Houston is the largest Texas city and fourth largest populated city in the U.S. The city is continuously growing, creating a fertile economy for its residents. Houston, Texas is also home to the recently ranked 2nd largest HBCU in the nation, the illustrious Texas Southern University.
Southern cities often have the best African American history stories, sometimes hidden in plain sight. Houston, Texas is no exception. The city has had its share of African American heroes and leaders that also happened to be extraordinary black southern belles! Well-known female legends like Barbara Jordan, the first African American to be elected to the Texas Senate, all the way to Beyoncé, Houston-made international superstar, black women have been memorialized far and few in between Houston’s history book. Houston has had plenty of black female southern influences (yup other women) who helped shape the Houston we see today. Let’s get into to a few stories of Houston Black Southern Belles whose contributions should never be forgotten.
Fifth Ward’s Unofficial Congresswoman
Nellye Joyce Lewis Punch was born July 21, 1921. She was the youngest of two children and spent her very early years in Hungerford, Texas. The Lewis family moved to Houston, TX where Nellye excelled in academics. This extraordinary trailblazer graduated from Wheatley High School in 1937 at only fifteen years old. Punch received an undergraduate degree from Prairie View A&M University, then went on to earn her graduate degree at Texas Southern University. Fifth Ward Houston became a second home to Mrs. Punch. She dedicated over 35 years to the Houston Independent School District (HISD), never truly retiring and always staying active in the fifth ward. Through her work she stuck to her agenda as an activist; offering low income housing, bettering human health services city wide, improving academic system in the inner city, providing food to low income households, and increasing awareness and education on overall community issues and improvement. Houston gave Mrs. Punch the well-deserved title of “Fifth Ward’s Unofficial Congresswoman”. Nellye Joyce Lewis Punch was an activist for her community, educator, and above all an amazing muse for black women right here in Houston.
The First Black Elected Official in 20th Century
Hattie Mae Whiting White was born May 22, 1916 in Huntsville, Texas. Her family moved to Houston, TX when she was only six years old and from there, she became a part of history. Hattie graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and continued on to Houston Colored Junior College (one of Texas Southern University’s former identities), then graduated from Prairie View A&M University in 1936. Becoming the first black elected official to the Houston Independent School District (HISD) in the 20th century was only one of her many accomplishments that opened doors for years to come across Texas. Mrs. White was also the first black member of the Metropolitan Council of the Houston YWCA. She eventually received her the namesake, Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center in the HISD. Mrs. Hattie Mae White should be remembered as an African American advocate, trendsetting politician, and an amazing household provider to five children.
“And I think that’s ground which you can work, really, if you can keep in mind to treat others as you would want to be treated or to accept others as you would want—and if you value your own self and think, ‘If I can live in this society with these kind of feelings and moods, somebody else has to be able to do it too.'”
Houston’s First Black Pediatrician
Catherine J. Roett was a Houston native, born in the year 1923. Her father was Dr. Rupert Roett, a founder of the Houston Negro Hospital (currently known as Riverside General Hospital). Catherine studied pediatrics at the College of Medicine of Howard University, graduating in 1946. She continued on to complete her residency at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Catherine Roett took a step in the direction of integration years before segregation had ended. Following in her father’s footsteps, Roett broke molds and became Houston’s first black pediatrician, serving on black and white staffs at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. Her contributions created numerous avenues for Black Americans. Roett’s focus on the underserved Third Ward community, lead to her 1985 “Woman of Courage” award given by the Radcliffe Club of Houston and the induction into the Texas Black Women’s Hall of Fame at the Museum of African American Life and Culture in Dallas. The life of award-winning pediatrician, Dr. Catherine Roett, dedicated a full life to Black Houston.
Black Girl Magic Texas
Texas has seen numerous Black Southern Belles pave a way for the introduction of more African Americans in professional spaces and political scenes. In November 2018, Harris County swore in 17 new judges… black female judges. These beautiful judicial members bring the total black female judges in the county to 19!
In recent years, Harris County’s population has reportedly grown past 4.5 million. The city’s citizens represent one of the most diverse ecosystems in America. Still it is believed by that areas of the community have been underserved and unrecognized. Judge Tonya Jones shared her view on Houston’s judiciary scene in Houston with NPR saying, “The idea of ‘Black Girl Magic’ in and of itself is just a celebration of the accomplishments of African-American women in various sectors within society, and typically those where we’re underrepresented, such as the judiciary here in Harris County.” In 2018, 19 women collaborated to create “Black Girl Magic Texas”, the campaign pushing the election of these black female voices to Harris County’s roster.
Remember these 19 names etched into Houston’s list of trailblazing historians:
Judge Shannon Baldwin, Judge Lucia Bates, Judge Ronnisha Bowman, Judge Sharon M. Burney, Judge Dedra Davis, Judge Linda Marie Dunson, Judge Toria J. Finch, Judge Ramona Franklin, Judge Lori Chambers Gray, Judge Angela Graves-Harrington, Judge Cassandra Y. Holleman, Judge Erica Hughes, Judge Maria T. Jackson, Judge Tonya Jones, Judge Latosha Lewis Payne, Judge Michelle Moore, Judge Sandra Peake, Judge Germaine Tanner and Judge LaShawn A. Williams.
Black Girl Magic Texas was a nationally recognized success and will hopefully lead to the groundbreaking success of more Houston Black Southern Belles!
These are only a few of the women who built the road to success that many black women in the south have chosen to follow today. We want to encourage you to find more Black Southern Belle historians to add to our list!
“Hattie Mae White Discusses Her Work with Leading Desegregation Efforts in Houston Schools. HISD Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center, 4400 W 18th Street, Houston, TX 77092.” Houston Area Digital Archives, digital.houstonlibrary.org/cdm/ref/collection/p17006coll3/id/2.
Nellye Joyce Punch Collection. MSS 0004. The African American Library at the Gregory School, Houston Public Library.
Roett Family Collection. MSS 0002. African American Library at the Gregory School, Houston Public Library.
Christian, Tanya, and Tanya A. Christian. “19 Black Women Just Made History In Texas.” Essence, ESSENCE, 8 Nov. 2018, www.essence.com/news/politics/19-black-women-just-made-history-in-texas/.
Schneider, Andrew. “Meet ‘Black Girl Magic,’ The 19 African-American Women Elected As Judges In Texas.” NPR, NPR, 16 Jan. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/01/16/685815783/meet-black-girl-magic-the-19-african-american-women-elected-as-judges-in-texas.
“The Hattie Mae White Women: They Loomed Large in Our History.” HMAAC, Houston Museum of African American Culture, 2018, hmaac.org/new-page-1.