During a celebration acknowledging the official name change of Houston Gardens Elementary, both educators and politicians spoke of Ernest McGowen’s legacy in serving his community as well as being a beacon for children who would someday walk the halls of the school now bearing his name.
While the name change became official earlier this year following a groundswell of community support, the school at 6820 Homestead on the city’s northeast side was officially dedicated as Ernest McGowen Sr. Elementary.
“We’re very excited,” said Principal Dana Arreola. “We’re going to make sure that his legacy lives on from here. With the community supporting our campus, we know that our students will go on to become great.”
Had it not been for McGowen’s calming influence, said both former Secretary of Education Rod Paige and former HISD Trustee Carol Mims Galloway in amusingly and slightly varying stories, the school might be nothing more than a memory.
Following a 1996 roof collapse at then-Houston Gardens ES, Galloway and Paige both said they battled each other on whether the district could rebuild the school despite falling enrollment. Galloway said she finally reached out to McGowen for his help to persuade Paige to find funding to fix the school.
She said McGowen and others took about an hour to work with Paige, who was HISD’s superintendent at the time, to find a way to fix the school. Paige quipped that enlisting McGowen’s help earlier would have saved everybody time and frustration.
Others who addressed the audience spoke of keeping the memory of the area’s historic figures alive, and how it was imperative of everybody in the community to do so.
“Ernest educated people throughout his life and (was an) American hero,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of McGowen’s military service and work as a community activist and politician. “Ernest McGowen was Houston’s most able and greatest champion of education and opportunity for minorities, for children. And today, we saw children embody his spirit.”
In an informal survey during the event, more than two-thirds of the audience of about 150 people said they were helped or inspired by McGowen.
“It is crucial that Houston Independent School District become the holder of our history,” said Jackson Lee. “It has been here so long, it has been in the community so long. These schools are ageless because they have seen people go through who have left the boundaries of Houston and Texas, and they carry the story of how great the city is.”
A group of students produced and performed a speedy recreation of McGowen’s life, including how he met Jewell, his wife of more than 60 years, while they were students at Prairie View A&M and how he went on to serve on the Houston-Galveston Area Council, as well as the boards of trustees of HISD and Houston Community College.
“This is a glorious day to me and my family,” said Jewell McGowen. “I used to tell him that this was his city, because he was so proud to be a part of it. It’s really about our legacy and what we leave for our kids and our future.
“I hope that (students) knowing the story about him, that this guy was from Lufkin, Texas, during pre-Civil Rights, if he can make an impact on the fourth-largest city in the United States, that (they) can do that, too.”