Odis Rhodes was born in Winters Hill (Nacogdoches County), Texas on January 23, 1932. He attended school in Winters Hill and later transferred to E. J. Campbell High School in Nacogdoches, Texas. Following a family move to Lufkin, Texas, Rhodes completed his public school education at Lufkin's Dunbar High School, graduating in 1950. Rhodes received an undergraduate degree in biology and physical education from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. He later completed masters-level studies at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas and received a doctorate in education from the University of Houston. Rhodes completed post-doctoral studies at the University of Indiana. Rhodes is a life-long educator, holding teaching and administrative positions in public schools in Waskom, Texas and Lufkin, Texas. In 1968, he became the first African-American professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Rhodes is currently retired (June, 2012), and he continues to live in Lufkin, Texas.
The interview was conducted on June 25, 2012 by Jake Keeling and Tracy Allen in Rhodes's home in Lufkin, Texas.
ALLEN: I'm Tracy Allen. I'm with Jake Keeling, who is also a graduate student at SFA [Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas]. We are interviewing Dr. Odis Rhodes in Lufkin, Texas at his home. It is June the 25th, 2012 about 1:00 in the afternoon.
KEELING: Dr. Rhodes, would you mind telling us where you were born?
RHODES: I was born January 23, 1932 in a little rural Nacogdoches County community called Winters Hill.
KEELING: Could you tell us a little bit about the community of Winters Hill?
RHODES: Well at that particular time it was primarily just a farming area. We raised the typical things. Being in the '30s and early '40s cotton was kind of king in that area. I did a lot of cotton chopping, cotton picking, digging potatoes, raising corn and all those kind of typical things you would find on a farm and that was my beginnings.
I attended school there until I was in, I believe, the seventh grade and my family moved to Lufkin and I entered Dunbar High School here in Lufkin [Dunbar High School was the African-American High School campus] and completed my public education here in Lufkin.
KEELING: I know from those earlier interviews that your grandfather was a big influence on your life.
RHODES: Yes, he was. He was an uneducated man, and until this day I don't know where he was born nor really when he was born. Hardly anybody in the community knows where he came from. Ironically, his last-it was my step grandfather, by the way-ironically, his last name was the same last name of my actual grandfather, my mother's father. They both were Sanders, but they were not any kin and didn't even know each-well, they knew each other later on in life, but nobody knew from whence John Sanders, which was my step grandfather, didn't know where he came from. That was the only grandfather that I knew because my mother's father died before I was born, so I never really knew my mother's father. But her stepfather is the one that I'm referring to when I speak of my granddad.
KEELING: And he farmed for a living?
RHODES: He farmed for a living.
KEELING: And owned his own farm?
RHODES: He ended up purchasing a farm of approximately 200 acres, and how he did it, I don't know because, as I say, I was a young kid when I was there. But he was one of the few blacks that did purchase that amount of real estate in that rural area and actually farmed his own farm.
KEELING: That was a good-sized place.
RHODES: It was a good-sized place. There was a fairly good-sized operation, particularly at that time in history, particularly for a black man.
ALLEN: And it was his farm that you worked when you were growing up?
RHODES: It was his farm and all the other adjoining farms around there because there was not enough-. Part of this land of his was in timber, so it was not all open farm land. And so we rotated from-you might say-farm to farm performing these same duties [tapping table for emphasis] chopping cotton, planting cotton, picking cotton, pulling corn, digging potatoes, all of that. And when we completed the work on one farm we would move to another farm, and that became our primary occupation during the harvesting season.
ALLEN: And all of this was in Nacogdoches County?
RHODES: All of this was in Nacogdoches County.
KEELING: Do you know if your grandfather ever encountered any resentment or hostility because of his success? Because he owned land?
RHODES: Didn't that I'm aware of, primarily because we lived in our own little world, our own little capsule. So long as you stayed in your capsule-among your own people-and you did rather well. I'm sure that there might have been some of his own kind that might have been envious of his having this kind of- but usually we were more cooperative and helpful during those days than we were resentful and envious of each other. We very much worked as a community, because even when some of the farmers-we didn't do much ranching then-would become ill and it was time to pick their cotton or pull their corn, as we would say, they would pool their resources and do it for him to help him out. And we just-. It was kind of a close-knit community and we often worked as a community, even helping each other on his own farm.
ALLEN: A lot of times those communities are sort of centered around a church. Was there a church in Winters Hill that was the center of that community?
RHODES: There were two churches in that-well there were more than that-but in the little area that I was in there were two basic churches. One was Grayland Baptist Church, which was actually built on Bennie Spradley's [Possibly Bennett Thomas "Bennie" Spradley (1890-1948)] place.
