By MICHAEL BARNES Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Mixing in the grand open spaces of the University of Texas Law School last year, the descendants of Oral Rochester “O.R.” Lott Sr. and Viola Madison Lott greeted one another with exceptional warmth.
The distant memories of those ancestors, born of former slaves in the 1890s and builders of a thriving lumber and housing business in East Austin, lingered among the oldest guests.
Yet the assembled progeny were actually present to salute that historical couple’s son, the late Virgil C. Lott Sr., the Austin American-Statesman reported.
In 1953, Virgil became the first African American to graduate from the University of Texas Law School. As part of a distinguished career of public service, he was also the first African American to sit on the bench of a court in Austin.
Since 2011, the UT law school has given out the Virgil C. Lott Medal to honorees who “made significant contributions to the legal profession and to the improvement of understanding among all peoples.”
Some of the recipients have been former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Wallace B. Jefferson, former Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis, former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Myra McDaniel, the first African American secretary of state of Texas.
Freshly lionized this evening was Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP and former acting dean of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
The Lott family were particularly delighted by a new plaque that reminded guests of Virgil’s accomplishments, and they gathered in small and large groups around the memorial for photographs.
Beginning in 2011 with a story on the sprawling Limón/Estrada dynasty, which counts thousands of Central Texas members, Michael Barnes has written about the ancestral families who have shaped our region over the course of generations. They have included the Koock-Kuykendall-Faulk clan, most associated with Green Pastures, the Callahans of general store and rodeo fame, the restaurant-running Lungs, Bertha Sadler Means’ extended relations and the Saldañas of South Austin. They are among the historical articles collected in his three volumes of “Indelible Austin” books.
“My father pioneered a piece of the black progressive movement during some very dark times,” says Virgil’s daughter, Joycelyn Lott Toliver. “His immediate plan was to simply graduate from law school, but the big payoff was bigger than Daddy. While pushing through the racism and undergoing the worst of circumstances, he created a safe space at the UT Law School for blacks to learn and grow — generations beyond his dreams.”
In Austin’s ancestral families, a key figure or figures often tend to stand out as early community leaders. Those leaders’ descendants reap the benefits, which can spur their own accomplishments on an even larger public stage.
Early in the 20th century, Oral and Viola Lott played that crucial family role for the Lott family.
Oral owned the Lott Lumber Co. as one of the biggest black-owned lumberyards in Texas. Oral was very much involved in onsite homebuilding, not just in Austin, but in Bastrop and Williamson counties.
Viola ruled over an extended brood with a firm hand.
“When she said be there,” Toliver remembers, “you were there.”
Viola was the daughter of a prominent Methodist minister in Austin. Oral and Viola married on New Year’s Eve 1913 in Austin and they lived for several years in Cologne, but Viola was miserable and wanted to move back to Austin, the late Ira Lott told their grandchild, according to family members.
Toliver also has helped put together genealogical records of Viola’s family, the Madisons, which includes black and white members. She also organized reunions.
One member of this familial branch, Henry Green Madison (1843-1912), was a farmer and policeman who homesteaded a cabin in East Austin with his wife, Louise Madison. It dates to 1864 at the latest.
The cabin was discovered within the walls of a wooden frame house during demolition. As the American-Statesman reported as part of its Austin Untold Stories series in 2015, the property’s owner during the late 1960s, Mrs. Greenwood Wooten, donated the cabin to the city. She cooperated with the Rosewood Recreation Association and the Delta Sigma Theta service sorority to take the cabin apart and put it back together in 1973 in Rosewood Park, where it can be seen today, a concrete monument to the larger Lott family history.
“I love the roots of our family,” Toliver says. “When you are gone, you are gone, and nobody else knows this family history.”
Born in 1893, Oral brought some of his country ways — picked up during his youth in a freedom colony of former slaves and their descendants at Cologne, not far from Victoria — into the city.
“He loved his horse,” Toliver says of the man she remembers as “Big Daddy.” “And in the lumberyard, where everybody worked, the wood smelled so good. We played around the back side.”
