If there is one perennial Mrs. TSU, it has to be the stately woman in those crazy car commercials who is also a former model, political candidate, widow of a legendary TSU tennis coach and owner of one of the city’s most iconic Black businesses. And if you’ve lived in Houston for any decent amount of time, you already know who I’m talking about—the one and only Georgia Provost.
Mrs. Provost sat down with the Defender to discuss Provost Studios, a photography business that opened just one year after Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier.
DEFENDER: Mrs. Provost, how does it feel to be a living legend?
GEORGIA PROVOST: If there’s a legend in Houston, it’s certainly the late Herbert, Georgia and Jerome Provost of Provost Studios, Texas’s leading professional photographers. We have chronicled the Houston community and many other communities with portraits and photographs since 1948. What do church pastors, universities, families, elected officials and graduating classes have in common? They along with about three million other Texans and Louisianans have been photographed by Provost Studios.
DEFENDER: How did the business get started?
PROVOST: My husband, a Navy man, he came out and enrolled at Texas Southern University. Then he went to a graduate school of photography in Connecticut. And when he came back, he decided he would open up his studio in April of 1948 on the corner of Dowling and Gray. Then he moved to 2706 Wheeler Ave. The last move was to the El Dorado building. In August 1971 he decided to move to 3821 N. MacGregor. And in August of this year, we’ve been here 51 years on N. MacGregor.
DEFENDER: That’s the beautiful house on N. MacGregor with the tennis court right next to it?
PROVOST: Right. Mr. McClery in 1965 asked my husband to take over the TSU tennis program. He said, okay, because all he did when he was in the Navy was play tennis. TSU’s tennis court wasn’t desirable and it was too obsolete. So, he said, “I’ll just build a tennis court on the side of my, and then I go back in the back and build a bar like a country club.” That’s how we got the tennis court, because there was no place for Blacks to play tennis in Houston at that time, in 1965.
DEFENDER: What’s the secret to longevity in business?
PROVOST: The key is to give good service, get yourself involved in the community and give back financially to organizations that are helping these young people. Before integration, we had 85% of the Black schools in Texas, we photographed. We photographed the universities: TSU, Prairie View, Southern’s three campuses, Dillard, Xavier, Wiley, Texas College and Grambling. Then integration came, and that destroyed not only my business, but a lot of Black businesses. Because they closed all the Black schools, and Black kids had to go to school with the white kids. And the white principals wouldn’t give us their business.
DEFENDER: How did you all survive that?
PROVOST: Well, I’ll tell you a little secret. I told my husband, “I’m gonna get me a job.” He said, I’m gonna get me some contracts.” So, I read the paper that morning and Gulf Oil needed somebody to run their service stations, leasing, and rent. So, I would go to the library and read everything I could on leasing and renting. Then I would call Gulf every day to get some information, went and applied for the job. And I got the job.
Then my husband came in and he had about 13 contracts, and 10 of them were for yearbooks and the others were for cap and gowns and rings. I said, “Who’s gonna manage all this?” He said, “That’s your job.” So, we get in the car. We knew Taylor Publishing Company was doing all of yearbooks for the Black schools. So, we drove to Dallas to see. Them people didn’t even ask him into the office. That white boy told my husband, “We don’t need any Black representatives because we’ve got all the Black schools. My husband said, “Well, I’ve got 10 of your contracts in my pocket.”
So, we left there, and I found another company, Intercollegiate Press in Kansas City. So, we flew up there. It was perfect. Not only did they do good yearbooks, they supplied us with the person that we could get the caps and gowns from, and the rings. So, we’re back in business again. So, we kept the studio, and then eventually, I left Gulf Oil and opened my studio up back six days a week. This is how were were able to keep going. And see, the key to our business is that we take pictures of students in grade school. Then we take their cap and gown. Then if they go to college here in Texas or Louisiana, we take their pictures in college. And then when they get married, we take that picture. So, it’s a family tradition around here. And that’s why next year, we’re gonna celebrate 75 years. I think we need to have a, a family reunion, a Provost reunion with all the seniors that we’ve taken in the family.
We do different things. For example, if we have a customer that’s doing something is it’s exciting in the neighborhood, we’ll get a story and send that information to news people so they can run a store on them. See, you’ve got to network and work with your people. That’s the key.
DEFENDER: What are Black businesses doing wrong that they need to fix immediately?
