Two Legacies: How Blacks and Mexican-Americans Helped Shape University of Texas History

Article excerpt

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Before Heman Sweatt, an African-American from Houston, won his lawsuit to attend the University of Texas School of Law, Carlos Cadena, a Mexican-American from San Antonio, was among its brightest students. Cadena graduated summa cum laude from the law school in 1940, a decade before Sweatt's lawsuit forced UT to open its graduate and professional programs to Blacks.

Unlike African-Americans, Mexican-Americans have been able to attend the university since it was founded in 1883. Though they were treated like second-class citizens in Texas, they were considered White under state law.

The different legacies of Blacks and Latinos at UT provide a window into Texas' complex racial history as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the Fisher v. the University of Texas affirmative action case. The court will decide whether the university's admission policy discriminates against Whites. But more than a century ago, when the Texas Constitution of 1876 created UT ("a university of the first class"), only Whites could attend the university. A separate university was to be created for "coloreds."

It's important to understand the different histories of Blacks and Mexican-Americans at the state's flagship university, says Dr. Rodolfo O. de la Garza, a political science professor at Columbia University and former professor at UT.

"What it really illustrates is the most powerful difference between being Black and Mexican in Texas," de la Garza says. "The Black experience was uniform. It didn't matter what you were if you were Black. That isn't true for Mexicans. If you were affluent, you were treated differently, you thought of yourself differently."

"Within a year of it opening, there were Mexican-American students from Laredo at UT," says de la Garza. "But they were essentially from Laredo's elite families.... There was a section of South Texas that survived [with land and wealth] during the worst days of Mexican discrimination."

Dr. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, the Ellen Clayton Garwood Professor of Creative Writing at UT and an acclaimed novelist, received his bachelor's degree from the university in 1953--a year before Brown v. Board of Education desegregated undergraduate programs at the university. Theophilus Painter, the defendant in Sweatt v. Painter, was the president of UT.

Many of the Mexican-American students there when Hinojosa-Smith was a student were from Laredo, the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso in West Texas, he says. Hinojosa-Smith is from the tiny town of Mercedes in the valley. He had served three years in the Army during World War II and attended college on the GI Bill.

Hinojosa-Smith's brother-in-law and his brother-in-law's brother received their law degrees from UT in the '30s, he says. "The valley is very different from the rest of the state because the people there had been on both sides of the Rio Grande," he says, referring to the divide between Texas and Mexico.

People had been there a long time, dating back to 1750, when the Spanish, who controlled the area at the time, conducted the first census. To the west, El Paso was the first Spanish colony in what is now Texas. Their longevity in Texas explains why so many Mexican-Americans from the valley, Laredo and El Paso attended UT. The students were overwhelmingly middle class, though some relied on the GI Bill to pay for their education, Hinojosa-Smith says.

But they still faced racial discrimination, though Hinojosa-Smith says he didn't experience discrimination. "There was a co-op where kids from the valley stayed," says Hinojosa-Smith. "It was called the HA House, for Hispanic American.... The HA House was strictly Mexican-American."

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Mexican-American social clubs like the Laredo Club organized events for the students, providing camaraderie and a respite in an environment that wasn't always welcoming. …