Saturday, October 27, 2012

Velma Roberts: East Austin civil rights activist and all-around hell raiser

Velma Carter Roberts (standing) holds meeting with adults and children attending. looking on is her niece (right) "Penny" Yvette Johnson, one sister Carlean Johnson and Carlean's son Hank Johnson, Jr. (right corner) Sitting behind he is one of the UT student that organized the Welfare Rights Organization.
Velma Carter Roberts was one of  East Austin’s African American civil rights activists. She got involved in politics when she was named president of the local Welfare Rights Organization (WRO). As president of the organization her major focus was on the politics of poverty and the plight of women on  welfare (AFDC.) Roberts, a divorced mother of five, was a working mother on welfare. She was perfect for WRO.

In 1968 a couple graduate students from the University of Texas School of Social Work, came to East Austin to recruit women on welfare to participate in their project. They were looking for a welfare recipient to be president of WRO. Women, basically living in East Austin, were invited to a meeting to get more information about the program. Whereas all the women approached said no to the position, Roberts accepted. All work with Welfare Rights Organization was voluntary. Roberts had never dabbled in politics, but she was confident she could step up to the plate, and hit a home run for impoverished women and their children in East Austin. She was a natural politician.

Velma Roberts

“Even though at the time I didn’t consider myself to be political, I had the personality needed to be an activist. I didn’t take nothing off of nobody, Black or White. I understood what little rights I had and didn’t believe in letting anybody put me down. This, more than being political, was what helped me in Welfare Rights. Sometimes activists are too smart, too intellectual. In some cases what is needed is an old fashioned hands-on-your-hips attitude: ‘You mess with me, I will mess with you.’ All people tend to understand this,” said Roberts in No Apologies: Texas Radicals Celebrate the 60s, edited by Daryl Janes, Eakin Press, 1992.

The local WRO was an offshoot of an Ohio chapter. This is where the UT students got the idea to start a chapter in Austin. Women who participated in the program were recruited predominately from Rosewood and Booker T. Washington Projects. At the time Roberts was working as a waitress at the La Petite Restaurant in East Austin, a favorite hangout for middle class professionals. Roberts had to learn to multi-task, wearing more than one face. Not only did she work a split shift, she had to focus on her WRO duties that called for speaking engagements, media interviews and meetings. She was responsible for recruiting, organizing and overseeing fundraisers. She got lucky and was guest on the Oprah Winfrey show. The subject was women on welfare.

Roberts began attending city council meetings. Almost immediately she became a pain the Council’s side, especially for the only African American councilman, Berl Hancock. At one meeting during a heated exchange, Roberts threatened to throw a shoe at Hancock, who rose up from his seat on the dais to call Roberts' threat. Oddly, Hancock was a frequent customer at the restaurant where she worked. They managed to be civil toward each other until they locked horns at council meetings.

With enough volunteers in place, Roberts' the first big project on the table was taking on the free or reduced lunch program in East Austin elementary schools. Not all women on AFDC knew that their children were eligible to get free or reduced lunches. The Welfare Rights Organization wanted schools to cease the discrimination against these children, who were treated differently from paying students When they went to lunch they were issued different color cards, distinguishing them from paying students. There was one color for free lunch; a color for half price lunch, and a color for full price lunch. 

"Welfare children" were scorned and made fun of, and harassed by paying students and some teachers. Taking on this venture drove Roberts further into politics, acquainting her with local politicians that she would be dealing with on a regular basis. Roberts liked the power the Welfare Rights Organization afforded her. She said the power helped her “get things done.”

“With the sweet taste of victory still fresh, we set out to deal with the County Commissioners Court about the way commodities were distributed. . . . Before food stamps, poor people were given commodities--surplus farm products the government bought from farmers who planted too much. Those commodities, packaged in brown paper with USDA stamped in big red letters all over it, consisted of flour, (corn) meal, canned chopped meat (like Spam), rice, butter, cheese, powdered milk and oatmeal.

"People would start lining up outside the distribution station before sunup and would sometimes have to stand there all day. I'm talking about hundreds of mothers, babies and senior citizens in the rain,cold, the hottest of summers, going through hell to get what was rightfully theirs." (No Apologies)

Roberts said WRO wanted the county use a numbers system, and provide a facility for people to wait indoors. WRO members testified before the Commissioners Court for one year. Their Monday testifying eventually bore fruit. The Commission agreed to conduct a study "that told them the same things we had been saying for free," said Roberts. It would have made more sense for the Commissioners to donate the $9,000 fee to the Welfare Rights Organization, but that is not the way politics works. The simple has look complicated, and the complicated has to look simple.

The Welfare Rights Organization teamed up with Larry Jackson’s Community United Front CUF) in the late 1960s to start a free breakfast program, a free day care center and a CUF newspaper. Elementary aged children were fed a hot breakfast before going to school. The program extended to summer when school was out. They eventually approached the Austin Independent School District (AISD) to commence a free breakfast program. AISD refused to implement such a program. Austin schools were segregated, and did not desegregate until 1971.

“Again we started our own program. We fed between fifty and seventy kids every school day morning for three months. We then went to the school board to ask that they put a breakfast programs in the three remaining elementary schools.” (No Apologies) All minority children were bused across town to attend high and middle schools, populated by a majority White student body. Black and Hispanic students were greeted with racial hatred, harassment and ridicule.

