For Whites Only?
By Todd A. Smith
In the hit movie “Remember the Titans” starring Denzel Washington, a recently integrated football team riding an improbable winning streak cruised the Alexandria, Va. streets celebrating a huge victory.
The character Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass played by Kip Pardue offered to treat his teammates Petey Jones (Donald Faison) and Blue Stanton (Earl C. Poitier) to dinner following the game. The proprietor of the restaurant refused service to the trio because two were Black, causing an altercation with the White player (Bass) who assumed that race relations had improved in the town by 1971, the year the story took place.
Approximately 40 years later, in a city that boasts being the 4th largest in the United States, it is amazing that very little has changed as Washington Avenue, Houston has begun to bustle with business, but those businesses seem to be reserved for non-Black customers only.
Like Bass, many African Americans including myself, falsely believed that race relations had improved significantly, but the old battles of the Civil Rights Movement remain relevant in neighborhoods across the country.
Washington Avenue, Houston consists of a strip of restaurants, wine bars and clubs in the Heights neighborhood north of downtown Houston. The area which has seen a revival in recent years has received praise from prestigious publications such as the New York Times and Texas Monthly as the place to be in the city.
Although I do not consider myself a person addicted to night life, living in Louisiana for four years during college made me very fond of Bourbon Street, and I always believed that Houston needed a centralized location where residents and visitors could mingle on the weekend and enjoy an entertaining night on the town.
I had heard so much about Washington Avenue, Houston that I wanted to experience it for myself. Immediately, I realized that African Americans were singled out on this street and their business was not wanted by the proprietors of many of the area’s businesses.
Over the past six months I have cruised Washington Avenue, Houston four times, with the same result, racism and indifference. The venue that broke the camel’s back is a place called Sawyer Park.
Initially, I attended this restaurant with a group of White friends from high school and had a wonderful time. Although I knew the venues on this strip were exclusive such as the nightspot Reign, I did not experience any discrimination at the restaurant the entire night. They played a mixture of popular music from hard rock to hits by Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson.
I became so impressed with Sawyer Park that when several friends wanted to hang out on May 7, I suggested that we attend the restaurant and bar. I arrived early with my sister, before any of the other guests arrived but was basically refused service by the waitresses who ignored our presence until we voiced our complaints, although they had no problem serving the other (Hispanic and White) patrons sitting beside us, despite the fact that we were there before some of them arrived.
Immediately we demanded our money back and left the restaurant. In addition, I have heard of countless other racial incidents that have occurred on Washington Avenue, Houston from acquaintances getting arrested for jaywalking and prostitution simply for walking from one club to the next; to clubs mysteriously closing for private parties despite the doormen not checking to see if those people were a part of the private party.
In “Remember the Titans,” Black patrons were allowed to order food from the restaurant but were forced to pick up their order from the kitchen and not allowed to sit in the restaurant alongside White customers. At Sawyer Park, we were forced to pick up our food from the bar, while White and Hispanic customers were brought their order by a waitress.
Nonetheless, in 2010 I believe that any business owner should be able to refuse service if they choose to like the venues on Washington Avenue, Houston, just be up front about it so the demographic (African Americans) that you want to exclude can know about it and can take their money to businesses where they are respected.
Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men’s Magazine.