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Houston Reviewed

Flooding after Hurricane Harvey. Photograph by Daniel J. Martinez.

A joint project of the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, and the Western Historical Quarterly.

More than two months have passed since Hurricane Harvey released torrential rains on Houston, Texas, but recovery efforts have only just begun. More than 80 people died during the hurricane. Financial losses are projected to rise into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Though it is essential at this time to remember and work for the relief of the inhabitants of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other Caribbean localities devastated by this brutal hurricane season, it is important as well to reflect on Houston’s plight.

In honor of Houston, the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, and the Western Historical Quarterly have compiled a selected bibliography of book and film reviews all pertaining to Houston, its people, and its history. The bibliography, Houston Reviewed, which features links to the reviews, may be read here. The introduction, written by Merline Pitre, a historian and resident of Houston, is reproduced below.

Houston Reviewed
On August 24, 2017, the city of Houston was hit by catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Rainfall topped 50 inches in some areas; damage to life and property exceeded 50 billion dollars. The worst natural disaster to ever strike the “Space City,” this flood has focused national attention on Houston, the likes of which one has never seen before. It is, therefore, instructive to tell the story of Houston at this time. Houston Reviewed: A Selected Bibliography makes no attempt to reflect the totality of Houston history or the entirety of its literature. Rather, its purpose is to aid scholars and general readers who wish to learn more about Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

This bibliography was conceptualized as a point of entry for readers with a newfound interest in Houston. The book reviews listed below have all appeared, over the past half century, in the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, or the Western Historical Quarterly. With one exception, a documentary film, these reviews evaluate historical monographs: books of a topical and chronological nature, written by experts in the field, based on primary-source research. This bibliography takes as its audience the general public, professional and lay historians, social scientists, teachers who wish to offer content on Houston in their classroom, and researchers who are starting work on their own historical investigations of Houston. It also targets undergraduate and graduate students in Texas classes that require an introduction to local history, in this case, the history of Houston.

Founded in 1836 near the banks of the Buffalo Bayou in southeast Texas, Houston is now the fourth largest city in the United States. In the early years of its development, Houston, like other southern cities, embraced plantation slavery. After the Civil War, separation of the races continued to be the order of the day. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s did this pattern of race relations change. Despite the laws and social practices of Jim Crow, the population of Houston grew, largely on account of the emergence of the railroad industry, the discovery of oil in 1901, and the expansion of the port. In later years, Houston’s booming economy served as a catalyst for intrastate and interstate migration to the city. Today, Houston constitutes the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in the country. With an estimated population of nearly six million people, Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land ranks second only to Dallas-Fort Worth among Texas metropolitan areas. It is especially noted for the Texas Medical Center and NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Its economy rests largely on an industrial base of energy, manufacturing, aeronautics, and transportation.

This bibliography will enable readers both to ask and to answer questions about climate change and Houston’s infrastructure, Hurricane Harvey and its physical and environmental impact on the city, migration and race relations during the era of Jim Crow, and the activism and cultural achievements of Houston’s African American and Mexican American communities. Hopefully, it will inspire more research, and the publication of new books and articles, about the city.

A study of Houston should begin with David G. McComb’s Houston: The Bayou City. The author explores the political, economic, social, and cultural history of Houston in three distinct periods: 1836–1873, the establishment of the city; 1870–1963, the era of transition; and 1930–1968, the time of rapid growth. Another useful overview of Houston may be found in McComb’s The City in Texas: A History. McComb explains how technological and economic transformation brought urban modernity to Houston, a city once known for its frontier tradition. Readers should also consult the Handbook of Houston (a spin-off of the Handbook of Texas), an online encyclopedia published by the Texas State Historical Association. The Handbook contains more than 1,200 entries highlighting important events, landmarks, and organizations in Houston’s history as well as biographies of the city’s most prominent leaders and community activists.

Houston’s Infrastructure, Energy, Economy, and Development
Houston’s unique urban development cannot be understood without reference to the city’s industry and infrastructure. One good starting point is Marilyn McAdams Sibley’s The Port of Houston: A History. About half of this book focuses on the founding of Houston and the slow development of navigation on the Buffalo Bayou. The idea of deepening and strengthening the bayou so that seagoing vessels could visit Houston originated in the 1870s but did not come to fruition until the 1910s. Since that time, the expansion of the port, and the increase in its traffic of cotton, oil, and other commodities, has placed Houston second by tonnage among all U.S. ports. In City Building in the New South: The Growth of Public Services in Houston, Texas, Harold L. Platt argues that demand for public services such as electricity and sanitation spurred technological innovation in Houston and helped shape the city’s political institutions and corporations. In Precious Commodity: Providing Water for America’s Cities, Martin V. Melosi focuses specifically on the usage, movement, and treatment of water. His two chapters on Houston tell the histories of the Buffalo Bayou and of the city’s water and wastewater infrastructure; that is, its wells, sewers, and incinerators.