Neither Jackson nor Roberts were willing to accept defeat. Attending a school board meeting, WRO and CUF planned in advance to take control of the microphone, blocking others from speaking. “It just so happened that this was the same meeting where teachers were asking for a pay raise. Finally, the board approved a breakfast program—not for three additional schools, but for twelve. Today, every school in AISD has a breakfast program.” (No Apologies) 

In 1974 Roberts began working as a paralegal at the Legal Aid Society. Her duties with WRO had prepared her to work at Legal Aid. The clients she represented were mostly poor and on welfare. She also handled other kinds of cases that did not require appearances before judge. Roberts acted as a representative in food stamp and welfare hearings. 

In addition, Roberts and a co-worker worked with Black and Hispanic kids who were getting harassed and suspended at schools. They worked with East Austin residents receiving the blunt end of harassment, death and brutalization by police officers. These three illnesses were like an aggressive disease plaguing minority communities.

Roberts and her co-worker, both of whom worked as paralegals at Austin Legal Aid Society, regularly took affidavits from East Austin residents and business owners, personally delivering the complaints to Police Chief Bob Miles as proof of excessive police harassment and brutality. 

Roberts, her co-worker,  several night club owners and the NAACP President Nelson Linder, often met with Miles in an attempt solve the police problem. In addition to stopping minorities for no reason, police officers waited for customers exit from bars, then stop. Customers were allowed to drive a block or two, stopped and given a DWI or warning. It did not matter if they had only drank one beer or 12. After Miles resigned, the meetings continued with the next chief.

One of the most noted political organizations that Roberts joined was Black Voters Against Paternalism (V-VAP). It was formed to help Dr. Bud Dryden win re-election to the City Council. Dryden, a White physician, had a large Black clientele. Roberts was oneof the founders of the Black Citizens Task Force (BCTF), a political leaning group that addressed high unemployment, discrimination and other problems haunting East Austin residents. The organization confronted businesses that refused to hire African Americans. BCTF also took on the Austin Police Department, the City of Austin hiring practices, the local airport, even a large grocery store chain. As a result of marching and protesting some of the "norms" changed.

In 1975 the Black Citizens Task Force supported, and then opposed single member districts. According to Roberts, “In ’75, Austin was still a fairly liberal, progressive city. Blacks, Browns and young Whites formed a coalition to fight the oppression of the more conservative West Austin establishment. But by the mid-‘80s, the racial climate had changed. Many of Black Austin’s former friends were part of the establishment that oppressed us, and we didn’t think we would gain from giving up seven votes on the council for maybe one Black representative who might or might not serve BCTF’s interests.” (No Apologies) The Welfare Rights Organization disbanded in 1975.

In later years when the Black Citizens Task Force lost the majority of its members. Dorothy Turner became president in 1974, Roberts its VP. Wherever you saw one of these two, you saw the other. Some people tagged them" Batman and Robin." Turner was tall, robust, and bold and  referred to as "Mother of the Struggle"; Roberts was petite, with a medium build.  In her maturing years she managed to tranquilize her biting verbiage. However, she was still capable of resorting to that hands-on-her-hips take no mess younger version of herself when she was provoked. Turner, on the other hand, was a verbal battering ram, who was in no mood to be tamed or roped in. A daily newspaper said Roberts was “cool headed” but Turner was “hot headed.”

Velma Carter Roberts died November, 2000 at St. David’s Hospital. She was 70 years old. On May 31, 2008 the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center was finally dedicated to Roberts and Turner’s honor, after years of opposition from opponents who did not want to see it happen.  At a city council meeting a vocal activist and prominent businesswoman from East Austin suggested that the council "name a small alley" after the two women. 

However they felt about Roberts and Turner, none of the critics--older African Americans-- were willing to step forward and take on the issues these activists tackled.

 Velma Carter Roberts and Dorothy Turner were quite the team, and that meant double trouble for disagreeable politicians. In 2001 City Councilman Danny Thomas proposed renaming Hargrave Street to Velma Roberts and Rosewood Avenue to Dorothy Turner Blvd. The proposals could not garner a full council vote. both ideas were. Many residents  and businesses in East Austin were divided about the recipients and name changes.

Because of inadequate construction and interior problems the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center has been closed indefinitely. If they were alive Roberts and Turner would see this as a slap down of their achievements.

Pictured above is the  is a monument that stands in front of the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center. Also pictured is long time civil rights leaders Volma Overton. Left is a complete picture of the monument that can be seen at the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center, 7201 Colony Loop.

***Also see "Activist Dorothy Nell Turner said what she meant and meant what she said"


Anonymous said...

Just to set the record straight, the UT Graduate students who initiated the AWRO were Allen Danziger and Michael Allen (and two other whose name I do not recall) who paid dearly for their activities when the Texas Dept. of Welfare (as it was called then) found out about it.

D. Dickson said...

I am the oldest granddaughter of Velma Roberts.
I greatly appreciate you writing this piece about my granny.
As I read about all of her accolades, accomplishments and actions I feel so very proud of her all over again.
I simply knew her as granny, while everyone else knew of her as some sort of "black super hero".
She always told my siblings and me to never let anyone run over you, black is beautiful and that they fear an educated black. Words that I live by today.
I hope more will visit this site and learn of how her efforts are still benefiting Austin.
Thank you again. Peace and blessings.

Mary Godfrey said...

I did not know Velma Roberts personally, but thru Larry Jackson. While I was finishing up my degree at Huston-Tillotson College in the early 1970's, my then 2 year old daughter attended the Day Care Center run by Larry. Velma was said even then to be fearless and principled. She took no prisoners. Austin,Texas is a better city now because of her activism then-which started in the 1960's. Like her granddaughter D. Dickson, I hope more people find this site so they can learn the complete history of the little written about sheros and heros of Austin, Texas.