‘We’re small but we’re really strong’: Black student population remains underrepresented at UT

Ikram Mohamed, Projects Reporter

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the population of undergraduate Black students at UT in 2021 was 5.2%, but it was 5.4%. The Texan regrets this error.

This story has also been updated with new university data released on Wednesday to reflect data from 2022.

When Jada Hatcher toured the University in 2018, she realized there weren’t many Black people on campus. Not seeing any faces which resembled hers while walking down Speedway or being the only Black student in her classes was difficult for her to come to terms with during her first year. 

“Triggering discussions didn’t start happening until I started taking classes across the school,” said Hatcher, a social work graduate student. “(Once we) started talking about societal things, it started to become stressful being the only Black person in the room.”  

UT desegregated in 1956 and allowed the first 70 Black students, known as the Precursors, to enroll in classes. In the beginning, they weren’t allowed anywhere on campus other than their classes and they were often met with verbal and physical assaults, as white students tried to make it clear their presence wasn’t welcome.

Since then, Black students have continued to be one of the lowest populations of students at UT and many continue to feel unwanted on campus. The current Black undergraduate student population sits at 5.5%, a slight increase from last year’s 5.4%. However, some people question whether the University is doing enough to recruit Black students and support their current students.

Especially after last year’s “The Eyes of Texas” controversy, Hatcher and many other Black students continue to feel as though the administration doesn’t care about the effect the song, which has a racist history, has on students. When donors referred to students who were advocating to replace the song as “the Blacks,” according to emails published by the Texas Tribune, it reaffirmed the belief of Black students that they aren’t welcome at UT. 

Not feeling supported by the University, Black students create community amongst one another by sitting in the Malcolm X lounge together and hosting events such as “Meet the Greeks” or Black Homecoming. Surrounding themselves with other individuals who look like them and share similar experiences makes the experience as a Black student at a predominantly white institution manageable. 

“You won’t survive unless you hang out with other Black students,” Hatcher said. “Having that community will really make or break your confidence. The UT Black community, often they’re like, ‘I don’t feel like I go to a (predominately white institution) because I’m always around my Black friends.’”

 

Importance of Community

Kanyin Komolafe, the current vice president of the African Students Organization, joined the group two years ago as a freshman as a way to connect with other Black and African students and form a community made through a collective identity. At a university where the Black student population is so low, she said it’s important to create and dedicate spaces such as these for Black students. 

“We constantly have to carve out spaces for ourselves,” said Komolafe, a physical culture and sports junior. “To have a designated space to feel comfortable and know that you’re always welcome is really big, especially on campus where everything we do feels kind of small and overshadowed. … Knowing we have those spaces gives us some of our power back.” 

Komolafe said all the issues that have occurred in regards to race at UT make her feel more inclined to associate with other Black students. 

While she still attempts to branch out and make connections with other individuals by joining different organizations, she said it can be an isolating experience. 

“It (feels isolating) to see everyone hanging out, and you’re looking for someone that looks like you and they’re not there,” Komolafe said. “There was an incident where we were accepting new people into our (business) organization and I immediately connected with the two new Black people, and people made it seem like I was only connecting with them because of our shared identity as being Black. … It was just another example of how you can do everything right, but people just assume you only do certain things because of the color of your skin.”

 

Lack of Accessibility 

With Black students continuously having negative experiences because of their race, it not only affects current students, but prospective students too. Black people were the only people to be specifically excluded from UT because of their race and ethnicity, and this legacy lives on within Black communities throughout Texas. It’s a relationship that needs to be repaired, and African and African Diaspora faculty affiliate Devin Walker said the University has not done enough to make amends with these communities. 

The University does not always send representatives to predominantly Black schools and policies such as the automatic admissions rule result in fewer Black students attending UT, Walker said. 

“I used to work with admissions and sometimes we’d do recruiting events at some of these high schools, and they would straight up tell us ‘We’ve never seen a representative from UT come to recruit our students,’” Walker said. “Those histories and those relationships need to be repaired. … I think that process is underway, but it’s going to take a long time.”

LaToya Smith, UT’s vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement, said in an email that the University expects the Black population to continue growing and that she understands UT must increase its efforts to recruit more Black students. 

If current Black students aren’t having enjoyable experiences at the University, it’s less likely that other Black students from their communities will come to UT. This means providing Black students with positive experiences at UT could increase the Black student population. 

People such as history professor Leonard Moore are already working toward creating a positive space for Black students. Moore created a historically Black university-type culture on campus, Walker said, to provide Black students with more positive experiences than negative ones. 

Walker also works as the director of the Heman Sweatt Center for Black males, which works to promote Black male excellence through all academic levels. Their main goal is to increase the four-year graduation rate of Black male students at UT. The four-year graduation rate for all Black students is about 67%., according to the latest data released Thursday. 

Walker said it’s important for the University to listen to the needs and demands of Black students on campus and open up a line of communication. He said this will not only positively impact current students on campus, but prospective students as well.

“We have to continue to listen to what students are asking for, what they need, what they want, and do our best to respond to those things,” Walker said. “It’s not an easy task. But it’s important and necessary.” 

 

Working Toward Change

UT has utilized the input from Black alumni, faculty and most notably the Black President’s Leadership Council in recent years. The council was formed in the summer of 2020 as a way to provide a united front for Black students to communicate their needs with the administration  following the murder of George Floyd and “The Eyes of Texas” controversy.

The group later published a list of demands in the spring of 2021 and worked with UT administration on how they could best support the Black community moving forward, said Brianna McBride, the council’s former co-director and public affairs masters student.

Stepping back from the work they were doing with the administration, the council took a different approach to continue supporting Black students on campus. When McBride left her position after spring 2021, she told the incoming, now current, co-directors to focus on building community and making sure individuals were feeling supported.

“We were struggling to try to make sure that our community felt supported during the pandemic, at the same time trying to hold the University accountable,”  McBride said. “That’s a lot for 30 students … who are also burnt out and exhausted.”

Even though many people feel the Black student population should be higher, McBride said she has hope positive change is coming.

“We just had Black Homecoming … and being able to see alumni and current students (have) fellowship with each other shows me that we can have these types of events that show that we have a strong community,” McBride said. “We’re small but we’re really strong.”