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A Dignified Response: Heman Marion Sweatt


Although Texas differed little from Mississippi or Alabama in resisting the dismantling of segregation, Texas’ white citizens were perceived as being more open to the idea of African American civil rights than their Southern brethren. In a 1948 poll 66% of white Texans opposed equal rights for African Americans. As such, Texas became an important and active ground for the efforts and strategy of the NAACP. The NAACP subsequently decided to challenge segregated colleges and universities in Texas, where the group’s lawyers believed that the relatively moderate racial climate would permit them to win their cases.[1]


The first attempt to integrate The University of Texas at Austin began in 1885, when an African American student applied for admission. The school denied him admission based solely on racial identity. 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 students and administrators. No such defiance or challenge to the unwritten, yet enacted regulations of racial discriminatory policy of the school had ever taken place, but to the disbelief of Allen, UT allowed him to take the class, completely undermining Allen and the National Association of the Advancement of Color People (NAACP) plan to use the opportunity to sue the state[2]. A few days later, Professor C.P. Brewer arranged to meet with Allen to notify him the school was asking him to withdraw from the class. After Allen refused, his registration was cancelled and he was prevented from attending class. He and the NAACP threated 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 to permitted schools in Texas or across the south and anywhere in the north. However, this did not satisfy the ideals and educational pursuits of many. Many black families noted

the program did not address severe discrepancies in the quality of 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,” a student was recorded as stating during an interview. “My parents wanted us to have the opportunity to attend the school for which we were best qualified.”[3] This sentiment was shared by many African Americans throughout the state who wished to pursue advanced degrees.

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 black students admitted to the University of Texas. And the University of Texas had made it quite clear of their plans to resist such progressive action. UT Austin Regent Orville stated in a letter in the late 1940s “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”[4].

The system was surely flawed, as there were not sufficient funds 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 residents being sent out of state.

According to Lavergne, author of Before Brown, Heman Marion Sweatt played a major role in the NAACP’s plan to end segregation in education. UT Austin was selected not only because its students generally favored integration, but “with all its oil money, if Texas couldn’t build a separate and equal university of the first class for African Americans, no one could.”[5]

Behind Heman Marion Sweatt’s slight stature and meek demeanor stood a strong and determined lineage that revered and utilized education as an avenue for political engagement, social progress and self-enlightenment, a genetic fortitude and a social demeanor that the position of “first” would demand. The family began, as far as is known, with Richard Sweatt, a slave. Lavergne, author of Before Brown considered James Leonard Sweatt, Sr., the key to the family’s educational and professional success. Papa Sweatt, as he was called, was revered by his family. Heman often shared how his father was quite a historian, and he taught him the subject at the table. “He was very sensitive and informed on the issues.”[6] When Heman was asked who were the greatest influences in his life, he said, “Number one, Papa Sweatt, and number two, Melvin Tolson, a teacher at Wiley College.” According to his daughter, Dr. Hemella Sweatt, “Nothing was more important to him than education. Whatever comes in second was so far distant that it didn’t really matter.”[7]

Heman’s great-great grandfather was one of ten graduates of Prairie View A&M’s class of 1890, a class trained to become teachers for Negro schools throughout the state of Texas. James, Sr. had six children, and he encouraged all of them to attend college. Decades of Sweatts produced doctors, bank executives, and higher education educator. Born in Houston in 1912, Heman was thrust into such a lineage. He grew up in Houston’s third ward and eventually made his way to Wiley College, an HBCU in Marshall, Texas.

In 1946 Sweatt attended a meeting in which the NAACP was soliciting students to serve as a plaintiff in a law school desegregation case. The person selected had to be qualified academically to attend the school and have the persistence and determination to see the case through to its conclusion. In addition, that person would have his or her name associated with four years of bitter litigation for civil rights in the south. He or she needed to be intelligent, courageous, and reliable.

