Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Tumultuous Texas Legacy: The University of Texas at Austin Bears a Complicated History toward Race

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Tumultuous Texas Legacy: The University of Texas at Austin Bears a Complicated History toward Race

Article excerpt

With the hiring of Shaka Smart as head coach of its men's basketball team in early April, The University of Texas at Austin became one of only three schools in all of NCAA Division I sports--the others being Georgia State University and Stanford University--with Black men at the helm of both of the school's revenue sports.

The magnitude of this announcement is amplified by what has been a complicated legacy of race at the flagship Texas institution.

The University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) is the university from which three landmark Supreme Court cases on diversity in higher education have been born. These include Sweatt v. Painter, the 1950 case in which Thurgood Marshall would successfully argue against the "separate but equal" precedent set in 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson case, blazing the way for 1954's Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In Sweatt v. Painter, the court ruled that Heman Sweatt, a Black man, should be admitted into UT-Austin's law school because the law school at Texas State University for Negroes was inferior.

Then there was Hopwood v. Texas, the case in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1996 that UT-Austins law school may not use race as a deciding factor for admissions in order to achieve a more diverse student population. (In 2003, however, the Supreme Court would abrogate this decision in its Grutter v. Bollinger ruling, saying that the "narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body" was not against the Constitution. In other words, affirmative action practices were acceptable, because diversity benefits all students.)

Then, in 2008, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin again sought to challenge the validity of affirmative action policies at the institution, when a White student, Abigail Fisher, claimed she was kept out of the university in favor of students whose academic credentials were inferior to her own. The Supreme Court remanded the case for further consideration in 2013, and it made its rounds in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In late June, however, the Supreme Court decided to rehear the case next term.

A complex history

"The University of Texas at Austin plays a major role in the racial history" of the state of Texas and its capital city, Austin, in which the flagship institution lies, says Dr. Edmund Gordon, chair of the department of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT-Austin.

Gordon often leads a very different tour of campus than the one given by admissions officers. On Gordon's tour, all of the complicated nuances of race relations on campus--from the buildings whose namesakes were well-known members of the Ku Klux Klan to the histories of the individuals depicted in statues that "line the front door" of the campus--are discussed.

"This campus is heeled around the notion of White supremacy," he says. "Look at how recently the university stopped being--if it could be said it ever stopped being--an apartheid place."

Indeed, the history of Black acceptance on the campus, which was founded in 1883, is relatively new. In September of 1950, Sweatt enrolled as the first Black student at the UT-Austin law school. In 1956, the first Black undergraduate student enrolled. Even as they were admitted, Black students were not necessarily welcome; from 1956 to 1964, Black students stayed in dormitories at nearby historically Black Huston-Tillotson College.

Architect Fred Alexander enrolled at UT-Austin in 1960, part of a group that calls themselves "The Precursors," the first African-Americans at the university. The campus was still hostile to Black students, he says, but it wasn't really something he questioned or dwelled upon in his daily life.

"There were those who came prepared to take on segregation," he says, noting that some of his friends "came in ready to organize" and effect change on campus. …

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