Bennie Spradley was a big plantation owner, you might say the "overlord." Even though you had your own farm, you still kinda had the Anglo master that kind of rode-I don't know the appropriate word-but he didn't actually run your farm but he was kind of the boss in that area, you know. And he owned a big, big farm and many of those blacks that had their own farm often had to work for him because their farm was not big enough to sustain their way of living or life, so they would have to work for the big boss man, as we often said, and Bennie Spradley was that man, and we had this church built on his-I believe it was built-on his property and it was called Grayland Baptist Church primarily because of the sand and the gray soil that was prevalent in that area at the time.
ALLEN: And then there was another church in the area?
RHODES: And the other church was "up on the highway," we would call it, that was Highway 21 that kind of ran right through the community of Winters Hill, and Scott's Temple Church of the Living God was one of the churches that was in that immediate area. And there were other churches sprinkled around five, six miles away in other communities, but they had their own little community, had their own little informal-you might say-governmental systems. We had no formal government, but certain people in certain areas was kind of looked up to as being the kind of "chieftain" of that particular area. We had other areas around there that had this kind of-you might say-nomenclature or make-up. But Scott's Temple Church of the Living God and Grayland Church were the two predominant churches in that area.
ALLEN: About how big was your community number-wise, population-wise? Could you estimate at this point?
RHODES: Oh at that time if you would just consider the Winters Hill area itself, probably 100, 150 people. There would be some 10 to 12 families, and each family would have anywhere from usually two to 20 in the family [laughter].
KEELING: Is this number primarily African American? Or is it-
RHODES: Primarily African American, yes.
ALLEN: But there were white people in that community as well?
RHODES: Near by. They were not in the Winters Hill community itself but adjoining areas. Going toward a little town called Douglass [an unincorporated community in western Nacogdoches County, Texas, approximately 155 southeast of Dallas, Texas] then you would come into a white community, white farmers.
KEELING: Douglass itself was the white community, or was there another?
RHODES: Well there were little-Douglass center itself was white, but then there were adjoining areas right, well, even adjacent to it. County Line, Sacul, and places that you hardly knew where one area boundary stopped and the next one started, but they had the little cordon where blacks lived, and though they were not in congested communities they were scattered out all over woods and creek beds and all this kind of thing. But there was a black area in that same little town or in that same area. Normally when you asked blacks, those that lived in little adjoining communities, "Where do you live?" They would say "County Line," though that's really in the Douglass area.
ALLEN: What was the relationship between the African American residents and the white residents? Was there mixing at all or were the communities fairly separate?
RHODES: Fairly separate. You had one or two whites, males, that would attend- not attend, because they didn't participate in any of the activities, but they would, you might say, attend we had what we would call "Big Meeting Day" that was really revival day. And we had a revival week for each little black church family in those communities and on one particular Sunday-we call it "Homecoming" now but in those days we called it the "Big Meeting Day," and now it simply means church revival, and we would have a revival for all of that week and there were one or two whites that would always come and mingle with the blacks on Big Meeting Day, but no other socialization took place other than they would come around on that day, and sometimes they would even bring ice water, big coolers with big blocks of ice in there, and sometimes they would make a little donation to the church, but that was about the limit of the social contact other than in the fields and stores when you went to buy groceries or gas-more kerosene than gas because we didn't have any cars back in that- . Very, very few blacks had cars, but they had a commissary in each one of these communities, and that's where we'd go and get our groceries and kerosene for the lamps and things of that nature.
KEELING: Going back to Bennie Spradley for a second-was he about your grandfather's age or was he in the same age group?
RHODES: Who is this?
KEELING: Bennie Spradley.
RHODES: Bennie Spradley? Approximately the same age. Uh-huh. I don't recall my grandfather working for Bennie Spradley, but his children did and his other relatives did. Cause he pretty much spent most of his time taking care of his own place, but he didn't have enough works going on to keep his children and other people employed-just a seasonal thing, so they had to do other jobs around on other farms.
KEELING: I believe in one of your earlier interviews you mentioned a Mr. Jones-that your grandfather worked for a man named Jones?
RHODES: Jones? Oh, maybe Mr. Mize?
KEELING: Oh, that was it.
RHODES: Maybe my grandfather-he just tended some cows that Mize had out there in another area, and he didn't actually work for him as a major means of livelihood. He just made sure that his cows were fed when he was raising them and that his fence was patched, but that was not his primary job. He just kind of did that on the side.
ALLEN: Is that Mize-M-I-Z-E?
ALLEN: I know that there was a Mize Department Store in Nacogdoches for a long time. Is that the same family?
RHODES: Same family. Same family.
KEELING: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about Winters Hill before we move into your later career?
RHODES: Well, yeah, particularly the school system. Of course that was back during the days of segregation, you know, and the Black school-. I believe the grades ran from one through six. Of course, up the road we were in the Douglass Independent School District, and, of course the Douglass Independent School, the high school for the whites went all the way through the twelfth grade. And once you got through sixth grade in Winters Hill you had to catch the bus and go to Nacogdoches, to the E. J. Campbell High School [the African-American campus in Nacogdoches]. And, course, in those other little communities often the black kids would pass by the white school in order to go to Nacogdoches, to E. J. Campbell, the all-black school.
And that's why when there's a bussing episode, or whatever was such a fiercely-debated phenomenon, I just reflected back on those days. Bussing. Ever since they made a school bus there has been bussing. Nobody complained about the bussing because kids were being bussed to maintain segregation, but when they started bussing to bring about integration, all hell broke loose [laughter]. "We are not opposed to integration, we're just opposed to forced bussing." But we've been bussing ever since there was a bus [laughter]. We were just bussing for the opposite reason. Therefore it was all right back there, but not all right now.
And we kind of looked forward, in the Winters Hill area, to get out of sixth grade because we went to town to school at E. J. Campbell in Nacogdoches. But of course we would have preferred to simply go to Douglass, which was just right up the road.
But anyhow-and another thing about the school system: blacks never got new books back in those days. As a matter of fact it was in the '40s before blacks in this area started getting-. I saw my first new book when I was at Dunbar. I think I was in about the tenth grade. Every other book we got was a used book. As books went out of adoption in the white schools, they were passed down to the black schools, and everybody's son, cousin, grand- had used up the book. And you'd get to reading a really intriguing passage on page 72 and you'd turn over and it's page 80 because all the other pages had been ripped out.
So you talk about blacks being behind educationally. We've been pushed behind, and chained behind, and held behind for generations. So how in the heck can you expect a person to be at the same level when you held them back, giving them discarded information? You know? Anyhow, that was the case for a long, long time in the black schools not only in Winters Hill but, I suspect, all over the South, where you never saw a new book until I think it was in the 1940s when I finally got a new book at Dunbar High School.
ALLEN: All of your teachers at Winters Hill were African American?
RHODES: Every one.
ALLEN: How were teachers trained at that time? Do you have any knowledge?
RHODES: They had basically one or two teacher training colleges. Well, perhaps it was more than that, but they had teacher colleges, they were often called. Matter of fact at one time Stephen F. Austin was known as a teachers' college. As a matter of fact, I think at one time it was called Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College. And that was true of many little black colleges they had, even though they had other curricula, but the primary curriculum consisted of preparing teachers. Like Prairie View, Texas College, Wiley, and Jarvis, many little church schools that developed primarily, many times, to just prepare teachers because that's about the only profession blacks could participate in back in the '30s and '40s. You could be a schoolteacher, you could be an undertaker and that's just about it. If you had enough money, your folks might be able to send you up North and go to med school, if you had enough money and enough brains. We had plenty with the brains, but they didn't have the money. So that was just about it, and that was the focus of most of the small black colleges was to prepare teachers.
KEELING: What were some of the things in your life that inspired you to seek out higher education?
RHODES: Cotton patch. Cotton patch. I hated the cotton field and I said, "If there's anything else in the world I can do for a living-to get me out of this cotton patch-I want to do it." And, as I said, that's about the only opportunity that was open to me at that time-teach-so I went into teaching. And, of course, after I started teaching things began to open up. I finished high school in 1950. Well you know in '54 they passed the Civil Rights Act [Possibly Brown v Board of Education] that you had to allow kids to attend wherever they wanted to regardless of race. I think it was freedom of choice was the-. And so when they opened the educational system up a bit I decided that I would explore other avenues, but still I ended up being a life-long teacher because I fell in love with teaching. But the cotton patch was the primary motivation to begin with. Then I fell in love with learning, you know. And then my mom always told me, "Son, I want you to have a better life than I had, so you do whatever you have to do to stay out of this cotton patch."
And I did, and later on I met teachers that explained to me that there were a few other avenues. I wanted to be a lawyer, but I was advised by my teachers, "Son, you're wasting your time to be a lawyer." "So why not, I mean [unintelligible]?" "You don't have a chance of winning a case." Because the perception of a lawyer there was in the courtroom, pleading a case against a black man, been accused of stealing chickens, and "Son, you'll never win a case. The judge is white, the jury's white, the audience's white, you stole the chickens from a white man-at least they accuse you of stealing chickens from-. You don't have a chance. You'd better go into something else." And so I didn't. At that time, the black teachers, they didn't know about all of the different facets of law. They just though of a lawyer standing up in the courtroom, that's all we heard-Perry Mason and whoever those other guys were-and pleading a case and finally leaving it up to the jury, the judge and [claps hands] slamming the door. They just saw no future in becoming a lawyer for a little poor black boy in Lufkin, Texas. Didn't have a chance.
