Division of Diversity and Community Engagement
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An Introduction to Color Barriers at UT



In the wake of World War II (1941-45) African Americans mobilized in unprecedented numbers to lobby for an end to state-sanctioned segregation. At the vanguard of this movement was the NAACP, and its legal arm, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) [1]. Under the direction of special counsel Charles Hamilton Houston, the LDF waged a legal campaign to achieve equality between black and white schools and provide fair access to higher education opportunities throughout the south at the nation’s biggest public institutions. Although southern state governments remained committed to maintaining segregation, the LDF won a number of legal victories in the 1940s and early 1950s, moving the courts and the country closer to the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared the concept of “separate but equal” schools. Of particular concern to the NAACP given economic mobility inconsistencies throughout the U.S. was the provision of equitable graduate instruction to black students in the segregated South. The establishment of separate black graduate and professional schools represented an enormous financial burden, Texas, Georgia and other large state governments in an effort to retain their homogenous institutions of higher learning, routinely offered out-of-state tuition vouchers to black students who wished to pursue a graduate education in lieu of attending their main campuses. In a series of decisions between 1936 and 1950, however, the federal judiciary ruled such practices unconstitutional, and ordered obstinate state governments to create “substantially equal” black graduate schools or admit qualified black students to state-supported white universities. The University of Texas at Austin (UT) was no exception.

Situated in the heart of the Capitol City of Texas, UT had proven itself over the last few decades to be one of the State’s premiere public institutions of education. Such a status demanded head-strong leadership, conservative infrastructure and unprecedented actions to attract students, funds and support from around the state. UT’s campus was only two miles north of the State capitol building, but was oriented such that is seemed like a self-contained community. “The Drag”—Guadalupe Street, which ran alongside the university from 19th to 26th Street (now Martin Luther King and Dean Page Keaton  Streets)—provided students with their own shopping and eating areas. Some 18,000 students attended the state’s flagship university.  They were predominantly white, middle class, and participants in a social life that revolved around football games in the fall, Barton Springs in the spring, and proms, beauty contests, and sorority and fraternity events throughout the school year.  They were comfortable in their roles as students and in their potential future as leading citizens (or the wives of leading citizens) in the state of Texas.  Such privileged idealism was evident inside the 40 acres and unquestioned on the streets of the capitol city. East Avenue was the city’s dividing line.  Once you crossed it, there lived another Austin, a different social existence, a predominately African American community (created a few decades before thanks to city mandated migration).

Segregation permeated much of Austin’s social, political and educational infrastructures. Represented in physical structures by city ordinances, the greatest defiance of engagement, integration, and the concept of equality seemed to be the system of education. Austin’s black residents attended their own schools on the city’s east side—Anderson High and Keeling Jr. High as well as several elementary schools and the private historically black college, Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tilottson University), [2] a college birthed out of the Lutheran Church. Blacks could ride buses to the west side of town, primarily to work as domestics in the homes of white people, but were guided by the unwritten laws that mandated they sit in the back of the bus, not use the dressing rooms at the stores they purchased clothing in or be served at the restaurants or coffee shops they passed along the way. Such social practices were exacerbated by the limited access to the city’s primary institution of education.  If blacks wanted to further their education, they could go to black colleges or out of state, but they were not permitted to attend The University of Texas.

In 1946 World War II had ended and veterans were returning home, and they were swelling the enrollment at colleges and universities throughout the country.  With the passage of the GI Bill, many who could not afford to attend college prior to the war were now able to obtain a higher education.  They may not have been white, they may not have been middle class, but as veterans who had fought for their country they were now entitled to work for a university degree. One problem remained, although academically eligible for admission, a number of black students throughout the south were denied entrance to public universities using faux rationales like, “irregularities in applications” or other obviously unfounded excuses. The state legislature, along with the university administration remained steadfast in limiting UT’s educational opportunities to white students.

The first attempt to integrate the University of Texas began not in 1946, with Heman Sweatt but in 1885, when an African American student applied for admission. The school denied him admission based solely on his skin color. The second attempt came in October 1939, when George L. Allen, the Austin district manager for the Excelsior Life Insurance Company, arrived on campus to attend a business psychology and salesmanship class. His mere presence stunned the class and administrators. No such defiance or challenge to the unwritten and spoken regulations of the school had ever taken place. But to the disbelief of Allen, UT allowed him to take the class, completely disrupting Allen and the NAACP’s plan to use the opportunity to sue the State. [3] A few days later, the Professor C.P. Brewer arranged to meet with Allen to notify him the school was asking him to withdrawal from the class. After Allen refused, his registration was cancelled and he was prevented from attending class. He and the NAACP threatened to sue and in response to the threat, an out-of-state scholarship program was established.

The state of Texas agreed to pay the tuition of any African American who wished to acquire a degree beyond a Bachelors of Arts. However, this did not satisfy the ideals and educational pursuits of many. Many black families noted that the program did not address the severe discrepancies of quality in secondary and higher education serving the black population in Texas. “I don’t mean this in a negative way, but Huston-Tillotson was just not an adequate substitute for the University of Texas. My parents wanted us to have the opportunity to attend the school for which we were best qualified [4].”

Although some African American Texans seemed happy with the out-of-state scholarship program, many saw it as an intermediate goal in the fight to get Negroes admitted to the University of Texas” as stated by the Texas NAACP branch. And the University of Texas had made it quite clear of their plans to resist such progressive action. Regent Orville stated in a letter in the late 1940’s “ There is not the slightest danger of any negro attending the University of Texas, regardless of what Franklin D, Eleanor or the Supreme says, so long as you have a Board of Regents with as much intestinal fortitude as the present one has.” [5]

The system was surely flawed, as there were not sufficient finances to fund all students who desired to pursue graduate study out of state. In 1945 more than 60 applicants were denied out-of-state scholarship because of deficient funds. Furthermore it depleted the Black Texas community of the social and political benefits of the educated folks being sent out of state. Education quality and access were becoming paramount to the social, economic, and political agency of the African American community. Beginning that process of higher education and advance degree matriculation meant challenging institutions of power across the segregation south and The University of Texas at Austin presented a moderate tempered climate/landscape for such the social experiment. The classroom was to become the new battle ground for civil rights and the fight for equity. As the NAACP recruited qualified plaintiffs to wage war on Texas education, the Lonestar State’s flagship institution prepared itself for battle. “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home…They are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world [6].”

[1] Civil Rights & Modern Georgia, Since 1945: Desegregation of Higher Education, Hatfield, Edward A., 2008

[2] Civil Rights & Modern Georgia, Since 1945: Desegregation of Higher Education, Hatfield, Edward A., 2008

[3] Integrating the 40 Acres, Goldstone, Dwonna 2006, p. 15- 16

[4] Integrating the 40 Acres, Goldstone, Dwonna 2006, p. 16-17

[5] Before Brown, Lavergne, Gary M., 2010

[6] Eleanor Roosevelt speech to the United Nations, March 1958