Oxford AASC: Guest Scholar

Guest Scholar

Bernadette Pruitt is an Associate Professor of History at Sam Houston State Univesity. In 2014, Pruitt served as a guest editor for a series of new online-only articles dealing with Houston. Here, she discusses a prominent family that helped to shape the city during the crucible of the Jim Crow era.


The Covington Family

For much of the twentieth century, the Covington family of Houston epitomized community building and pride at a time when Jim Crow segregation and economic inequality greatly restricted opportunities for African Americans in the city . Benjamin Jesse Covington (1868–1961) was born in rural Falls County near Marlin, Texas, a cotton-farming town south of Waco, the same year freedmen helped elect ten black delegates to the 1868–69 constitutional convention during Reconstruction. Covington's parents, former slaves Georgiana and Benjamin Covington Sr., raised four children, excluding a half-brother born into slavery in the 1850s. The emancipated slaves turned sharecroppers encouraged their children to excel at school and work. As a youngster, Benjamin Jesse grew and picked cotton, planted other crops, looked after his younger siblings, and cared for the family's farm animals.

Benjamin also put himself through school. After finishing his studies, he entered Hearne Baptist Academy near Hearne in predominately-black Robertson County between 1884 and 1886, graduating with a high school diploma and possibly a college degree. While a student, he also worked as the school's porter. Following graduation, he took positions as a schoolteacher in a nearby town and as a bookkeeper at his eldest brother's grocery story in Houston before returning to college in 1895 to pursue another degree. He attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, graduating in 1900 with a Doctor of Medicine. Once again, he paid his own way through college by working as a janitor.

Benjamin returned to Texas after graduation in hopes of establishing a practice for rural blacks in the Texas Gulf Coastal Plains cotton belt. His respectful, conciliatory demeanor allowed him to endure and thrive despite the Jim Crow restrictions on his line of work. As a general practitioner (later a pulmonologist and surgeon), Benjamin first attempted to settle in predominately-African- American Wharton County, Texas, where he had previously cared for patients before securing his medical license. His advanced degree, however, made some people nervous and resentful, prompting him to eventually leave Wharton and establish a practice in Yoakum, Texas, a rural community along the DeWitt-Lavaca county southeast Texas, where the residents were more receptive to his presence.

While practicing in the counties of DeWitt and Lavaca, Benjamin Covington met his life partner, the future Jennie Belle Murphy Covington (c. 1886–1966). Murphy was born in rural Clinton, Texas, in DeWitt County, ninety miles north of the Gulf Sea. When her mother, Rachel Thomas, died, Jennie Belle ("Ladybelle,") moved in with relatives in Dement in Gonzales County, an African American enclave settled by former slaves during Reconstruction. A Texan of Mexican and African American ancestry, Murphy attended Guadalupe College in nearby Seguin of Guadalupe County to study home economics, specializing in sewing. Murphy worked as a dressmaker to pay her way through college, even doing custom work for the wife of school president David Abner Jr., who eventually became director of the National Baptist Convention Theological Seminary. Jennie and Benjamin married September 30, 1902, in Seguin.

After a year of country living, the couple left the country and moved to the city as part of what is now referred to as the Great Migration, settling in Houston in 1903, where Covington went into private practice. Barred from practicing medicine in Houston hospitals as well as providing instruction to students enrolled in medical colleges throughout the city and state, Covington and other black health professionals looked to the African American community as they opened practices and established medical facilities throughout Greater Houston. Chiefly, Covington and his peers wanted to provide critical care medicine to their patients, particularly Houstonians in need of surgical procedures.

Covington took the lead in establishing permanent links between the black medical establishment and the community it sought to serve. He reorganized the Lone Star Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Association (later renamed the Lone Star Medical Association) in the early 1900s, initially formed in Galveston in 1886 by African American physicians and other medical professionals from across Texas. Covington first served the organization as its secretary-treasurer, and later became its president in the 1920s. Deeply concerned about the devastation of tuberculosis and other pulmonary diseases, Covington trained himself in pulmonary medicine. Soon others took notice of his work, especially during the city's influenza outbreak of 1918, when Covington developed a vaccine that Houston-area Army Medical Corp officers used to treat soldiers during World War I.

