George T. “Pop” Nelson, born on February 27, 1905, in Houston, Texas, was a businessman, sports promoter, activist, and an important part of the civil rights movement in Houston. Some of Nelson’s most notable achievements include his involvement in the integration of the Houston Independent School District, in helping to secure African Americans access to vote in Texas Democratic primaries, and his contributions to Black sports in Texas. Nelson owned the Temple barbershop in downtown Houston. As an independent business owner, Nelson could participate as a civil rights activist without threatening his livelihood. In the Temple barbershop, the discussions about the need to change Houston race relations had far-reaching effects on the future of the city.
Several experiences shaped the worldview of a young George Nelson that led to his activism. He questioned the separated waiting rooms, dining facilities, water fountains, buses, and even the custom of Blacks having to step into mud roads to make way for whites on the sidewalk. By the late 1920s Nelson became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His involvement as a young member of the NAACP allowed him to discuss the issues of the day with fellow members, and he became very active in trying to secure better civil rights for African Americans in Texas through his participation in boycotts.
After the Coca-Cola Company opened a new operations center in Houston during World War II, no Blacks were hired to work at the new establishment. African-American businesses were given a limited amount of Coca-Cola products, whereas white businessmen could be seen acquiring large quantities for themselves. This galvanized the African-American community to refuse to buy Coke. Eventually the company capitulated and began hiring Black workers.
During the 1930s and 1940s Nelson was a notable sports promoter and was even dubbed as “Houston’s foremost Negro sportsman” by a Houston Chronicle sportswriter. He promoted Black baseball teams for a barnstorming tour of Mexico and Latin American and staged a game between two African-American teams in Houston. Nelson served as president of a short-lived Texas Black baseball league in 1935. He was instrumental in organizing an African-American professional football team, the Houston Trojans, in 1940. Nelson, with the help of the Barber’s Association, later organized a boycott of the Texas League in protest of the treatment of their Black baseball players. Being very active in the rights of sports fans, he also participated in a NAACP-sponsored boycott of the Houston Oilers in 1961. The Oilers at that time played at Jeppesen Stadium, which was leased from the Houston Independent School District and was operated on a segregated basis. In a stadium that could seat more than 30,000 people, only 100 seats were reserved for Black fans. After one incident where Black fans were asked to leave to make space for white patrons, the African-American community decided to boycott. After some failed initial attempts that saw attendance numbers increase, the NAACP spread the boycott to other teams around the nation, and the financial pressure became too much for the Oilers.
Like the NAACP- sponsored boycott of the Houston Oilers, George Nelson worked with the organization to file lawsuits to effect change in Texas and the Houston area. He worked behind the scenes in the Smith v. Allwright (1944) case which ended the white primary in Texas. Nelson played a key role in the lawsuit begun by the NAACP to integrate the Houston Independent School District. The NAACP, after frustration with initial attempts to desegregate the school district, decided to pursue a lawsuit. To engage in a suit with the district, they needed a plaintiff— a student and ultimately a family—willing to try to enroll their children in a white school. After sweeping through different neighborhoods, Nelson found a neighbor, Mary Alice Benjamin, who was willing to participate. In 1956 Nelson was actually the one who escorted Benjamin’s daughter, Delores Ross, to Sherman Elementary School to attempt to enroll; she was refused. When Ross tried to enroll again the next year, she was still refused. Nelson, this time by speaking to a Black labor union, secured another family, Marion Williams and her daughter Beneva, to try and integrate. They were also refused, but this second attempt eventually led to the desegregation of Houston schools in 1960.
George T. Nelson was an outspoken leader of the African-American community. In addition to his other involvements, he participated in the suit to desegregate the Harris County courthouse cafeteria and in many other events in the desegregation of Houston. Nelson died on March 13, 1997, at the age of ninety-two. In 2001 Yellowstone Park in southeast Houston was renamed George T. Nelson Park in his honor.