They say, "It's best to be a teacher or a barber." Cutting hair or barbering was really popular back in those days. A beautician or barber, that was very popular. That time we used to keep our hair trim and neat. Now we just let it go [laughter], so you can't make any money barbering these days. They don't cut the hair much any more, but in those days we would leave in those cuts [gesturing to head] and the style would change about every year or two. So, you had to learn to cut the "low left," and the "high right, the "Joe Louis," and all that kind of stuff. So it was good money involved, but I didn't want to go into that, so I stuck with teaching.
ALLEN: So you graduated from Dunbar in, I believe, 1950-
ALLEN: And then where did you go after that, or when did you enter college?
RHODES: I entered college that fall. I went to Wiley, Wiley College in Marshall. I was a fairly good football player, but you can look at me now and recognize the fact I can't hang in college, and I was weighing the same identical thing when I finished high school as I weigh now-about 137 pounds [laughter]. And I got a scholarship [cell phone sounds], a football scholarship, to Wiley, and that's how I got my foot in the door in college, I went on scholarship. But when I saw those big guys from Dallas and Chicago and Houston, I said, "Coach, I'm not very smart, but I'm wise. I'm not playing against those guys [laughter]." I said, "I'm not getting out there and getting killed." I said, "Can I maintain my scholarship some other way?" And I was a fairly good basketball player, but I was a better football player than I was a basketball-. So he let me try out for basketball and I rode the bench for two years. He said, "Son, you just waste my time. You got to go. You're not good enough to hang." And I said, "Well, I'll just have to find some other way to stay in school." So I started working, and basically worked myself through school.
ALLEN: Aside from sports, what was student life like at Wiley?
RHODES: Wiley was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Wiley was a very strong academic college at that time. Well respected, well known, as a matter of fact, all over the United States in certain circles. You've probably heard of The Great Debaters [2007 film about an award-winning Wiley debate team in the 1930s]. They were just before my time, but Wiley maintained that high level of academic standard throughout, and in certain areas Wiley was particularly outstanding, primarily in chemistry, pre-med, and pre-law, and also education. Didn't have a very elaborate curriculum, but the curriculum it had, it was very, very thorough and one of the best educational experiences I ever had.
ALLEN: And what did you major in at Wiley?
RHODES: I majored in biology and physical education. When I first started my teaching career, they needed a coach-well they needed four or five things-at Waskom, Texas [approximately 170 miles east of Dallas, Texas]. That was my first teaching assignment. They needed a football coach, basketball coach, baseball coach, bus driver, somebody to clean up the gym at night and to coach girls, and an English teacher [laughter]. And I'm not lying. They needed all of that in one person.
ALLEN: And you did it all.
RHODES: I did it all. Probably didn't do a very good job of it [laughter]. And that's basically why I got the job, because I could coach football pretty well even though I didn't play it, but I knew the game. I was a better football coach than I was a basketball. And they needed an English teacher, and I had more English on my transcript than anybody else that could do these other things too. Oh they had some ladies, young ladies, that run circles around me on a transcript in English, but they couldn't coach football. So they wouldn't qualify. So basically that's how-that's why I got the job, because I came closer to being able to perform all of these tasks as one person, though some of them I did a very sorry job.
KEELING: Was Waskom a segregated school when you started, or had they already integrated?
RHODES: At Waskom?
ALLEN: Yes sir.
RHODES: No, we were still segregated. Integration was-. Finally I got a job here at home. I wanted to get a teaching job here in Lufkin because my wife was here, and the superintendent just out told me, "I will never hire anybody to coach for me that did not play college ball." And I said, "But I know the game." I said, "There are a lot of outstanding coaches that were not very good players." But I couldn't convince him. He said, "Now if you want to get a job in Lufkin your best bet is to get certified in elementary education. We need men in elementary education like crazy. If you can get certified in elementary education, I'll hire you tomorrow." That's how I got into elementary education.
And it was after I was-I think I had taught four years here, and in 1968, no it was 1964, I believe when they first ordered Lufkin-well, in '64 they ordered integration. They said, "No more freedom of choice. You must integrate your classroom so that no school campus can be identified by no single race." And that's when Lufkin started to make an attempt, but they never submitted an acceptable plan, and they said, "If you want us to integrate you write the plan, Mr. Government." And that's what "Mr. Government" did. They wrote the integration plan for Lufkin and placed them on-I forget the appropriate name-but probation or under probation for-I think they just got from under it about six, seven years ago. They kept them under probation [tapping table for emphasis] for years and years because they had to be forced to integrate. When other schools were submitting acceptable integration plans, Lufkin refused. "We will not submit a plan that would be agreeable. If you want us to integrate, you write the plan." And they did. Unfortunately, it wasn't the very best plan in the world, but Lufkin brought it upon themselves. And I think I was elementary principal at Garrett School when integration first came about. I think that happened in 1964, and I got the first white teacher in a black school in Lufkin.
