Ovide Duncantell, director of the Black Heritage Society, chained himself to what he called “Martin Luther King Tree of Life.” along the esplanade of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Old Spanish Trail where the tree was being prepared to move to make way for the METRORail project. The confrontation has its origins in the heritage society’s 1980 request that the city build a memorial to King in the esplanade. That project never materialized, so the society planted the tree to honor King in 1983.
Photo: Johnny Hanson
Rebecca S. Jones
African-American News & Issues
HOUSTON – On August 7, 1936 in the parish seat of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana a living legend was born, Ovide Duncantell. Growing up as a resident of the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, Duncantell was made aware of the harsh and demeaning treatment that were imposed on Blacks during that era. Thus he made a choice that he would not stand by and do nothing, but opt to become a voice to be heard and a force to be reckoned with. But not before graduating high school in Natchitoches in the year 1955. In that same year, he entered the United States Air Force and was honorably discharged in 1959. It was after returning home from leaving the service that he soon realized that his vision of success wouldn’t be achieved in the town that he was birthed in. Accordingly, he took unto him his ‘hometown sweetheart’ and married her and together they left for Los Angeles, California. However, he stopped in Houston, Texas, to visit with his new wife’s brothers and has been a permanent resident every since.
Duncantell vividly remembers of how when he, “first came to Houston there was a deep void with ‘our people’ having a heavy connection with the political apparatus in the city.” Thus, he decided to get out and motivate people to do something about it. He noted that the main area of weakness that pronged Houston was that there was no one representing “us” on the City Council. He clearly recollected of how he resided in Kingsgate Apartments located on South Park Blvd (now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) at the time. Duncantell equipped with a spirit of motivation made a decision to file for City Council District D. At such time he went to the office to throw his hat in the race when he was met by the receptionist who began to explain the political candidacy process. She explained to him that in order to run for an office within the City of Houston at that time that two things were mandatory. The first one had to be a property owner of at least two years and the second was that there was a filing fee of $500 for those seeking public office. Immediately, Duncantell knew that he was not qualified to run for office at that time, due to the stipulations that were placed on the qualification guidelines. However, that disqualification yielded no little motivation for him. Therefore, he got an attorney and together they filed a suit in federal court regarding the matter. The Honorable Joe Singleton ultimately ruled in their favor and deemed that the city’s qualification guidelines were unconstitutional. As a result, he directed the city to devise alternatives for citizens seeking the public office position who could not afford the fee. One of the alternatives that the judge recommended was that citizens could start a petition and with the appropriate amount of signatures on it, a candidate could use it as a means of filing for public office. This alternative is one that is still used to this day in the City of Houston. Duncantell recalls this as his first success in fighting for equal treatment for Blacks. Although, he did not win in the election that he pursued, two great things came as a result of his actions. Judson Robinson, Sr. another local civil rights hero, who was a Black man was elected into office. By doing so, he became the first Black man in Houston to fill that position. Additionally, the usage of petitions to file for candidacy was achieved.
After tackling the political arena in Houston at that time, Duncantell set out for another obstacle that had longed terrorized Blacks within the city. He soon discovered that there were too many people in the Black and Hispanic communities that were living in poverished environments with too little food, and not enough resources being extended by the city at that time to accommodate them. Food stamps during that time were dispersed on a county by county basis and Houston had not yet taken part in residents receiving them. Nevertheless, there was a commodity-based program set in place which allowed the city to feed 300 people. Yet, Duncantell saw that though 300 people were being tended to, roughly 600 people were being turned away from receiving benefits because there were only enough resources to feed 300. Senior citizens had begun to gather around the building as early as 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning to ensure that they were able to be serviced. This presented a grave problem that Duncantell noted and sought out to do something about. He made his concern known to every individual that would listen, including Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Once the matter reached her, she then brought a senator to Houston and requested a hearing regarding the issue. By the non-stop persistence of Duncantell, support by Congresswoman Jordan and unified community pressure the city was encouraged to get food stamps. The first food stamp office was opened at 3333 Old Spanish Trail Blvd. and eventually distribution centers were opened up across the city.
Armed with much success from Duncantell’s previous two projects he then went on to do something about the health care situation in regards to residents of Houston. He noticed that there were too many children and senior citizens suffering from health related issues and no sufficient places in sight to assist them. Duncantell’s efforts paved the way for the opening of Sunnyside Health Clinic (now known as Quentin Mease Health Clinic).
