As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to highlight people of African descent who have left an indelible mark on society – especially those who have strong roots in Houston, TX.
Robert Merritt Catchings was one of those individuals who made a mark for himself and his family in Houston.
Born July 17, 1882, Robert and the Catchings family settled in on a forty-acre farm in Goose Creek, TX, after the Emancipation Proclamation. His father and mother, John Albert and Dilcy Merritt, had nine children; all but one of those children were born in Goose Creek.
In 1888, the family sold their farm and moved to Houston. In 1911, Robert graduated from Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College, “A School for the Colored People of Texas Under State Auspices.”
That same year, Robert taught at Colored High School on San Felipe. In 1915, the Red Book of Houston reports he continued his education in Chicago, IL, and St. Louis, MO, before returning to Texas. He went on to take a position as Assistant Principal at Hempstead High School before accepting an opportunity to take his talents to Jack Yates High School.
Before passing away in 1970, Robert served in World War I. He ran a grocery store on the corner of Dennis and Nagle in Houston’s Third Ward, and was one of the founders of the “Colored Branch of the YMCA.” In addition to being a Principal and Educator, Robert was also a Lawyer, Architect, Mason, Realtor and a Historian.
A little over 33 years after Robert’s death, his grandson, Clayton Catchings opened up a small steamer trunk that Robert owned. Inside that trunk, Clayton found pictures, articles, letters and other historical artifacts that prompted him to do his own research on his family tree.
Being that he wasn’t a geologist, Clayton’s expectations were not that high; but after twelve years of digging and several lucky breaks, Clayton was able to uncover the African ancestor who was the patriarch of the Catchings Family. The steamer truck that Robert left to his ancestors provided a treasure trove of information which inspired Clayton to search his roots.
“Daniel,” as he was called, was a Guinea African, captured at the age of 14 and smuggled into Galveston Bay in 1834. He was held on the Chenango Plantation in Brazoria, before being sold to Thomas J. Catchings in 1854. Thomas J. Catchings took “Daniel” and his family to their plantation in Gonzales, TX. After receiving word that the Emancipation Proclamation authorized their freedom in 1865, many of the freed slaves relocated to Goose Creek, and subsequently to Houston – “Daniel” was one of them.
The family kept the Catchings name and it became a part of their future legacy.
Robert and his wife Bessie, who taught school at Douglas Elementary, went on to have six children. They instilled in their children a passion for education and achievement. Each child graduated from college, and successfully navigated through society and dealt with the many obstacles Blacks faced as the country grappled with the issue of race leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Out of the six children who were born to Robert and Bessie: Bessie became the director of the Department of the Army recreation center in Germany in 1949; Dexter became one of the first Black attorneys in Houston in 1953; Robert Jr. became the highest-ranking Black executive at the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Command in Detroit in 1964; James became the President of the National Dental Association in 1966; Maynard became the first Black President of the Board of Education in Montclair, NJ; and Harold was awarded the Bronze Star in World War II, and owned “Catchings Professional Services” in Sunnyside. The Catchings family has an extremely proud and accomplished legacy.
To share his findings with his family, Clayton published a book in 2014 entitled, “The Lineage, The Lives, the Legacy of the Catchings,” which is a copulation of biographies from each family member. Included with the biographies are articles on the slave owners, and how they came to be in Texas along with the story of “Daniel” and his family. The book is available for viewing at the African American Library at the Gregory School in Houston’s Fourth Ward.
Clayton, a retired Exxon executive, says finding your roots is not an impossible task.
“Sitting down with the oldest members of the family is the first step,” says Clayton. “Collecting pictures, letters, articles and artifacts from all family members is step two. Funeral programs and family Bibles have a wealth of information in them. Birth and Death Certificates name mothers and fathers. The Clayton Library on Caroline is a good research tool along with Ancestry and Roots websites. Wills and affidavits filed in the Tax Office can be useful. The Federal Census of 1860 names slave owners and provides information on their slaves.”
Clayton says that when researching your family history, start with yourself first, and then work both up and down your family tree. With a little digging and a little luck, he says that you too can uncover your roots and rich family history.