ALLEN: How did that work having one white teacher in a predominantly African-American school?
RHODES: It worked fine with us because of the fact-black folks have always been congenial. You know, even during the days of segregation it was pretty congenial. So they were quite receptive, and we had been among whites and often knew some whites very intimately-but we just couldn't socialize at the larger level because of segregation-so we had absolutely no problem with this white teacher working in an all-black school. Now I don't know whether that was the same when we sent blacks to white schools, but at Garrett School-I think her name was Mrs.-no, her name-last name-was White. Mrs. White, and we got along quite-the kids just loved her, and there was no problem. And so far as I know there were no major problems among staff or faculty.
Some conflicts, yes. That same episode-I don't know whether you ever knew Coach Willie Ross [Willie Emmett Ross], probably didn't, but he was one of the main coaches at Dunbar, and Dunbar had one heck of a football team during that era. And Coach Redd, Elmer Redd [Elmer Grant Redd (1928-2000)], you might have heard of him. He was the head coach at Dunbar for years. He went to University of Houston. I think he was the first black coach-he wasn't the head coach, he was an assistant coach. And Coach Willie Ross took over as head coach at Dunbar, which was the all-black school. Where when they integrated, the head coaching job at Lufkin High School came open, and Willie Ross, the Black coach at Dunbar, applied for the job. He should have gotten it-one of the best coaches in the state of Texas-but he didn't. He filed suit, and he won the suit. And the courts demanded that they give him a job equal to the head coach with the salary equal to that of the head coach, and they could not fire him, ever. And he kept that job until last year, I think it was. Eighty years old [laughter]. He declared, he said, "I will stay on this job as long as I live." And he almost did. He said, "I was due the head job. I didn't get it. Had to sue, and Uncle Sam said they couldn't fire me, and I'll be here 'til I die." And he stayed there until-they tell me-his wife had to take him to school, and [help him] get in the classroom, go back and get him. He was able to do the desk job, but he was, well he was old-78, 79 years old. He said, "They can't fire me, so what can they do?" But he finally did retire and he's in the same nursing home that my wife is in now.
ALLEN: So he was working as just a classroom teacher all these years?
RHODES: He worked as an assistant coach for a number of years, until it got a little too rigorous for him, then he was assigned-I think he was-Director of Special Education for the entire district, or something to that effect, or something similar. But he had quite a bit of responsibility and influence. He's a fine man. But that's the kind of backdrop Lufkin had at that time. It's done a lot better job lately, but back in those days they were very, very reluctant to accept the idea of total integration.
ALLEN: How long did you work for Lufkin ISD?
RHODES: Eight years. I worked five years-four years-as an elementary teacher, one semester as assistant principal at Dunbar, and four years as principal at Garrett School.
KEELING: When Mrs. White came to Garrett [Keeling uses the pronunciation "Gary"] did you get some white students as well?
RHODES: Didn't get any white students, no. I'm not sure, I think it was in '71 when Lufkin integrated the student body. They started integrating the teaching staff in '68, but I don't think they began integrating the student body-I'm not sure of the year-but I think it was like '70 or '71. That's when they started integrating the student body. I could be off a couple of years there, but I know they integrated the teaching staff before they integrated the student body.
KEELING: At what point did you go on to do your graduate work and get your doctorate?
RHODES: Yeah, I had an uncle. He's still living. He's 100 years old. He insisted that I get a doctorate degree. He said, "Boy, don't you stop going to school 'til you get that doctorate." And I said, "Man, I don't have time to do all that stuff." He said, "You gotta get it, son." And I never knew why, because he didn't even finish high school. And when they came out with-I think it was-the Gilmer-Aikins Educational Bill that permitted me to get assistance from the state on through graduate school, and that was the highest level you want to go. So I went ahead and pursued that and when I got my doctorate I was still assistant principal-I was still principal at Garrett School, and I was hoping to get a position in central administration, like curriculum director or assistant superintendent in charge of something because I specialized in administration and supervision, but I was told by the superintendent at that time, he said, "we don't have a position in central administration right now." He says, "I don't know when we will have one," and then he said, "And I don't know when Lufkin will be ready for a Nigra"-and that was his pronunciation of Negro-he said, "I don't know when Lufkin ISD will be ready for a Nigra in central administration." And I said "Excuse me?" "I don't know when Lufkin will be ready for a Nigra in central administration." I said, "Aren't we ready now?" He said, "I don't think so." I said, "Well, I did all this work and study for nothing?" And then he asked me the question. He said, "It's about time for Stephen F. Austin to get a Nigra professor. All of these other colleges around here are getting one. Do you mind if I ask them if they would like to take a look at you?" I said, "I don't mind, because I don't intend to remain here as elementary principal the rest of my life." And he said, "Well I'll ask them. They should be ready." And that's when I got an invitation to the interview at Stephen F. Austin when my superintendent asked me were they ready for a Nigra on their staff, and I suppose [tapping table] they told him, "Yeah." And I went and interviewed, and that's how I got at Stephen F. Austin.
