As he sat in the family pickup truck, heading with his father to cut yards across town, future city mayor Sylvester Turner came to a startling realization: the communities they were passing looked vastly different from the small homes that made up his neighborhood of Acres Homes. The houses were bigger, the streets nicer. “As a kid I didn’t understand it—and, quite frankly, I did not like it,” the mayor recalls. “As you grow up, you say to yourself, ‘If I ever have anything to do about it, I’m going to change this picture.’”
Born and raised in a two-bedroom house in the historically Black neighborhood that residents affectionately refer to as the 44 (pronounced fo-fo and named after the Studewood 44 bus that drove along those blocks), Turner and his siblings spent much of their days in the close-knit subdivision of Garden City Park—an area as geographically intimate, with Garden City Elementary School at one end and New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church on the other, as it was emotionally intertwined. Almost everyone Turner knew and interacted with, from the bus driver to the pastor to the community business people, lived a hair’s-breadth away in that little pocket. “I saw my mentors and role models right there in the neighborhood,” the mayor says, reminiscing about how he would often come home to find one of his teachers chatting with his mother, a maid in the old Rice Hotel who fed her nine children through the assistance of food stamps.
“They took the time,” Turner adds. “When a kid knows that people care and it’s not just their job, that makes a huge difference.”
With the ardent support of his parents, neither of whom had the luxury of completing high school themselves, Turner attended Garden City Elementary until the seventh grade, when he began taking the 18-mile bus ride to Klein Intermediate as part of the class that integrated the Klein Independent School District in the late ’60s. The transition was anything but easy—racial fights regularly took place in the hallways, Turner remembers—but the journey was made easier by the friendly faces of his teachers and neighbors who joined him and his black classmates at Klein.
“My science teacher, Freddie Jennings, he was the one who asked to see my report card on a regular basis,” says Turner. “It was Mr. Jennings who thought I was on track and could potentially be the valedictorian.” When that prediction came true in 1973, Jennings—who’d become a kind of surrogate parent to Turner after his father succumbed to cancer when the future mayor was 13—“took as much pride in it as if he was my own dad.”
Even with all his political successes from his 27 years in the Texas Lege to overseeing Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey, Turner still remembers the 36 miles he spent on a bus five days a week in order to receive the public education he was promised under Brown v. Board of Education. It’s why he championed the neighborhood in his Complete Communities Initiative, which aims to revitalize the Bayou City’s poor and neglected areas, including Acres Homes. “I don’t like to see kids having to be taken outside of their neighborhoods to be a part of a quality school,” Turner says. “It’s important to invest in neighborhoods across the city instead of closing or ignoring communities.”
That development starts with the community leaders—people like Freddie Jennings who, as in the days of Turner’s youth, take the time to support and mold young hearts and minds. In addition to offering leadership training through his communities initiative, Turner encourages professionals in Houston’s Black community to return to and invest in their childhood neighborhoods and support the next generation. And, never one to turn his back on his community, the mayor, accompanied by his security detail, leaves the house he owns in Oaks of Inwood, just a few minutes from his childhood home in Garden City Park, when he heads out to do the city’s work each day.
“I say to people all the time,” Turner emphasizes, “‘I grew up in the hood. I’m still in the hood as the mayor.’”