A slightly less well-known part of the collections here in the University Archives is the Special Collections. Special Collections are a big umbrella that covers faculty publications, theses, some University publications, and any rare or unique books that we have which we don’t want to be checked out or circulated outside our library.

Many of our special collections books are rare because there weren’t many printed. But some are rare because they are signed by the author. One of our books was signed both by the author and the author’s husband: Lady Bird Johnson and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The book, A White House Diary, was published in 1970, just after LBJ left office. It’s a published journal of Lady Bird’s own affairs while First Lady. In this first edition, I wasn’t terribly surprised to see her signature, and an inscription to a member of the Briscoe family (Dolph Briscoe was the 41st governor of Texas). However, once I looked more closely, and remembered that Lady Bird and Lyndon shared initials, I realized that it’s both *his* signature and *her signature* on top of one another. I don’t know how it came to our collections, but I have since found out that Honey Briscoe passed away in 1980, and its possible her books were simply gifted to the library as a donation after her death, without her heirs ever realizing what was tucked inside this particular book.

“To Honey Briscoe with the best wishes of her friends through the years–L.B.J. Lady Bird Johnson”

Texana, Autographs, and Forgery

The special collections at UHD have never gotten much notice, since there are no Gutenberg bibles lying around, nor any kind of “precious” books that one normally associates with such collections. However, when the collection was physically situated with the University Archives in 2013, we discovered that the core of the collection is actually very special indeed.

Most of the books in the Special Collections are “local” history: Texas and Houston, with a special focus on oil history. Not until we dove into the books and looked at them carefully did we see what all the fuss was about: nearly all the books are from the private library of James A. Clark, a prolific author of many works, the most famous being his 1952 book “Spindletop.”

Clark held different jobs throughout his lifetime, including the public relations manager at the famous Shamrock Hotel, sports editor for the Galveston News,statehouse correspondent under Governor Allred, and the author of a long-running oil column called “Tales of the Oil Country.”

Clark passed away in 1978, and his books came to UHD sometime after that, although it’s unclear how it happened. The collection includes several autographed copies of some very famous Texas history, including one which, it turns out, is a forgery. Clark clearly enjoyed buying or obtaining autographed books, and at some point must have been thrilled to buy a first edition of the now-famous Shamrock and Cactus: the story of the Catholic heroes of the Texas Revolution by William M. Ryan. It was signed by the author with the note “to my good friend H.P.N. Gammel with my best regards…Christmas 1936.”

Karl Hans Peter Marius Nielsen Gammel, or H.P.N. Gammel, was one of the first people in Texas to preserve Texas history (he saved the laws of Texas from fire in 1881 and kept them safe in his home before republishing them a few years later). He was, and remains, one of the most important booksellers and collectors in our history. Having a book like Shamrock and Cactus, signed by the author and to Gammel, must have felt like quite a coup.

Unfortunately, Gammel is known to have passed away in 1931, five years before this book was published. Ryan, if he was indeed a “good friend” of Gammel, would have been well-aware of Gammel’s death. In Houston in the 1960s and 1970s, however, forgery of Texas historical documents, including autographs and other documents, was big business. Without Wikipedia at hand to check the death dates of famous people involved in publishing, scams like this were easy to  implement. No doubt James Clark suffered more than just once at the hands of the Houston forgery rings, just as many collectors of Texana have*. But so far none of the other autographs in our collection have been proven to be false.


*To read more about Houston’s forgery community, read Texfake: an account of theft and forgery of early Texas printed documents, by W. Thomas Taylor (1991).


In depth: Campus culture 1991-1992

I did an experiment: I randomly chose a year in the “life” of UHD, and read the newspaper. Now, many things were happening in the world in 1991-1992 (fall of the Soviet Union, Kuwait, end of apartheid, “war on drugs”, etc). But of course, when reading a newspaper like the Dateline Downtown, global becomes local. So what do we learn?

