Hortense Brooks Howell, local Dallas community activist and civic leader, daughter of Joe Brooks and Bennie (Griffith) Brooks, was born in Smith County, Texas, on January 25, 1897. Her death certificate gives her year of birth as 1897. Her mother married Thomas Brockman on May 31, 1903, in Polk County, Texas, and the couple moved to Hardin County by 1910.
Hortense married prominent physician Benjamin E. Howell, a native of Alabama, in about 1913, and the couple had two daughters, Bernice and Vesterline. They settled in the Hall Street-Thomas Avenue neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. In the late 1930s Howell was elected president of the Dallas Housewives League (DHL), a position she held for more than a decade. The mission of the DHL was to support and improve African-American-owned businesses, provide consumer education, and provide jobs for youth. The DHL worked closely with the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce (now Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce) and Dallas Negro Retail Merchants Association. In addition to her local duties, Howell was also active in the national organization. During the 1940s she served as regional manager of the Mid-West South Region, which included Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. She also chaired the DHL’s Consumer Education Committee and was the DHL historian. She frequently spoke at national meetings and once discussed the topic, “Women’s Responsibility in the Present World Crisis” at a DHL meeting held in conjunction with the National Negro Business League in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944.
In 1948 she was elected third vice-president of the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce (DNCC), the highest position ever held by a woman in the organization up to that time. Later that year, she was elected to the DNCC’s board of directors along with Juanita Craft. In the early 1950s Howell worked with other women on the DNCC’s Women’s Division on membership drives. She became a life member of Craft’s newly-organized local chapter of the National Negro Women’s Council in the mid-1940s. Howell was also involved in the local and state NAACP. Her husband served as president of the Dallas NAACP from the late 1930s to early 1940s. In 1950 she was among a delegation organized by the Texas NAACP that petitioned the governor to declare martial law in South Dallas because of the recent bombing of five African-American-owned homes and one white-owned home in a small, racially-mixed section of the city.
Howell also served in the chamber movement on the state level as a member of the Executive Committee of Texas Negro Chamber of Commerce (TNCC). In addition to working closely with federal agencies and departments, the goals of the TNCC reflected many of the DHL’s goals, such as increasing home ownership and fighting segregation by boycotting businesses with discriminatory hiring practices. In the 1950s the TNCC launched a statewide poll tax campaign and encouraged African Americans to do business with African-American-owned insurance companies and banks. The theme of the 1950 TNCC state convention was “Organization to Keep and Increase Our Wealth.” In 1958 Howell was named vice-chair of the Negro Division of Home Emergency Corp, women’s branch, of the Dallas City-County Civil Defense and Disaster Commission.
Hortense Howell died in Denison, Texas, on January 3, 1963. Her funeral was held at Boll Street C.M.E. Church, and she was buried in Carver Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas.