In 1962, Bertha Sadler Means put her foot down.
Furious that her children were not allowed to skate at the Ice Palace rink — on the same day she was turned away from a driving range on Burnet Road — she organized.
“Enough’s enough!” Means said. “I’ve had it. I’ve been discriminated against all my life. It’s time to stop that. I’m not going to let my kids go through what I’ve gone through.”
The educator didn’t stop calling leaders, making speeches and picketing businesses until the last remnants of Jim Crow segregation were swept from Austin.
How did this tall, striking and athletic woman — she still plays golf every week at age 93 — find the courage to face down the powers that be?
“I grew up playing sandlot football,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “When you get knocked down, don’t fuss. Just get up and say: ‘I’ll get you next time.’”
That kind of grit has served her family well through six generations in Texas.
Her grandfather, former slave James D. Sadler, founded one of the state’s oldest African-American communities and led its church and school near Valley Mills.
Her mother, Ludie Philips Sadler, picked up her seven children after her husband died and moved to Waco, where she worked as a domestic.
Means and her siblings worked in cotton fields as children during the Depression, then she honed her academic, athletic and office skills, winning a scholarship to college in 1938.
Her late husband, James H. Means Sr., was a distinguished professor of mathematics at what is now Huston-Tillotson University.
Their son, track star James H. Means Jr., 67, broke color barriers at the University of Texas, becoming, in the early 1960s, the first African-American to letter in UT athletics.
Their daughter, Joan Means Khabele, 70, fought segregation at Barton Springs and Zilker Park in 1960 before her mother’s Ice Palace protests. After earning a degree at the University of Chicago, she lived for three decades in Africa.
Means’ grandson, Khotso Khabele, 38, co-founded the private, globally themed Khabele School, which has grown rapidly on three Austin campuses.
Her great-granddaughter, world-traveling Naledi Khabele, 10, a budding performer, looks at this family heritage — which includes other relatives who became surgeons, accountants, educators and engineers — with the wide eyes of curiosity but also of natural acceptance.
“It feels like a normal family,” she says. “It’s awesome.”
The members of the Means-Khabele family — the third in this newspaper’s Ancestral Austin series, which traces multi-generational civic and social engagement in Central Texas — have been active participants in each phase of modern Texas history.
Born in 1828, Bertha Sadler Means’ grandfather moved with his owner to Texas in 1854. Upon receiving his freedom after the Civil War, the Rev. James Sadler received $500. He used that money to buy land and establish a freedman’s community west of Waco. The large Sadler family remained prominent in Bosque County after his death in 1911.
“I remember vividly going across the creek from our house to the big house,” Means recalls. “It was posh. Player piano, lovely living room. One of my aunts was in a rocking chair. I asked: ‘Can you give me snuff?’ I was 3. She put it in my lips and that knocked me out. Never did that again.”
When she was 4, her father, Sidney Sadler, died. In Waco, her mother worked outside the home but was never far from the children.
“When I think of Michelle Obama, I think of my mother,” Means says. “She had a garden in the vacant lot next door. All kinds of vegetables. Fruit trees.”
All the kids pitched in.
“Every September we’d all go to the cotton fields,” she says. “I remember when I was picking cotton and this white man was weighing cotton and I thought: ‘Why couldn’t I be weighing cotton and he’d be picking it.’”
Still, the ever-competitive Means hustled to harvest more of that punishing plant than anyone else.
At school, she played softball, tennis and basketball. “I was a tomboy,” she says. “I climbed trees and played Jane in ‘Tarzan and Jane.’”
At A.J. Moore High School in East Waco, Means was devoted to studying English, typing and shorthand. She took her books into the cotton fields.
“I was taught fair-mindedness, loyalty, truthfulness, cheerfulness and perseverance,” says the woman who was voted school sweetheart. “I think that’s who I am now.”
Expected by her family to attend college, Means served as a secretary for the Tillotson College faculty. Yet when she got off the train in downtown Austin, she tried to hail a taxi for her first visit to the East Austin campus. The only ones available were Yellow and Roy’s cabs.
She first chose the Yellow. “I can’t take you across East Avenue,” the driver said.
“I had grown up in the Jim Crow era,” Means says. “I was quite accustomed to not being able to eat at restaurants and having to sit at the back of the bus … the back of everything.”
Roy’s, owned by an Hispanic family, could, however, cross the color line of East Avenue, which became Interstate 35.
“I’ve always admired Roy’s family for that gesture,” she says. “I didn’t realize that many years later that I’d be in the taxi cab business.”
Where she worked at college, one of the faculty members was a well-composed mathematics teacher.
“He never said a word to me; I never said a word to him,” she says. “I met him on the sidewalk one day, I said ‘Hello, Mr. Lewis.’ He said, ‘I’m not Mr. Lewis, I’m Mr. Means.’”
Later, on a school trip to Houston, they were assigned to ride in the same car. (She was never his student.) They got married in 1941, the same year they helped found St. James Episcopal Church.
“A lot of things happened in 1941,” she says. “The war started. I had a high school friend who was killed — Doris Miller. He was a student in Waco. We always teased him for having a girl’s name. After he was killed, (Austin) mayor Tom Miller named an auditorium after him: ‘Dorie’ Miller. I called the mayor and said: ‘His name is Doris. Would you change it?’ And he did.”
So how does an exceedingly polite but firm young woman, still in her 20s, get the nerve to call the mayor?
“I think I must have gotten it from my mother,” Means says. “I know I did. She would have a nice yard. She would encourage neighbors to have a nice yard. She’d go and complain if something wasn’t right.”
Bertha Means graduated with degrees in English and education. She taught at Blackshear Elementary, Kealing Junior High and Allan Junior High. When she expressed interest in graduate school, Means was steered by the UT registrar to historically black Prairie View A&M University.
Furious, she hustled through the UT Tower offices looking for the president.
“All of a sudden, Dr. Harry Ransom, who was an English professor, saw me and he said, ‘May I help you?’ And I said, ‘I hope you can.’ I was looking so country!” she laughingly told the American-Statesman in 1998. Ransom took care of the matter. “I was enrolled that day,” she recalls.
Means’ formal career included stints as director of Head Start, as district instructional coordinator and occasional college teacher. If she had stopped there, Austin leaders would at least name a school after her.
But Means didn’t stop there.
A family of activists
Bertha and James Means went on to have five children, 13 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. He died in 2008. The couple got involved in Democratic Party politics and voter registration in the 1940s.
“The lives of my mother’s generation and their forebears were laced with hard work and struggles for equal rights and justice,” daughter Joan Means Khabele says. “They persevered because they envisioned a better life — not only for their descendants, but also for all people.”
After living on College Row near Tillotson, the family moved to the new Grant Park subdivision.
“This became a political meeting place for people,” Means says. Their neighbors and visitors were among the most influential inside and outside the black community.
Bertha Means was among the first “crossover” teachers at a traditionally white school. By the time their children were old enough to attend school, the couple pressed for an end to segregation.
“Every weekend I would organize pickets,” she says. “I put down my golf clubs and picked up the picket signs.”
Means integrated the teachers’ credit union and sued the district over promotion policies. Their daughter Patricia was the first African-American to graduate from high-powered St. Stephen’s Episcopal School.
Bertha Means also pressed UT regent Frank Erwin to allow her son James to run track for the formerly all-white team.
Along the way, Bertha Means was a prominent member of the Human Relations Commission, Austin Parks Commission, the NAACP, the Urban League, Austin chapter of Links, Alpha Kappa Alpha and the Austin chapter of Jack & Jill of America, which she helped found.
Means worked hard to bring the Ebony Fashion Fair, a key cultural event, to Austin for the first time. A member of the Town Lake Beautification Committee and Bicentennial Commission, Means was persuaded by community members to run for the City Council in 1981. She lost to Charles Urdy.
“I was not bitter,” she says. “I knew what politics were. I’m glad I’m lost. It was quite an experience.”
