Community gets credit for smooth integration

By on January 19, 2014

When Texas Western College became the first institution of higher education in the state to desegregate its undergraduate programs in 1955, it did so without the vitriol that accompanied similar decisions in other parts of Texas and the South, blazing the trail for university desegregation around the state.

Historians and people who lived through the period said the reasons for the relatively calm campus transition included El Paso being a multicultural border town and its proximity to Fort Bliss, whose military ranks had been integrated a few years earlier.

The decision to desegregate Texas Western College, which became The University of Texas at El Paso in 1967, came after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down the “separate but equal” law in public education.

Together, the actions by the Supreme Court and TWC started a slow but steady chain reaction that led to a groundbreaking 1962 El Paso City Public Accommodation Act. The act did away with the racial caste system of Jim Crow in El Paso that had institutionalized discrimination against African-Americans and Hispanics. The same summer, Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday will be celebrated Monday, was jailed twice for his efforts to end segregation in government buildings in Albany, Ga.

As UTEP celebrates 100 years of history during its Centennial year in 2014, the desegregation of the university stands out as an important milestone.

“This was a transformative period,” said Maceo Dailey, Ph.D., director of UTEP’s African-American Studies program. According to 1950 U.S. Census figures, the county’s population was 194,968 with a little more than 2 percent African-Americans. “Integration was coming. The ’54 decision was encouraging. El Pasoans were aware of national events and the people were determined to bring that change to El Paso.”

While many were part of that journey, Thelma White is the person most identified with the original campus transformation. White, an honors student and valedictorian of her 1954 class at segregated Douglass School in El Paso, went to TWC in September 1954 accompanied by a representative of the NAACP with the intent of enrolling, but was turned away because of the laws of the day. She ended up registering at New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State University, in nearby Las Cruces.

The following March, she sued TWC and The University of Texas System Board of Regents for depriving her of her civil rights.

In response to White’s case and the Brown ruling the year before, the UT Regents decided on July 8, 1955, to allow black students to enroll in undergraduate studies at TWC. The University of Texas at Austin had desegregated its graduate school in June 1950 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregating graduate and professional schools, but its undergraduate program remained segregated until 1956. The Texas A&M University System did not agree to enroll black students until 1962.

On the heels of the UT System Regents’ action, U.S. District Judge R.E. Thomason ruled in favor of White and ordered that TWC should accept black students. A few months later, 12 black students enrolled at TWC without incident. Thelma White, who died of cancer in 1985, decided to stay at New Mexico A&M, where she was comfortable and had made many friends.

In interviews since that time, the 12 students said they had been nervous at first, but came to enjoy campus life as their faculty and peers adjusted to their presence. TWC athletics became integrated the next year. The black athletes and their families needed places to eat and sleep in El Paso, so a group of progressive whites, Jewish families (many who had experienced comparable discrimination), some houses of worship, and business leaders began to provide those necessary services. TWC’s desegregation and its effects were factors that led to a 1962 El Paso City anti-discrimination ordinance, the first one in Texas.

Charles Martin, Ph.D., UTEP professor of history, said the community had evolved to where TWC’s desegregation was possible. He shared the story of how a California football team with black players was not allowed to play at Kidd Field in 1938. Twelve years later, a different team with black athletes also was not allowed to play, but this time students and community leaders, especially military veterans, kicked up enough of a fuss that the Regents made an exception thereafter that allowed the TWC football team to play visiting teams with black players.

Martin emphasized that TWC and El Paso in the mid-1950s were not “nirvana” for African-Americans, but their early desegregation did serve as a model for other Texas cities.

“The issue galvanized the community,” Martin said. “In a 12-year span there was a 180-degree change in attitude in part because these people had served overseas (in World War II) with blacks. That foreshadowed (TWC’s) integration.”

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Daniel Perez is a senior writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.