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Astrodome played major role in Houston's integration

Promise to be all-inclusive led to its construction, which in turn assisted city's efforts

He prefaced the conversation with a brief caveat, emphasizing that the events happened so long ago that "my memory of the details may not be great."

He then rattled off a list of details about one of the most important eras in the history of Houston as if it had happened just last week, and not more than 50 years ago, when the city was in the early stages of booming and was ready to take on racism in a daring, controversial and, ultimately, effective manner.

The Rev. Bill Lawson is now in his 80s, sharp as a tack, and can look back on a rich, meaningful career with enough highlights to fill dozens of pages on a resume.

It began a half-century ago when he founded the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church with no more than 40 or 50 members, and he has watched it grow to more than 5,000 congregants.

Lawson was in the thick of Houston's efforts to integrate in a way that had no margin for error, one that had to be implemented perfectly, to the letter, with the cooperation of dozens of city leaders, all of whom had the same vision: desegregate, quietly and effectively, and reap the benefits for generations to come.

This story has a baseball tie -- a big one. The Astrodome wasn't just the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was a driving force as to why the city needed to be integrated sooner rather than later. More on that in a bit.

The premise for what was dubbed "Blackout in Houston" by Time magazine was simple. Over the course of one day, every square foot of Houston would desegregate, all at once. "Whites Only" signs would come down. Department stores would welcome African-American customers without hassle. Hotels would no longer be sectioned off for whites and blacks. Houston would integrate in a manner untapped by any other city -- especially those in the South -- without a smidgeon of riots or protests.

It would be swift, and peaceful. And it worked.

"It was agreed that the signs would come down -- water fountains, buses, all the places where there were signs," Lawson recalled. "And where there were no signs, like department stores, you could go in. You could go into Sakowitz, you could go into Neiman Marcus. There were no signs there. It was just understood [that blacks were not welcome]. But that practice would be stopped, on that same day. When a black person went into a department store, there would be people that were welcoming them and saying, 'Would you like to try on something?'"

If an African-American got on a bus, they would be invited to sit in the front.

"It worked very well," Lawson said. "Blacks were as shocked as whites were."

Interestingly, the movement was less about doing what was right and more about making the city money. That's how integration got started in the Bayou City -- Houston was on the rise and ready to, figuratively speaking, boom.

The Johnson Space Center was newly built. The Ship Channel had expanded, allowing Houston to bid for the major oil and gas industries. And the city was granted a National League franchise, under the promise that a weather-proof domed stadium would be built, all but guaranteeing survival in a city by protecting the team and patrons from outside elements -- heat, rain and mosquitoes -- that could hamper the game experience.

In other words, there was a lot to be gained by ensuring all citizens of Houston -- including blacks and whites -- would have equal opportunities, to work, to live, and, of course, to spend.

Business leaders, noting the unrest that surrounded the riots in Birmingham, Ala., knew Houston had to take a different route to integration.

"The black business community, which of course was not as big and powerful as the white business community, helped to drive this notion that if you don't want to have the same kind of black eye that Birmingham has, and if you do want to court the oil and gas industry into Houston, you're going to have to do something about this Civil War mentality," Lawson said.

And so the plan was hatched during meetings behind closed doors at the downtown Rice Hotel. City leaders met with heads of the Houston Restaurant Association, the transportation industry and department stores. Segregation was to end, fully and completely. Now.

And in the middle of everything was Judge Roy Hofheinz, former mayor of Houston and the driving force behind Houston being awarded a Major League team, to begin play in 1962, and the building of the Astrodome, which was completed three years later. The Dome would put Houston on the worldwide map, and no one wanted to see negative publicity derail the long-term vision.

"To bring in black players, like Willie Mays, we could hardly have national publicity about Willie Mays being turned down by some white hotel," Lawson said. "It wasn't really a moral issue. It was basically a financial issue."

Needing a bond passed to complete the building of the Dome, Hofheinz went directly to local black leaders, guaranteeing that the building would be all-inclusive, with no tolerance for discrimination. The narrow passing of the issue can be traced directly back to the black community's backing of Hofheinz and his vision.

Meanwhile, to integrate the city, everyone had to be on board -- including the media, which was asked not to cover the story until the project was complete.

Such a secret mission could never be implemented today, not with the flurry of news outlets aching to be first to break stories through the immediacy of social media. "Please don't run this until it's over" is a laughable concept in modern times. Fifty-plus years ago, however, it was a reasonable request, and one that was agreed upon by all of the heavy hitters -- the Chronicle, the Post, the Press and the major television outlets.

During a time when college students were organizing peaceful protests to wipe out segregation, the older, more reasoned advocates knew discretion was the key. And they were correct. "They were part of these meetings and they agreed that the best way to do it was to do it quickly and silently," Lawson said. "The media had to agree not to publicize it. A story that big was kind of hard to silence. But if they didn't silence it, then this would be a major story, one where the students won and the business community lost."

With sports being the main headline-grabber, the Astrodome's role in the integration of Houston was anything but a footnote. It wasn't the only element to help springboard the civil rights movement in Houston, but it was a big one. And the prognosticators were correct -- the Dome became a worldwide phenomenon, and it did so fully integrated, just as Hofheinz promised.

Economically, the city's thriving nature could, without argument, be traced back to two or three specific days in the '60s, when leaders assembled in secret, banded together and emerged with a sound, if not foolproof, plan.

Morally, the outcome was equally impactful. The city's doors -- in the stores, the restaurants and the Dome -- opened with one collective swoop, never to close again.

"Blacks would say, 'I don't think I can," Lawson said. "They'd say, 'Yes, you can. Come on with me.'"

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.