The late civil rights leader and philanthropist Ada Cecilia Collins Anderson will be among the thousands of graduates who will be honored at the university’s 139th spring commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 21 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. She will also be celebrated at a special ceremony as part of the School of Information Convocation held on May 21, 4 p.m. at the William C. Powers Student Activity Center Auditorium.
After Anderson passed away in 2021 at the age of 99, community leaders in Austin reached out to the university with the idea to award her a degree posthumously. School of Information (iSchool) Dean Eric T. Meyer quickly supported the idea, recognizing that as the first African American student to attend the Graduate School of Library Science, Anderson encountered roadblocks to completing her master’s degree. The iSchool pushed the request for a posthumous degree through numerous university approval processes until it was signed and approved by President Jay Hartzell.
“This degree does not right the injustice that Mrs. Anderson experienced, but it does acknowledge the wrong done and honor the memory of someone who played an important part in the history of the school and of UT Austin,” Meyer said. “I hope that Mrs. Anderson’s story will inspire students, alumni, friends, faculty and staff at the School of Information to follow her lead and to make the world a better and a fairer place.”
Born in Pilot Knob, Texas on October 2, 1921, Anderson graduated from L.C. Anderson High School in 1937, which remained segregated until 1971. She went on to attend the HBCU Huston-Tillotson University (HT), where she earned a B.S. degree in home economics in 1941.
“An icon and trailblazing Austin community leader, advocating for the empowerment of young people while championing educational and civic causes, Mrs. Anderson left an indelible mark on our University,” HT President Colette Pierce Burnette states in her tribute to Anderson, who contributed the largest gift in HT history, donating $3 million toward the naming of the Sandra Joy Anderson Community Health and Wellness Center in honor of her late daughter.
After the 1950 landmark Sweatt vs. Painter Supreme Court ruling granted African American students admittance into graduate school, Anderson enrolled at UT in 1951 to study library science, one of the few programs the university first opened to African American applicants. Although she completed all of the required coursework for the library science degree in 1953, during the height of Jim Crow in Central Texas, local institutions would not allow her to undertake the required fieldwork placement due to segregation. The university did not waive this requirement so Anderson was never awarded her degree. This experience galvanized her resolve to further her education and champion civil rights. Over a decade later, Anderson was finally able to re-enroll in graduate studies at UT Austin, where she earned her M.S. in education psychology in 1965 and went on complete graduate courses in business and finance at Northwestern University.
Like many of UT Austin’s Precursors, Anderson was a woman of many firsts. Among her many accomplishments, she was the first African American to serve on the Austin Community College Board. Her many accolades include her entrance in the Texas Black Women’s Hall of Fame and the African American Women’s Hall of Fame, both in 1986. In 1992 she was named Woman of the Year by the Women’s Symphony League of Austin, and in 1999 she co-chaired the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force for the Austin Independent School District.
Visit the History Makers website to learn more about Anderson’s life and work.