The sound of migration: Houston’s history

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

On Feb. 12, the School of History and Sociology (HSOC) hosted Dr. Tyina Steptoe from the University of Arizona for their Black History Month presentation as a part of their ongoing speaker series.

Germán Vergara is an assistant professor of history in the HSOC and serves as the current chair of the speaker series. He works with several other faculty members throughout each semester to decide the topics and speakers to be invited to present their research at Tech.

“Every semester [we] bring a number of scholars from other universities to come and give a talk about their research or the project they’re working on. We ask faculty members to suggest names of scholars whose research, for a variety of reasons, is of interest to them. We have close to 30 faculty members, and we do a wide range of different types of research covering different areas and topics, so the speakers usually are people whose research connects in some way,” Vergara said.

While it is organized by the HSOC, the speaker series is open to students and faculty of all majors and interests at Tech. Especially as the digital age becomes more advanced, there are increasingly overlapping areas regarding the relationship between sociology and technology, 

“We have tried to turn the speakers series into an event that is attractive to the wider Georgia Tech community. As you know it is an engineering school so we try to make it relevant [when we] organize the events [about] the liberal arts and social sciences in a way that exposes students at Georgia Tech to a wider number of viewpoints and fascinating research,” Vergara said.

This year’s presentation was focused around Steptoe’s 2015 publication, “Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City” which studied the transformation of Houston in the 20th century through the intersecting lens of racial demographics and music. Specifically, she focused on the relationship of ethnic Mexican and Creole migration into the Houston  area with the Black population in those areas; both over time and through genres of music traditionally observed and respected in those respective groups.

“I found that I was going to have to build my own archive if I wanted to tell a story that was Black Creole and ethnic Mexican and realized that part of the collective was going to be based around partly oral history interviews: finding people and sitting down with the recorder and actually having them tell their story,” Steptoe said.

Steptoe faced considerable challenges with her research, primarily with the lack of archival material. One trend that she noticed during her time at school and into her academic career studying African American history was the lack of discussion and research on East-West migration, which was part of her personal story as a Texas native. 

There were also challenges in identifying and establishing the exact neighborhood at the center of her story. It was called Frenchtown; aptly named after the loose community of Creole people and their francophone culture that populated it and was located by the corner of Houston’s Fifth ward. 

“At first when I started this project, one of the people on my dissertation committee told me that it was going to be impossible to write about Frenchtown because I couldn’t convince them that it even existed. There were no historical markers there at the time. I just had these stories of people saying there was a Frenchtown. I only convinced them when I was able to lay out the 1930 census and show all of these people geographically located in the northern Prairie area of Houston who were all living around each other and all spoke French,” Steptoe said. 

One of the identifiers of history and presence of a certain group in a specific area is the lasting cultural effects. For Dr. Steptoe, it was music: comparing the traditional music genres and sounds of each demographic and observing the changes in music over time, with overlapping sounds and instruments, and sometimes the birth of new genres altogether. 

“When I would talk to Creoles in particular and say ‘how do you define what Creole is?’, one of the words that I would hear again and again was accordion. The sounds of the accordion became a marker of difference at that time. If you think about Texas music, especially the music of Black Texas during the era of Jim Crow, it’s the blues. You had a lot of guitar styles that were developing. It seemed to me that music became kind of the fabric of what made Frenchtown and Fifth Ward no longer two separate places but one,” Steptoe said on the musical blending. 

Steptoe found that by the second World War (WWII) , the distinctions between Fifth Ward, a majority Black neighborhood, and Creole-founded Frenchtown had started to dissipate, largely due to the shared proximity and blend of musical genres. By the 1950s a completely newfound sound from the eastern corner of Houston started to emerge. 

“The combination of blues and lala, [Louisianan Creole], had merged to the point where some people thought that it needed its own name. Matthew McCormick was a folklorist and music collector …When he got to Houston he discovered that the city had Black populations all over [and was told to] go to the north one, Fifth Ward, because ‘you’re going to hear blues played like nothing you’ve ever heard before’,” Steptoe said.

McCormick commercialized this new genre as zydeco, and it became the marker of these new intersections of people, culture and music in Houston. Originating from the word “les haricots” or “beans” in French, it is characterized by the identifiable tunes of blues with hallmark uses of guitar, accordion and washboard sounds, and its presence in the music world continues on today. 

However, as Steptoe continued on with her research of the later decades of the 20th century, she recognized the beginning of new musical influence in Houston. Mexican music, culture and people are widespread amongst Houstonians now, but before legal desegregation, Mexicans were categorized as white. This resulted in a legal and socio-cultural barrier between those communities and their African American neighbors. 

Steptoes provided an anecdote about how this separation manifested itself into the everyday parts of peoples’ lives. “I was very surprised when I was doing my research. For example, when I would interview Black Houstonians about their contact with the Mexican communities, they [the stories] weren’t starting until the 70s or 80s. I found out my grandmother never tasted a taco until 1980 which is very late. I just assumed she would have grown up with Mexican food because I grew up with Mexican food but that was not the case for her. These communities were very separate and by law she would not have even been permitted to enter into a Mexican restaurant,” Steptoe said.

This started to shift with widespread desegregation and had a particularly profound effect in public schools with a new generation of increasingly mixed Black and brown schools that drew the cultural output and physical space of the communities closer together. 

“In Houston, ethnic Mexican youth were a vital part of what we call the Chitlin Circuit … Like with zydeco, the styles were blended. The Houston soul bears the imprint of ethnic Mexican music, especially a form of music that was known as orquesta,” Steptoe said. 

This cultural fusion expanded to incorporate elements of zydeco, which had been created only a few decades prior. 

As a result, Houston’s music scene and cultural background would forever be changed by the synergy of these musical genres and the communities they represented during this evolution. 

“Well into the 21st century you still hear a lot of this going on that comes out of Houston music. So much of the music that comes from that city is a combination of these cultures: a little Creole, some ethnic Mexican and some Black East Texas,” Steptoe said on their impact across different centuries.

One contemporary artist that is a living example of this combination of cultures and influences is Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. As a native Houstonian with a Black father and Creole mother, Knowles-Carter,  who has cited Selena Quintanilla as inspiration for her career, her music has traces of
those intersecting influences. 

Steptoe played a clip of Beyoncé’s 2007 EP “Irreemplazable”, which consists of re-recordings of some of  her popular singles sang in Spanish. 

“Beyonce said she wanted to record this as a way of introducing people to the Houston that she grew up in. A place where you would hear the sounds of Mexican music, you hear zydeco, you hear soul, and in many cases, all of these things would come together,” Steptoe said.

She gave another example of this visible intersection of identity and culture in Beyoncé’s discography. “In 2016 she had released a single called “Formation” and in that song, talking about herself, she says ‘You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama’ and a lot of people were confused about this. They were like ‘What does she mean mixing creole with negro, aren’t creoles Black people who speak French?’ and there was a lot of ink spilled over this. It also goes back to how people in Houston are still conceptualizing these groups as separate but also coming together and positioning herself [Beyoncé] as the part of that coming together in a global context,” Steptoe said.

The HSOC speaker series allows students and faculty to learn about and from academics whose topics and knowledge are not otherwise taught widely on Tech’s campus. The fall semester has a wider variety of topics and speakers that differ from year to year, while the spring semesters have themed presentations. This is just one aspect of the HSOC’s extensive curriculum that incorporates African American history, contributions, culture and impact on American history and society. Upcoming events on the speaker series calendar can be found here:

Additionally, Dr. Steptoe’s new book, “Jim Crow: Voices from a Century of from a Century of Struggle, Part One” is set to be published this April.