In 1921, Oral invented a collapsible ironing board; his application for a patent was reported in the Victoria Daily Advocate. He is referred to as “O.R.” in newspaper advertisements for the ironing boards.
Family members remembered how Oral had met Booker T. Washington in Austin on one of his tours throughout the southern states promoting industrial and agricultural education and that that was what prompted him to later attend Tuskegee Institute, majoring in construction.
Lott met J.E. Mosby in 1914 at which time he formed a business relationship and a partnership known as Mosby and Lott. Some of their initial endeavors involved salvaging building materials from buildings and homes in the geographic areas around the Capitol building and UT, according to family members. They operated in downtown Austin.
After the 1928 urban plan created a separate Negro District in East Austin, the Mosby and Lott company was forced to move.
Oral built houses, some of them for his six children, all located not far from the others.
“Everybody had a house,” Toliver says, “but they had to pay for it.”
The Lotts were among the primary builders of McKinley Heights, an upscale postwar African American neighborhood in the Rosewood area, where many of the pioneers of the modern civil rights movement lived in proximity, there and in the Grant Park subdivision not far away.
“Big Daddy’s company built a whole subdivision,” Toliver says. “Everybody lived on the east side until they got the money to leave.”
In 1930, Oral was elected as the first president of the Negro Citizens Council, which for decades was an essential power broker in the city. The main goal early on was to win basic services for East Austin.
In 1936, Oral bought out Mosby and the business became Lott Lumber Co., which continued to thrive until Oral’s death in 1952.
A doer, Oral was, according to family lore, “the man with a plan.” He even planned his legacy.
“He asked my father to take care of the family before he died at Holy Cross Hospital,” Toliver says. “He trusted him.”
That son, Virgil, like the rest of the family, worked in the lumberyard.
Born in Austin in 1924, Virgil graduated from the old segregated L.C. Anderson High School before serving with valor in the Army during World War II in the U.K., France and Belgium. In 1949, he earned a degree in business administration from Samuel Huston College, now Huston-Tillotson University.
In Austin, Virgil followed in the footsteps of Heman Marion Sweatt, who opened up the UT Law School — and all graduate and professional programs in the South — to integration via the groundbreaking 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision Sweatt v. Painter.
Yet the stress and trauma of the years-long case affected Sweatt’s physical and mental health. He missed classes and failed others. In 1952, he withdrew from law school.
The pressure affected Virgil, too.
“Watching him, I saw what a strong-willed and courageous man he was,” Toliver wrote in a personal memoir for the American-Statesman’s “Tales of the City” series in 2012. “There were days and nights on end when he and Heman Sweatt — I called him Uncle Red — would study at our house in East Austin, and we children weren’t allowed to make any noise. I remember going with him to the law school library and seeing more books than I had ever seen. I felt like anything you wanted to know on Earth was in that library!”
After leaving law school, Sweatt earned a master’s degree from Atlanta University in social work and remained involved in civic groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League. The Travis County Courthouse, where the historic case was first heard, is named after him.
Virgil persevered in Austin and graduated from UT Law in 1953. He was named a municipal judge in 1966 and remained active in civic life, including serving as founding president of the Capital City Lions Club, the first branch of that service organization in East Austin.
Virgil’s wife, whom he met in college, was no less active. Gloria Olivia Lott was among the first African American women hired by the Texas State Employment Commission. According to Toliver, she volunteered in the community and her church and was one of the founding members of the Austin chapter of the Jack and Jill Foundation, along with African American leaders Bertha Sadler Means, Ada Collins Anderson, Mattie Bell, Ella Mae Johnson, Willie Mae Kirk and others.
Virgil never forgot, however, the road he had taken to civic leadership.
“In fact, my dad’s first two semesters in law school were spent in the basement of a building near the Capitol, where UT had hastily arranged instruction for my dad and Henry Doyle, who later became a judge in Houston,” Toliver says. “This ‘separate but equal’ law school was the initial response to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall — who later became the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court — challenging the segregation of higher education in Texas.”