As Houston came of age, so did its banking industry and legal practices. In But Also Good Business: Texas Commerce Banks and the Financing of Houston and Texas, 1886-1986, Walter L. Buenger and Joseph A. Pratt place the history and development of Texas Commerce Bank—a large holding company that later merged with Chemical Bank and has since been subsumed within JPMorgan Chase & Co.—in the context of Houston’s economic growth and state banking regulation. In Baker and Botts in the Development of Modern Houston, Kenneth Lipartito and Joseph A. Pratt perform a similar task for one of Houston’s oldest and largest law firms.

Energy, of course, has played a major role in the economic growth of Houston but its legacy has been badly mixed. Edited by Martin V. Melosi and Joseph A. Pratt, Energy Metropolis: An Environmental History of Houston and the Gulf Coast explores the environmental impact of the production, distribution, and consumption of energy along the Gulf Coast. The twelve essays collected in this volume examine topics such as the Houston Ship Canal and Gulf Freeway, the advent of air conditioning and its effect on housing construction after WWII, urban deforestation, and women’s environmental activism.

As Houston’s economy and population have grown, the issue of housing has become a paramount concern of public policy. Robert B. Fairbanks’s The War on Slums in the Southwest: Public Housing and Slum Clearance in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, 1935-1965 examines the rise of public housing before WWII and the pursuit of urban redevelopment after, in five Sun Belt cities. Fairbanks concludes that shifting popular attitudes toward business and government slowed renewal campaigns in the 1950s and ’60s, but he notes that local circumstances—in Houston’s case, the presence of large African and Mexican American communities—rendered each city’s history unique.

Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Houston
The standard treatment of Mexican and Mexican Americans in Houston is Arnoldo De León’s Ethnicity in the Sunbelt: A History of Mexican Americans in Houston, first published in 1989. De León traces the evolution of Mexican and Mexican American identity and political consciousness across the twentieth century. He identifies a generational progression that culminated in the 1960s and ’70s in an era of “Many Mexicanos,” notable for a complexity of attitudes toward ethnic assimilation and difference. For a comparative view of Mexican Americans among other ethnic groups in Houston, see Fred R. von der Mehden, The Ethnic Groups of Houston. Encyclopedic in nature, this book examines an array of migrant groups from their global points of origin to southeast Texas. In addition to these texts, readers may wish to consult the Handbook of Tejano Texas, also spun off of the Handbook of Texas.

African Americans and Jim Crow in Houston
Few books about the history of African Americans in Houston appeared in print prior to the publication in 1976 of Robert V. Haynes’s A Night of Violence: The Houston Riot of 1917. Haynes’s book stood alone for nearly a decade until Robert Bullard’s Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust expanded our knowledge of the black experience in Houston. Sociological in nature, Bullard’s book demonstrates that though the prosperity of the 1970s seldom trickled down to Houston’s inner-city residents, including those of the predominantly African American Third Ward, the financial adversity of the 1980s often fell squarely on their shoulders. A number of books published in recent decades have built on Haynes’s and Bullard’s foundation. One such work is a collection of essays edited by Howard Beeth and Cary D. Wintz, Black Dixie: Afro-Texan History and Culture in Houston. This book provides a general overview of the African American experience in Houston from the diverse labor of its enslaved population in the mid nineteenth century through its persistent structural inequalities in the late twentieth. Along with the above works, one should consult the Handbook of African American Texas, also spun off the Handbook of Texas.

After the Civil War, and increasingly after World War I, many African Americans migrated out of Houston, perhaps because of Jim Crow segregation. During the same period, though, others migrated in, apparently in spite of it. Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrants, by Peter M. Rutkoff and William B. Scott, follows former residents of Houston who—along with black migrants from other regions of the South—carried distinctive traditions to northern and western cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Bernadette Pruitt’s The Other Great Migration: The Movement of Rural African Americans into Houston, 1900-1941, by contrast, examines the histories of rural blacks who chose to migrate not out of the South, but rather to its urban centers. She argues that persons and families who relocated to Houston brought their own cultures, religious beliefs, and strategies for survival. Today these unique imports are most pronounced in Freedmen’s Town in Houston’s Fourth Ward and Frenchtown in its Fifth.

