In the early 1960s, C.W. McClure, the principal of a school for Black children in Eagle Lake, Texas, was in the five-and-dime buying school supplies for his students when the white store owner approached him.

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“Do any of your students need glasses?” he asked McClure. “I’m an officer in the local Lions club and if they need glasses, you get me their names, their parents’ names, and we’ll get glasses for them.”

McClure, who passed away shortly before this magazine went to print, never forgot that day or the kindness shown. But it wasn’t the first he had heard of Lions clubs. As a college student, he worked evenings and weekends as a waiter at the prestigious Commodore Perry Hotel in Austin. Lions would frequent the restaurant and he’d often overhear them discussing their service projects. “I thought that was pretty good,” he said.

He and his college friend and fellow educator Charles Akins were also intrigued by the numerous signs they saw posted in small towns promoting local Lions clubs. However, they couldn’t envision ever being welcomed into a club in their segregated world.

Across town, then-District Governor E.B. “Tex” Mayer was thinking differently. Several years before serving as a Lions Clubs International director from 1970-72, Mayer was developing plans to diversify his district. He began meeting with Black businessmen and educators to talk about the importance of Lions’ service in the community.

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A New Club is Born

In August 1967 — eight months before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed into law — the Austin Capital City Lions Club held their first meeting on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University, a private historically Black university and Austin’s first institute of higher learning. More than 50 men, including McClure and Akins, attended. The club, which they believe to be the first predominantly Black club in the United States, continues to meet on the historic campus to this day.

The new Lions immediately forged ahead with vision projects, helping families, supporting schools and proudly adding a bench to the bus stop on the east side of town where there had never been one before. While they seamlessly settled into their roles as Lions in their communities, their presence sometimes left other Lions surprised. McClure’s yellow vest bears pins from the various international conventions he and Akins attended, reminding him of when Lions would ask what country they were from. “They had never seen a Black Lion from the United States,” he said, chuckling. “But they got educated, we adapted. It was all fine.”

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Lions Lead the Way

Many early Austin Capital City Lions became well known in Austin, admired for their achievements and leadership.

Lion Edna Rhambo was the first African American to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1958. Collegiate life wasn’t easy for her, but Rhambo remained committed to her studies and stayed strong through harassment from fellow students. It was not just for herself, she says, but to set an example for her three younger siblings. With her bachelor’s degree in education, she went on to earn a master’s degree from Wichita State before returning to Austin to teach in K-12 schools.

Akins, who died in 2017, worked 44 years in education and was the first African American teacher at an integrated Austin Independent School District high school after desegregation. He recalled the mornings of meeting the bus as it pulled up to the school to handle conflicts between students who had never been together before. In 2000, W. Charles Akins High School in Austin was named for him. The list of accomplishments of club members goes on.

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Building on a Rich History

Lion Trevor McLean believes it’s important to know the club’s history. “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from,” he says.

McLean joined the club in January 2023 when then-club president David Bell reached out on LinkedIn and invited him to a meeting. Inspired by the club’s history and impressed by their service, he soon became the diabetes awareness chairperson for District 2-S3 and took on the role of tail twister in his club.

At his first meeting, McLean says, “I was immediately taken by how open and transparent everyone was with their opinions. Everybody’s voices were respected and honored. And the most senior members are our pillars, always welcoming and encouraging us to take a leadership position.”

In 2022, the club celebrated its 55th anniversary. While the majority of their 39 members are Black, “It’s not a one size fits all club. It’s a multicultural club and everyone who wants to serve is welcome,” says McLean, 38. Men and women in their 20s through their 90s are on the roster, including charter members McClure and Lion Paul Bailey, a retired college administrator.

And the historic club is showing no signs of slowing down. Their service projects are frequent and varied, including vision screenings, planting a garden with middle school students, helping with a fan drive to provide heat relief to the elderly, raising funds to offer scholarships to students and dedicating a bench at Austin’s historic Bethany Cemetery, just to name a few. In addition, they have welcomed more than 20 new members in the past two years, and they go to great lengths to ensure all members feel valued and proud to be Lions.

What makes McLean most proud to be an Austin Capital City Lion, he says, is that “I get to show my daughter that I am active in the community through Lions. I want her to care more about the world than just the world inside her home.”