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WWII Dispute Again Divides Town

THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM THREE RIVERS, TEXAS

An effort to rename the post office after a Latino war hero renews the debate over his wake -- a controversy that drew attention to civil rights.

May 31, 2004|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

THREE RIVERS, Texas — Four years after he died in combat during World War II, Pvt. Felix Longoria's body was taken from a temporary grave in the Philippines and shipped home to South Texas.

His widow, Beatrice, went to the town's only funeral home and asked the owner, Tom Kennedy, to open the chapel for the wake. What happened next is so disputed that a recent move to honor the soldier's memory has renewed a 55-year-old quarrel and set the town on edge.

"You cannot imagine the stir this has caused," said Patty Reagan, a lifelong resident and Kennedy family friend. "All the old wounds have been reopened."

At the center of the dispute was the Rice Funeral Home, which handled burials from all parts of town. The chapel was open to whites, but its availability to the town's Latinos -- such as the Longorias -- was unclear.

According to Beatrice Longoria, Kennedy denied chapel services for her husband because "the whites won't like it." Kennedy contended that he merely asked Longoria to hold the wake in her home to avoid a public scene with what he described as her estranged in-laws.

What followed were six weeks of turmoil, the intervention of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and a hard-to-shake reputation for racism in the town. Historians say the incident helped unify Latinos and bring national attention to the Mexican American civil rights movement. But many residents -- most of them white -- believe political opportunists twisted the words of a good man to advance a cause.

This town of 1,805 at the juncture of three rivers between Corpus Christi and San Antonio bills itself as a fishing and hunting destination. Early in the 1900s, it was home to a glass factory and a natural gas refinery. Like many towns then, it had separate cemeteries for whites and Latinos.

The lingering power of the funeral controversy surfaced at a recent City Council meeting -- a tense, standing-room-only affair where a proposal to rename the post office after Longoria was on the table.

Carolina Quintanilla, Longoria's sister, and Susan Zamzow, Kennedy's daughter, were in the audience. As the evening wore on, it became clear that more than the name of a post office was at stake.

*

Felix Longoria was a truck driver, married and the father of a young daughter when his draft papers arrived in 1944. Seven months later, at age 25, he was killed by enemy fire on the island of Luzon.

His wife, Beatrice, was young, shy and unlikely to seek the spotlight, her relatives say. But when the funeral home refused chapel services, she let her sister call Hector Garcia, a surgeon from Corpus Christi who recently had founded the American GI Forum, a civil rights organization.

Documents archived at Texas A&M University detail how events unfolded, starting with a call from Garcia to Kennedy about the wake. Garcia's secretary, Gladys Bucher, listened in and took notes.

Kennedy, who was white, said that "it doesn't make any difference" that Longoria was a veteran, according to Bucher's notes. "You know how the Latin people get drunk and lay around all the time. The last time we let them use the chapel, they got all drunk and we just can't control them -- so the white people object to it, and we just can't let them use it."

Garcia then contacted a local reporter, George Groh, who also called Kennedy. "We never made a practice of letting Mexicans use the chapel," Kennedy was said to have told Groh, "and we don't want to start now."

"I warned Kennedy that he 'had hold of a hot potato' but he seemed to believe that the whole thing amounted to very little," Groh later wrote in a notarized statement for a commission investigating the incident. The next day, Kennedy told Groh that he would "discourage" the chapel service but not refuse if the family insisted.

"He did not then deny his statements of the previous night. Later he did retract his original statements," Groh wrote.

Garcia organized a protest meeting -- over 1,000 people attended -- and the national media descended. Faced with a public relations mess, city leaders blamed "outsiders" like Garcia for distorting the truth for publicity. The Chamber of Commerce adopted a resolution deploring "misconstrued" facts that "grossly misrepresented" the town.

Kennedy told his version of the story in the Three Rivers newspaper. He had heard of a conflict between Beatrice Longoria and her in-laws, he said, and worried "there may be some trouble at the funeral service." That's why he asked Longoria to hold the wake at her house, he said. "I did not at any time refuse to bury him or allow the use of the chapel because he was Latin American."

As the claims and counterclaims flew, Johnson sent a telegram to Garcia, offering to arrange a burial for Longoria at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The next day, Kennedy sent a letter to Beatrice Longoria offering use of his chapel. "We are only too glad to be of service," it read.

Longoria was buried at Arlington as his family, Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson stood under a gray February sky.

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