Between 1911 and 1923, African Americans opened four hospital facilities in Fourth Ward near downtown Houston. Rev. Ned P. Pullum, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, donated funds and a building for the People's Sanitarium, which opened in 1911 on Andrews Street in one of Pullum's homes. Covington and his colleagues opened three other medical facilities: Union Hospital, a six-bed and single surgical area facility, in 1918 on Howard and Nash streets; also on Andrews Street, the New Union Hospital, between 1918 and 1923; and Union-Jeremiah Hospital, an eleven-bed facility, on Andrews and Genesee streets in 1923. Despite these accomplishments, the new facilities could not adequately serve the needs of the city's expanding black population, which had grown to thirty-four by 1920.

Black physicians approached oilman and philanthropist Joseph S. Cullinan, founder of Texas Oil Company (later Texaco Oil), about building a modern hospital for the city's black community. Cullinan donated $80,000 in memory of his late son, Lt. John H. Cullinan, an Army officer in charge of African American troops who died in battle in World War I, for the construction of Houston Negro Hospital (later Riverside Hospital), facility that included sixty-one adult beds and sixteen infant beds. The hospital opened in Third Ward on Elgin and Ennis streets in 1927, and later added a nursing-school program in 1931. Covington served many years as secretary of the hospital's medical staff. Regrettably, the hospital only reached 50 percent capacity by the 1930s, an indication that even African American Houstonians deemed the facility inferior to segregated white establishments. Dr. Covington and his peers nevertheless remained committed to the concept of community agency.

Jennie Covington's work in the city matched the community-building efforts of her husband. Motivated by the effects of racism, poverty, and sexism, Covington and her peers took part in the larger women's movement and advanced the cause of self-help social justice. For sixty years, Jennie was a central figure in the city's institution-building efforts within the black community. In 1920, Covington and other migrant community-builders, including Mary L. Jones and Martha Sneed, and with the aid of the local and national Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), helped found the Blue Triangle YWCA branch. For the next half century, the African American branch provided Houstonians, especially girls and women, with meals, a travelers-aid program for recent internal migrants and immigrants in the city, an employment office, public assistance, on-site recreation facilities, scholarships, Christian conferences, and a camp retreat for young people. The branch served thirty thousand people from 1920 to 1998.

Covington also helped found the Married Ladies Social, Art & Charity Club in 1902, a philanthropic and social organization for the city's married black elite. And like her husband, Jennie Covington was an amateur musician, specializing in the piano and violin. While in the Ladies Orchestra in the 1910s, she played the violin at events across the city. Covington also volunteered at her houses of worship, the Bethel and Antioch Baptist churches, in addition to working with the C. U. Luckie School Mother's Club, the parent association for her daughter's primary school. She also volunteered at segregated social service agencies such as the Bethlehem Center and Darcus Home for Delinquent Girls (DHDT). At the Bethlehem Center volunteer, Covington headed the Social Service Advisory Committee, a group that investigated family welfare matters. Covington for decades worked alongside blacks, whites, and possibly Latinas to rebuild and sustain the lives of the working poor.

Along with these efforts, Jennie also worked with whites to improve race relations. In 1919, the first Commission of Interracial Cooperation began in Atlanta, Georgia, largely in response to the racial turmoil and race riots of the wartime and immediate postwar periods. Covington joined activists and concerned citizens in forming statewide and local commissions all across the United States, particularly throughout the South. The Texas Commission on Interracial Cooperation organized one year later in 1920. The commission addressed hate crimes, public health concerns, police brutality, educational disparities, prison conditions, and racial intolerance. Black commission members also promoted racial accommodation over racial equality, a pragmatic decision that often put them at odds with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Of course, this political maneuver rarely conflicted with the aims of the organization's white members, who opposed anti-lynching legislation and the quashing of segregation laws.

