By MOLLIE FINCH BELT
The Dallas Examiner
Finding a job for a Black person with my major – Sociology – was hard in 1965, and I did not want to go to graduate school. Professional job opportunities were limited for all Blacks back then.
My father had a friend who worked at the Texas Employment Commission downtown. There were few Blacks who worked there in 1965. She told him they were hiring people they could train to be counselors in state employment agencies throughout the United States. I took two applications and gave one to my cousin who had graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans and had been looking for a job for four years since she graduated from college. We applied for the program and both of us were accepted.
The Federal government sent us to Tulane University in New Orleans to take courses in psychology and counseling so that we could be assigned to a state employment agency to work as employment counselor in the War on Poverty program.
On my application I had indicated that I would work anywhere in the state of Texas. So, at the end of the program I was sent to Harlingen, Texas. My cousin was assigned to the office in Corpus Christi. When I looked at a map, I saw Harlingen was located in the Rio Grande Valley at the tip of Texas.
As part of the War on Poverty program, the federal government provided specially trained employment counselors nationwide to work in state employment offices to increase employment of people with limited skills.
When I arrived at the Texas Employment Commission office in Harlingen, I remember the staff in the office was all White middle-aged people and four Mexican Americans who worked in the claims and labor department because the laborers only spoke Spanish. One of the senior staff said, “this will never work” referring to me.
The employment counselor position paid considerably more than the top Employment Interviewer positions in the office, so there was a lot of resentment. I made more money than people who had worked in the office for many years and I had no work experience. In fact, my salary was right below the office manager’s salary.
I developed a close relationship with the Hispanic staff that welcomed me with opened arms. We went to lunch together and I visited with them on the weekends. They taught me to how eat Mexican food and about their culture.
My job was to counsel with job applicants who had no job skills, training or work experience, and to develop employment plans for them. It helped that I understood their culture.
There were few job opportunities in the Valley at that time.
One of my achievements was to counsel Mexican American men and get them to participate in a program that trained them to be welders and relocate their families to Grand Prairie, where they were employed with good wages at Ling-Temco-Vault. The program was extensive, involving the initial welding training in Harlingen, then physical relocation to homes in Grand Prairie. Relocation was not something that Mexican men wanted to do. They were very secure in the Valley where their numbers were large. They did not want to relocate even for permanent gainful employment. It was a challenge for me to get them enrolled in the program.
Many of these men had been seasonal migrant workers, working up north and returning to the Valley when the work ended. Often their children returned to the Valley late to attend school, thus causing a high dropout rate.
I initially lived with the St. Paul Methodist church Black minister and his wife. Later, I moved to live with the church secretary, Mrs. Stephens, a widower who was a good friend of my minister in Dallas, Rev. Ira B. Loud.
The Black population in Harlingen was very small.
I became friends with Florence Belt, a schoolteacher and member of St. Paul, Lonnie Davis and his father who owned an office machine repair company – the only Black owned business in Harlingen.
It was at church that I met James Belt, Florence Belt’s son, who would later become my husband. He was living in Kingsville, attending Texas A&I – now Texas A&M Kingsville. He came home every weekend. He introduced me to his friends; all of them were Mexican-American and our age. We did social activities together. We went to Mexico a lot – Matamoras was only 45 min drive from Harlingen.
James shared with me the history of Harlingen as it relates to race. Blacks had attended one school prior to Brown v. Board of Education, Booker T. Washington, which housed all grades from elementary to high school. A couple of years after Brown v. Education in 1954, the school district sent Black students in grades 6-12 to the junior high school and Harlingen High School. Booker T. Washington became an elementary school for Mexicans and Blacks. Still, there were only three Blacks in James’ class.
He was a star athlete and played basketball and track. His friends were primarily the Mexican American students who mostly lived in his neighborhood. However the White students were friendly with him because he was a “star” and had an outgoing personality. Their parents were the owners of car dealerships, the movie theatre, banks, insurance companies, etc.
Though schools were integrated, many facilities were still segregated.
Even though he was a star athlete on the Harlingen team, he was not allowed to attend the annual sports banquet at the Harlingen Country Club, because Blacks were not allowed in the club – except for waiters and cooks, etc..
Because of James, Harlingen High went to the Texas Relays in Austin, but he could not stay with the team because he was Black and Blacks could not stay in the University of Texas dormitories- he stayed on the east side of Austin where Blacks lived.
James never forgot these incidents.
Later, after we were married, when he attended Harlingen class reunions – three to be exact – he reminded his White classmates of how he was treated. He reminded them that he had to sit in the balcony at one movie theatre and could not go to the other movie theatre at all. He was allowed to play little league sports with Whites and Mexicans, but he did not really understand why he could not go to school with them.
And he told them in such a way that they understood and felt his pain and apologized. But these scars remained forever – until his death.
James graduated from college in 1968 and we married in 1969 and had two children while living in Harlingen. By that time, more Black professionals had moved to Harlingen.
James became an avid reader of history books and recent books about the Civil Rights Movement. My mother would order the books for him and have them sent to Harlingen.
One of his good friends, Jose Angel Gutierrez, one of the founders of La Raza Unida Party and County Judge of Zavala County at the time, was a frequent visitor at our house in Harlingen. They discussed radical ideas based on the mistreatment of Mexican Americans and African Americans. Angel would only speak Spanish when he came to our house. They both had experienced and witnessed the mistreatment of Mexican Americans and African Americans and wanted to do something about it. James decided to he wanted to go to law school. In 1974, he was accepted at Texas Southern Law School – later renamed the Thurgood Marshall Law School.
Mollie Finch Belt is the publisher of The Dallas Examiner and the daughter of the newspaper’s founder. She can be reached through email@example.com.