A high point in Means’ political life came in 2008 when she attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver as a self-professed “great-grandmama for Obama.”
“I was remembering the people who died to get where we are right now,” she tearfully told the Los Angeles Times. “People who gave their lives to be able to vote, to be able to own a home, to be able to live where they wanted to live. … All of that just came back, and it brought tears to my eyes. It’s a new day. It’s a new day.”
A daughter rises
Joan Means Khabele was born at Holy Cross Hospital on East 11th Street. “Most of East Austin was born there,” she says. Her younger siblings are Janet, 68, James Jr., 67, Patricia, 63, and Ronald, 59.
“Being the oldest, I had many responsibilities,” she says. “My parents early on were very involved in politics. There was always some kind of election. They’d disappear. Just because you are the oldest doesn’t mean you are the boss. I learned patience.”
By the time she reached Kealing Junior High School, her mother was teaching there.
“I couldn’t get away with anything,” she recalls. “But I was very social. Not like going out. We could have house parties with our parents present. Dad would be standing right next to the punch bowl.”
She was among the third group of students to integrate Austin High School. In 1957, the nation watched tensely as the National Guard escorted the first black students who integrated Little Rock schools. The next day, Khabele arrived for her first classes at Austin High.
Khabele shrugged off her mother’s concerns. In high school, she studied and participated in activities alongside the sons of governors and other powerful Austinites. Price Daniel Jr. was a year ahead of her.
“He organized a big party at the Governor’s Mansion,” Khabele says. “The governor comes down and introduces himself to everyone. When he got to me, he withdrew his hand and walked away.”
Khabele had one social advantage: Middle-class and poor blacks stuck up for one another.
“None of us were rich,” she says. “We all played together in the dusty streets because the city wouldn’t pave our streets. No sidewalks. All classes mixed.”
After a trip to East Harlem, Khabele wrote the experience up for a school publication. “It opened my eyes to another world,” she says.
One day, the principal called her into his office. The black students would not be allowed to attend the senior picnic because Barton Springs and Zilker Park were segregated.
“Unitarians, Jews, Quakers and Hispanics — lots of students — were outraged,” she says. “We began organizing.”
The high school students made rousing speeches before the Austin City Council. Means backed her daughter all the way. University students helped out.
“Eventually, they said: ‘You can go the park, but you can’t swim,” Khabele recalls. “It was all about untouchability and sharing water.”
The teenagers mounted a series of “swim-ins” — kids of all colors storming the springs by the dozen. They would be thrown out, only to return.
About two years later, legendary parks leader Beverly Sheffield announced that all the parks and pools would henceforth be integrated.
Khabele attended the elite University of Chicago. After tutoring kids in Chicago, she joined the Peace Corps.
“They put me in Eritrea just as the war was beginning,” she says of the bloody split between Ethiopia and its former province. “I wasn’t harmed. I taught English to high school students and adults. That’s where I fell in love with Africa.”
She met her husband, Paseka Khabele, who is from South Africa, while he was earning his doctorate at Fordham University in New York City. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in African Studies from UCLA and taught at universities in Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho and Nigeria.
The couple had three children, Dineo, 44, Inonge, 42, and Letsie “Khotso” Khabele, the founder of Austin’s Khabele School.
“My husband and I surrounded our children with books, paints and crayons, Legos, etc., and let them discover what they wanted to be,” she says. “We also made sure that they got extra help from us and from tutors when necessary. Growing up in Africa opened them up to being culturally sensitive, patient, tolerant, disciplined and adventurous.”
Joan Khabele also has taken the lead encouraging her mother to record her memories and sort out various historical documents.
“Most slaves were not allowed to read and write, and even after slavery was abolished, very few black families kept Bibles with family information in them,” she says. “As a consequence, we know very little about who our ancestors were and where they came from. I feel very strongly that we should be making every effort now to record what we can about our lives for the benefit of future generations — while we’re still ‘thinking straight.’”