Amidst these political divisions, Jennie continued to work for racial equality. She used her connections with politicians, entertainers, international celebrities, and civil-rights activists to bring attention to poverty and inequality in Houston. The two-story Covington home on Dowling and Hadley streets in Third Ward, built in 1911, served as a meeting place as well as a home away from home for famous and not-so-famous guests visiting the city. Jennie Covington always discussed her concerns with guests and friends, including educators Booker T. and Margaret Murray Washington, entertainer and activist Paul Robeson and possibly anthropologist wife and activist Eslanda Robeson, contralto singer Marian Anderson, author and activist William Pickens, concert tenor Roland Hayes, and heavyweight champion Joe Louis. She sought donations, volunteers, lecturers, and coalition building ideas. This ongoing exchange of ideas eventually inspired Covington's political conversion in later years.

Jennie Covington, once a Booker T. Washington accommodationist, in later years endorsed W. E. B. Du Bois integrationists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and eldest grandson and celebrated author Thomas Dent (1932–1998). Believing the time had come for real change, Covington, near the end of her life, often criticized Texas politicians and civic leaders who stifled long overdue reforms. In a Houston Post editorial, she wrote, "I will say that these [segregationist] bills are a travesty of justice, conceived in iniquity and designed to crush and subdue the spirit of the Negro" ("Travesty of Justice, Says Mrs. Covington," Houston Post, n. d.). Like National Association of Colored Women (NACW) founder Mary Church Terrell, Covington in later years grew impatient. Racism, according to her, stood as the chief barrier to social equality in the South, due to both racial indifference and apathy.

Ernestine Jessie Covington Dent (1904–2001) was the only child of Dr. and Mrs. Covington, and was also the mother of acclaimed poet, journalist, playwright, nonfiction author, essayist, and oral interviewer Tom Dent, who helped establish the contemporary Black Arts Movement as well as found the scholarly periodical Callaloo. Ernestine, a classical pianist, embodied the "New Negro" ideal of cultural blackness. Her life as a concert pianist challenged the social construct of black inferiority. One of the first professionally trained African American pianists in the country, she opened doors for later generations of musicians.

Her parents introduced her to the piano at age four, as both played multiple musical instruments. She then began private lessons at age five and eventually earned money as a church pianist. After graduating valedictorian at Houston Colored High School (later Booker T. Washington High School) in 1920, Covington enrolled in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. A piano major and violin minor as an undergraduate and music major as a graduate student, she also learned music theory, music appreciation, musicology, and musicianship. In her undergraduate graduation recital, Ernestine performed the Saint-Saens Concerto in G-minor. After earning her bachelor's degree in 1924, she won four $1,000 fellowships with the Julliard Musical Foundation and worked with Olga Samaroff and James Friskin (although she did not earn a graduate degree from the institution). While a Julliard fellow in New York, from 1924 to 1928, she performed in public concerts as a soloist and accompanist, often for radio station WEAF, receiving excellent reviews. She eventually earned her master's degree from Oberlin in 1934.

Ernestine had a successful career as a college professor at Bishop College and concert pianist in the 1920s and 1930s, but retired in 1936 to focus on her family. She married Albert Walter Dent in 1931 and had three sons. In 1940, her husband, then the superintendent of Dillard University's Flint-Goodridge Hospital in New Orleans, became president of the university, serving in this capacity until 1969. Retired concert performer Jessie Dent played occasionally for benefits and served the students of Dillard as a fundraiser, eventually influencing the creation of the Ebony Fashion Show in 1956, which has raised nearly $50,000,000 in scholarships for students. Dent also served the community as a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

As of 2014, the remaining children of Ernestine and Albert Walter Dent still reside in the region and continue to carry on the enduring work of the Covington Family, one of many examples of Houstonians rising from the long struggle for equality.

Further Reading

Government Documents

Manuscript Census of the United States: Falls County, Texas, 1870, Roll 1584. Bureau of Census, Series M593, Heritage Quest Online, http://persi.heritagequestonline.com/.

Manuscript Census of the United States: Harris County, Texas, 1910, Roll 1560, Bureau of the Census, Series T624, Heritage Quest Online, http://persi.heritagequestonline.com/.

Manuscript Collections

Ames, Jesse Daniel Papers, 1866–1972. Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/a/Ames,Jessie_Daniel.html#.

