A matter of fate
UTA's first African American graduate was in the right place at the right time
Maxwell Scarlett came to UTA to earn a degree. That he broke barriers was incidental, more a matter of circumstance than intent. He’s prouder of being a UTA alumnus than he is of being its first African American graduate.
Dr. Scarlett, 59, is president and CEO of Lekar Emergency Medical Service in Killeen. He was recently recognized as the first African American to earn a degree from UTA. But he never intended to enroll here. He followed his mother’s footsteps to North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) and attended all but a couple of semesters there. He even engraved a class ring: MCS, B.S., Class of ’66. Then circumstances prompted him to transfer to Arlington State College (now UTA) as a senior.
“I wasn’t there to integrate anything at UNT or UTA or anywhere else,” he said. “But I just happened to be where I was, and it just happened that way. It could easily have been someone else or some other point in time, or it could easily have not happened at all.”
‘Coming back home’
Scarlett grew up in a family of educators. His mother was a teacher, and both of her grandparents were teachers. Scarlett’s maternal great-grandfather was a professor of chemistry and physics at Prairie View A&M University in the 1890s. So as a youngster in the Stop Six neighborhood of Fort Worth, he considered it a given that he would attend college. He picked NTSU because his mother had done the same and because he knew the school.
While young Maxwell attended Dunbar High School in Fort Worth, his mother was completing her master’s degree in education from North Texas. He would tag along, sitting alone reading while she attended class on Saturdays.
Once a student there, he lived on campus—with black roommates, a university mandate—and began breaking barriers almost instantly. He was one of the first three African American men to live in a dorm there. Later, he integrated Beta Beta Beta, the school’s biology honor society. He became the first African American to grade papers in the Science Department and, later, the first to teach there, too.
But he transferred after the spring semester in 1965 because he believed that his race cost him certain opportunities. Though he was a dean’s-list student, he was not allowed to teach an introductory science course that equally suited white students could. He said that one professor changed a syllabus to hurt his grades and that a department chair alienated a professor who stuck up for him.
“So I said, ‘I think it’s time to consider moving on.’ And when I transferred to UTA, I really felt like I was coming back home in a sense. Actually, it was kind of a relief.”
During a summer break in 1964, Scarlett had taken two classes at UTA while living at home, and he liked his professors. But why he wound up here full time was because his mother loved Chevrolets.
Evelyn Guinn Scarlett wanted a 1962 Impala to replace her aging Belaire, and she headed to Hooker Vandergriff’s Arlington dealership to buy one. Vandergriff, whose son, Tom, was the city’s mayor, liked to visit with customers in his showroom, and he stopped to talk. Maxwell, then a freshman in Denton, mentioned where he went to school.
“Why didn’t you go to Arlington State College?” Vandergriff wanted to know. “We have a fine college here in Arlington. Why did you go so far away?” The response was that Scarlett followed his mother. She received a master’s degree in education there in 1959.
“But I always remembered his [Vandergriff’s] receptive attitude and how he encouraged me to go to Arlington State,” Scarlett said recently. “And I said that’s really nice. I ultimately decided to transfer to UTA, and I attribute that a lot to Mr. Vandergriff’s encouragement, because he didn’t have to say that. I really appreciated that.”
Scarlett enrolled at a UTA that had integrated four years earlier but was still mostly white. He was usually the only African American student in his classes, and often he saw no other black students on campus. But he never felt isolated or different. “I never had any negative experiences at UTA. I can truthfully say that. It was nothing but a positive experience from the first day I came here until I finished, so my hat’s off to UTA.”
Frank Gladden was Scarlett’s graduate adviser in biology. He recalls his former student fondly.
“He was a very cooperative student,” said Gladden, who retired in 1987. “He was very interested to learn, very interested in medical school. I have always enjoyed his company.”
Scarlett graduated June 3, 1966, with a bachelor of science in biology. Soon after, he enrolled in medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He followed that with an internship and residency and began his practice in Fort Worth in 1977. He moved to the Hill Country 16 years ago because he said there was a need for doctors there.
Despite transferring to UTA, Scarlett has no regrets about his days in Denton.
“That incident of unpleasantness in regard to North Texas was isolated,” he said. “My experience there, across the board, really was positive.”
‘Am I the only black graduate this year?’
UTA honored Scarlett in February with the Outstanding African American Alumni Award. When he graduated almost 40 years ago, he received much less attention. He looked around Texas Hall and wondered, “Am I the only black graduate this year? Or has anybody graduated before me?”
“Those sort of little thoughts run through your head while you’re waiting on them to give you your degree,” he said. “And after that, when President Jack Woolf called my name and I went to get my degree, that was the last time I thought about it.”
Scarlett didn’t know he was UTA’s first African American graduate until 1997, when he was answering questions for a Star-Telegram reporter assigned to do a story on the 35th anniversary of segregation at the University. No one knew specifically who the first African American graduate was. Scarlett knew he was among the first and became curious. He asked the University to do some research, and the result came back: Though he wasn’t the first African American student to attend UTA, he was the first to graduate.
“It was just sort of an accident of fate or providence,” he said. “I guess I was just in the right place at the right time, so to speak. I’m proud of it personally, I’m proud for African Americans, I’m proud for UTA. I’m proud for our society in general.”
— Danny Woodward