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Washington honors distinguished alumna, unveils plan for statue of namesake

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Booker T. Washington statue

A small-scale model of a Booker T. Washington statue is displayed outside the campus of Booker T. Washington High School in Independence Heights. The school plans to erect a life-sized statue of its namesake in an upcoming community plaza. (Photo from Twitter)

State Sen. John Whitmire said there is only one way to describe the impact made by Texas State Rep. and Booker T. Washington High School graduate Senfronia Thompson.

“All you have to say is, ‘It’s Representative T’s legislation,’ and it immediately becomes a priority,” Whitmire said.

As a result of her work in the Texas House of Representatives and the Houston community, Washington has made Thompson’s name its priority for life. The school dedicated its auditorium to the 1957 graduate, who is serving her 25th term in Austin, during a two-hour ceremony last Saturday, April 24.

The occasion also served a dual purpose as the groundbreaking of Washington’s “The Vision” community statue project. The student-led project is raising money for a community plaza on the Independence Heights campus, with a statue of school namesake Booker T. Washington as its centerpiece. Washington, who died in 1915 at age 59, was known as a civil rights trailblazer as well as an educator, author and advisor to several U.S. presidents.

Houston ISD said it will be only the third statue of an African American in the City of Houston, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and former U.S. Rep. George Thomas “Mickey” Leland, and the first in the historically Black neighborhood of Independence Heights.

"Booker T. Washington showed how one person can change the world; Mrs. Thompson showed how one person can change a state,” said State Sen. Borris Miles, who represents the 13th District in the Texas Senate.

Last year, students from Washington's High School of Engineering Profession’s Magnet school traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama, in hopes of building the statue of Washington -- who founded the Tuskegee Institute -– but were denied. However, students still wanted to honor their namesake. So Principal Carlos Phillips approached HISD Manager of Special Projects Marcus Sheppard about the project earlier this year, and work began.

Over the last several months, students have been making weekly pitches to Sheppard in efforts to refine and tweak the project in order to properly honor Washington’s impact and legacy.

“Students, I’m so proud of each of you for the work you’ve done,” Phillips said. “Over the past five months you have had to think, collect ideas, create unique concepts and correct your plan in order to connect these pieces which allowed you to do an amazing job here today.”

Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros, who represents Independence Heights and has a daughter who graduated from Washington in 2005, echoed the sentiment.

“There is a tradition, a history, a legacy of excellence coming out of this school,” she said.

Included in the project will be education spaces, park signs and lights along with the statue, which is slated for Phase 1 completion next year and will cost an estimated $217,000.

“I’m so impressed with your passion and creativity for the project,” Kenneth Morris, who is Washington’s great-great grandson, said in a virtual message to students. “I know Booker T. Washington would be proud of the work you are doing, and he would be humbled that you have chosen him and his legacy in this way.”

'Leader of the little dogs'

What’s more, students said Thompson was one of the first to invest in them and "The Vision" project, raising more than $37,000 toward its completion – an admission of trust, which the students said they appreciated.

“We thank you for letting us know that there is an opportunity here beyond these walls,” Washington senior Serena Eldridge said.

According to those in attendance, that is simply who Thompson is and has been since first being elected to the Texas House in 1972.

She is known to some in the legislature as “Mrs. T.” and “The Dean,” in her push for human trafficking legislation, equal pay, prosecution of hate crimes as well as healthcare and criminal justice reform, according to Miles. And to those in Houston and the Washington community, she is affectionately known as “leader of the little dogs,” a reference to her being on the forefront of fighting for the younger generation of students in the state and in Houston.

Many said her donation toward the community plaza project is simply a continuation of that passion.

“Those are the things that resonate with me – the things you don’t necessarily see in the legislation, but demonstrate why she does what she does with the passion with which she does it,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “The investments you’ve made in these students will come back to you over and over again. ... You fight for the little dogs, and you fight for a whole lot of folks.”

Several speakers echoed Turner’s sentiment.

“There’s no doubt in my mind I’m a better person and senator because I’ve had the opportunity to work with Rep. Thompson,” Whitmire said. “Mrs. Thompson, some of your better years are still yet to come.”

Added Miles: “It’s an honor to have her name associated with Booker T. Washington and with this particular campus.”

At the end of the ceremony Eldridge, referenced a quote from Washington that reads:

“Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than to be in bad company.”

From the sheer number of speakers on her behalf – which along with Whitmire, Turner and Miles included other dignitaries such as U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, multiple administrators and students – to the comments themselves, it was clear Thompson’s impact will continue to be felt at Washington and beyond for years to come.

“It is evident that Mrs. Thompson is that quality you seek to be around,” Eldridge said.

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