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The Unsinkable Gertrude Barnstone

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With state schools facing ruin from the Legi-slature’s upcoming budget cuts, it helps to remember that Texas liberals have a history of saving the bacon of public education. In the case of Gertrude Barnstone, it’s a living history. At 86, Barnstone remains one of Houston’s premier freedom fighters—and sculptors. Her bungalow, in the city’s Montrose neighborhood, is a temple to politics and art—rafter-packed with evidence of decades of progressive battles, and the mammoth steel sculptures she still enthusiastically crafts every day. Enthusiasm is characteristic of Barnstone: She’s the Betty White of the Bayou City, a figure of bright-eyed pluck whose life story amounts to a happy history of the city’s left wing.

After graduating from Rice University, Gertrude Levy married the celebrated architect Howard Barnstone. Along with Eugene Aubry, he designed the famous Rothko Chapel; he also authored The Galveston That Was, an important work with photographs by the great Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the early ‘60s, the Barnstones—a young couple with liberal politics and three school-age children—were troubled by Houston’s resistance to racial integration. But their concern was radicalized in December of 1963, when the white supremacists who dominated the Houston School Board expressed surprise over widespread reports that white children across the district had openly cheered the announcement of President Kennedy’s assassination. “How can such a thing be true?” these men made the mistake of asking in the presence of the redoubtable Mrs. Hattie Mae White, the first African American ever to serve on the Houston’s school board.

“How can you honestly sit here and ask that question?” Mrs. White asked her colleagues. “How can the children of Houston not be expected to follow your hateful example, when you sit here delaying the process of integration?” 

For this sound bit of logic, Mrs. White’s colleagues demanded her resignation. Until that point, Gertrude Barnstone had only admired Hattie Mae White from afar, but with public support mounting for White’s resignation, Barnstone did something that changed her life. After a conversation with Judge Woodrow Seals, she decided to throw a public tea in support of Mrs. White the next Sunday afternoon at the Rice Hotel. “It was my first experience of being so politically outraged that I couldn’t keep myself from acting,” says Barnstone, “even though I had no idea what I was doing.”

She feared nobody would show up for her integrationist tea. But Barnstone arrived that afternoon to find Houstonians lined up around the block, waiting in line during the height of Christmas shopping season to pay their respects to Mrs. White. The event solidified White’s position, and inspired Barnstone’s own political career. The following year, she ran for a seat on the school board and won, fighting alongside White  against “separate but equal,” and in favor of free school lunches for poor children.

In 1969, the Barnstones’ marriage ended, and Gertrude—like so many newly-divorced single mothers—struggled to discover some manner of supporting her family.  She determined to take up welding. “I’d always had some idea of making large-scale steel sculptures, but without knowing how to weld, it meant that my sketches always had to be executed by someone else.  I decided I didn’t want anyone else making my art for me.” After two semesters studying welding at Houston Community College, Barnstone was hired by a local factory making Plexiglas skylights. “I’d never been happier!” she recalls. “I supported my children as a welder, and in the meantime, I learned everything I needed to know for my sculpture.”

In the decades since, Barnstone’s art and activism have sometimes been explicitly linked—as in the early ‘90s, when she founded the Artist Rescue Mission to aid the people of war-riven Sarajevo—but they’ve always proven to be similar sources of self-expression and empowerment. “There’s power in the trying,” Barnstone says. “In art, in politics, you have to feel something so deeply, you can’t be stopped from trying to share an idea, from trying to share a point of view. Who gives a damn if you succeed? Stand for something. Raise hell. Don’t ever allow the fear of small returns to dissuade you from the triumphs of participation.”

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.