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Pastor Parker Writes an Open Letter to Heman Sweatt

image of Heman Sweatt
Heman Sweatt in line for registration at the University of Texas in 1950.
Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Mr. Sweatt, first and foremost it’s important you know that we continue to remember and honor you. Well after your passing, we will forever appreciate your courage in transforming The University of Texas at Austin.

In recent years you would have enjoyed meeting with Presidents William C. Powers and Gregory L. Fenves. Both men have been concerned with increasing the number of students, faculty and staff of color and making the campus a more welcoming environment. In addition to improving relations between the East Austin community and the university, they have taken affirming actions to heal the pain that the East Austin community has historically felt.

In particular, you would have felt kinship with the man in charge of leading diversity and community engagement efforts, Dr. Gregory J. Vincent. He has great knowledge of your case against the university as well as the affirmative action cases that have followed. Since the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement was launched some 10 years ago, the university has seen increases in the number of professors and students of color as well as positive structural and systematic changes to ensure that students of color will be successful. The DDCE has also elevated necessary conversations and provided safe places for dialogue both on campus and in the community.

That is not to say some concerns do not remain. There are some who wonder about the university’s sustained commitment to the community, irrespective of the DDCE. Is the commitment due to the passion of those in the DDCE? Or is the university as an institution committed to this transformation? Interstate 35, or East Avenue as you knew it, still acts as a physical, cultural and metaphorical division between the Anglos to the west and African Americans and Latinos to the east. There is also an ever-heightening sense of anxiety about the dislocation that has taken place on the East Side—causing some to harken back to the forced segregation in the 1920s.

But you would be proud to see the changes the city and university have made. In 2005, the county courthouse was renamed in your honor, now and forever known as the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse. Whether it be through academic initiatives, the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the first African American undergraduates, the annual Heman Marion Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights, the renaming of Creekside Residence Hall, (formerly Simkins Hall named after the prominent klansman and law professor) or the renaming of the southeast side of campus to the Heman Sweatt Campus, change has come to the Forty Acres. Please know that while this change began with you, it will continue forevermore.

Joseph C. Parker Jr., a native of Birmingham, Alabama, is a longtime friend and advisory council member of the DDCE and the senior pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Austin. A member of The Precursors, he entered The University of Texas at Austin Law School in 1979.