Piece of Mind: Ex-ETSU President's Legacy Reconsidered

Jan 7, 2021

James William Gee isn’t around to feel the heat, but it has been coming his way in recent months.

Texas A&M University-Commerce, an institution he used to lead as president when it was known as East Texas State University, has changed the name of its library and a lake on campus. Both places had Gee’s name on them. They’re now going to carry the names of two African-American students who played key roles in the desegregation of the university.

You see, Gee didn’t like the idea of desegregating the school he led. He fought efforts to desegregate the university. Gee’s resistance to desegregation drew plenty of criticism in real time … from real politicians who held positions of high authority.

U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn was among those pols who argued vociferously that Gee should desegregate the university he led from 1947 to 1966. Yes, Mr. Sam was a man ahead of his time.

According to an A&M-Commerce news release: The library will be renamed Velma K. Waters Library. In 1964, Velma Waters was the first undergraduate African American student to enroll at East Texas State College … She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree … in 1968 and taught in Carthage, Texas. She passed away on Jan. 10, 1999.

The lake will be renamed Charles S. Garvin Lake. Charles Garvin became the first African American to earn a degree at East Texas State University … when he received a master’s degree in elementary school administration on Jan. 25, 1966. He went on to teach … in Pickton, Texas, before serving as principal of Ralph J. Bunche school in Royse City. Mr. Garvin passed away on June 30, 1993.

James Gee’s name has been attached to the library and the lake for many decades. Now, though, his name gives way to others who played significant roles in an activity that Gee actively opposed. The way I see it, Gee’s name and legacy have been overtaken by the spate of civil rights awareness that’s been reignited across the nation over the course of the past several months.

As for Sam Rayburn, let us just say that Mr. Sam was unhappy with Gee’s reluctance to do what other college and university presidents had agreed to do. As TAMUC history professor Jessica Bannon Wranosky noted to me in a brief comment, Rayburn and Gee developed an “ugly” relationship.

The Rayburn-Gee relationship goes back a long way. Gee hailed from South Carolina, which also was home to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, who became a national figure in 1948 when he bolted from the Democratic National Convention that year to run for president as a Dixiecrat, a party formed to foster segregation that would separate white and black Americans. Sam Rayburn, meanwhile, supported President Harry Truman’s election that year. Indeed, it was President Truman who a year before being elected integrated the U.S. armed forces.

Thus, the two men – Mr. Sam and James Gee – were at loggerheads.

Rayburn pushed Gee to desegregate the Commerce campus. Gee resisted. The two men’s relationship soured even more over the course of the next few years.

Speaker Rayburn died in 1961. After his death, a movement arose to erect a Sam Rayburn memorial chapel on the university campus. To seemingly no one’s surprise, Gee resisted and effectively killed that idea. I suppose Gee never got over the dispute that had erupted between him and arguably Texas’s most influential politician at the time.

This leads me to the present day.

This past year saw a reawakening of the civil rights movement and the need to address the issues sensitive to African-American citizens. So, when given a chance to address those concerns, TAMUC decided to take James Gee’s name off of two landmarks: the library and the lake. It chose to rename both places after individuals with starkly different backgrounds and perspectives than the man whose name was on them.

It was right and just for the university to honor individuals who embodied a national commitment to equal opportunity for all students and residents. James William Gee was not among those who adhered to those values and current events eventually caught up with him as the institution he once led removed his name from a lake and the library. Oh well ...

John Kanelis, former editorial page editor for the Amarillo Globe-News and the Beaumont Enterprise, is also a former blogger for Panhandle PBS in Amarillo. He is now retired, but still writing. Kanelis can be contacted via Twitter @jkanelis, on Facebook, or his blog, Kanelis' blog for KETR, "Piece of Mind," presents his views, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of KETR, its staff, or its members.

Kanelis lives in Princeton with his wife, Kathy.