At this time Duncantell had experienced much success in his fight for inequality for Blacks. He had become the ultimate warrior in regards to securing benefits for those within the Black community. He had developed a repertoire amongst seniors whom he had a passion for helping. Pursuant he knew that he had to reach out to the youth at that time to make a difference within the future of the Black community. In 1969, he went to work for the Anti-Poverty Program-Houston Community Action Association. There he organized youth, adults and senior citizens to ban together and improve their communities from 1970-1973. He later created his own organization entitled, “The Central Committee for the Protection of Poor People.” The organization’s mission and goals were to assist the community in obtaining much needed social services. It was within another one of his organization’s Soul’s Unlimited that, one of the young members had hitch-hiked a ride with a friend in a stolen vehicle. Not being made aware that the vehicle was stolen initially, upon finding out the young man made a decision to get out of the vehicle and run. At the same time, police officers were in pursuit of the young man who had stolen the vehicle. However, when the innocent youth jumped out of the vehicle the police officers elected to pursue him and let the driver get away. Upon catching him, he was shot and killed by the police officers. Duncantell and his youth group, began a city-wide campaign. They wanted to make a statement that, that type of behavior would not be tolerated with their communities and amongst their people. The group banned together and went to City Hall to declare that, for every senseless young Black life lost, ten cops would be killed (ten for one). Duncantell stated after their efforts that none of the youth apart of the organization were targeted again. Not much long after his encounter at City Hall with his group, he returned home to find that his landlord had made a decision to evict him. Duncantell stated that he was two weeks paid up on his rent, and because of this no one would just illegally evict him. He took a stand at his door complete with a rifle strapped across his chest to show that no one would come in or out of his house with the intent of evicting him or his belongings. He was later taken to small claims court which was in Pasadena at that time. Ironically, the Pasadena small claims court was nearly feet away from the KKK headquarters. Though he was there on other business, Duncantell realized that there was no court annex within his community to assist residents. During this time he was enrolled at Texas Southern University where he was working on his Master’s degree. He wanted to know why there wasn’t a court annex in Sunnyside and he began to do research. He ran into a man that explained to him about the redistricting process. He equipped him with pertinent knowledge about what was required in order to obtain a courthouse through the city. Duncantell once again went to work with other leaders around the city. This action resulted in the Harris County Justice of the Peace (Pct. 7, Place 2) office. JP Surry Davis and JP John Peavy, Jr. were the first two Justice of the Peace elected to serve at that location.
While assisting the community in obtaining these much needed services, he became politically involved in the political structure of Houston, and later decided to run for other public offices, including Mayor and County Commissioner. Upon the various defeats, he went to work for newly elected Commissioner Tom Bass from 1973-1977. There he assisted in the appointment of several new key county office positions in which he was instrumental in the elections and placement of the first Black Harris County Constable, A. B. Chambers, along with several Justices of the Peace. Coupled with his employment and community assistance, he would also earn his Bachelor and Masters Degree in Sociology from Texas Southern University.
Though Duncantell’s mission has produced a mountain of advancements for Blacks, his actions did not come without a cost. For it was at the intersection of McGregor and Riverside that he was brutally beaten by police officers because they did not want him running for a political position. But not one time, did Duncantell back down from his mission to move Houston forward in a positive way with measures that would assist Blacks with the ill-treatment that they had become accustomed to.
In 1974, Ovide Duncantell created and became Founder and Executive Director of the Black Heritage Society, Inc., (BHS) emerging as one of the driving forces behind the renaming of a major thoroughfare to Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard. The street ran through a predominantly African- American neighborhood. Duncantell’s zeal, persistence and enthusiasm resulted in the mobilization of the community in favor of South Park Boulevard becoming Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard. The Reverend Martin Luther (“Daddy ”) King, Sr., was so impressed by the BHS’s Society fervent energy and gesture of respect for his deceased son that made a personal appearance at the street name change and served as the BHS’s first MLK Parade “Grand Marshal,” January 21, 1978. The street was christened by a city-wide parade down the newly named boulevard. Making a pact and promise to Dr. King’s father, “Daddy King,” Duncantell and the BHS have since conducted the annual MLK Parade in Houston for 35 consecutive years. Duncantell is also responsible for the most recent announcement of the “Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Statue & Park Plaza that is to be erected on the grounds of Houston’s MacGregor Park to be completed by December 2013.
During an interview the living legend stated that, “The Creator sent me to this city to change things around and he put protective angel’s roundabout me.” He went on to inform that when he realized this fact that he became bold and it gave him the strength and agility he needed to move Houston forward!
Mr. Ovide Duncantell is grateful for his, “wonderful wife” Naomi and their son, Dante Duncantell. He rests assured that his work is not done in Houston and he will not close his eyes, nor rest his feet until he believes that it is. Of all his success stories and accomplishments he refers to one of his “crowning achievements” as making a serious change in the Houston Police Department.
Duncantell revealed that, “the Police Department here was completely out of control.” He went on to inform of how, “they could take a person’s life with no responsibility.” Duncantell stated that he was proud that he along with other unified voices made a decision to make a change. They went up against a team armed with guns and who were organized and Duncantell and his band went sincere prayers and a strong volition to make a difference in Houston.
Therefore, in this Juneteenth edition of African-American News&Issues, we would like to salute Mr. Duncantell and commend him on the services that he has rendered to the African-American and Hispanic-American communities. For without combined efforts from forces like Duncantell and many other notable civil rights leaders; it could be that minority communities across the city would still be imposed by the harsh realities that have long plagued communities and neighborhoods like them since the beginning of the nation’s inception.