It was 1940, and a 10-year-old Jack Strong was preparing to play football on his family’s land.
The Strong family’s black housekeeper had come to clean the home and brought her son, who was about 10, with her. The boy heard about the football game the neighborhood children were preparing to play and asked his mom if he could play with them. His mother told him he couldn’t play — that it was an activity only for the white children. “He said, ‘Momma, when I’ve died and gone to see Jesus, well, I’m going to be white then,’ ” Strong recalled Thursday. “It clarified for me what race relations was.”
On Thursday, former state Sen. Jack Strong and Dr. Robert L. Harper were honored with Unity Awards for their work in improving race relations in Longview at the eighth annual Unity Honors Luncheon sponsored by the Longview Race Relations Committee. The committee was established in 1995 to address racial prejudices, to create a platform for open dialogue and to develop racial harmony in the community. It is sponsored by the City of Longview Partners in Prevention.
“Today we honor individuals living here in Longview who, in their pursuit of racial equality, have improved race relations in Longview,” said Vickie Echols, president of the Longview Race Relations Committee.
Terry Barrett and the Pine Tree High School student council and leadership class received special recognition for their work to improve the campus culture. They led projects such as Shattered Dreams, a world café and an anti-bullying campaign.
Paul Rosenblum also received a special recognition for leading the Race Relations Applicant Diversity Team, which presented data concerning race relations in the work force.
Harper was born in Gregg County and graduated from the Gregg County Training School. He was drafted into the U.S. Navy during World War II. After he was discharged, he completed a degree at Wiley College and graduated from Meharry Medical College of Dentistry. He opened his dental practice in 1952. At the time, black people and white people had separate dentists. “At that time, it was understood I wouldn’t be working on anybody except my people,” Harper said. However, when a person of a different race approached him for services, he accepted him or her, he said. “It didn’t make a difference to me,” he said.
Harper has served the community through volunteering with the Boy Scouts, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Galilee Baptist Church and serving as the first black chairman of the Piney Woods Chapter of the American Red Cross.
“I’m very grateful and very thankful to the Race Relations Committee for selecting me for this gift,” Harper said. “I’m just overjoyed and happy to accept this honor that they have presented to me.”
Strong, who was raised in Carthage, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law in 1952. He worked as an assistant committee clerk in the Texas House of Representatives, and moved to Longview in 1958. He was elected to the state Senate in 1962 and served through 1971.
During his time as a senator, he became the first elected official to accept an invitation from the local NAACP to attend its annual freedom dinner and the first to shake hands with black men on the post office steps and in the streets of Longview.
“He does not judge people by the color of their skin, but by their character,” said Crissy Ward, who nominated Strong for the award.
Strong has volunteered for Longview Community Ministries, served with the East Texas Literacy Council and been a member of the NAACP for 50 years. He also served eight years on the State Board of Education.
“The most important thing is how we as individuals day by day understand that we are all part of God’s family,” Strong said. The defining moment for Strong that clarified race relations to him and that led in him in his desire to see equality in East Texas was witnessing the boy in his childhood who longed to be white so he could have the same experiences as Strong.
“Thank you for recognizing how important it is that we have consideration for everyone, that we recognize the duty of every human being and as we have dealings with other people that we try the very best we can to give them all the same advantages we can as we understand that we all are flawed,” Strong said. “Since we are all flawed, we certainly should be willing to forgive those flaws, and hopefully by doing that we will make a better society — a more caring society.”