Samuel C. Houston, the first African-American elected to Liberty City Council, died Jan. 5. He was 94.
Houston represented the city’s 1st Ward as councilman for 18 years and had also been part of nearly every important civil rights milestone in Liberty and Clay County since the 1950s.
“He was a man of patience and grace, but one of resolve and determination; a humble man that led by example; a man of vision, seeing things before others and then helping to open their eyes; a man of untold wisdom that we will miss and a man that even in death will live on through the lives of his family and those he touched here in Liberty and throughout the world,” Liberty Mayor Lyndell Brenton said.
Houston was born and raised in Liberty. His family’s roots in the city date to 1844, when John Houston, a free black man, settled on farmland that’s now the site of the Liberty Community Center.
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Educated in the all-black Garrison School, Houston graduated from there in 1939.
He worked as a custodian for the Liberty School District for 38 years, serving as director of custodial services at Ridgeview and Liberty Junior high schools. Houston also worked for the Clay County Abstract Company and the Clay County Health Department.
Determined to make a difference in Liberty, Houston sought a seat on the city council in 1975 and defeated incumbent J. Casper Harvey.
“My dad had a high school education and he (Harvey) had a doctorate,” said Houston’s daughter, Eileen Houston-Stewart. “Dad worked hard and there were a lot of people who believed in him, both black and white.”
Besides being the first African-American elected to the city council, Houston also was the first black elected to public office in Clay County.
During his tenure, Houston convinced fellow council members to direct city funding to the Gallatin Project, an improvement program that paved roads and built storm sewers on Liberty’s traditionally black north side. Neighborhoods there were prone to flooding following heavy rains, Houston-Stewart said.
Prior to seeking public office, Houston was already heavily involved in local campaigns for fair housing and public accommodations. Several restaurants in Liberty would not serve black people, and many landlords refused to rent to black residents.
In March 1968, Houston traveled to Memphis and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during demonstrations in support of striking African-American sanitation workers.
“It brought it home for him,” Houston-Stewart said. “There were changes happening in the country and he wasn’t seeing those changes happening so readily in his own community. But it was a movement that he was proud to be a part of.”
“He just loved people and he wanted the world to be a better place; not just Liberty,” she said.
Houston later help create the Liberty Fellowship of the Concerned. For 50 years, Houston served on the deacon board of the First Baptist Church, where he also was elected as its chairman.
In 1985, Hoston formed a committee of Liberty citizens to plan the city’s first Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. The annual event, now in its 32nd year, initially was held in various churches throughout Liberty. As it grew, it was held on the William Jewell College campus.
“He had a real gentle spirit but he could really get fired up especially around injustice,” Houston-Stewart said.
Former Gov. Joe Teasdale appointed Houston to the state’s Commission on Human Rights.
Houston also served on the board of directors of the Clay County African-American Legacy, Inc. In 2000, that group established and dedicated the Freedom Fountain Monument, located on the lawn of Liberty’s historic courthouse square It honors Clay County African-American pioneers.
In 2008, Houston was named Missourian of the Year.
“The legacy of Sam Houston extends well beyond his service, accomplishments and awards,” Brenton said.
A visitation will be held at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, 1600 North Missouri 291 in Liberty at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 16. The celebration of life service will begin at 11 a.m. followed by a reception at the church. Burial in Glenridge Cemetery in Liberty, following the reception.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Fellowship of the Concerned, c/o First Presbyterian Church, 138 N. Main, Liberty, MO 64068.