BLACK HISTORY PROFILE — Commissioner Sinegal remains close to history while moving forward

Published 12:20 am Friday, February 5, 2021

When the late mother of Jefferson County Commissioner Michael Sinegal was pregnant with one of his siblings, she walked in the sub courthouse in Port Arthur to take care of some business.

Michael “Shane” Sinegal

Sinegal, who became the first Black commissioner for Precinct 3, said his mother and others have told him the story several times. According to him, his mother had to use the restroom.

Sinegal said a law enforcement officer “belittled” his mother, who was attempting to use the restroom designated for Whites only.

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“He belittled her so badly that she urinated on herself,” Sinegal said. “He then had a black custodial worker clean it up. That was in the 40s or 50s. She told that story ever since I was a boy.”

Now, Sinegal’s office is across the hall from where that scene took place, and as commissioner, he is in charge of the building.

“My mother told me that when I took office and took over the building, that was one of the proudest days of her life,” he said. “It is so ironic how things change. She would say, ‘I was embarrassed in that building and now my son is in control of it.’”

Sinegal was born in 1957 in Port Arthur. He went to Carver Elementary before attending DeQueen Elementary. He was the youngest of seven.

“My mom was a domestic worker,” he said. “She always had to find someone to keep her kids when we weren’t in school. My aunt or our cousins had to keep us.

“My mom changed my birth certificate because I was the last one and she was trying to get me in school so she didn’t have to worry about finding someone to watch me.”

Sinegal said his mother changed the “7” in 1957 to a “6.”

“I went to kindergarten,” he said. “We didn’t have Head Start then. That didn’t come until 65. My mom would register her kids late all of the time, but because I was the last kid, she showed up on the first day.”

Sinegal completed the school year but was forced to redo it after an administrator realized his altered paperwork.

“I tell some people that Lyndon B. Johnson hired me as a test student for the Head Start program,” he said laughing. “I was one of the first to do it. It didn’t help because I had trouble with math and everything. My friends tease me that I didn’t eat my cookies and take naps.”

Sinegal said he and his family chose to attend Thomas Jefferson over Lincoln High School.

“There were a lot of race riots,” he said. “It started at Woodrow. My brother was at TJ. Whites and Blacks would fight, and it would trickle down to Woodrow. Some of the same people that are cops and judges were in it.”

Sinegal volunteered that Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, who graduated with him at TJ, was not one of the rebel rousers.

Sinegal said, while laughing, that Branick was more like a “hippie,” and added he never gave anyone problems.

“They would lock us all in classrooms and we couldn’t leave,” he said. “I didn’t ride the bus. I rode with a friend who had a car. Sometimes, I had to ride the bus from TJ to El Vista because you couldn’t walk down Gulfway because you would get jumped. The white kids would jump you. One guy was killed right behind McDonald’s, which is a hospitality house now.”

Soapbox mentality

Sinegal said he has a “soapbox mentality.”

“When I see something wrong, I speak out on it,” he said. “I never dreamed of being a politician. I wanted to work at a refinery, but I couldn’t because I had a problem with my back.”

Sinegal worked for Dallas County in 1988, when he was an intake officer at a shelter for children picked up by the police.

“We would take the kids and get them off the street,” he said. “We would keep them, feed them and teach them classes. I would get depressed, go home and tell my wife that they are locking some of these kids up, especially the Black and Hispanic kids, for stealing candy bars. They would sentence them to juvenile detention until they were 18 and then ship some of them to prison. We had a couple of White kids kill their parents and get probation.”

That is when Sinegal made the decision that he wanted to be proactive and not reactive.

“During the late 80s, the crack epidemic hit really hard,” he said. “Everyone wanted stone-washed jeans. This tall, crackhead guy came into JC Penny (where Sinegal was working theft prevention).”

Sinegal and an older lady watched the man go into the dressing room with multiple jeans on the surveillance cameras and leave the room without them.

“I walked down there and acted like I was shopping and asked him what was up and he said ‘I’m just getting mine,’” Sinegal said. “I walk like I’m holding the door for him. I grabbed him and told him I was with security. At that point, I had never lost someone that I got my hands on.”

Sinegal said the man began to run, pulling him toward a truck that was waiting as an escape vehicle. The truck began to pull the two men, causing Sinegal to hit his back on a large concrete structure designed to hold plants.

“I go to my desk and realize that I couldn’t get back up,” he said. “This is how I got back to Port Arthur. I had two bulging disks in my back. We came back to Port Arthur because my wife didn’t have any family up there to help us.”

New calling

From there, Sinegal began to substitute teach for the Port Arthur Independent School District and coach football. He was one of the finalists for the head coaching job at Memorial that eventually went to Ronnie Thompson.

Sinegal was elected to the Port Arthur City Council in 2002 and served three two-year terms. He was contemplating leaving and earning a Masters Degree when news of now late Precinct 3 Commissioner Waymon Hallmark’s retirement was announced.

Sinegal’s friends pushed him to throw his hat in the ring.

“I got into a runoff with the current mayor (Thurman “Bill” Bartie),” Sinegal said. “I was able to win this seat.”

Sinegal said he loves people and is always trying to find ways to help others.

He often wonders whether his role should continue as a politician or if he should move more towards activism.

The commissioner said he will know when God tells him.

“No man is going to move me out of this seat,” he said. “Only God will.”

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