Social unrest leads to life of activism
A close call with a bullet over 50 years ago created a political activist at the young age of 18 or 19 in Orange.
Henry Lowe, now 74, said his family moved to Orange in 1950. “We lived in the Arthur Robinson housing project on 6th Street.”
“It was either ‘54 or ‘56,” said Lowe. He was coming home after a night out with a friend when a car came up the street. “I didn’t pay any attention, I didn’t even look up. Just as I opened the door, ‘Bam,’ a bullet grazed the hair on my head,” said Lowe. “So I ducked inside.”
He said another black man ran after the car and shot at it, then returned to see if Lowe was injured. It was someone Lowe knew.
Concerned the man asked, “What you boys doing out tonight?”
Lowe said, “Huh, I go out at night all the time.”
“Well you shouldn’t have been out tonight,” said the man. “If you’d read the papers, you wouldn’t have been out.”
An article had been in the newspaper that day concerning the voting rights act. This was at the start of the civil rights movement.
“The night riders are out. They’re looking for any blacks to shoot,” the man told Lowe.
“So I told my mother, ‘When I get paid, I’m leaving the South. I will not die down here, not under these conditions.’ I thought if they are willing to kill me to keep me from voting, it must be pretty important.”
He moved to California for safety, but made sure he voted every opportunity since the day he became eligible. “I thought of the people that lost their lives to give me this opportunity to vote. People don’t realize how tough it was.”
Politics was not Lowe’s career. He started very young as a race horse jockey. “Back in those days, they didn’t have to legalize racing in Texas. It was mostly match races between two people to brag on their horses and have some money.” Jockeys back then were youngsters, usually black. It was a very dangerous undertaking. Lowe worked at the owner’s ranch in south Texas and raced on the weekends.
Lowe was chosen as a jockey around the age of 10. When he brought home $20 after his first race, his mother thought he had stolen it from his boss. She marched him over to the boss’ house and made Lowe cut a switch. She was going to whip the boy in front of his boss for stealing. The man told her that was Lowe’s earnings. “It’s only his first race. He can earn $50 to $100 each race.”
Lowe said his momma apologized for not believing him even though he always told her the truth.
Just a little bit of nothing, Lowe was so light that most of the time he had to use a lead pad under the saddle to bring his weight up to what the horse needed to carry during the race. He was called a catch weight rider, which meant he was light. “I stayed small. When I was a grown man I didn’t weigh but 85 pounds,” said Lowe.
He has many pictures of him in the winner’s circle with horse owners. In one picture when he was about 14 years old, he is shown with horse owner Ronnie Booth. “This gentleman here, I lived with his dad and him and his sister and mom, I lived in the house with them,” said Lowe. “His dad’s name is Homer Booth. I rode the horses for them.”
Lowe said he also contracted himself out to other people when he wasn’t racing for the Booths.
Racing was a blessing for his family. His father only made $15 a week and his mother made about $8 a week.
When he moved to California after the shooting incident, Lowe’s mom continued to live in Orange.
Lowe said after he got too big to ride, he became an exercise boy and groomed horses. He got a call from the owners of Los Alamedas Race Track which is the biggest quarter horse track in the country. They gave him the opportunity to work for them and earn a pension.
He did visit Orange through the years, until his mother died.
“I could see the changes that were coming. Orange had changed, the South as a whole had changed. I said when I retire I was going to come back home, which I did.” He said he planned to work as “A plain old citizen, just a community activist, because I had seen so much. It hurt me so bad, because when I was a young man, 2nd Street and part of Park that was vibrant. We had all kind of stores and a movie theater.” It bothered Lowe to see all these buildings torn down and vacant lots in their place.
In an attempt to lure businesses back to the eastern part of town, Lowe discovered Orange had it listed as part of the historical district which made it undesirable to some companies because of regulations that have to be followed. Lowe has managed to have the historical designation removed from some of the area in hopes to bring commerce back to east town. He was also part of the movement to get the Orange Charter changed removing the at-large council seats, making them districts to make sure the minorities living in Navy Park and surrounding areas have representation.
His newest project is to establish an African-American Museum in Orange. Lowe is in the preliminary stages of research to recognize local citizens that have made an impact. Stay tuned for further details. Lowe isn’t done with Orange yet.