  • The students of LASSO (the Latin American students organization) were tired of being ignored by the student press, which had no Hispanic students on staff. Their letter to the editor, while publicly rebuffed, led to much more exposure of their events by the paper (March 1992)
  • UHD made a concerted effort, against the system, to establish a “traditional” liberal arts program here (Feb 1992)
  • Maya Angelou and Carlos Fuentes both spoke here
  • In an interview with one of the shuttle bus drivers, Lawrence Smith, he revealed that his own brother-in-law had been shot just weeks before as an innocent victim of the drug wars of the early ’90s
  • There was a “Church under the bridge” which met every Sunday to give outdoor services to the homeless in downtown (April 1992)
  • The Chinese Student Association and Vietnamese Student Association played a volleyball game at Allen Park (October 1991)
  • The UHD Center, and its dormitory, closed for good, which prevented many students with disabilities from continuing their studies here at UHD (July 1991)
  • On Valentine’s Day, there was a campus-wide Dating Game held; applications were solicited from the newspaper. Who ended up with whom remains one of history’s mysteries (February 1992)

While there is little of “historical record” in student newspapers as a rule, the climate of the University is visible on every page: what the students cared about, how they approached their problems and the problems of others, and the role that their classes and professors played in their everyday life.

The Fundraising Letter of 1967

While listening to the oral history of W.I. Dykes, the first head of UHD and the last head of South Texas Junior College, he mentioned that one of his greatest accomplishments was settling the College into the M&M building.

After the move in 1967, however, the cost of refurbishing and repurposing the building for academic uses was staggering. Dykes and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Elliott Johnson, found themselves  with a debt of $250,000, and unsure how to make up the difference (in today’s dollars, that would be about a $1.7m shortfall). C.W. Denman, who was the director of development at the time, suggested sending ” a letter” to alumni, the business community, past donors, anyone that they could think of. Dykes mentioned that no one seriously thought they could make up all that shortfall with a single request for money.

About a week after listening to this story, while going through a collection of donated materials, the “letter” appeared. It was not actually a letter, but a two-color brochure, double-sided, with photos of the new classrooms and labs, the library, students at work, and the administrators in their new location with “ample space.” In the text, it reminds the reader that all of the work done to “provide business and industry in this area with its greatest asset, trained personnel…is being done without any cost to the taxpayer and for this reason the Board feels that those who are served by this institution of higher learning will want to contribute to its continued growth and prosperity.”

And apparently they were right. In Dykes’ oral history, he said that it was by this single letter that they received, in donations, well over the $250,000 they needed. He was quite proud to say that no one ever expected they could accomplish so much with a single letter.

1967 development
1967 development “letter.” Language lab featured on the cover of the brochure.
interior brochure
Interior of the 1967 “letter.” The biology lab on the left, the library in the middle and the audiovisual classroom, plus photos of Elliott Johnson (top) and C.W. Denman (middle).

Poetry and Poets at UHD

In May 2015, Dr. Robin Davidson, a faculty member at the University, was named Houston’s second Poet Laureate. But she is just the latest example in a long line of people dedicated to sharing poetry here at UHD.

Lorenzo Thomas is obviously one of the best known poets who made UHD his home. He helped to found the Bayou Review literary journal, and published several works of poetry in his lifetime. Other current English faculty members who are also published poets are Drs. Katharine Jager, Jane Creighton, and Merrilee Cunningham.

A member of the faculty that is perhaps less well known as a poet to our community is Dr. Andre de Korvin, a professor of mathematics and computer science whose poetry has been published several times (listen to an interview with de Korvin here).

Historically, too, UHD has been a focal point for poetry. The Houston Poetry Festival was hosted and sponsored by the University’s Cultural Enrichment Center and the English Department for many years in the early 2000s. The Cultural Enrichment Center also brought other poets to the city, such as Maya Angelou and Junot Diaz, and has acted as a catalyst for enriching the cultural and intellectual life of our academic community.

In depth: Newsletters

University Archives are required by law to save the “boring” things about a University’s history: budgets, course catalogs, reporting statistics. Everything else that is preserved is done so at the Archivist’s discretion based on space constraints in the archives and how much information can be gleaned from whatever material we keep.

