Oscar Fitzallen Holcombe, mayor of Houston, the son of Robert Slough and Sarah King (Harrell) Holcombe, was born in Mobile, Alabama, on December 31, 1888. When he was three years old, his family moved from Alabama to San Antonio, Texas, where he was educated in the public schools and at age ten became a cash boy at Joske's His father died when Oscar was eleven, and the boy helped to earn part of the family income by selling newspapers. He later worked as a cowhand in Webb County and quit school to work full-time in 1903. In 1907 Holcombe was employed in Houston at his uncle's Harrell Lumber Company, where he became assistant manager by the age of twenty; he also worked briefly as a salesman for a sash and door company. In 1915 he founded a construction business, the O. F. Holcombe Company, which bid successfully for contracts to build public schools in Texas. So successful was the enterprise that, when he made his first race for mayor of Houston, Holcombe estimated his yearly income at $30,000.
He came into office at the beginning of a major building boom after World War I. During his terms of office the site of Houston grew from an area of less than thirty-five square miles to 352 square miles. Holcombe, nicknamed the "Old Gray Fox" because of the premature grayness he developed in his first campaign, won his first election in 1921 and began a twenty-two-year career as mayor. He won elections in eleven nonconsecutive terms; he served from 1921 to 1929, when he returned to the construction business, and from 1933 until 1937, 1939 to 1941, 1947 to 1953, and 1956 to 1958. In his first campaign he promised better business administration, reorganization of city departments, and new schools and paved streets. In 1922 his refusal to fire three Catholics from his administration led to opposition by the Ku Klux Klan. To refute allegations of gambling and drunkenness, he arranged a trial by fourteen Baptist ministers (ten of whom where Klansmen) that cleared his name to the voters' satisfaction. During his early administrations he aggressively annexed territory to the city and was instrumental in obtaining wider streets, better sewerage, a new municipal auditorium, a farmers' market, and several libraries. He established the new municipal offices of city manager and public service commissioner, as well as the city planning commission. He also developed and installed traffic signals and parking meters citywide.
In 1932, when the city treasury was depleted, Holcombe turned the streetlights back on and promised to clean up the books, but had to fire many city workers. Charter changes in the period reduced the administrative authority of the council and concentrated power in the mayor. This led in 1942 to a successful campaign by the Citizens Charter Commission, which replaced the strong-mayor form of government with a city manager, an eight-man council, and a part-time mayor. The new system did not last, however, and in 1946 citizens revoked it, returned Holcombe to office, and eliminated the city manager.
Holcombe is credited with separating jurisdiction over the port of Houston from politics by combining the Houston Harbor Commission and the Harris County Navigation District. He came out of semiretirement in 1956 to run successfully against incumbent mayor Roy M. Hofheinz, and lost his last bid for reelection as mayor to Lewis W. Cutrer in 1958 over the issue of integrating public swimming pools. Holcombe refused integration, saying he wished to "prevent violence and bloodshed."
A series of important land investments made him a millionaire. He was also part owner of the Southern Lumber Company and Southern Builders Corporation. He built housing developments and shopping centers and owned filling stations and a turkey farm. His construction company made hutments and houses for the army and navy and shipped precut structures overseas during World War II. In the 1950s he became involved in the oil industry. He later served on the board of Trans-World Airlines and was a personal associate of Howard R. Hughes, Jr. On May 3, 1912, Holcombe married Mary Grey Miller, with whom he had one daughter. He died of pneumonia on June 18, 1968, and was buried in Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery, Houston. The Houston Civic Center was later named for him.
B IBLIOGRAPHY: George Fuermann, Houston: Land of the Big Rich (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1951). Houston Metropolitan Research Center Files, Houston Public Library. Kenneth Neal Parker, "Politics of Race and the 1957 Houston Mayoral Race: Oscar Holcombe's Last Hurrah," Houston Review 6 (1984). Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.