954, Thelma White, a young African-American valedictorian from Douglas High School—El Paso’s only black high school—walked onto the dull gray cement steps of UTEP, then known as Texas Western College, in a brave attempt to do a very
White’s actions would result in a chain of events that loosened the oppressive hold of legalized discrimination.
White was attempting to enroll as a student at TWC amidst the controversial 1954 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which had deemed segregation in public schools as unconstitutional.
Despite the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” and “all deliberate speed” rulings, Texas law had not yet changed when White sought to enroll at TWC.
White was denied admittance and told by the university registrar, J.M. Whitaker, that a desegregation law had to be passed by the Texas legislature before she could be admitted into the university.
“For a long time black students couldn’t attend Texas Western, that was true for pretty much most state schools,” said Patrick Rabb, 2013 UTEP alumni, who graduated with a multidisciplinary degree that focused on political science, history, African-American studies and Chicano studies.
In March of 1955, aided by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, White filed a federal lawsuit against the regents of the University of Texas System and the state of Texas for denying her equal rights under the constitution.
In an interview on the UTEP Centennial Blog, Maceo Dailey, professor of history and director of UTEP’s African-American studies, said White was “among the young, courageous, black students nationwide who became aware that they were agents of change in the great struggle to democratize America.”
Ten days before the courts’ ruling on White’s case, on July 8, 1955, the University of Texas System Board of Regents, which had authority over TWC, declared that African-Americans could attend the university.
Due to the decision by the board of regents, Dysart Holcomb, then president of TWC, suggested a court ruling was unnecessary.
However, Judge R.E. Thomason of the Western District Court of Texas, agreed with White’s attorney that the action by the board of regents did not address the cause of segregation. Thomason invalidated the state’s provisions and statues that required separate schools for black students, resulting in the historical decision that would lead to TWC becoming the first white southern public college to admit African-American students.
“What Thelma White was able to do is symbolic of the capacity an organization has…using the same tools oppressors use, we can democratize our communities,” said Selfa Chew, visiting history professor at UTEP.
Fall 1955 marked the enrollment of the first 12 black students at TWC.
Before TWC had desegregated, the only other option in Texas for African-Americans was Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern, both about 650 miles away. The other option would be to attend an out-of-state college.
Despite it being White’s lawsuit that would ultimately culminate change, White never enrolled at TWC, but she decided to stay at New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State University, where she had already enrolled and attended as a student.
In an interview with The Prospector, Willie Quinn, 1954 UTEP alumni, said the integration of blacks and whites at TWC was, “not big a deal.”
In 1991, the former UTEP magazine, NOVA Quarterly, published an article titled Integration turns 35 at UTEP, which describes the integration at TWC as “successful and uneventful” and a “positive model for other southern universities.”
President Holcomb is cited as saying, “we are very proud to be the first senior college in Texas to admit
Before The UT System Board of Regents’ decision to desegregate, the El Paso School Board had already made the decision to desegregate schools unconditionally, a move that didn’t see much retaliation due to the fact that local Catholic schools had already begun desegregating without objection. The move by the city was made despite threats by then Governor Allan Shivers to cut state funds from the school districts.
Meanwhile, other campuses in Texas met integration violently and with stagnation. In Texarkana Junior College, an angry mob prevented black students from entering, while Texas A&M resisted integration until 1963. Lagging behind was Rice University, which didn’t desegregate until 1965.
Efforts were made by TWC to ease integration, such as forewarning professors to treat African-American students just like all others.
Despite efforts to accommodate the 12 students, adjustments to integration were not free from the remnants of racism.
In a 1991 NOVA Quarterly article, Marcellus Fullmore, one of the first entering 12 students, related having several “standoffish” professors.
In another 1988 NOVA Quarterly article, Bernice Bell Jordan, the first black student to enroll at TWC, recounts eating alone.
“We were welcome in places like the library, places related to our studies, but in the snack bar, a black student had to get used to sitting alone,”
According to Chew, the 1955 ruling had only desegregated educational spaces, other public spaces on campus still remained segregated.
Rabb said that while integration was racial, it had other aspects involved in it as well.
“Integration took a long time, it wasn’t quick, it wasn’t easy, often times it involved things of race and class and gender…It happened in many phases and in many areas,” Rabb said.
“So you have academic desegregation and you also have athletic desegregation.”
Charles Brown played for the basketball team and was UTEP’s first black athlete.
When Brown attended Texas Western from 1956-59, there were about 25 African-American students attending the university. Brown scored 1,170 points and 578 rebounds. In 1999, he was inducted in the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame and in 2008 to the UTEP Athletic Hall of Fame.
Arguably, Brown’s greatest contribution could be paving the path to full collegiate athletic integration.
“In terms of athletic desegregation, that wouldn’t occur until the 1960s, especially culminating in the 1966 NCAA championship that, at that time, Texas Western College won with an integrated basketball team,” Rabb said.
In 1962, El Paso City Council voted to end segregation in motels, hotels, theaters and restaurants.
Despite the progress made since Thelma White filed her lawsuit against TWC, Chew argues that progress still needs to be made.
“The fight is still happening, we still don’t have a number that matches the African-American community,” Chew said. “How many African-American professors with tenure do we have in the UTEP faculty?”
A look at UTEP’s 2012-2013 Fact Book reveals there are five black male faculty members who are tenured or on the tenure track and two black females, compared to 198 white male faculty of professors and 88 females, while there are 93 Hispanic males and 48 Hispanic females.
However, Chew believes communities have the ability to mobilize themselves just like White did in 1955.
“Yes we can, it’s not impossible,” Chew said.
Maria Esquinca may be reached at [email protected]