On 70-year anniversary of Sweatt v. Painter, UT Law reflects on diversity in law school, on campus

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Photo Credit: Destiny Alexander | Daily Texan Staff

Heman Marion Sweatt became the first African American student to attend the University of Texas in 1950. 70 years after UT’s integration, Black law students walk by his portrait in the Atrium of the law school. 

“Sweatt v. Painter is an important part of American history, not just UT history,” Christopher Roberts, executive director of institutional advancement at the UT School of Law, said in an email. “It is the building block that led to the decision in (Brown v. Board of Education), the better-known case that led to the desegregation of public schools across the country.”

Sweatt sought admission to Texas Law in 1946, but was denied by then-president, Theophilus Painter. Texas Attorney General Grover Sellers advised Painter to bar Sweatt’s admission because of state segregation laws. 

Sweatt, however, was undeterred. He sued UT and went to trial through the state and circuit courts. Four years later, Sweatt’s case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won in a unanimous decision and attended Texas Law that fall.

In 1956, 70 Black students enrolled at UT. Of the 51,832 students at UT today, only 2,500 or 4.9% of them are Black.  

Sweatt paved the way for change, Roberts said, but aspects of the University wouldn’t be fully desegregated until 1964, almost 15 years after the Sweatt case. 

“Many decades after Sweatt’s admission, neither the word nor the concept of ‘diversity’ as we understand it today was on anyone’s mind as an idea worth embracing, much less taking actions to ensure,” Roberts said.

Yolanda Thomas, sociology and African and African Diaspora Studies sophomore said her mother attended UT in 1976. She said she’s reflected on how the University has and hasn’t changed since her mother walked the Forty Acres. 

“(My mother’s) classmates and teachers said she only got into UT because of her skin color, not because of her merit,” Thomas said. 

 

Thomas said access to resources and academic opportunities for students of color still needs improvement on campus. She said the lack of inclusion at UT is especially noticeable in her sociology honors program.

“I’m one of the only Black students. The rest are white,” Thomas said. 

Roberts said the UT law faculty remains unsatisfied with the number of Black students in school and Black lawyers in the profession. Roberts said in response, a pipeline program has been created as a long-term initiative to increase the number of Black and underrepresented students applying to law schools across the country. 

“To have a school that doesn’t look like the world itself is to not properly prepare the leaders of tomorrow to continue making the world a better place,” Roberts said. “This is why diversity, inclusion and equity are so important.”

Government, English and Africa and African Diaspora Studies sophomore Jeremiah Baldwin has found community in six different Black organizations on campus. One of them is the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males, which provides resources, scholarships and connections for the roughly 900 Black male students on campus.

“College is an opportunity for you to learn from other people,” Baldwin said. “Part of that learning process is being exposed to people with diverse backgrounds.”

Roberts said the Sweatt v. Painter case is taught in Constitutional Law I as a mandatory class, and no student graduates from Texas Law — or any law school in America — without knowing that case. 

“It’s easy to believe because you’re only one student if you voice a concern, you’ll be ignored. But if you're vocal about it and if you're persistent, you can hold administration accountable,” Thomas said. “Sweatt was an army of one and he won his war.”