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Overcoming Isolation in the Early Years of Integration: Exalton Delco and Norcell Haywood

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Segregation was a pervasive social, political and economic construction that had been established many years before integration became a university-wide consideration. It was so ingrained in the fabric of the city, that the accommodations of the Ivory Tower of UT could not overcome the stringent practices of life outside the 40 acres. UT’s first black graduate students became keenly aware of such obstacles as the southern mentality manifested in their professor attitudes, peer relationships and lifestyle choices. Although UT students recognized that in many ways The University was ahead of other Texas schools in integrating their campuses, nonetheless, UT students weren’t satisfied. In a letter to President Logan Wilson, students wrote that although they “recognized that the University of Texas was one of the first universities in the south to admit Negro undergraduate students,” they noted that “significant advances in this direction have ceased.  Our present concern is for a resumption of this policy of leadership and for desegregation all areas of university life.” [1]

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The Honorable Wilhelmina and Dr. Exalton Delco

Discrimination and isolation continued to be a source of angst for African American graduate students during  the formative years of integration. Exalton Delco, who earned a Ph.D. in Zoology and went on to a distinguished career at Huston-Tillotson University, noted “there were the little things.” [2]  In an interview with the Division of Campus and Community Engagement in 2010 he talked about the brown bag lunches that graduate students in his area of study were encouraged to attend.  “We would not always meet in the same place (but) I was never told where the lunch would be.” Delco was depended on his fellow peers to kindly inform him of the details.  “Somehow they would learn where it was but I never did…I felt that I was excluded purposely.”  Delco also talked about his family being the only family not invited to an annual Easter egg hunt given for graduate students by the wife of one of the faculty members. But incidents of discrimination weren’t constrained to social experiences, Delco recalls being both equally puzzled and upset when receiving a lower grade on an exam question than other students although their answers were the same.  “Those were the little things . . .”

Delco and others learned to handle these situations with personal determination and community support.  “Having come from the South in Houston,” Delco said, “I was exposed to some of that growing up. You have to look at it and say, ‘what is the most important thing?’ And for me the most important thing was the degree.  So you could do an awful lot to me, but I was looking for the degree.”

Delco’s isolating experience in the Department of Zoology was a microcosmic demonstration of what many black students were facing at both graduate and undergraduate levels. As some students noted in the early years of the 1950s, UT was desegregated but it was not integrated. “Oh, there was no support [from UT],” Delco reflected. “The students were just kind of out there, I’m trying to tell you that when those guys were in physics, chemistry, or in botany, I was the only one in zoology I know of, they had a rough time and Mrs. [Almetrius] Duren would bring them in and talk to them and quiet them down abit…if not for Mrs. Duren, I’m telling you, you would not have some of the PhD’s we have now in chemistry that I know of, personally.” But Mama Duren’s motherly support was not a big enough shield from the inevitable social struggles of Longhorn or Austin life.

Delco witnessed both the disengagement of graduate students in 1956 and the agitation of undergraduate black students. “It was really bad for the grad students, particular those who came here alone. I had Mrs. Delco and my family to support me, but for others there was little for them to rely on personally.” The push for housing for black students—and soon not just for places to live but for better housing—had become a major concern of both the UT students and the administration.  But it was not the only concern. Black UT students wanted more than a classroom education.  In addition to better housing on campus, they wanted access to all the amenities to which white students were entitled to on the Drag,  the shopping area on Guadalupe  Street along the west side of the campus from 19th Street (now Martin Luther King Blvd.) to just beyond 26th St. (now Dean Page Keeton Dr.).  They wanted to attend the theaters, get a cup of coffee or a meal in the cafes and restaurants, have their hair cut in the barber shops, purchase school supplies and clothing.  In other words they wanted to be able to participate in all the commercial and social activities that were considered an integral part of campus life.

Norcell Haywood and friends Robert Norwood, John Hargis, and Marion Ford were among the first seven African Americans who were initially admitted to The University of Texas at Austin in June 1954. Two months later they found themselves having to consider Texas Southern University and Prairie View A&M instead—the only two schools for African Americans in Texas. University of Texas registrar H. Y. McCown had canceled the registration of the students that he himself had admitted. The students were told they had to take freshman prerequisites for their program at a tax-supported accredited institution for African Americans in Texas. “There were no other colleges in the state that had our programs, which is why they {UT} had to admit us in 1954,” Haywood said.  Hargis and Haywood ultimately attended Prairie View for a year, but on July 8, 1955, the Board of Regents finally opened admission to all students in all fields of study, and Haywood and 110 other African Americans were re-admitted. It was “an interesting year when I came back, Haywood reflected. “All the facilities around campus were segregated,” he said. In retrospect, there is nothing to justify us making it out of there. There was no school or legal structure to support us.”

