PR Men Who Shaped Houston

A new book due out later this month describes the tenacity of one public relations man in the late 1950s who played a pivotal role in birthing Houston’s iconic domed stadium. During that same time period across town, a hard-charging PR executive at Foley’s Department Store quietly arranged racial integration of downtown lunch counters. These men and their stories of boldly shaping Houston’s physical and social infrastructure intersect in the most interesting of ways.

James Gast, in “The Astrodome: Building an American Spectacle,” chronicles with ease the colorful dreamers who brought the dome to life. His primary focus is on “the single most instrumental figure in the Astrodome story,” former Houston Mayor and Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz. However, the fertile ground for Hofheinz’s ultimate success in attracting a major league baseball team to enable the Dome’s construction was cultivated by a former UPI sportswriter turned public relations man, George Kirksey.

It wasn’t until the late 1950s that you could find a major league baseball team west of Kansas City, and Kirksey made it his business to push for a team in Houston. His PR business opened doors to men like Craig Cullinan, grandson of the founder of Texaco. “By Houston standards,” writes Gast, “Cullinan represented ‘old money,’ and he provided connections to Houston’s boardrooms and monied families.” In January of 1957, the Houston Sports Association was established, marking “the beginning of a concerted and moderately funded effort to attract the major leagues to Houston.” 

In 1961, a second bond measure on the Astrodome went before Harris County voters “to change the project’s financing from the revenue bonds approved in 1958 to tax-backed general obligation bonds” writes Gast. Hofheinz was politically astute, devoting “great attention to African-American voters whose neighborhoods overwhelmingly supported the measure, offsetting opposition in many rural and suburban areas.” This political dynamic on referendums for public infrastructure projects in Houston strikes a familiar chord to this day.

Also paying close heed at the time to Houston’s African-American community was another anglo PR man, Bob Dundas, the head of advertising and public relations for Foley’s. He reportedly was fearful of racial violence in Houston, having seen it first hand as a teenager in 1917 during the mutiny by the 24th Infantry, a regiment of African-American soldiers assigned to guard the construction of Camp Logan (now Memorial Park) after the outbreak of World War I.

Dundas’ role in orchestrating African-Americans to be served peacefully at Houston’s downtown lunch counters was told by Professor Thomas Cole in his book, “No Color is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston,” published in 1997 by the University of Texas Press.

Stearns, an African-American activist hired by Hofheinz, remembered the 1961 bond election for the Astrodome: “I saw in the Dome Stadium that it would bring about integration…We had jeeps to go out in the white community…It would be a black driver and a white announcer announcing ‘Come vote. Don’t fail to support the greatest wonder of the world, the Dome Stadium!’ Out in the black neighborhoods, the white boy would be driving and a Negro doing the talking on the loudspeaker, and this is something they hadn’t seen, so that got their attention…We won the thing.”

With Stearns a leading African-American advocating for racial justice, it was Dundas who played an historic role in Houston’s white community, not so much to advance social justice but to preclude violence and preempt the need for federal intervention. Writes Professor Cole: “Dundas shouldered the role of primary broker in behind-the-scenes discussions in the white business community. Motivated by personal ambition, fear of violence, a sense of community responsibility, and the financial interests of Foley’s, Dundas worked tirelessly.”

Dundas is credited with forging agreements with 70 downtown operators of lunch counters in supermarkets, drugstores and department stores to quietly integrate during the last week of August, 1960. Cole writes that Dundas largely excluded African-American leaders in his planning. Amazingly, Dundas choreographed a complete news blackout of the event to avoid local and outside interference, with cooperation from the Houston Chronicle (then owned by the Houston Endowment) and Oveta Culp Hobby, who at time owned the Houston Post, KPRC-TV and other media properties.

“The Dundas plan,” says Cole, “integrated the lunch counters and ended sit-in demonstrations by eliminating the reason for them.” And regarding the news blackout, it was “so effective that Houstonians only learned about the lunch counter integration from outside newspapers, radio and television broadcasts.”

These two public relations businessmen and their determination to advance their city’s status and business climate, while indirectly and perhaps grudgingly benefiting Houston’s African American community, are uniquely Houston stories. The Astrodome was conceived and built “because a group of Americans decided it should be done, and then just went ahead and did it,” concludes Gast. Similarly, the department store PR man Dundas was prompted by fear of racial violence and reduced revenues. He, too, clearly envisioned an outcome and set about making it history.

Note: Gast is a former colleague of Smalley’s at Houston METRO. A Kindle edition of Gast’s book is scheduled for release on Amazon in mid-May.