Activism, Civil Rights, and Desegregation in Houston
Activism has been the cornerstone of African Americans’ and Mexican Americans’ struggles for voting rights, civil rights, and first-class citizenship in Houston. A good starting point is Merline Pitre, In Struggle against Jim Crow: Lulu B. White and the NAACP, 1900-1957. This work focuses on black Houstonians’ efforts to destroy the constitutional bases of the Texas Democratic Party’s white primary. Lulu White is one of the best examples of the role that women played in that effort. In the early 1960s, black students sought to integrate the Bayou City and its public accommodations. By nonviolent resistance, they managed to integrate Houston’s lunch counters within a period of six months, despite resistance from city officials. Thomas Cole’s No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston tells that history; Bill Howze’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow: How Houston Desegregated its Public Accommodations documents it in an hour-long film.

School desegregation in Houston proved a longer and more difficult process. In Brown, Not White: School Integration and the Chicano Movement in Houston, Guadalupe San Miguel Jr. explains that though Mexican and Mexican American children were in some ways considered white, they too were forced to go to separate schools. In Make Haste Slowly: Moderates, Conservatives, and School Desegregation in Houston, William Henry Kellar demonstrates that the Houston Independent School District did not desegregate with “all deliberate speed,” as the Supreme Court had ordered. Instead, it dragged its feet on integration, ultimately complying only once compelled to do so.

Poverty, like racial discrimination, has been a target of Houstonians’ activism. In Freedom Is Not Enough: The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Texas, William S. Clayson examines Community Action Programs established under the Johnson administration by the Office of Economic Opportunity in Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso. Clayson concludes that those programs achieved some good, despite backlash against the Democratic Party. Wesley G. Phelps’s A People’s War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston expands upon Clayson’s work by analyzing conflict between Houston’s public officials and its community organizers, who were drawn heavily from the city’s African and Mexican American populations. Like Clayson, Phelps concludes that local conservative resistance hindered the Great Society and disrupted the efforts of Houston’s activists to redistribute economic and political power.

Churches and Faiths in Houston
The people of Houston have historically placed great emphasis on religion. Robert Trevino’s The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston examines Catholicism not merely as a set of religious beliefs and practices but also as a vital component of cultural identity. Trevino reveals that Mexican American religious observances and celebrations have at certain times fostered assimilation and at others preserved ethnic distinctiveness. Located in the Bible Belt, Houston also figures prominently in the history of American Protestantism. Phillip Luke Sinitiere’s Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity shows how Osteen linked the popular prosperity gospel movement to televangelism and thereby established the largest congregation in Houston, and in the United States.

Music and Culture in Houston
Two recent books have approached the history and culture of the Texas Gulf Coast through its music. Mary Ann Villarreal’s Listening to Rosita: The Business of Tejana Music and Culture, 1930–1955 investigates Spanish-speaking businesses, including women- and family-owned bars and nightclubs, that played an important role in the economic and cultural life of Corpus Christi, Houston, and San Antonio. Tyina L. Steptoe’s Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City explores the sonic landscape of Houston over much the same period. Steptoe illustrates how a succession of multi-ethnic migrants—Euro- and African Americans, Creole Louisianans, and Mexicans—brought a variety of musical traditions to Houston. There, over time, new rhythms and musical styles emerged in the forms of zydeco, R&B, and soul. Villarreal’s and Steptoe’s books may be complemented with either the online or print version of the Handbook of Texas Music.

Read the bibliography here.

Merline Pitre is a professor of history, a former president of the Texas State Historical Association, and a former dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Behavioral Sciences at Texas Southern University. She is the author of Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares: The Black Leadership of Texas, 1868-1898 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2016) and In Struggle against Jim Crow: Lulu B. White and the NAACP, 1900-1957 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999). She edited with Bruce Glasrud, Black Women in Texas History (College Station: Texas A&M University of Texas Press, 2008) and Southern Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement (College Station: Texas A&M University of Press, 2013). Her forthcoming publication is Born to Serve: A History of Texas Southern University, 1926-2016 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).