a lack of direction or purpose, not having that community support that’s embedded deeply. Not growing up knowing that you could become more.
Has it gotten better or worse over the years?
I think that in some areas it’s worse. You have an apartment complex right down the street, they allow tow trucks to ride through all night and take cars. You won’t see that in any other community but the black community. Just the other day, it was an elderly African American lady, and a guy was helping take the groceries up. And a tow truck came and took the car. And not only one tow truck, you’ll see like eight tow trucks just riding around, all day. And you have little kids out, and this is all they see. And I don’t want this to be misconstrued, but the law enforcement they are heavy in the black communities. They’re not nowhere else like that.
Can you talk a little bit about how the community changed before and after Hurricane Ike? It’s a really important marker for a lot of people in Galveston.
When I grew up, I don’t like to call it projects, I just called it housing. They had one on 53rd called oleander homes, they had another on 43rd called Palm Terrace, and two more, Cedar Terrace and Magnolia Homes. When the storm came, those got flooded out. Our own Galvestonians voted not to get the houses rebuilt. And so for me, it’s hard for me to understand how as a people we voted against building them back. There’s a lot of people who have been displaced, who didn’t have anything to go back to. Now the federal government has made the city rebuild. But they priced it so that anyone can live there. And now, a lot of the people who lived in those housing can’t afford to live in the new housing.
I think we have a lot of people who say stuff but don’t follow up with their actions. I don’t believe we really want to help each other like we put on. Like, we have a building here called Wright Cuney building. It’s a place where I grew up. And the building is just the same as when I was seven or eight. The park is just the same. Don’t you think that by this time they should have computers where they can teach the kids how to go on to the next level?
What do you see as the biggest issues facing your community right now?
Lack of jobs. Everybody knows that Galveston is more set for a tourist town. I work for the city of Galveston, and we go clean up where it’s high income levels and the things we do out there we don’t do in the low income levels. And that alone should tell you. When you go down to Jamaica Beach? We put roads up and new things every day. But right around the corner here there are streets almost like a racetrack, where it’s bumpy. Again, I really don’t like to say that I think no one cares, but I think we put on a show for the things we can be seen for, instead of doing. You don’t see political leaders coming out into the community until they need a vote.... I had a meeting the other day with a state representative. And I was sharing with him different things about our community. And he seemed to be a great guy, but he’s never been anywhere around here. But this is the state rep, for Galveston! I just believe the people in charge have to come take a look. The elected powers that be, they come in with an agenda. So it’s almost like voting for this or that person, it’s already scripted out. As a community we have to educate our kids to want better and do better. But the people in control have to give better too. A lot of people don’t vote because they don’t think it matters anymore.
What motivates you to keep trying in the face of all these setbacks? When you feel like you’ll always get screwed over by powers that never pay attention to what you say?
When you grow up with that warrior spirit, and you know you have to create what you want built… There’s an overwhelming burden against African Americans, from the justice system and throughout. You have to be willing to be fearless, and you’ve got to have courage. And given the opportunities that I’ve been given, I have to give back to these kids.