The grandson with a vision
Khotso Khabele, executive director of the school that bears his family’s name, inherited his mother’s and grandmother’s quiet but firm resolve. Born in Eku, Nigeria, he benefited from his parents’ intellectual accomplishments.
“We lived all over Africa,” he says. “My father was an anti-apartheid activist. He was jailed.”
Interestingly, his African grandfather also owned a cab company in Kimberley, South Africa, where his father was born.
“He was arrested for taking people other than his race in a taxi,” he says. “They offered him an opportunity to be classified as ‘colored.’ He refused.”
When Khotso was 12, the Khabeles sent him to Austin, where he attended St. Stephen’s like his aunt and older sisters. In a house full of relatives and visitors, he watched his grandmother work night and day.
“I had a lot of freedom,” he says “What I realized later was that what my grandmother was modeling to me what mattered in my life.”
He met his wife, Moya Khabele, who grew up in Louisiana, during an Afro-Brazilian martial arts class. They started the Khabele School six months later and had their first baby, Naledi, six months after that.
The idea for the school grew out of a national crisis. Moya, who now serves as marketing director at the family’s school, was teaching Spanish in a very small private school. Its leader left.
“How do I raise my child in this new world?” Khotso Kabele says. “How do I educate kids for this new, rapidly changing world? We got clear that we wanted to lean into change.”
The Khabeles started with nine students in a borrowed classroom. Now they enroll 460 students.
“We offer the best of traditional education: academic challenge and results,” Khotso Khabele says. “And the best of progressive education, community, student leadership and engagement.”
Among the school’s biggest supporters is none other than Bertha Means.
“Without Bertha Means, not only her legacy, but also her financial support, the school wouldn’t be where it is,” Khotso Khabele says. “She really has invested in her family.”
The family gift
At age 93, Bertha Means has no intention of slowing down. When she’s not running the cab company, organizing benefits and accepting the awards that line her Northwest Hills home, she’s keeping tabs on everyone via her computers and smartphone.
“I don’t care how old I am, I’m grateful and blessed to be alive,” she says. “It all depends on how you live, what you eat, what you drink and how busy you are. I’ve got too much to do. And I like what I’m doing.”
At the urging of their son, Ron Means, Bertha and James Means took over Harlem Cabs in 1984. They ran 59 taxis then. Today, there are 187. Besides the matriarch, Ron Means, James H. Means Jr., Joan Khabele, Alyssa Means, Jasmine Means and James H. “Tito” Means III work there.
The family continues to form the cornerstone of the St. James Episcopal Church, an unusually diverse congregation that recently saluted Bertha Means’ contributions on the 70th anniversary of its founding.
“There’s an intangible sense that all of us seem to have that we are exceptionally fortunate to have the parents and grandparents we’ve had,” Joan Khabele says. “The glue comes from annual holidays, visits to and from out-of-state relatives, keeping in touch by phone and email, and sharing photos and genealogical discoveries.”
The penchant for leadership has not skipped any generations.
“I am trying to raise our children to think for themselves and to lead,” Khotso Khabele says. “For me, when I look at our family, there’s this theme of bringing worlds together, bringing polar opposites together. My grandfather would tell me about white kids that thew rocks at him, and if he told, he’d be in trouble.
“But my grandparents always said: ‘We don’t put much energy into ignorance,’ ” he continues. “Thinking about what they went through, that’s a big deal. My grandmother got active, but she didn’t get bitter. There was no moral righteousness. It was just matter of fact.”
About this story
Michael Barnes has covered a broad range of cultural issues for the American-Statesman since 1989, including regional historical topics. Barnes is also the Statesman’s social columnist. This is the third in his Ancestral Austin series, which traces multi-generational engagement in Central Texas. In 2011, he profiled the Limón-Estrada dynasty that includes several thousand members, most of them descended from one immigrant couple. In 2012, he looked at the Koock-Faulk-Kuykendall brood, which has included prominent ranchers, lawyers, writers, performers, activists and hosts, once based at a family farmhouse that is now the Green Pastures restaurant.