ALLEN: So you were the first African-American professor at SFA?
RHODES: I was the first. For six years, I was the first. I mean I was the first and for six years I was the only one there.
ALLEN: Well, how was that for you?
RHODES: It was, uh, kind of uneasy at first because I didn't know how I would be received, and I didn't really-. Like I said I concentrated in school administration and supervision. But now I didn't feel comfortable trying to teach a superintendent how to do his job, and I had never even been an assistant superintendent [horn honking in background]. I didn't feel comfortable trying to teach a curriculum director how to direct his curriculum when I'd never directed one. I was preparing myself to do those jobs, not teach those jobs. So, but I had a good bit of background and studies in the area of reading and language arts, so my department chairman asked me if I would feel more comfortable in teaching the reading and language arts courses than I would teaching the administrative and supervision courses, and I told him yes because I'd done that, studied that, and I'd taught those areas, and I'd done some study at the graduate level in them, but I hadn't concentrated as much in those areas as I had in administration and supervision. So then he says, "If that will help you to feel more comfortable we'll place you in that department, or that sub-department of reading and language arts, and then you can beef up your background if you feel you need to later on." And that's why I started in reading and language and comprehension skills and, I mean, communication skills. And shortly after that I got a post-doctorate fellowship to the University of Indiana, and I concentrated there in reading and communication skills, so that's when I really sort of beefed my background up in that area, in those areas, so when I got back you know I said, "Yeah, I'm ready to run now." You know. So that's kind of the way things went.
And never met any open opposition, but there were those little pockets where I didn't feel comfortable. You know every organization, every institution got the little cliques and you kind of can feel the vibes. When this is not for me, this group is not too perceptive, I stay clear of these, you know. So, then after a few years I guess word kind of got around that "Hey, this Odis Rhodes, he's all right guy. He's not going to mess up anybody. He's not a rabble-rouser. Fairly decent guy, let's kind of pull him in." And after a while I felt like I was one of the gang.
ALLEN: How did your students respond to you at SFA, being the only African-American professor on campus?
RHODES: Here again, I never experienced any open opposition or hostility. There were some when they discovered-. And one thing they [university administrators] didn't do, they didn't make a big pronouncement or announcement, "Stephen F. Austin hires first black professor." They just quietly eased me in under the radar, and I think that helped. And when some students walked in and you could see their eyes [gesturing] "Hey, when did we get this? Nobody said-." And there were some, a few, very few who dropped my class because I was black. But very few. Nobody spoke to me in a hostile kind of way or gave me the open opposition, but you know, you get little words around, and the word kind of leaked around that, "A couple, few, students dropped your class because they didn't want a Black professor. We don't worry about it." And, then after awhile they had to write up a evaluation on each professor, each teacher, and on occasion one-and they didn't have to give their name-and on occasion some would slip a little statement in there to let me know that, "Hey, I don't think he ought to be here. We don't appreciate-" in so many words, "we don't appreciate your kind." But it was a very, very minute, very few. Most of them were very receptive. And by the time I'd been there 20 or 25 years: [changes tone of voice] "Hey, I want to get in your classes." I say, "It's closed." "Oh, can't you take one more?" [Laughter.] So you know, after while it turned out to be okay, and some would even seek my class because they'd heard that Rhodes was a pretty good fellow. So that's kind of the way it was.
KEELING: Did you have very many black students when you first started?
RHODES: Very few. The most blacks I've ever had in one class, I believe, was three. Very few. I think the percentage of blacks on the campus at Stephen F. at that time-I don't know whether it's any better or not-I think it was something like 6%. Very low.
ALLEN: Do you remember when SFA began admitting African-American students? Was that about the time that you came?
RHODES: It was before I was there. As a matter of fact, my pastor here in Lufkin was the first black student that they had-U. L Sanders. U. L. Sanders was the first African-American student enrolled at Stephen F. Austin.
ALLEN: Do you know about what year that would have been?
RHODES: I went there in '68, so he must have gone there about-I'm going to say-about '62 or '64. No, it wasn't that early. It wasn't '62. It was about three or four years before I-I'm going to say between '60 and-I'll just say the early '60s. I don't know exactly when, but he was the first.