However, that discretionary component to the Archives’ work allows us to also save some really interesting historical materials that bridge the gap between institutional business history and the cultural history of the institution. One type of material is the newsletter. UHD has had many, many newsletters printed over the years. The most recent format of that is probably the Skyline, which is online but is effectively a newsletter at its core, coming out regularly and posting the happenings of the University generally.

In the past, before we had things like websites, the newsletters were created on typewriters or word processors and then copied and distributed. One of the first newsletters at UHD was The Claw, an all-faculty newsletter that began in the early 1970s when we were still the South Texas Junior College (our mascot then was the Seahawk and the student newspaper was The Talon, so you can see the joke). It had business items, as well as personal information about who was going on sabbatical or who had just published a paper. It even had ads — one intrepid member of the faculty sold their curtains through The Claw.

The division of social sciences had their own newsletter after The Claw ended, called “Notes from Many and Divers Sources for the Illumination of Our Times” (which was later shortened to “notes from many and divers sources” probably for brevity’s sake). It was mostly official information distributed so that the faculty could have less meetings, but also included things like “if you have borrowed Conney Sham’s per diem worksheet, please return it” (from the March 8, 1978 newsletter).

The President’s Office, soon after UHD was established, also started a newsletter, called Notes. Notes ran for more than 15 years, and really comprises (along with the student newspapers) some of the best sources for historical information on campus. It’s the first place to go when we need a specific date or to know when an activity or speaker’s series or major began.

Newsletters really tell the whole story of the University, if one is willing to take the time to delve into them.

In Depth: Student Publications

Today, UHD has two major student publications: the Dateline Downtown and the Bayou Review. The Dateline is a newspaper, published approximately every two weeks, and has evolved in recent months to include a podcast. The Bayou Review is a biannual literary and art journal. Both have faculty advisors and student editors and writers.

When South Texas Junior College split from the College of Law, the tradition of having yearbooks every year fell off, but a student newspaper was a must. The STJC newspaper was called The Talon, after the mascot, the Seahawk (the faculty newsletter, by comparison, was called The Claw).

The Bayou Review newspaper was first published in 1975, after the acquisition of South Texas Junior College by the University of Houston. The original student newspaper, The Talon, was not considered a viable name any longer due to the changing of the mascot from the seahawk to the gator. Bayou Review ran for eight years, on a monthly basis.
In 1982, shortly before University of Houston Downtown College became University of Houston-Downtown, another renaming took place, this time from Bayou Review to Dateline Downtown. The Dateline published its first issue in January 1983. It was intended to be published bimonthly on Wednesdays, barring holiday and finals weeks. The original editor was Kevin Watson and the original faculty advisor was Paul Alexander. After four years, the Bayou Review’s name was resurrected in the form of the Bayou Review journal. The Bayou Review is published biannually and continues to be issued today. It features poetry, prose, and artwork from the UHD community and beyond.

In depth: Course Catalogs

In any organization, there are certain publications or regularly-issued documents which form what archivists call “high-information objects.” These are materials that, when looked at over a long period of time, give great insight into the history, growth, and evolution of an organization. In the case of a university, one of the most enriching and enlightening high-information objects is the course catalog.

The course catalog (for any university or college) is a clearinghouse of information. It lists faculty, administrators, policies, office locations, FAQs, and other tidbits of miscellaneous information in addition to the listing of courses. There is also usually an aesthetic element to the course catalog, at least after 1970 or so, when many universities began putting graphics and photographs on the fronts of their course catalogs.

In our case at UHD, we have course catalogs from both the University and its predecessor, South Texas Junior College. These useful books tell us when classes began, what the University was called, who was president and provost and chancellor. These pieces of information, which usually seem like easy questions to answer, are not always so. For instance, while most people with knowledge of the history of UHD know that W.I. Dykes was our first president, it took several hours of work in other publications, course catalogs, and correspondence to find that he retired well before the beginning of UH-Downtown, was replaced by another person, and then came out of retirement because that person had not fulfilled his duties. What seems like a routine research question can turn into an in-depth investigation very quickly, and resources like course catalogs or President’s newsletters are the first line in discovering how things “really” happened.