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One of Houston's first black millionaires shares personal story of contribution to city

HOUSTON – Monday marked the celebration of Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States. But for years after, segregation lingered.

But that didn’t stop African Americans from starting businesses and building.

Along Gregg Street in the 5th Ward sits James Singleterry’s office, and during business hours, the 94-year-old will always be in his chair.

"What am I going to do if I retire? Shoot, I'll be working the rest of my life,” Singleterry said with a chuckle.

Other than running a good race in this marathon called life, the now 94-year-old has accomplished more than just living a long life. He helped build the Houston community.

“To make a long story short, I was a lucky man,” said Singleterry as he reminisced about his life.

His career was based off of his success as a real estate investor, but he started as a cab driver in his late teens and early 20s when the city was segregated.

“We had to park on the side of La Branch as black cab drivers,” he said, referring to not being able to park in front of the William Penn Hotel at the corner of Texas and La Branch.

While driving as a cabbie, Singleterry hit the books, studied real estate and got his license as a broker.

“I worked as a salesperson out here, selling property on the North Side, houses, and that’s how I got a little money to begin with,” said Singleterry.

He connected with the right people, who helped him with financing.

His first major piece of property was the Brazos Hotel downtown.

After he sold it, Singleterry bought the William Penn Hotel, the same place he wasn’t allowed to park in front of.

Newspapers at the time said the main reason he bought the William Penn was for retaliation, but he said that was not the case.

“That’s why they got in that paper that that’s the reason I bought the hotel. That ain't the reason -- I bought the hotel in order to make some money,” he said.

When it comes to how race affected him back then, he said he didn’t let it get in the way.

“Yeah, quite a bit [experiencing racism], but it didn’t bother me,” said Singleterry.

“I didn’t like it, of course, but it didn’t bother me because I was wheel and dealing in real estate.”

He bought and sold seven hotels.

He said he sold the William Penn Hotel to Gerald Hines, a well-known developer in Houston.

The hotel no longer exists -- it was demolished in the '90s.

“I should have not sold all them hotels and the motel, I should have kept them until the value really increase, but I wanted to make me some fast money and turn that money into something else,” explained Singleterry about what he would have done differently.

He’s also credited with helping build 5th Ward, from churches, to buildings, apartments and motels.

The paper coined him one of six black millionaires in Houston during the early 1970s, but Singleterry claims that wasn’t true.

"I don’t remember having a million dollars in cash. I may have had a million dollar financial statement
and that’s probably what they thought,” he said. "But I never had a million dollars in cash money, no, I had it in my hands, on my fingertips. As a real estate broker I’ve done a lot... I’m thankful, I’m thankful."

Singleterry also owned Singleterry Bus Co., which would transport construction workers to the South Texas Nuclear Power Plant.

“I had a contract with the South Texas Nuclear Plant that I would transport people backwards and forward from work from Houston to Bay City,” he explained. “I had done it for the whole time for the state, I carried the workers back and forth every day except Saturday and Sunday.”

Along with real estate and the transportation industry, he also had a hand in food chains and bars.

“I can’t stand the taste of whiskey, and beer. I’ve never been a drinker. Now I’ve owned a lot of clubs; we served it, but not me as a drinker,” said Singleterry about the secret to his longevity.

He said he owned the Magnavox Club down the street from his current office.

“All the blacks that would ever come to the city of Houston, they didn't have anywhere else to stay,” Singleterry said. He said famous artists like Ray Charles, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cook and others would stay at his properties.

The real estate guru also represented several gospel singers during his career as well.

His workload has eased up quite a bit, and family members now run different entities, but he said he doesn’t plan to retire.

“I’ve never been a house man, and I never will be,” he said. "I’ve lived a long and good life.”