KEELING: You mentioned your pastor. Where do you attend church here in Lufkin?
RHODES: I was at that time at New Zion Baptist Church. I attend First Missionary Baptist Church now, and we kind of distinguish ourselves from First Baptist downtown by putting that "Missionary"-First Missionary Baptist [chuckles].
ALLEN: Well you told us earlier that in your time at Winter Hill the church was an important part of the community. Has the church continued to be a part of your community identity?
RHODES: Oh yes. Always. I've always had close ties with the church, and the church-at one time the church was perhaps the most influential institution in the black community. It does not have that kind of influence now. Certain individual churches have more influence on the community than others, but in general, I mean, the church used to be the meeting place, the community place, the-you might say-my words don't come to me quite as fast as they used to-the catalyst. The black church used to be the catalyst of most of the black social and religious movement. I mean when you wanted to get something done, you'd go to the church, whether it be getting our streets paved, getting somebody that got in trouble, they wrongly convicted one of our brothers, "Let's go to the church." [snaps fingers] "Let's get the church to get together and get behind this and let's go downtown." It still plays a role, but not as great a role as it did years ago when I was a boy. It was the catalyst.
ALLEN: Do you have any idea about why it declined? I mean it seems like churches in general has declined in its influence. Do you know anything specific to the African-American community that's led to the decline?
RHODES: I don't know whether it led to the decline-I think what happened- other organizations, or other institutions, or other entities became more influential in getting things done than the church was. After a while, NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, established 1909], for instance, when it flourished, I mean, it seemed to get more done than the churches did. And there are other organizations, and they seem to have more influence when it comes to societal changes and social justice and all these kind of things than the church. And then the black church used to be one unified body all pulling for the same thing, going in the same direction. Not so anymore. The black churches, some of them have different opinions about things. Just take gay rights, gay marriage. Black churches are strongly opposed to it in general, but there are many social organizations-they are strongly in favor of defending the rights of gays. The church is, "Hey, no, we don't believe in that." And so people that's concerned about those kind of issues, they will go-not to the church-but to these other political or social entities for redress on these kind of issues. And this goes for a lot of different things. The church just doesn't seem to have the pull and the influence that some of these other organizations do at this time.
ALLEN: You mentioned the NAACP. What has been the reach of that organization in Lufkin-Nacogdoches? Is it still a strong organization or has it declined?
RHODES: No, it's declined in its influence not only in Nacogdoches and Lufkin but throughout the United States. It is not the influence-here again, there are some blacks that say NAACP has outlived its usefulness. "Hey, they're too easy going or they don't push hard enough." But at one time the NAACP was perhaps the most influential in getting social justice in our streets and getting police, for instance, to not-what we thought was imposing and being-well, in some instances, we though unjust to some of our Black citizens and unfair-. It's declined in its influence but still carries quite a wallop, but not like it did in the past.
KEELING: When you said that the black church used to pull together and work toward one goal was that across denominational lines the Baptists and the Methodists-
RHODES: Absolutely. They used to be, particularly when it came to civil rights, all the black churches were united, and united in the same direction and for the same goals. We find that the black race itself is not monolithic, as monolithic as it was 30 or 40 years ago. I mean you can see on television-we have black conservatives, some of them I- "Man, that's coming out of the mouth of a black man?" You know, so you have some black conservatives, you have some black liberals, you have black moderates, you have black haters, you have some blacks that don't like blacks. So you have all of this myriad of different-it's always been there, but it's not been pronounced because in years past the main goal was just to get a semblance of justice for all blacks, any blacks, but now that we not only see some semblance of justice and some semblance of equality, here's opportunity, different opportunity-. You know in the past you wouldn't think of a black man being in banking and in oil and in business. You've got blacks in all of this over here. Here some blacks over here are pulling for more public works, and other blacks, "Naw, stay out of my-I'm into oil, and I'm into-we ain't got time for that." [Laughter.] So you have opposition among blacks now as to what's best. Some blacks say we need more governmental jobs, more bailouts [unintelligible] and other blacks say, "That's what's ruining America. You're sitting around waiting for somebody to help you or give you something. Get up off your tail like I did. I've got the biggest business, I've got so-and-so. You can get it too." So we've got all of these differences now, so we're not that monolithic, unified group that we used to be.
ALLEN: One of the questions that we're interested in, that we're asking all the people we're interviewing is about Texas identity.
RHODES: Oh Lord.
ALLEN: How have you identified [laughter from Rhodes] or if at all- How have you identified as a Texan?
RHODES: Let me check my blood sugar. I'm a diabetic.
RHODES: And let me think about that.
[Rhodes leaves room]
[Approximately 1.5 minutes of silence]
RHODES: [Returning to table] How do I-? What was the question, now?
