East Texas Town Grapples With Integration

After one false start, federal officials take a stronger hand in desegregating a public-housing project in Vidor

THE newest residents of Vidor's public-housing project are nowhere in sight, but their presence is plenty evident.

A new gate blocks one entrance to the project. An off-duty police officer mans a new guardhouse at the only other entrance. A police cruiser prowls endlessly among the tidy duplexes and trim lawns.

Carloads of government employees come and go urgently. And a taut-faced woman wearing sunglasses refuses to admit that she is the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official in charge of the scene.

It's Martin Luther King Day plus one, the sixth day of the second try to integrate Vidor's public housing - and Vidor itself, for that matter.

Except for the four families that moved into the project last week in a predawn caravan, no blacks live in the town of 11,000, a fact that squares with Vidor's reputation for racism.

Taunts, slurs, and threats heaped on previous black tenants caused them all to flee the project by last September. Vidor was supposed to be the pilot project in implementing a court order to desegregate 70 public-housing projects in 36 East Texas counties. But the initial failure caused HUD to take control of Vidor away from the local Orange County Housing Authority.

Roberta Achtenberg, HUD assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, says the department has set up an office in nearby Beaumont to ``keep Vidor integrated.''

That offends some of the town's citizens. It's none of their business, fumes Jim Connolly. Blacks should be in their own sections, he adds. ``They have no right to mix with the whites. If we had a decent government, it wouldn't have happened.''

Says Ms. Achtenberg: ``One of the reasons the Vidor issue is so pivotal is because it has been historically a very hospitable home for the Klan and other white-supremacist organizations. So it comes with its history. There are people in Vidor and environs who would say flat out, `We don't want black people here,' and have said it.''

But other Vidor residents are willing to roll out the red carpet for blacks. When the new tenants arrived, 18 of the project residents had a party to welcome them.

Robert Collier, who lives next to the public-housing project, goes as far as to say that blacks would be welcome in his apartment complex. ``I'd just like to see them get good people. I don't care what color they are,'' Mr. Collier says. ``As long as they're good people, I'm satisfied. Ninety percent of the people in Vidor do not have any objection.''

``I don't think the color of the skin is the issue,'' adds Dene LeBlanc, who operates Dene's Barber Shop. ``Everybody has a right to live wherever they want. Most of my customers [say] liberty and justice for all. They just have something to say about the riffraff.''

Some of the blacks who moved into and then out of the Vidor project had criminal records. ``Vidor has enough problems as it is'' without the government bringing in parolees, Ms. LeBlanc says. ``People here are just trying to make a living and get their work done.''

One thing HUD and the townsfolk agree on is that they've seen all they want of two categories of outsiders: journalists and Klansmen.

``If the Klan would stay out of town, and a lot of these newspapers and TVs would stay out of here, leave us alone, let us handle our own business, I think it would all settle down,'' Collier says.

``Live and let live. Peace and harmony,'' LeBlanc adds.

Those are the words that Achtenberg wants to hear from Vidor. ``People have been reluctant to speak out,'' she says. ``People have not had the expressions of moral authority to effectively counteract the negative terror program that is promulgated by the Klan. Helping give people a voice to express their own decency has been part of what we've tried to do here.''

HUD officials have met with political leaders, school officials, and church leaders in an effort to cultivate community relations. ``We feel very encouraged,'' Achtenberg says. ``Things can regress. There's no question,'' she adds. That's why ``we're not going anywhere.''

HUD is spending more than $2 million to renovate the housing-project units. In addition, it pays off-duty officers to guard the project. ``We have to be a little extra precautious right now,'' says police chief Butch Reynolds. ``We've been keeping our ear to the ground, but we haven't heard anything.''

HUD has arranged for the local school to offer GED courses at the project site. Job training will be offered as well.

Of the 70 sites affected by the desegregation order, only 10 involve problems like Vidor's. The others involve, for example, preferential treatment in handing out Section 8 vouchers (rent-subsidy checks); or, a predominately black project might need repairs and amenities that would be adequate at the same housing authority's predominately white project.

``I have to say, it's not just a phenomenon in East Texas,'' Achtenberg says. ``We have similar problems in public-housing developments throughout the country, in our assisted housing operations, and in the other HUD programs. We have a problem with the way our community development block grant money is being distributed to state and local jurisdictions.''

``We're not pursuing this because symbolically we think it's the right thing to do, although we do think it's the right thing to do,'' Achtenberg says. ``We have a legal obligation to address those disparities.''

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