When Beatrice Lehman arrived in Houston in 1939, one of the first things she did was look for a church for Sunday worship.
A third-generation Lutheran, Lehman had moved to Houston when she was 26 to live near family and look for work. When she arrived, she found out her family was attending a Baptist church. She didn’t know anything about Baptists, she said. She was a Lutheran.
So she and her aunt, Erma Johnson Green, wearing their Sunday best, went to Trinity Lutheran Church, a towering Gothic Revival historic church downtown, on a Sunday morning 82 years ago. When the two women arrived at the front door, the ushers acted surprised to see them, telling them, “This is a Lutheran church.”
“We are Lutheran,” Lehman responded. The women standing before the ushers had, in fact, deep Lutheran roots and pastoral pedigree.
Lehman, baptized at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Mansura, Louisiana, counted 12 relatives who were Lutheran ministers. All her education was in Lutheran schools. She was a church organist. Their home church, founded in 1899, was built on land donated by her great uncle Scott Normand.
But this was 1939 in the segregated South. Blacks were forced to sit in the back of the bus, drink from the “colored” water fountain and enter the back door. “I knew about segregation, of course,” she said, “But I didn’t think about the church being segregated.”
The ushers directed the two women to the back door, and the pastor invited them to sit in the sacristy, a room off the sanctuary, to listen to the sermon. He gave them communion and suggested they worship elsewhere.
But there were no Lutheran churches for African Americans in Houston—or anywhere in Texas. So, following in the faithful footsteps of their forbears, Lehman and her aunt started one.
Holy Cross Lutheran Church, founded in 1940 and still active today, became the first African-American Lutheran Church in the state of Texas. She met her husband Allie C. Green at Holy Cross, and they served together for 60 years until his death in 2001. They had one daughter, Harriette.
On Friday, Beatrice Lehman Green’s earthly life, which ended Nov. 9 at the age of 108, was celebrated and commemorated in a funeral service at Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Houston. Trinity’s congregation was deeply humbled to open its doors to celebrate their sister in Christ who now wears the crown of eternal life, said Senior Pastor Michael Dorn.
Among those in attendance was the 61st secretary of state, James A. Baker III. Green helped raise the Baker children. James was six years old when she began working for his mother. Secretary of State Baker, who recalled walking to the grocery with Green as a child, served as White House chief of staff and secretary of the Treasury under President Ronald Reagan, and as U.S. secretary of state and White House chief of staff under President George H. W. Bush.
Other special guests were City Councilwoman Carolyn Shabaz, representing Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who said Green’s life exemplified the words of Matthew 35:23: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Rev. Michael W. Newman, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) Texas District, called her “a shining light for Jesus Christ in the world.”
In his special tribute during the service, Baker praised Green for opening doors all her life. “Each time a door was closed to her, Bea opened a new one that all of us could enter,” he said, noting the first closed door she encountered in Houston. “And now my friends, how sweet it is that her funeral is being held in the very church that back then would not let her through the front door,” he said, to vigorous applause.
Baker noted Green’s work during the civil rights movement when she “confronted many other closed doors” that she helped open during that “back-of-the-bus era.” In his warm memories of her, he recalled a kind, loving woman with a strong faith in God and a quiet and noble resolve. Admitting they were from “entirely different worlds,” he said, “She treated me and my sister Bonner like we were her very own.”
Green arrived in Houston during the Depression, looking for work. She was hoping to find a factory job when she met Mrs. James Baker, Jr., who needed a secretary and nanny. Green worked for the Bakers for 40 years, leaving for only two years when her husband was stationed with the U.S. Navy in Pensacola. She was a positive influence in the children’s lives, the U.S. secretary of state noted, as he kept in touch with her through the years.
Green was born in Mansura, Louisiana on March 1, 1913, the oldest of seven children. She was baptized and educated at St. Paul Lutheran Church and School, and finished her college education at Alabama Lutheran Academy in Selma, Ala, then a high school and two-year college.
“She was the best Bible reader we had,” said her Holy Cross Pastor Rev. Willie Lucas. “Mrs. Green attended Bible class every week and whenever she read the scripture, it was perfect. Some folks stumble over all those biblical names and places. She never did.”
Her deep Lutheran roots were reflected in her passion for opening a door to the first Lutheran Church for African Americans in Texas in 1939. They built their first Holy Cross chapel and parsonage in Houston from discarded lumber on a plot of land they purchased in 1940, and established a Lutheran day school from 1945 to 1956. The LCMS has a large parochial school network, and started mission work among African Americans in Little Rock in 1877, eventually opening both a Lutheran church and school.
Green loved her church and her Lord and served both in myriad ways. She was the congregation’s first organist, sang in the choir, taught Bible classes and Sunday School, and was a member of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (also known as Ladies’ Aid) and the Altar Guild.
She loved a traditional Lutheran service, Pastor Lucas said, and until Covid closings attended regularly, “rain or shine.” Her family has asked that in lieu of flowers, gifts be made to Holy Cross Lutheran Church in care of her cousin, Deloris Johnson, at 3416 Nalie, Houston, Texas 77004.
Green was also active in the civil rights movement, serving as secretary for the Harris County Council of Organizations, one of the most effective civil rights groups in Texas. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she and her friends would pack a lunch and ride a Greyhound bus to Austin to sit on the Capitol Grounds, protesting for the right to vote. After the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, Green helped open Precinct No. 247, the first black voting precinct in the Cuney Homes of Houston’s Third Ward, where she served as assistant precinct judge for more than 60 years.
Green’s passion for life also led to her serving on the Blue Triangle Branch YWCA Board and her membership in the Magnolia Garden Club. Always dressed to perfection, she joined the Third Ward Line Dancing Group at the age of 100. “She never missed a beat,” her pastor said.
She loved her family, whose faith reflected their grounding in hers, heard in the solo offered by her great-great grandson, Averri LeMalle, II, and the words of her great-granddaughter, Kionna W. LeMalle, who shared Green’s last words: “Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, bless His Holy name.” Her greatest passion in life was her faith in a loving God who created all equally.
“I really didn’t feel good about segregation at all, because I felt it wasn’t right,” she told an interviewer from the University of Houston. “God created everybody equal, so I thought everyone should be equal regardless of race or color.”
Her faith led to opening the doors between Holy Cross and Trinity, as Trinity elders wanted to help the young congregation build a church and find a pastor. Over the years, Trinity and Holy Cross worked as partners sharing the gospel: The members of the women’s mission group met at each others’ churches; the pastors shared pulpits. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey devastated much of the Third Ward, Trinity members responded to Pastor Lucas’s call to help members who had lost everything in the flood.
Doors to Lutheran churches and voting precincts opened in Houston through the years because of the steely, unbending faith of a woman from the small Louisiana town, whose love for her Savior and his amazing grace was celebrated in the service Friday.