Samuel W. Houston: Eclectic Huntsville icon

Item File PhotoRobin Montgomery of the Walker County Historical Commission greets the crowd at the Texas Independence Day and Gen. Sam Houston birthday celebration at Oakwood Cemetery last year. 

I Chronicles 12:32 conditions Christians to “Understand the Times”. It is difficult to imagine someone more attuned to his times-- the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries-- than Huntsville’s Samuel Walker Houston. The son of Sam and Margaret Houston’s slave, Joshua Houston, Samuel W. came to incorporate an education and legacy replete with the most influential intellectual currents of his generation. While thus embracing accolades from the elite of his day, he at the same time finessed emerging anti- Christian trends to become an educational leader in Christian Education with an impeccable state and even national reputation.

Samuel W. Houston’s professional career encompassed an era fundamentally identified with a progressivism attuned to the emerging prominence of evolutionary thought. This theme found expression in a quote from President Woodrow Wilson’s book, The New Freedom: “All that progressives ask or desire is permission-in an era when development, evolution is the scientific work—to interpret the Constitution according to Darwinian principles.”

The progressivism of the times was furthermore saturated with the concept of Eugenics, a pseudo-science proclaiming a natural hierarchy of the races. This was the theme, for example, of the “National Conference on Race Betterment” at Battle Creek Michigan in 1914. The only African American attending the conference was Booker T Washington. Washington found favor with whites by encouraging his race to accommodate to the times, set a good example of hard work and discipline, and wait for better opportunities to materialize. Samuel W. attended the same college as did Booker T. Washington, Hampton Institute, while Washington, himself, visited Samuel W in Huntsville.

The other two major players in the African-American Scene of Samuel W. Houston’s era, while attuned to progressivism, were bent on taking their race to a higher intellectual level. One of these was W. E. B. Dubois, perhaps the premier African-American intellectual of his time. Dubois espoused the need for the “educated tenth” of the African-American community to lead the rest of the race to higher levels of accomplishment including an education on the level of the whites. Like Booker T. Washington, Dubois was a friend of Samuel W., even visited him in Huntsville. Meanwhile, Samuel W. Houston attended Atlanta University associated strongly with Dubois’s tenure at the school.

The other intellectual, on the level of Dubois, was Kelly Miller, professor at Howard University in Washington D. C. Miller’s approach also centered on the need for guidance from the African American intellectual elite, in Miller’s case the focus was on conditioning his students to marry well. Samuel W. Houston attended Howard University, thereby coming under the impact of Miller’s teaching.

Building on his reputation, Samuel W. Houston pioneered Sam Houston Institute just outside of Huntsville into a powerhouse for its time. For example, 250 of his students obtained a college degree, phenomenal for that era. Sam W. himself, became Superintendent of Schools for Walker County and principal of a high school named for him, as well as playing a key role in the 1936 centennial celebration of Texas.

In spite of his inside knowledge of the thought and leadership of progressivism, Sam W. Houston’s philosophy of education was encapsulated in the following statement of his: true leadership stems from being a “follower of Him who said, I am the way, the truth and the life.”