As high schools all over Southeast Texas celebrated the accomplishments of graduating seniors this past week, a new generation of young adults was unleashed into communities both near and far. The Class of 2013 is heralded as the leaders of tomorrow, but preparation for their future success begins today. That’s why the board overseeing the Cleveland Nisby Memorial Scholarship Fund is investing in the continuing education of Beaumont’s brightest stars. This year marks the first Cleveland Nisby Memorial Scholarship presentation, a progressive $2,000 annual stipend awarded this year to Ozen High School grad Lauren Hargraves.
“We wanted to award the scholarship to someone we felt would continue (Cleveland Nisby’s) legacy,” Nisby’s son, Apostle Claver Kamau-Imani, said. “A lot of young people may not know who he was, but they benefit from his work every day.”
The man, the legacy
Most Beaumonters know the name Cleveland Nisby. A civil rights pioneer and life-long philanthropist, Nisby touched and improved the lives of thousands of Southeast Texans.
Born July 24, 1919, in Opelousas, La., Nisby moved to Beaumont at the age of 1. After a brief sojourn in the North following service in World War II with the Merchant Marine, Nisby returned to Beaumont and took a job at the refinery where he would labor for the next 42 years. In a 2008 interview with The Examiner, Nisby reflected on those days.
“I went to work for Mobil Oil — it was called Magnolia Refinery in those days — for 45 cents an hour. By the time I left there, I was making $19 an hour,” he said.
One significant development during the early years of his tenure was the unionization of the refinery work force, something that was not accomplished without great sacrifice. Nisby worked tirelessly to help organize the union, a dangerous task for those willing to go up against the company. The danger was only compounded for him because of the color of his skin.
“It was quietly, very quietly done, and no public statements or public approach to anybody,” he recalled. “You would lose your job talking about a union, and there were many who lost their jobs.”
Company resistance to union organizing was firm until President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that corporations obey laws protecting labor unions if they wanted to continue to participate in lucrative government contracts. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower continued that policy, and unions finally came to Texas refineries.
For Nisby, the fight was not over — not by a long shot. The quest for social justice was a cause Nisby embraced in the community, as well, working for equality in education as well as the workplace. He became president of the Beaumont chapter of the NAACP in 1960 and pressed Jefferson County to employ blacks at the courthouse. He also pushed for a housing code that would prevent slumlords from collecting extravagant rent from substandard housing.
Nisby knew the key to building on these hard-fought gains would be to have more blacks in positions of power. He ran for a seat on the Jefferson County Commissioners Court in 1974 and again in 1982 – losing both bids under a system that required candidates to run countywide for district positions. Nisby challenged that at-large scheme in federal court as the plaintiff in a 1985 lawsuit, which ended with a judge ordering the county to redraw its voting boundaries to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nisby abandoned his plans to run for office a third time and tossed his support behind Ed Moore as a black unity candidate. In the 1986 election, Moore unseated a white incumbent, County Commissioner Rolfe Christopher.
“Anyone of color who has, or has had, the honor of being in (an elected) office – they have Cleveland Nisby to thank,” Nisby’s son Kamau-Imani said. “He used his own money to advance a lawsuit to allow people of color to hold office. It was virtually impossible for candidates of color to obtain office before then.”
Nisby passed away at the end of 2011, but his legacy lives on.
The Next Generation
“The things Cleveland Nisby fought for still needs to be fought for today,” Kamau-Imani said. To ensure the fight for justice and equality for all people is not dropped, the Cleveland Nisby Memorial Scholarship will assist recipients through their pursuit of higher learning – the inaugural awardee found in future University of North Texas coed Lauren Hargraves.
Cleveland Nisby’s wife, Dora, said Hargraves’ life goals exemplify the dedication to civil and social justice hard fought for by her late husband. “She wants to do great things, and we want her to do those things,” she said.
According to Hargraves’ scholarship application, the teen said, “Helping people is not only my passion, but also the driving inspiration for furthering my education.” She said she hopes to carve a career in the field of international business, ultimately earning enough money to start a nonprofit organization centered on enhancing the lives of underprivileged neighborhoods in the local community. With the support of community activists, Hargraves is confident her future plans are more of a coming reality than a dream.
“A reality not only for me,” she said, “but a reality for the countless lives that are waiting for someone to take a stand and make a change.”
“We believe (Hargraves) will promote the legacy of fighting for justice and equality, and for individual liberty,” Kamau-Imani said. “She will, without a doubt, improve whatever community the Lord has her set up root.”
Ozen High School Senior Coordinator Kim Dixon said Hargraves is leaving the campus amid great success as a member of the Student Body Parliamentarian, Student Council, National Honor Society, and the Executive Board. Hargraves graduated with a 3.7 grade-point-average in the top 10 percent of her class.
James Shannon contributed to this article.