Image: Thomas Shea

Growing up in Linkwood, a neighborhood south of Brays Bayou around Buffalo Speedway, at-large City Councilmember Letitia Plummer was uniquely positioned to watch the evolution of Black leadership in Houston.

Her grandfather, born in 1920, was the son of a former slave. Matthew Plummer Sr. attended Phillis Wheatley High School in Fifth Ward and then helped train the Red Tails, a famed WWII fighter squadron of Tuskegee Airmen, before finding his true calling as a lawyer. Plummer Sr. became the first Black investigator at the Harris County district attorney’s office. Later on, when Muhammad Ali was fighting being drafted during the Vietnam War, Plummer Sr. stepped up to help him. Ali would credit him as one of the few who came to his legal aid.

“He really was a civil rights attorney,” says Plummer, who was elected to her first term in 2019. “In a lot of ways, I’m just living and working vicariously through him.”

Because of her grandfather’s position in the Black community, as a kid Plummer was on hand when Plummer Sr. and Matthew Plummer Jr., her father, would convene with members of the NAACP board like Howard Jefferson and political strategists including Keith Wade. But she made a point of listening closely when U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, who was among the Plummer family’s closest friends, spoke up. “Now they’re giants, but they were just my uncles, these people coming into my home,” she says.

Plummer idolized Leland. She was stuffing envelopes for his campaign by the time she was 12 and had a knack for overhearing any conversation he was having with her parents and grandparents. She learned through cracked living room doors about his work to feed the hungry in Ethiopia and Sudan, and she looked forward to the day she would be old enough to be in the room for those conversations with the man she called Uncle Mickey. Her mother—a Yemeni Indian from Zanzibar—was from East Africa, and as Leland talked of helping the poor there, Plummer thought about her mother’s family.

Leland died in an August 1989 plane crash during a mission to visit an Ethiopian refugee camp. Plummer, who was about to attend Spelman College, was devastated. But she took away something from his example, and her appreciation for what Leland accomplished has only grown in the years since his death. “He did passionate work for people that are voiceless,” she says. “And for Uncle Mickey that meant not only to work for people here, but to travel to whole other continents to make change. And that meant something to me.”

Plummer with her dad.

She also learned from her dad. Her parents met when her father traveled to Africa as a member of the Peace Corps. The connection was instant, and when he returned to Houston, he brought his new wife. But the mix of their two cultures was sometimes difficult for Plummer, who grew up in a household where relatives spoke Arabic and Swahili and ate goat curry and fried chicken. Some friends thought her mother, a lighter-skinned woman in traditional Kenyan clothing, was her nanny, and while that brought Plummer down, her father was always there to pick her right back up.

“My dad said to me, ‘You gotta be proud of being different. People see differences just because they don’t understand,’” says Plummer. “A lot of our conversations were about that.”

Matthew Jr., who had gone to Harvard to become a dentist, taught her that life was an opportunity to give people a better end than their beginning. So he pushed Letitia to earn her way to Spelman and later to Baylor College of Medicine, where she would become a dentist like her dad.

Plummer took those teachings with her as she started her career in the Harris Health System, offering dental services to underrepresented people. She didn’t plan on starting a side career in politics. In 2001 she opened her own practice in Pearland and settled into motherhood with three sons, having a fourth by surrogate in 2014. Her ex-husband took that child legally during a messy divorce, leading her to lobby for protections for mothers using surrogacy for adoption. That work spurred her to jump into the political arena, and after losing the Democratic primary for the District 22 U.S. House seat, she ran for City Council in 2019, winning at-large position four.

Still practicing as a dentist, Plummer says working for Houstonians means leading with an eye to equity. She wants to continue building on what Leland and her other “uncles” were constructing back in the 1970s and ’80s while remembering the constant lessons learned from her family: Be proud of your differences, and stay humble.

“I got so many opportunities that I would say 80 percent of Houstonians don’t have,” she says. “So my driving force is: it’s time to give back. Every single day, I have to give back.” 

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