Peace of Mind: The Legacy of Former ETSU President Revisited
James William Gee isn’t here to feel the heat, but it has happened to him in recent months.
Texas A&M University-Commerce, an institution he led as president when it was called East Texas State University, changed the name of its library and a lake on campus. Both places had Gee’s name on them. They will now bear the names of two African-American students who played a key role in the university’s desegregation.
See, Gee didn’t like the idea of ââbreaking up the school he ran. He fought the university’s desegregation efforts. Gee’s resistance to desegregation drew a lot of real-time criticism … from real politicians in positions of high authority.
US House Speaker Sam Rayburn was one of those politicians who vehemently argued that Gee should desegregate the university he led from 1947 to 1966. Yes, Mr. Sam was a man ahead. on its time.
According to an A&M-Commerce press release: The library will be renamed Velma K. Waters Library. In 1964, Velma Waters was the first African American undergraduate student to attend East Texas State Collegeâ¦ She graduated with a Bachelor of Scienceâ¦ in 1968 and taught in Carthage, Texas. She died on January 10, 1999.
The lake will be renamed Lake Charles S. Garvin. Charles Garvin became the first African American to graduate from East Texas State Universityâ¦ when he obtained a Masters of Elementary School Administration on January 25, 1966. He then taughtâ¦ in Pickton, Texas, before to become principal of The Ralph J. Bunche School in Royse City. Mr. Garvin died on June 30, 1993.
James Gee’s name has been attached to the library and the lake for many decades. Now, however, his name is giving way to others who have played a significant role in an activity that Gee has actively opposed. In my opinion, Gee’s name and legacy has been overtaken by the wave of civil rights awareness that has been reignited across the country in recent months.
As for Sam Rayburn, let’s just say Mr. Sam was unhappy with Gee’s reluctance to do what the other college and university presidents had agreed to do. As TAMUC history teacher Jessica Bannon Wranosky pointed out to me in a brief commentary, Rayburn and Gee have developed an “ugly” relationship.
The Rayburn-Gee relationship goes back a long way. Gee was from South Carolina, which was also home to U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, who became a national figure in 1948 when he left the Democratic National Convention that year to run for president as Dixiecrat, a party formed to promote segregation that would separate white and black Americans. Sam Rayburn, meanwhile, backed President Harry Truman’s election that year. Indeed, it was President Truman who, a year before being elected integrated the US armed forces.
So the two men – Mr. Sam and James Gee – were at loggerheads.
Rayburn urged Gee to desegregate the Commerce campus. Gee resisted. The relationship between the two deteriorated further over the following years.
President Rayburn died in 1961. After his death a movement was born to erect a Sam Rayburn Memorial Chapel on the university campus. To anyone’s surprise apparently, Gee resisted and effectively killed the idea. I guess Gee never got over the row that broke out between him and arguably Texas’ most influential politician at the time.
This brings me to the present day.
The past year has seen a revival of the civil rights movement and the need to address issues sensitive to African American citizens. So, when given the opportunity to address these concerns, TAMUC decided to remove James Gee’s name from two landmarks: the library and the lake. He chose to rename both places in honor of individuals with very different backgrounds and perspectives than the man whose name was on them.
It was right that the university honored individuals who embodied a national commitment to equal opportunity for all students and residents. James William Gee was not among those who adhered to these values ââand current events finally caught up with him as the institution he once headed removed his name from a lake and the library. Too bad …
John Kanelis, former editor of the Amarillo Globe-News editorial page and Beaumont Enterprise, is also a former Panhandle PBS blogger in Amarillo. He is now retired, but still writes. Kanelis can be reached via Twitter @jkanelis, on Facebook, or his blog, www.highplainsblogger.com. Kanelis’ blog for KETR, “Piece of Mind”, presents its point of view and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of KETR, its staff or its members.
Kanelis lives in Princeton with his wife, Kathy.