PROVOST: We need to do what we used to do when we were segregated, when all we had was us. We worked together. I’ll give you an example. The man that owned French’s Chicken was one of my husband’s competitors. He was working for Herb Jones. My husband was working for Intercollegiate Press. But every Saturday morning I would fix breakfast for them and they would work out their strategy, how they were going to beat the other white representatives. If Herbert would get a contract, then the next one, Mr. Creuzot would get the contract for Herb Jones. So, they had a system going. [Today], we don’t have a system. We don’t have an agenda. We don’t work together. We don’t love each other. Let me tell you this, and I say it all the time. Black people have two cancers that MD Anderson can’t cure, and they’re in the cancer business: envy and jealousy. That’s what’s stopping us from moving forward.
And we need to be about helping people. I like to read. That’s my pastime. I read everything. That’s why I don’t drink; because I like to read. And if I see something that’s gonna benefit you, I cut it out and send it to you. We need to be about helping each other. And Black business right now is catching hell.
Because Blackfolk don’t realize that if you support Black business, then you don’t have to worry about your child getting a job. They can give you a job. That’s what we had during segregation. We had everything we needed in 4th Ward, 5th Ward. We didn’t have to leave. And then all the professional people lived in the community. The kids didn’t have to worry about summer jobs, because all they had to do was go knock on the door. And it wasn’t any such thing as Metro. Acres Homes had the bus service for us. What we do here at the studio, we train young, Black photographers. That’s the only way we’re going to get it going. All the old ones are dead. My husband was the last one. And then Mr. Ben Joseph left. So, that’s the end of the old photographers. [There’s] nobody old left but me. <laugh> So, what we’re doing now is figuring out how to train these young.
DEFENDER: Over the past few years there’s been a lot of talk about Black people supporting Black businesses more. Have you seen the support for Black businesses increase?
PROVOST: No. Let me give you an example. We have a company called Dixie Hardware, on OST. They have anything you want. For five years, they support my TSU athletics. And for five years they supported the Touchdown Luncheon with $5,000 – $6.000. TSU has never sent them a thank you card. And then they don’t even buy light bulb from the man [the Black owner of Dixie Hardware]. And Blackfolk will pass Dixie Hardware going OST 100 mph to go to those other stores when they can go right there to Dixie Hardware. Give the man some business so he can employee some more of our students. We don’t think about it like this.
DEFENDER: What has been your proudest moment as a business owner?
PROVOST: My proudest moment is that for 61 years, I have supported my Texas Southern University.
DEFENDER: How was that? You’re only 39 years old,
PROVOST: <laugh> I am 81-years-old. Thank God for my age. I tell people I’m 31 years old with 50 years of knowledge, understanding and wisdom. Wow. And I thank the Lord for giving me knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and I’m passing it on to young people. My son and my family say I’m an Energizer Bunny because I don’t stop. There’s no need for stopping. And I’m not gonna be satisfied until I can get Blackfolks to understand that if we support each other, we don’t have to go and ask anybody for a job. We’ll have our own business. And then those kids can learn how to operate a business. Instead of teaching them to get a job, teach them how to a business owner. We got a lot of work to do.
ABOUT PROVOST STUDIOS
ABOUT GEORGIA PROVOST
Hometown: Lafayette, LA
What brought you to TSU: Dr. TL Freeman was our commencement speaker at Drew High School. And he said, “I want you to come to TSU. Stop shucking and jiving and come to Texas Southern University.” I was going to go to Prairie View because I was in the Interscholastic League over there at Prairie View for handwriting and arithmetic. And I ran track. So, I was going to go to Prairie View. But after hearing Dr. Freeman, I hurried up and came to TSU to enroll. And that was the best thing I could have done.
Where did you interests in politics and community service: Just by observation. Back during segregation, we have no Black elected officials and we fared better. Now for the last 50 years, we’ve got all these Black elected officials and our communities look like a Third World country. They don’t come and communicate with us. The only time you see them is when they come and want you to vote. What gets on my nerves is when they come to Thanksgiving and Christmas official and giving out turkeys, and people stand up 50 and 20 blocks long to get a damn turkey, and turkey is the cheapest meat in town. Why don’t you get together and have some town hall meetings? We’ve got to wake up. Do you know we’ve got about seven Black newspapers? Why don’t we see adds in the Black newspapers for the Black businesses? That’s why I ran for county judge. The county’s got so much money down there it ain’t even funny. I’m going to run for city council at-large so I can help all my people. I’ve got a plan, I’ve got an agenda and I’m gonna work it.
What are your favorite things about the city of Houston: My number one favorite thing is Texas Southern University. My second favorite is for me to be able to go pick up all the Black newspapers and sit at my kitchen table and read to see what we’re doing. And my third favorite thing is to start working with these students and these schools, elementary, middle and high school, and go and talk and be a mentor and tutor for these kids. I’m going to see if I can get my rotary club to do that. That’s my whole thing for the rest of this year.