By MOLLIE FINCH BELT
The Dallas Examiner
My husband and I moved our family to Houston in 1973, when he went to Texas Southern University Law School – later named Thurgood Marshall Law School. Our household included our two children, James Jr. and Melanie and Maria Ortiz. Ortiz was like a live-in grandmother. She started working for us when my son was 6 months old and remained until her death at 82 years of age. Maria had helped my husband’s mother take care of him when he was a baby. So he trusted her to care for our babies.
Initially, I worked as center director for one of Harris County’s Employment Development Centers, then was promoted to the assistant director of the Manpower Program for Harris County.
My work environment was mixed racially. All employees at the Manpower Development Center where I initially worked were Black however, in the downtown Manpower office where I was promoted most of the employees were White. Houston was a Black city. Texas Southern University added a lot to Black life in Houston.
While James was in law school, he was elected president of the student body at Texas Southern University Law School. He had an opportunity to meet and spend quality time with Justice Thurgood Marshall when he came to Houston for the naming of the law school in his honor. He also met Heman Sweat who filed the lawsuit against University of Texas and State of Texas when he was refused entrance to the University of Texas at Austin law school. Sweat later wrote James a long letter. Sweat’s lawsuit resulted in the creation of Texas Southern University in Houston and a law school for Negroes.
When we left Harlingen, I took a leave of absence because the State Employment Commission would not transfer me to Houston as an employment counselor. They wanted me to take a demotion to employment interviewer, a position that paid considerably less money, or resign.
I was excited because this was my opportunity to apply for a job with a large corporation. However, I was told by private employment agencies that because I had worked for the government for almost 10 years, corporations were not interested in me. A private employment company who was trying to get me a job recommended I apply for a job with the city of Houston or Harris County because all of my work experience had been in government.
I was hired the day I applied at Harris County and worked for the county for three years.
I learned county government and how to get things done in a racist climate. The Harris County Commissioner’s Court was very conservative. The director of the Manpower Program H.N. McElroy was a White attorney who was waiting for an opening as Justice of the Peace. He knew nothing about the Manpower program. He was appointed by Jon Lindsey, a Republican who was County Judge of Harris County. The program was new to McElroy, so he promoted me to be his assistant director because I had 10 years of experience working in a manpower program.
McElroy respected my experience and ability and we worked together to structure the program that was in trouble with the U.S. Department of Labor. I remember once our representative from the Department of Labor visited our program and he remarked about my ability to run the program. McElroy always told me when he left I would be the director and James should stay in Houston and practice law.
I learned a lot about management, networking and how to manipulate the system from him.
My job included presenting budgets and grant applications to Harris County Commissioners Court for approval – at that time it was a very conservative court. For example, they did not want to approve anything that had an affirmative action plan in it. At that time federal government grants had affirmative action requirements. I was able to work with the county commissioners and my director who was very conservative to get things done.
I spent a lot of time educating him about Blacks. I was the first educated Black person he had spent time with, and he was curious about the Black culture.
We worked in a large office suite in downtown Houston and my office was next to his. We shared a secretary. He could not believe that I would leave my good job to relocate to Dallas with my husband. I made an excellent salary and had 30 days of annual leave and 30 days of sick leave annually. It was a very prestigious job because I had an opportunity to meet judges and elected county officials. In fact when I resigned my position, Harris County Judge Jon Lindsey wrote me a very nice personal note thanking me for the work I did for Harris County.
My position was very self-satisfying because I always wanted to help people especially, Blacks, and I had the opportunity to design and implement programs to help people become gainfully employed and then see the end results. But my husband and I had always planned to move to Dallas where he could practice law with my father. So we moved to Dallas as soon as he graduated from law school in 1975.
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.