Along with his gruesome 21 hour graduate pursuits, Haywood was also in the ROTC program, and worked at the Driskill Hotel and as a restaurant valet. These commitments made it difficult for him and the others to do well academically, and socially they struggled for simple civility. Additional stress was created by UT’s inadequate living accommodations for black students. Only a handful of dorms were available for blacks, so many students just had to live off campus. “This was in the 50s, and we didn’t have any civil rights laws,” Haywood recalled. “Being on this campus was the closest thing to equality that we as blacks had.”

UT students were not alone in pushing for desegregation.  It was part of the large civil rights movement taking place across the country and around the city. Huston-Tillotson provided a much needed community cushioning for many of the students, providing experienced faculty and supportive students to empower UT students to continue their studies and continue their demands of UT administration. Starting in the late 50s and increasingly in the 60s, protests were taking place throughout the south.  Both blacks and whites, but particularly young blacks, were picketing restaurants and theaters, public swimming pools and stores. And changes were taking place.  In just one 12-month period, from the fall of 1960 to the fall of 1961, the public schools of New Orleans and Atlanta were desegregated, blacks were admitted by law into the University of Georgia, lunch counters and other public facilities were desegregated in Atlanta and Nashville, and the Freedom Riders made their famous trip through the south in an effort to desegregate buses and transportation waiting rooms. [4]

Students and others who favored desegregation started their protests by picketing the restaurants on the Drag and also the lunch counters on Congress Avenue in downtown Austin.  Although black students could eat at university cafeterias and one privately owned restaurant, the UT venues were closed on the weekends, leaving those students no place to get a meal in the campus area.  To confront this problem, in the late 1950s, students from UT and Huston-Tillotson took part in sit-ins at lunch counters downtown.  They were peaceful; when blacks were asked to leave, they got up and left, but as soon as they did, others took their places.  In an exhibit of photos from the diner era, the Austin History Center noted that “Sit-ins effectively brought attention to the injustices of segregation and helped turn the tide of public opinion during the Civil Rights movement.” [5]

The actions of black graduate and undergraduate students to challenge systems of discrimination would have little systematic effects on campus. While progress would soon be made in dormitory accommodations, graduate students like Delco would continue to fight to experience life uninhibited by racial discrimination. “I’ll say it again, I was a student at Fisk, I was a scholar at the University of Michigan…but I was a survivor here at the University of Texas.” Delco’s sentiments seemed to sum up many of his peer’s experiences in the early years of integration efforts, including Norcell Haywood, whose steadfast desire to acquire advance studies in architecture would make him the second African American to graduate from the School of Architecture. “We often said this is our university and we’re not going to let anyone take that away.” [6]

Haywood and Delco both used their experience at UT to direct their professional pursuits and community commitment. Haywood aimed to use his career as an architect for social change rather than just contributing to wealth expansion for a small segment of the population. “Architecture is a bourgeois industry, he said, and has traditionally been considered something of a luxury and closed to the lower classes…I am not a civil rights person, but I’m an architect who is civil-minded,” Haywood shared some 40 years after first stepping on UT campus. [7]  He established the group Minority Architecture to encourage and mentor young black architects, and talked about the importance of building in the urban community. Likewise, Delco and his wife Wilhelmina would commit the next half century impacting Austin’s social, educational and economic landscape for African Americans. Haywood and Delco along with their peers had laid a foundation for action during their endured years at UT in graduate school and the work to shift the perverted practices of social, political and economic discrimination both on the 40 acres and across the city would continue through the civil rights generation soon to emerge in the 1960s.

 

[1]  Goldstone, Dwonna, Integrating the 40 Acres, 2006.

[2]  Interview with Exalton Delco and Robiaun Charles, 2010.

[3]  Interview with the Division of Campus and Community Engagement, 2010.

[4]  Calvin Trillin, Back on the Bus, The New Yorker, 2011

[5]  Blue Plate Special: exhibit, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, 2011

[6]  Interview with the Division of Campus and Community Engagement , 2010

[7]  Interview with the Division of Campus and Community Engagement, , 2010

 

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