Houston in the 1940s & in World War II

Researched and curated by students in Dr. Jesus J. Esparza’s Texas History course at Texas Southern University (TSU), Fall 2014.


The Japanese attack on the American military base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, brought the United States into World War II. Houston, Texas at the time was a city of 400,000 residents whose prime exports were in the shipping and oil industries. Thanks to massive federal spending the city’s economic base expanded, and new job opportunities stimulated the workforce. Texans strongly supported President Franklin Roosevelt's steps to aid the British, French, and Chinese in the war. In a move to strengthen national defense the Burke-Wadsworth Selective Service Act of 1940 instituted the first peace-time draft in American history.


Houston oil companies moved from being mere refiners to more sophisticated producers of petrochemicals, changing the natural gas industry from a minor factor to a major energy source. For the first time in Houston’s history, high paying jobs went to large numbers of women, blacks and Mexican Americans. Galena Park in the 1940s was an up and coming oil based industrial region which grew rapidly to 7,162 residents who contributed to the wartime relief effort. Industrialists such as George R. Brown whose construction company turned into a military construction site during World War II in which over 300 water crafts were built, and James Abercrombie, whose iron works facility provided weapons such as k-guns and arbor bombs, also benefitted from and assisted the war effort.


By 1940, street car service was replaced by buses. The Texas Medical Center was awarded 161 acres by the city and continued to grow throughout the decade. That same year the University of Houston separated from the HISD system and became a private institution. Houston’s suburban communities flourished in the period between 1946 to 1950. The banking industry rose to prominence in the late 1940s. A period of extensive annexation commenced city-wide, greatly increasing its size. To attract tourists and conventions, Houston deemed itself the “World’s Most Air Conditioned City.”

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Oral Histories:

“The big change in Houston to me, other than my own personal experiences, occurred with the mass migration after World War II. … I had been gone off to the Marine Corps 3 years, came back and I thought I had come off of
Mars or somewhere.”
Joe Jamail
December 11, 2007



“I remember when the war was over that, you know, we all went down to Main Street and everybody was
partying and having a celebration.
I think that was back in August of 1945, I believe.”
Harold Wiesenthal
July 8, 2008



“It was called 'the store of the future.' First of all, it had no windows other than on the first floor and those were display windows. But when you think about it, for this climate where air-conditioning is an absolute must, it was ahead of its time. Now you look at it and you think,
wow, it is just a big old box – it has no windows.”
Ed Smith
June 15, 2009



“I saw the whites of a Kraut's eye one day. He was shooting at me and I jumped under in a ditch and crawled in a culvert. He was not too happy with getting me the first time so he circled around and came back and was looking down there while he was shooting up here, looking down to see if he got me.
Well, let me tell you something,
we were about as close as me and you
- the whites of his eye, the whites of my eye.”
Alfred Glassell
September 12, 2007



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This page was created by the students in Dr. Jesus J. Esparza’s Texas History course at Texas Southern University (TSU) for the Fall 2014 semester. This classroom assignment is part of an on-going partnership between TSU and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) to offer undergraduate students hands-on experience in the archival and history field.”