Kirbyjon Caldwell

Everything I ever needed to know about business I learned while working at Caldwell’s, my father’s clothing shop in the Fifth Ward of Houston.

OFTENTIMES PEOPLE MAKE a big to-do about my MBA, for which I am very grateful, but the truth of the matter is that my real MBA came from the University of Fifth Ward, while working in my dad’s clothing store. I grew up in Kashmere Gardens, a little bit north of Fifth Ward. My mother worked as a high school home economics teacher and a counselor, and my dad owned Caldwell’s Tailors, at 3304 Lyons Avenue. It was almost across the street from the De Luxe Theater, one of the few that African Americans could attend during segregation, and right next door to Club Matinee, one of three places where African American musicians could perform. 

My dad’s shop was just a blast. The store was small and full of merchandise. You walked in, and you had the showcase on the right, the sewing machines in the back, and up front there were mannequins in the window wearing whatever was in style. Back in the day, you had the polyester bell-bottom pants, sharkskin suits, mohair suits. Guys were wearing nylon underwear—100 degrees in July—with wool knit suits and mohair pants. Child, you were clean! Some of my dad’s customers included B. B. King, Bobby Bland, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina Turner. In fact, one evening Ike and Tina came over for dinner to my mom and dad’s house. That was back in their happier days, I guess. Tina kissed me on the forehead before I went to bed. I enjoyed that a lot.

I started working at the shop when I was nine or ten years old. At first I kind of cleaned up, but I thought I could sell. I was a good salesman. To the extent that I have developed any interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, that’s where I really gained and developed them. Leading a megachurch is very stressful, but in the store you had the long hours, the whole art of turning a no to a maybe to a yes and putting the best face on no matter how grumpy the last customer was. The main thing is the stamina. It was a pretty cool balance for me, because I would go to school, work in my dad’s store all weekend and summer, and go to church on Sundays. The Methodist church. I really grew up in a situation that had two wings: the church and the store. A colorful and pizzazz style in the store and the stable, solid environment of home and church.

The sixties were a difficult time for my dad, though. It wasn’t unusual for our phone to ring in the middle of the night, and it would be the burglar alarm company calling, saying that somebody had broken into the shop. There was a big parking lot right in front of Club Matinee that also shared my dad’s customers. More than a few times somebody would take a flatbed truck and back it in through the showcase window, load the store in, and drive off. Let me just say it was a different social millennium. To my dad’s credit, he never cursed or even complained. And the next day he would put his clothes on and go back to work as if it was just another day. That kind of steadfastness and determination I really admired. He worked very hard for a long time.

Overall, there were also a lot of very compassionate, concerned community people who lived in that area. Many of the folks who kind of hung out—you never really knew their real name. They all went by nicknames—409, Rabbit, Squirrel, Bo Peep, Jabbo. These were actually people. It was very charming.

You rarely saw any white folk in the Fifth Ward or Kashmere Gardens unless they were selling insurance. The exception to that was my high school. Kashmere High School was called a prototype school. We were a quote-unquote experimental school. It had an all-African American student body, and 35 percent of the teachers were Anglo. That was the experiment. This was 1968 and the first year they did that. We thought it was okay. But for me and my family, the black folk I knew, we did not interact with white people, period. It wasn’t by choice. It was just the way it was.

Kirbyjon Caldwell, 52, is the senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, the chairman of the Kingdom Builders Center, and a spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush. He has lived in Houston since he was a child.

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