Covington, Dr. Benjamin. Papers. Houston Metropolitan Research Center. Houston Public Library. Julia Ideson Building. Houston, Texas.

Dent, Tom. Papers, 1861–1998. Amistad Research Center. Tulane University. New Orleans, Louisiana. http://www.amistadresearchcenter.org/archon/index.php?p=collections/findingaid&id=40&q=&rootcontentid=23761

Houston Negro Hospital Records. Joseph Stephen Cullinan Family Papers. Special Collections Digital Library. M. D. Anderson Library. University of Houston. Houston, Texas. Courtesy of University of Houston Digital Library, http://digital.lib.uh.edu.

Married Ladies Social, Art & Charity Club Records. Houston Metropolitan Research Center. Houston Public Library. Julia Ideson Building. Houston, Texas.

Oral Histories and Interviews

Note: Tape recording interviews in the possession of author.

Thelma Scott Bryant—July 24, 1996.

Young, Hazel—August 7, 1996.

Scholarly Periodicals, Magazines, Newspapers, and Books

Barber, Henry E. "Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching," Phylon 34, no. 4 (1973): 378–89.

Bryant, Thelma Scott. Pioneer Families of Houston (Early 1900s) as Remembered by Thelma Scott Bryant. Houston: N.P., 1991.

Gray, Laura Lynn. Women and the American Interracial Movement: A Rhetorical Analysis (Ph.D. diss., Texas Women's University, 2002), 113–35, 165–80, 201–04.

Hall, Jacqueline Dowd. "The 'Mind That Burns in Each Body': Women, Rape, and Racial Violence." Southern Exposure 12, no. 6 (1984): 61–71.

Hall. Jacqueline Dowd, Carol Ruth Berkin, Carol Ruth, and Mary Beth Norton, "A Truly Subversive Affair: Women Against Lynching in the Twentieth-Century South." In Women of America: A History. Written by Carol Ruth Berkin, and Mary Beth Norton. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Howard H. Bell, Howard H. "Dr. Benjamin Jesse Covington," Negro History Bulletin 25 (October 1961):5–6.

Lundy, Ann. "Pioneer Concert Pianist: Anne Lundy and Ernestine Jessie Covington Dent." The Black Perspective in Music 12, no. 2 (1984): 245–65.

Pruitt, Bernadette. The Other Great Migration: The Movement of Rural African Americans to Houston, 1900–1941. College Station: Texas A.&M. University Press, 2013.

Scott, Emmett J. ed., The Red Book of Houston: A Compendium of Social, Professional, Religious, Educational, and Industrial Interests of Houston's Colored Population. Houston: Sotex, 1915.

Shaw, Stephanie J. "Black Club Women and the Creation of the National Association of Colored Women." In "We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible": A Reader in Black Women's History. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, and Linda Reed. New York: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1995.

Texas Commission on Interracial Cooperation Papers. Houston Metropolitan Research Center. Houston Public Library. Houston, Texas.

Wintz, Cary D. "The Emergence of a Black Neighborhood: Houston's Fourth Ward, 1865–1915." In Urban Texas: Politics and Development. Edited by Char Miller and Heywood Sanders. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1990.

Websites and Digital Sources

The Handbook of African American Texas. Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed April 5, 2014. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/african-americans.

Unpublished Works

Gerig, Dan. "Joseph Stephen Cullinan and the Houston Negro Hospital, 1925–1937." Unpublished paper presented at the East Texas Historical Association Fall Meeting, September 25, 2008. Nacogdoches, Texas. In the possession of the author.

Leavens, Charles W. "Historical Development of the Harris County Welfare Department in Houston, Texas." Master's thesis, Sam Houston State University, 1971.

Littlejohn, Jeffrey. "Historian and Activist: Joseph Lynn Clark and the Texas Commission on Interracial Cooperation." An unpublished paper presented at East Texas Historical Association Spring Meeting, Waco, Texas, February 18, 2011.

Wille, Pamela Faith. "More Than Classes in Swimming and Making Hats: The YWCA and Social; Reform in Houston, Texas, 1907–1977." Ph.D. diss., Texas Tech University, 2004.