Sweatt had been preparing for this moment most of his life. After graduating Wiley College in 1934, he attended the University of Michigan with hopes to pursue medicine, but eventually returned to Texas and began work as a postal carrier. Although education had afforded him the luxury of access and social clout, he was not shielded from the injustices of the Jim Crow era. During the early 1940s he participated in voter-registration drives and raised funds for lawsuits against the white primary. Likewise, Sweatt had an opportunity to write several columns for the Houston Informer. Sweatt’s column covered legal issues and discriminatory practices taking place throughout the state. One particular issue hit close to home. Post offices had stopped promoting blacks to supervisory positions by systematically excluding them from clerical positions which would make them eligible to be promoted. Being a local secretary of the National Alliance of Postal Employees, Sweatt challenged these practices. While preparing documentation for this case with an attorney, his admiration and interest in the law was cultivated.

Sweatt began to investigate opportunities to attend law school. With the help of civil rights activist and attorney William Durham, Sweatt actively pursued the only law school with the reputation to support his thirst of knowledge, The University of Texas. And so Sweatt raised his hand and answered the call of the NAACP to represent the organization and thousands of his black peers in challenging the policy and procedures of the university. On February 26, 1946, Heman Marion Sweatt applied to The University of Texas Law School. He met the academic requirements: a BA from Wiley College in 1934 and 12 semester hours of graduate work at the University of Michigan in 1937. Although he was qualified academically, he was denied admission for only one reason, he was black. UT’s rejection of Sweatt’s application provided the NAACP the opportunity it had been seeking, the opportunity to pursue legal action. The impact of Sweatt’s denied access to higher education would prove to be a revolutionary act in policy, higher education, civil rights and Texas history.

On May 26, 1946, in the State of Texas 126th District Court, Heman Marion Sweatt filed suit, citing that denying him admission was an infringement of his rights under the 14th amendment of the US Constitution. The court determined that if the university would establish a separate but equal institution for Sweatt, they would throw out the case. A year later UT opened a facility in Austin to be known as the School of Law of the State University for Negroes. It had a couple of rooms, one or two faculty members, and no other students. The administration notified Heman Sweatt, but he refused to report for classes or attend. Instead, with the backing of the NAACP, he took his case through the courts and ultimately to the U. S. Supreme Court.

There, in 1950, the court decided in his favor, stating that the educational opportunities offered white and Negro law students by the state of Texas were not substantially equal, and that the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment required that the relator (Sweatt) be admitted to The University of Texas Law School. Thus began the case that, in time, did away with the separate-but-equal rule and led to the end of segregation in the nation’s public schools. On the eve of the Supreme Court decision, Sweatt’s personal triumph was reaffirmed as social victory. Thurgood Marshall called to tell him to extend his congratulations shouting “We won. We won the big one! You are entitled to the fullest credit for a job well done. If it had not been for your courage and refusal to be swayed by others, this victory would not have been possible.”[8]

Sweatt and another African American, George Washington, Jr., became the first blacks to enter the UT Law School in the fall of 1950. Washington had aspired to become a lawyer most of his life, but had wavered in his confidence that he’d be afforded the opportunity. Although hyper aware of the precarious circumstances and immense pressure that he and Sweatt would face as they pursued their degrees, he resolved such fears quietly and expediently. His wife reflected on the moment in time sharing that his only concern “was doing well in school and getting a law degree.”[9] In order for both men to succeed, the emotions that were inherit with breaking ground and forging trails, would need to become secondary to the task at hand─ graduating. Washington with the support of family─and perhaps with shelter afforded not having to withstand trial─graduated. Sweatt, however, did not. He entered the UT Law School in 1950, then dropped out after one year due to a combination of factors that included ill health, poor grades, and family strains, all problems exacerbated by the stress of his long fight through the courts.

