Texas Ruling that created TSU gets another look Before Brown vs. Board of Education, there was Sweatt vs. Painter

By Jeannie Kever

Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON (AP) -- Brown vs. Board of Education gets all the glory when people talk about the end of segregation.

But Sweatt vs. Painter came first, beginning with an ambitious postal worker in Houston and leading to the creation of Texas Southern University before ultimately opening the University of Texas law school to African-Americans.

"This was the case that struck the first big, big blow against segregation," says James Douglas, a longtime executive at TSU. "If this case hadn't happened, Brown would not have occurred."

Brown, of course, is the case that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 1954 that separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.

The first step came four years earlier, when the court ruled in Sweatt vs. Painter that money alone could not make an education designed for African-Americans equal to that in white schools. The lawsuit split Houston's black community over the best route to equality-- high-quality schools for black students, or access to white schools -- and was a hot topic in the black press.

Heman Sweatt, a graduate of Yates High School and Wiley College, sued UT president Theophilus Painter after being turned away from the state's only law school. His case was backed by the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights lawyer who later became the first African-American named to the Supreme Court.

It continues to be invoked in modern affirmative action cases.

"Sweatt and Brown and several other cases did open the door for integrated education and what we now see, that diversity has social value," said Wendy Scott, associate dean at the North Carolina Central University School of Law.

But few people outside of a law school classroom have even heard of the case.

"It's probably the single most unsung event in the history of civil rights in the United States," said Gary Lavergne, author of Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice. "It's easy to think of Martin Luther King and Brown vs. Board of Education, but they weren't alone."

A symposium on the case was held Friday at TSU's Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Although Marshall fought against the school's creation, arguing that separate schools were inherently unequal, he agreed in 1976 to let it bear his name.

Sweatt worked for the postal service in Houston, as his father had before him.

"In those days, being a postman was pretty prestigious in the black community," said William Sweatt, a gastroenterologist in Lake Jackson and a great-nephew of Heman Sweatt.

He applied to UT's law school in 1946 and, after being rejected because of his race, he sued.

The ensuing years were tense, even dangerous.

The trial court stalled for six months, giving the Legislature time to convert the Houston College for Negroes into Texas State University for Negroes and establish an affiliated law school.

It was renamed Texas Southern in 1951 and continues to teach students about the legacy of Heman Sweatt.

Still, Douglas said, most students don't know Sweatt's bittersweet story: He enrolled at UT after the Supreme Court victory but was met with hostility, including a cross burning on the law school lawn, and later dropped out.

The ruling was the first to say that intangible issues -- including a school's reputation and the chance to study alongside students who would go on to become leaders in the state -- were inextricably tied to equality.

"They talked about a university being more than brick and mortar," said Douglas, who was a child growing up in Houston at the time.

Sweatt later earned a master's degree at Atlanta University and spent the rest of his career working for the NAACP and the National Urban League. He died in 1982.

William Sweatt knew about the case as a child growing up in Dallas.

"You would hear the family stories about Uncle Heman and what he did to make things better," the younger Sweatt said.

Heman Sweatt lived on Delano Street in Houston's Third Ward, the heart of the city's African-American middle class, as the case moved through the courts.

"At night, people would throw rocks at his house," William Sweatt said. "It was crazy."

But in the end, he said his great-uncle realized the sacrifices had paid off.

"I think the legacy he left is one of courage and integrity and standing up for the right thing."

Sixty years later, race continues to reverberate across college campuses.

At Texas Southern and many other historically black colleges, the challenge is to recruit Hispanic, white and Asian students, expanding their mission to serve students who otherwise might not be able to attend college.

At schools that traditionally served white students, the battle over affirmative action continues, as do the repercussions of an earlier era.

The latest court case involving UT is under review by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 2008 case, filed by two white students who were denied admission, was the first to challenge a university's affirmative action policies since 2003.

Lavergne, director of admissions research and policy analysis at UT, had just completed his manuscript on the Sweatt case when a different controversy arose on the Austin campus, this one involving a dormitory named after a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, who later served as a professor at the law school.

Simkins Hall was renamed in July.

"I don't know of a college campus where race is no longer an issue," Lavergne said. "It is something campuses face, day in and day out. We're all, especially in the South, haunted by the vestiges of our unfortunate history when it comes to race."

Published: Mon, Oct 4, 2010


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