Ahead of the curve

College was first in system to admit African-American students

When Arlington State College (now UT Arlington) achieved senior college status in 1959, it was open only to white students. ASC was part of the Texas A&M System, whose admission policies prohibited enrolling African Americans in all of its colleges except Prairie View A&M, the only state-supported college for people of color in Texas.

According to the 1963 Reveille yearbook, Arlington State College (now UT Arlington) experienced “a peaceful integration which produced no display of prejudice among students or faculty.”

The Texas Constitution, adopted in 1876, legitimatized segregation by calling for separate schools where “impartial provision” could be provided for both whites and blacks. By the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, legal challenges to what was obviously an inequitable and discriminatory practice began to produce results for African Americans.

In cases like Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court made it possible to dismantle segregated educational systems. In September 1956, for example, The University of Texas at Austin, after fighting integration through the courts, became the first major institution in the South to admit African Americans as undergraduates.

“A court fight of this case could lead only to hard feelings and the outcome would be the same.”

By the late 1950s it became obvious that segregated schools and school districts could not withstand legal challenges. The civil rights movement was forcing change.

ASC students seemed willing to accept integration long before the A&M board was. In 1956 The Shorthorn published the results of a poll that asked 96 students, “Would you be willing to attend classes with Negroes?” Seventy-two students said they would, while 24 answered no. Despite student sentiment, ASC in the late 1950s and early 1960s continued to enforce the restrictions against admitting black students.

Whenever a student of color applied, the registrar would write a letter to the applicant stating that “present regulations” prohibited his or her admission. The registrar also would forward the request to Prairie View A&M.

In 1962 Ernest Hooper, Jerry Hanes and Leaston Chase III were denied admission to ASC, and rather than accept the decision, they called the Dallas branch of the NAACP. The NAACP agreed to represent them, and the matter was turned over to the organization’s legal redress committee chaired by Dallas attorney Fred J. Finch Jr.

On May 25, 1962, Finch wrote a letter to ASC President Jack Woolf advising that Hooper, Hanes and Chase had retained him to help them secure admission to the college. Finch told Dr. Woolf that the three had submitted completed applications and satisfied all other requirements for entering freshmen. He closed: “I am sure it will not be necessary to resort to the courts in this matter due to the present status of the law in this regard.”

Though Woolf never answered the letter, he moved quickly to inform A&M Chancellor M.T. