“Every one of you are capable of doing even more than the few things I have done in my lifetime,” said Wendell Baker, a longtime community leader and civil rights activist that was largely responsible for the integration of Sam Houston State University in 1964.
Baker was the first speaker in a new lecture series hosted by the Academic Support Programs of the SAM Center at Sam Houston State University. The series is entitled, “Grassroots: Conversations on Leadership in a Diverse Community.” Baker’s presentation was held last night in the Olson Auditorium in Academic Building 4.
Baker told stories about how he spread awareness of the importance of voting for black citizens and how he helped to change SHSU from an all-white, segregated school to a fully integrated university.
As a young man, Baker was allowed to work the voting polls as a poll watcher after much opposition. Baker said the chairman of the party opposed him working at the poll, and told him he was not qualified to do it. However, this did not stop Baker from fulfilling his dream.
“There is no need to be afraid of the opposition because often they are cowards themselves,” he said.
Eventually, Baker was sworn in as a poll watcher, and helped the voting staff to identify the blind, bedridden and disabled people who would not normally vote without assistance.
“We voted all kinds of people,” he said.
Baker said he began to notice that the number of blacks voting was slim compared to the population of blacks in the community. He said the population consisted of 42 percent, which was about 2,000 people. He said there were normally only about 12,000 to 15,000 who actually voted.
“The voting system was so controlled that many of my people believed that their votes did not count,” Baker said. “The solution was to get them to start voting.”
Baker said when the Supreme Court issued a law saying that black people would be able to vote in the primaries, the elections where the main decisions were made, things began to change.
“We organized many people,” Baker said. “As leaders, we are to find out who and where our followers are.”
Baker said he invited 40 people who were leaders in the community to a meeting where they would decide how to persuade the black population to vote.
“Every one of them promised they would attend,” Baker said. “However, only eight were in attendance, including me. I talked with the people that were there, and told them that we needed to make a difference.
“It saddened me that I fought overseas for a democracy I could not come home and participate in. If something didn’t change, my children were not going to be able to participate, either,” he said.
Baker said he sent the leaders who attended the meeting to talk to the ones that did not attend so the vision would be spread across the community. He said as a result, 65 percent of the black population voted during the next election.
Baker told students and faculty, “Don’t let anyone tell you that your vote doesn’t count. The only way it doesn’t count is when you choose not to participate.”
Baker not only spread awareness for black citizens to vote in Huntsville, he also played a large role in the integration of Sam Houston State University.
Baker partnered with the NAACP in a lawsuit against SHSU in the early ’60s and the Supreme Court immediately made a decision to integrate the university after an article concerning the suit appeared in the Houston Chronicle. In 1964, the Supreme Court passed legislation to integrate SHSU and the surrounding institutions. and the first black student to attend the university was John Patrick.
“I feel so proud when I stop at a stop light on the campus grounds and see the spectrum of students that walk along the crosswalk,” Baker said. “That is my payback.”
Baker also encouraged students to get the most out of their education.
“Don’t just sit in class and get by,” he said. “Learn what it takes to develop yourself.”
Students who attended Baker’s presentation said he was an inspiration to them.
“Mr. Baker was very interesting to listen to,” freshman Katie Wogen said. “It is always great to learn more about the history of Sam Houston State.”
“Mr. Baker reminds me of another great leader, E.D. Nixon,” freshman Josselyn Kennedy said. “Baker and Nixon are two men that saw how important the gathering of the black community was when standing against segregation.”
Recently, the House of Representatives of the 77th Texas Legislature passed a resolution honoring Baker and the many contributions he has made.
The resolution states, “The House of Representatives of the 77th Texas Legislature hereby honor Wendell Baker, Sr., on his lifetime of contributions to the Huntsville community and the State of Texas and extend to him sincere best wishes for happiness and good fortune in his future endeavors. Mr. Baker has had a positive impact on countless people, and it is most appropriate to pay tribute to him.”