Virgil’s life was not just about his career. He played frequently with his three kids — his only son, Virgil C. Lott Jr., died in a car accident in 1964; his other daughter, Adrienne Lott Reeder, now lives in Houston — and he liked to golf and fish, especially at family retreats near the Gulf Coast. For her part, Gloria loved ballroom dancing with civil rights pioneer Volma Overton Sr.
The family attended Wesley United Methodist Church, the home church of many East Austin leaders. Virgil served as attorney for David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, another leading congregation.
“One day when I was in my father’s office, he put me on the phone with then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who later became vice president and then president,” Toliver says. “I remember when we took Dad to the airport to catch a Braniff Airlines plane to go to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.”
Virgil died in 1968 at age 43 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery, not far from the neighborhoods that his family helped build.
Much was expected of Joycelyn Lott Toliver, a resident of Round Rock, much as it was for the Lotts that came before and after her — a book could be written about this extended and accomplished family.
“I was very disciplined,” she says. “I did not want to disappoint my parents. I was in Girl Scouts, the book club, Candy Stripers. I was a majorette all the time in junior high, high school and college. Ooooh, that was fun. I was elected Miss Kealing Junior High and was a Young Democrat, too. I had a picture of me and Mrs. Roosevelt with Ada Anderson, Zeta Allen and Bertha Means.”
An avid reader like her father, Toliver earned a degree in sociology from what is now Tennessee State University, established in 1912 as the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School for Negroes. She worked in data processing while her first husband, Eddie Dotson Jr., a product of a middle-class East Austin family, flew planes in the Air Force.
Toliver moved back to Central Texas when her brother died.
“Austin? I’m moving back to Austin! We’re never leaving the area again!” she remembers saying. “We moved to Round Rock in 1974. They didn’t have any traffic lights back then.”
Toliver and Dotson, had two children, Ericka Nicole Dotson, who owns a chain of 19 hair extension boutiques in the U.S. and Africa called Indique Hair, and Eddie “Tre” Dotson III, who recently opened Liberty Barbecue in Round Rock with John Brotherton after working for years in the Central Texas hospitality business. Ericka’s salons have been closed during the coronavirus crisis, but she reports robust online business, while Tre’s joint is operating delivery and curbside pickup options.
As successful as the siblings have become, their youths took some detours. Their parents — Joycelyn and Eddie Jr. — had built a cozy life in Round Rock, but they grew apart and divorced in 1986.
Eddie Jr. withdrew altogether to a trailer in Menchaca and led an isolated life until he disappeared from the Austin area around 1990.
According to a 2009 American-Statesman story, the family, including Eddie Jr.’s aunt, Robbie Overton, spent the next 29 years looking for him. Turns out he had lived with some friends in California until he experienced homelessness before a Los Angeles Times columnist discovered him living under a freeway.
With the journalist’s help, Ericka and Tre were able to locate their father and bring him back to live in Ericka’s unused condo near the Pennybacker Bridge. He died in 2014.
For her part, Joycelyn married Marshall Toliver, who was born and reared in the St. John’s community on the border of Caldwell and Bastrop counties, in 1990. Within a web of East Austin and rural friends and relations, the couple had known each other peripherally for most of their lives.
A captivating storyteller with an easy laugh — prone to split her narratives into associated anecdotes — Toliver prefers not to talk too much about herself. She is proud of her entire family, but repeatedly puts the spotlight back on her father and the changes she saw while growing up.
“Witnessing these events and the way my dad interacted with all people, black and white, rich and poor, made me realize that a person can be whomever he or she wants to be, and each person can indeed help change the world,” Toliver wrote in 2012. “Today, my husband and I live in a diverse community of several ethnic groups. I often wonder where I would be today if it had not have been for the pioneers, like my father, who fought for our civil rights and showed us the way.”