ALLEN: How do you identify as a Texan?
RHODES: I'm not sure what a Texan is anymore. I, uh-
KEELING: Let me put it this way: do you think of yourself as a Texan?
RHODES: I think of myself as a Texan, but what kind of Texan or which Texan? And I don't-. A Texan now to me is a mish-mash. At one time, I think I could kind of-even though we had this racial division and we had degrees of segregation, we had levels of rejection, non-acceptance, but there, I felt at one time, was this generic Texan that had developed out of all of this that I could pretty much identify with as, you know, being down home, guitar picking, cotton picking, cotton chopping, barbeque eating, beer drinking, church going, back slapping, friendly-different, don't agree with everything you're doing but by George [claps hands] we're still Texan. So, you know it was kind of that old generic Texan. But you had these divisions and these ideologues out here on each end, but you kind of had a camaraderie with all Texans in general. I'll put it that way. And it's hard for me to get, when I look at the big picture of Texas, I don't get this kind of feeling of commonality, of generic Texan. It's "I'm a hard-boiled this" and "I'm a hard-boiled that"-I'm a this- . Now when I get out among the people, I sort of get a feeling of this generic Texan. We are all Texan, though we be different in certain ways, but yet we have this commonality that all Texans have. And by Jove, I don't care what this is, what you don't like, we can get together and we can have a Texas hoe-down and a Texas good time, so "Come on, y'all." [Laughter].
Now when I get among the people-but when I look at television and look at all of this politicking and all of these hard positions and disunity and disharmony and just almost anger and I say, "Where are we going? What have we done?"
But, as I say, when I get out and get among the people I get that feeling of kind of unity. I mean I went to the doctor one day in Tyler [approximately 100 miles east of Dallas, Texas or 80 miles northwest of Lufkin, Texas], and it was cold and I had on an old raggedy jacket and got inside there and it was kind of warm, so I was pulling it off. I was standing at the sign-in window at the doctor's desk and trying to pull it off, and I felt somebody behind me tugging, helping me with my sleeve, and my cousin had driven me up there and I said, "My cousin's here." Looked around there and there was a probably 80-year-old white woman helping me pull my jacket off and her husband was standing there next to her. And I said, "Well thank you, ma'am." She said, "No problem, you looked like you were having a little trouble." I said, "I was. This old thing is tore up in here and my hand getting all-." And on the way back something happened. A guy was on a bicycle or something. "Hello! How goes?" And I find this: I walk in a store and someone pulls the door. I say, "Thank you, sir." A white man holding the door for a black man to come-.
I say you know I get a sense of this unity and camaraderie and counter-compassion when I get out among the people, but when I sit here and look at this television I get so disgusted and just durn-near furious and mad at all of the hatred and division and hard-. So I don't know what-.
When I meet actual people in many instances I feel that I'm that kind of Texan, that generic Texan that I kind of described a while ago, you know. You come from here, and I come from there. I wear this old straw hat, you wear those old pointy-toed [unintelligible] shoes or whatever, but we all can chaw on this barbeque and drink us a beer and go to church Sunday and praise the Lord. We can get along. So that's the kind of Texan that I would like for us to be. That I would like-but now that's the kind of Texan that I am. But it's so many-. At least I hear so many-. Their voices are loud-I hope it's not as many people that actually feel that way-as I'm hearing screaming through the television screen. I hope they're representing a minute few rather than the general populace. If it's the general populace feeling this way, we're in trouble. But if it's just a few people just blowing their horns for their special interests, then it's another thing. Because, like I said, when I get out among the people I don't get all of this animosity. But that's kind of my kind of Texan if you ask me what kind of Texan do you-would like to see. That's the kind I would like to see, and that's the kind that I try to be. But what kind of Texan-what is really the typical Texan now? I don't know. What is your-what was the question you asked?
KEELING: That's it.
ALLEN: I think you answered it. I tend to agree with you. And I think that ends about all the questions we have. Is there anything else you'd like to add to this interview?
RHODES: No, not really. I talked more that I thought I would because I really was dragging, and I say why do I keep saying yeah to this when I'm just dragging, but I kind of enjoyed it.
ALLEN: Well we definitely appreciate your time and I think Jake and I both enjoyed it as well.
KEELING: I enjoyed it and I want to thank you very much for taking the time to meet with us.
RHODES: Well you're quite welcome, and my mind is all scrambled because I'm going through a lot of stuff here, particularly with my wife and I thought don't come through [unintelligible] this man sounds like he should be in kindergarten rather than talk about having taught at Stephen F. [laughter] he rambles like-but I'm kind of at that stage now.
ALLEN: Well once again we thank you and we're really grateful for the interview.
RHODES: You're quite welcome.