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A revolution through desegregation: A look at Thelma White Camacks’ legacy

Thelma White Camak played a significant role in the desegregation of Texas Western College in 1955. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Thelma White Camack was a pioneer of her time and played a significant role in the desegregation of Texas Western College (TWC), now known as UTEP, in 1955. She opened the door for African American students to apply and be admitted to the university while leaving a lasting impression on the institution. 

Born in Marlin, TX in 1936. White was the daughter of Ray and Johnnie Mae White, later the family moved to Central El Paso when Thelma was only a small child. 

A hardworking and devoted daughter, as many close friends and family recalled her, White attended the city’s only desegregated school at Douglass High School.  

White, the class valedictorian who graduated in 1954, made an ordinary move that would soon affect her life and rally a chain of events that would loosen discrimination and oppression in Texas. 

Coach Nolan Richardson, a UTEP alum and member of the Hall of Fame of Collegiate Basketball, once had White as a tutor at Douglass School. He shared his thoughts on White in an article devoted to her legacy. 

“She was the right person to take on the right issue for the right person,” Richardson said. “She decided that segregation was wrong, and she was not going to take it. I never felt so proud of her.” 

When she applied for admission to Texas Western College in September 1954, she was later denied entry due to her skin color. But her attempt to enroll was amidst the controversial ruling of Brown v. Board of Education that occurred earlier that year. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in “Separate but Equal,” which declared segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and illegal. 

However, Texas state laws at the time remained unchanged. 

There were just two schools available at the time for African American students who wished to attend a four-year college in Texas: Texas Southern in Houston and Prairie View A&M in Houston’s northwest. White enrolled in New Mexico A&M College, now known as New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces amidst being refused entry. 

Accompanied by an NAACP representative, White filed a lawsuit against The University of Texas Board of Regents along with TWC leaders on March 30, 1955. 

On July 8, 1955, the decision was made to give African American students who wanted to attend TWC the same opportunity as everyone else. 

With her lawsuit, TWC  became the first desegregated undergraduate institution in Texas. 

Twelve black students entered TWC without incident for the first time that fall. White, however, decided to stay at New Mexico A&M college where she met her husband, Curtis Camack. 

White rarely gave information about her participation in this pivotal event, and she spent her remaining life in El Paso as a devoted mother to her four children the couple had. Close relatives recalled that White preferred it that way.  

“She didn’t get involved for the fame,” said John E. Douglas, White’s cousin and former El Paso police officer, in an article about her life. “The reason was to end segregation.” After spending several years working at White Sands Missile Range, White eventually retired due to health issues after being diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Thelma White Camack passed away Aug. 9, 1985 in El Paso. A UTEP academic support club for African American students was founded in 1993 in her memory. 

Erik Acosta is a staff reporter and may be reached at [email protected] 

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About the Contributor
Erik Acosta
Erik Acosta, Editor-in-Chief
Erik Acosta is the editor-in-chief for The Prospector. He is a senior majoring in multimedia journalism with a minor in theatre. He plans to pursue a career in broadcast journalism and print with hopes of working at LA times, Washington Post and ABC News.
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A revolution through desegregation: A look at Thelma White Camacks’ legacy