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The First Supreme Court Case Challenging Race's Role in UT Admissions

HemanSweatt.jpg
Neal Douglass via the Austin History Center, ND-50-283-01
Heman Marion Sweatt's case against the UT School of Law ultimately helped open up graduate-level education to Texan African-Americans.

This week two Texas-based cases got their day to argue before the Supreme Court. The case argued today, Fisher v. University of Texas, has appeared on the court’s docket before, but it’s not the first time a Texas case has challenged the consideration of race in higher education admissions.

Before Brown v. the Board of Education, Sweatt v. Painter opened up the University of Texas to African-American students. While the case was unanimously decided in favor of the plaintiff, Heman Marion Sweatt, the stress of the four-year trial sidelined his dream of graduating from UT Austin's School of Law.

When Sweatt took UT to court, he had already completed his undergraduate studies from Wiley College in Marshall.

After graduation, Sweatt worked as a school teacher, studied at the University of Michigan for a year and eventually worked as a mailman in Houston. After being denied a promotion on account of his race, he began writing a column in the Houston NAACP’s newsletter and took an interest in law. After consulting with William J. Durham, a prominent black attorney, Sweatt decided that he’d apply to UT’s law school, knowing full well that the school didn’t have a separate school for African-American students.

HemanSweatt2.jpg
Credit Neal Douglass via the Austin History Center, ND-50-283-03
Sweatt applying for the University of Texas School of Law in February 1950.

So, on February 26, 1946, Sweatt, accompanied by a NAACP representative, was denied admission. After consulting with his family, Sweatt decided to proceed as a plaintiff in the case against the school’s admissions policy. The case would be bankrolled by the NAACP and would eventually be litigated by Robert L. Carter and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Sweatt’s case contended that the state should allow his admission because the state couldn’t furnish a law school for African-Americans, a violation of the “separate but equal” provision established in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Fearing the case would make its way to the Supreme Court, lawmakers scrambled to establish graduate programs for black students. Lawmakers in the 50th Legislature petitioned Attorney General Price Daniel in 1947 for an opinion on the bill, who suggested, if the state wanted to continue segregation, that it should immediately fund the proposed program.

Prompt enactment of a bill similar to Senate Bill 140 would actually provide what our Negro citizens are entitled to, and it would have a great bearing upon successful defense of the constitutionality of separate schools. Both of these propositions are of foremost importance to Texas. If the Bill is enacted, this office will make known its existence and operation to the courts in all pending cases.

That bill passed and established the Texas State University for Negroes, which was later renamed Texas Southern University.

Still, Marshall argued that the quality of education at the program was disparate and that, if Sweatt did attend the school, he wouldn’t receive an education equivalent to a white law student at the University of Texas.

In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Sweatt, and he enrolled in the School of Law that fall.

But, nearly two years into law school, the weight of the six-year trial took its toll on Sweatt. “I really wanted to be a lawyer,” he said, but he announced in the Dallas Morning News that he withdrew from school in July of 1952 after failing his classes:

There were no incidents. I may have lost my personal ambition but I think the manner in which the other [black students] are getting along in their relations with the white students proves that it can work. The fear that the abolition of segregation would result in a great turmoil has proved unfounded. I think the experiment is working successfully.

Sweatt eventually earned a full ride to the School of Social Work at Atlanta University, graduating in 1954. In 2005, the Travis County Courthouse was named in his honor.

Further Reading

Sweatt's biography on the Texas State Historical Association's website

Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall and the Long Road to Justiceby Gary Lavergne

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