Following Sweatt’s historical win 1950, UT opened its graduate courses to all qualified black graduate students. With that decision, UT became the first institution of higher education in the South required by law to admit blacks to its graduate programs. Sweatt’s family in countless interviews have pointed out, their family beliefs—education, persistence, discipline, civility—contributed immeasurably to the strength that enabled Heman Sweatt to withstand the difficulties he faced in serving as plaintiff in this historic case.

“He hardly ever spoke about the case. And if he did, it was more of a factual conversation, maybe just reciting what happened, some of the facts of the case, not really the emotional side,” recalled Hemella Sweatt. The younger Heman Sweatt remembers his uncle Heman telling him some of the experiences that he went through. “In the late 40s, while trying to enter law school, he was asked to come to a meeting one evening at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. So he said he went to the hotel, he went up to the suite, and there he saw a room full of men, and on the table, $27,000 cash sitting there. And the men told him, ‘this is yours, you can have all of it, just take it and go away.’ He easily could have scooped up the money—a pretty nice amount today so you can imagine what it was equal to in the 40s—but he just turned his back and walked out of the room.”[10]

Sweatt endured many threats to his life, often leaving him vulnerable and trapped. According to his nephew Heman Sweatt, “He once shared that one day after class had ended he was afraid to leave the building. If it had not been for the law students gathering around him and escorting him out, he really believed that that there would have been some tragic ending, and he was very grateful to his white counterparts in law school for coming to his aid.”[11]

Another family trait was to keep thoughts and emotions to yourself. As Dr. William Sweatt observed during the 25th Annual Heman Sweatt Symposium, “We’re reserved people, we’re serious people, and we keep things to ourselves a lot of times. That’s good in certain situations, such as being the plaintiff in this case. We’re taught your word is your bond. So if you’re in a pressure situation, you know you’re going to stick to it no matter what the pressure is. But on the other side, it affects you because you try to be this pillar of strength, but when you’re here at the university and people are throwing rocks at you and burning your house, you know that’s got to affect you emotionally. There are certain people, like Heman, who will hold it in . . . but it takes a toll on you inside, it takes a toll on you physically.   I think that’s what he dealt with.”[12]

Gary Lavergne talked about one more trait that Sweatt had—civility. “The one valuable lesson that this man could teach us all is civility. If you want a lesson in civility, then you study the life of Heman Marion Sweatt. In five years of research, I never encountered a single moment where this man returned hatred with more hatred. I could not uncover a single quote where he denigrated anyone, even the most vile racist who threatened him, or the State of Texas, or The University of Texas. This was a very gracious man.”

Not long after Sweatt dropped out of law school, Whitney M. Young (who was at the time serving as the National Urban League’s CEO) offered him a full scholarship to enter a master’s degree program in social work at Atlanta University, where he earned the degree and later accepted a position with the Urban League in Cleveland. Eight years later he relocated to the Atlanta office. In Atlanta he remarried, and there his daughter Hemella was born.

Lavergne once said of Sweatt, “He faced a lot at one time while he was here“but nobody chased him away. When he wanted to leave, he left on his own, and he left with his dignity.” Such dignity was and is Heman Sweatt’s legacy.

[1] Lavergne, Gary, Before Brown p. 10

[2] Lavergne, Gary, Before Brown, p. 15-16.

[3] Lavergne, Gary, Before Brown, p. 16-17

[4] Lavergne, Gary, Before Brown, p. 16-17

[5] The Alcalde, September/October 2010

[6] Lavergne, Gary, Before Brown p. 10

[7]Interview with Sweatt family members (including Dr. James Sweatt III, Heman Marion Sweatt (great nephew of Heman Sweatt), Dr. Hemella Sweatt and Dr. William H. Sweatt) on Jan. 27, 2011, during the 25th Annual Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights.

[8] Iscoe, Louise,

[9] Goldstone, Dwonna, Integrating the 40 Acres

[10] January 27, 2011, interview with Sweatt family members.

[11] January 27, 2011, interview with Sweatt family members.

[12] January 27, 2011, interview with the Sweatt family.