Houston historian starts new nonprofit to teach children history

May 24, 2019

As the fourth graders from Ms. Raleigh Fitzpatrick’s class boarded the Houston History Bus on Monday, May 20, the mid-morning heat and humidity was setting in. But the students were unphased.

The end of school was drawing near, and the students came with lots of questions for “Mister McKinney” but mostly listened attentively as he shared rich stories about the people and places of their neighborhood from years gone by.

R. W. McKinney has been educating Houstonians of all ages for 17 years and has now founded a 501(c)3 nonprofit called the Houston Historical Foundation, which will focus on funding tours on the Houston History Bus that teach children about their community’s history. Right now, the organization is largely in the fundraising stage — just getting started — but raised enough to fund three weeks of history tours for children in Heights schools.

For McKinney, the new venture is all about making sure that Houston’s young people understand their history as they head into their future. He added that there is sort of a void in the multiple organizations that he already serves and partners with, like the Heritage Society and the Bellaire Historical Society.

“These are great places that we work with, but they just don’t have a component of — and this is a general statement — I’ve noticed there isn’t a lot of focus with young people. And I’ve been doing this anyway for 17 years, and I just thought it was time to establish a nonprofit that can grow and expand, putting historians into school groups, meeting with kids and getting them on the bus specifically.”

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During the tour, McKinney pointed out a variety of buildings around the Heights, each with its own unique story. One was the original Masonic Temple that he said was built in 1930, just as the Great Depression was beginning to affect communities. McKinney said the Masons ultimately couldn’t afford to keep the building, so they sold it. Today, the structure is the Harvard Condominiums, which he said is a wonderful example of repurposing and preserving the area.

McKinney also mentioned The Heights Theater that had originally been built in 1925 in a Spanish style but whose exterior was remodeled in the art deco style 14 years later.

The three weeks of tours were sponsored by a generous $4,000 donation from the Houston Heights Association. The tour seemed to mean a lot to Fitzpatrick, who said she appreciated the experience her students were getting.

“The influence of bringing resources and people in that are literally from their community helps just reassure them that this community is supporting not only their education but how they’re growing up. They’re involved in their community life, and this helps them get that history that they might not have before.”

How to help out

As the Houston Historical Foundation grows, McKinney urges area residents and history enthusiasts to contribute financially to teaching young people.

“It’s a small board, a small organization, and people can make contributions or tax-deductible contributions. This is the big scoop,” he said. “This is what I’ve been waiting 17 years to do and really been hesitant to do because there are so many other great nonprofits already here in Houston that do great work with preservation, but what’s lacking is the focus on kids. It’s taking the kids specifically where the history happens.”

A $300 donation can fund a full classroom of students a tour on the bus. People can also contribute to the bus’ maintenance or the printing of foam boards that McKinney uses to show interesting old pictures and newspaper articles and advertisements. Each board costs $40, and McKinney said a good tour really needs about 20 boards.

In the future, he said he hopes to create an essay contest for students, where they would each research a topic or person in Houston history to compete for perhaps donated savings bonds or scholarships. Top contestants would present what they learned as well.

“Fourth and seventh grade, we teach Texas history, and I think it’s a time to go beyond that a little more and get into the Houston history, the micro history. These kids, as you saw on the bus, they’re very aware of their surroundings. They have lots and lots of questions,” McKinney said. “… But questions are good, and I don’t ever want to stop them from asking a question. I want them to be very curious and have that love of Houston history that I had when I was in elementary school and middle school.”

To learn more information about McKinney’s impactful work in the Houston area and about how to sponsor a classroom or contribute, go to www.houstonhistorybus.org, call 713-364-8674 or email houstonhistoricalfoundation@gmail.com.