JULIA C. HESTER HOUSE
JULIA C. HESTER HOUSE. The Julia C. Hester House is a settlement house and community center located in Houston's predominantly black Fifth Ward. A biracial committee established the house in 1943 to promote the health, education, and welfare of black residents of the Fifth Ward, and to establish facilities for recreation and entertainment. It was originally to be called the Houston Negro Community Center of the Fifth Ward, but before the doors opened it was renamed after Julia C. Hester, a longtime resident of the ward who spent her life working for the welfare of her community. In 1946 the board of directors began searching for a larger building. Three years later, after a successful fund-raising campaign, Hester House moved from rented facilities on Lyons Avenue to its own $150,000 building on Solo Street. It has occupied this site ever since.
From its inception Hester House relied primarily on contributions from local benefactors and community agencies for virtually all of its funds. When it opened in 1943 its annual operating budget of $10,000 was provided by a grant from the Community Chest (which later became the United Way); during the early years of its existence, its major fund drive was to raise money for its permanent headquarters on Solo Street. Hester House has always received about 75 percent of its funding from the United Way, with the remainder coming from private donations, local foundations, and government grants. Originally the house had a biracial board and a totally black clientele. Though the executive directors were always black, during the 1940s and 1950s the president and about two-thirds of the board of directors were white. In the mid-1960s whites were removed from the board, and blacks consolidated their control over the agency. The exclusion of whites from the board adversely affected fund-raising efforts.
The first three executive directors, Robert Neal, Gains T. Bradford, and Robert Reid, had professional degrees in social work or social services and came to Hester House from out of state. They brought a high level of skill to the programs and management of the agency, but did not have strong ties to the community. In 1958 Samuel Price became Hester House's fourth director. Although he did not have the academic credentials of his predecessors, he had been born and raised in the Fifth Ward, and was very successful in getting the community involved in the center's activities and its management.
During Reid's nine-year tenure and Price's seven years, Hester House served as the social center not only for the Fifth Ward but for all of black Houston. A variety of programs attracted participants of all ages: professional organizations, labor unions, and fraternal groups held their meetings there. However, after Price resigned in 1965, Hester House did not have stable leadership. During the 1970s and 1980s directors came and went; none remained long enough to have a positive effect on the institution. The house faced serious financial problems, its facilities deteriorated, and its programming suffered. In part this reflected the economic decline of the Fifth Ward, which suffered in the 1970s as more prosperous blacks moved to other sections of the city. Subsequently, Hester House served a predominantly low-income clientele with programs confined primarily to providing child care for working mothers and activities for senior citizens.
Julia C. Hester Collection, Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library.