This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation was not enforced in Texas until June of 1865, two and a half years after the fact. The state’s history has a mixed record when it comes to change and racial equality. So it may be surprising to know that the capital city is home to the country’s first African American Lions Club, founded in 1967.
Lions Club International started in 1917. At each club, business leaders get together to spearhead service projects: They collect and refurbish glasses and send them to different countries for low-income people who are visually impaired. They provide scholarships even in hard to reach areas of the world.
Austinite Charles Akins was always fascinated by that mentality to serve. “[I remember] driving through various small towns in the state of Texas [and] we would see outside of the city signs that said 'Lions Club meet here at noon.' Well, I never imagined that I would be a part of a Lions Club being an African-American during the 50’s or 60’s.”
Neither did his friend Clarence McClure.
Clarence McClure is a retired school principal. He knew little about the club. But there was a store across the street from his school and the store owner, a white man, was friendly towards him.
“He approached me one day,” McClure says, and “[asked] 'Do you have any students that need glasses?' I said, 'Well, I’ll check and see.' So, one day I went back in and said: '[It] seems like there might be three or four that need glasses.' He said: 'Well, I’m an officer of the local Lions Club and if they need glasses, you get me their names, their parents names and so forth, and we got glasses for them.'”
McClure says every year after that, the man got glasses for his needy students.
McClure and Akins’ admiration for the group grew even more. But they knew they were not welcomed. After all, it was a time of segregation. But then in 1967, in the midst of the nations’ Civil Rights movement, something changed.
“Tex Mayer.” says Akins, “he was a great lion, and it seems that he wanted to diversify this district in 'lionism' in the Austin-Central Texas district, and so he met with a group of African-American leaders to start talking about that.”
That year, they got Lions Club International to change its by-laws, and the Capitol City Lions Club was born.
There were 56 original members. Only four survive. Akins and McClure are among the founding members. They are both in their 80’s now.
On the day we met, the men wore yellow vests with dozens of patches and pins. McClure explains the patches on his vest are from each of the yearly conventions he’s attended.
“When we started attended the international conventions,” McClure says, “we would meet individuals from other countries [and] they would want to know 'what part of Africa are you from?' Because there were no black lions in the United States previously. So, we had to get adjusted to that.”
Once they adjusted, they began working. Akins says the Lions motto is “we serve”. So, first they covered a young man’s expenses as he got a new kidney. Then they picked up a project in East Austin, where Akins says there were no bus-benches at the time.
“When I see Capital Metro with these very fancy tops and the so-forth … when we started, there weren’t any bus-benches. As a matter of fact, down here on Rosewood and Chicon I recall we had one there and we were so proud of that. [It was] one of our first projects.”
Their service has continued throughout the years. Charles Akins even has a high school named after him for his service to the community.
Times have changed since 1967. Today it’s not unusual to see a Black Lion. And women joined the club in 1986. Akins says the current goal is to pass on this mentality of service to the younger generation.