Clarence A. Dupree, renowned Houston businessman and philanthropist, was born on January 7, 1893, in Plaquemine, Louisiana, in Iberville Parish, to an impoverished Afro-American mother and a white or biracial father he never knew. According to Dupree, his mother’s family disowned her, which prompted her to abandon Clarence and leave him with relatives living outside Plaquemine. Although Dupree never finished primary school, according to his wife Anna, he learned to read.
According to sources, Clarence Dupree found himself orphaned at the age of seven. At some point as a boy, he relocated to Texas from Louisiana and moved first to Beaumont with an uncle, where he worked as a bellhop at the Crosby Hotel and earned three to four dollars a day. Later Dupree moved to Galveston, where he met his future wife, Anna Johnson, in 1911. He continued to work as a bellhop, this time at the Tremont Hotel in Galveston. According to his widow, he saved and invested every penny that he could. The young man knew how to maximize his money. For example, Dupree bought the jewelry of expatriates fleeing Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and sold it on the street for a profit. He also shined shoes at a barbershop. His innate intelligence, boyish good looks, work ethic, ambition, and ability to save money later helped him and his family survive hard times as well as develop opportunities for success.
He married Anna Johnson in 1918 after settling in Houston, where he had lived for about a year in the Third Ward. They moved to Houston’s Fourth Ward and soon thereafter, the United States Army drafted him to serve in World War I. Working as a cook, he found ways to earn additional money on the side. The native Louisianan’s ability to speak and read French served him well as he often worked as an interpreter. He also worked as a barber. Having cash on hand, he occasionally loaned money with interest to fellow servicemen. When he returned to Houston after the war, he had $1,000 in his pocket, according to wife Anna.
Dupree and his wife moved to the Third Ward and bought a home on Nalle Street. Dupree invested his money in a number of small ventures—opening a billiards bar, restaurant, and movie theater. He continued to work as a porter at the Bender Hotel and later at the River Oaks Country Club. Anna opened a beauty salon for white women in her home and also went to the homes of wealthy clients in Montrose and River Oaks. While the Great Depression hurt their investments, Clarence and Anna Dupree continued to save their money. For a while in 1930, he did not have a job but nevertheless continued to earn money by doing odd jobs until he found permanent work. Eventually, their finances turned around, as they managed to save $20,000 by the end of the decade.
By the late 1930s they invested their savings in real estate ventures that provided important services to the Afro-American community. They reopened the Pastime Theater in the Third Ward and in 1939 built the Eldorado business center at Elgin and Dowling streets, across from Emancipation Park in the Third Ward. The center included a pharmacy, men’s apparel shop, paint store, and nightclub. The Eldorado Ballroom, located on 2310 Elgin Street, for decades hosted concerts, parties, dances, school fundraisers, and social events. Dowling, the Lennox Avenue of Houston’s African-American Third Ward community, seemed an intelligent choice for the business center, which also made the Duprees a good deal of money.
The Duprees invested some of their wealth in the construction of lasting institutions for those in need. For decades, the National Urban League in its special reports on Houston had challenged the city and Afro-American community to provide more resources for African Americans. Spending $20,000 in the 1940s, the Duprees opened the Negro Child Center, an orphanage for black youths, on Solo Street in the Fifth Ward. Having lived such an experience, Clarence realized the importance of a first-class orphanage in the community for African-American children. His wife Anna during the postwar period also opened the Eliza Johnson Home for Aged Negroes at 10010 Cullen Boulevard. The facility, named for Anna’s late mother, was home to ninety seniors. The community builders also donated $11,000 to Houston College for Negroes Negro Child Center and the construction of the Thorton M. Fairchild Building. The couple gave to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF); formed the first little league baseball team for children; raised money for Camp Robinhood, the first Girl Scout Camp in the state for African-American girls; and encouraged others to donate money and land for other causes, including the South Central YMCA and the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, both on Wheeler Avenue near Texas University for Negroes. Clarence Dupree, according to wife Anna, helped people finance their homes.
Clarence Dupree also sported a lavish lifestyle which kept him in the limelight but also spurred unwanted investigations from the Internal Revenue Service, which audited him in the early 1950s. In 1952 the federal government brought him up on the charge of tax evasion for the years 1946 to 1949, a period, according to the IRS, in which Dupree withheld $39,000 from the federal government. With witnesses from all over the country, the IRS assumed it had a solid case. Although Dupree was initially found guilty of the crime of tax evasion, a jury in a second trial acquitted him of all charges in 1956. Clarence Dupree died in Houston on October 22, 1959, at the age of sixty-six.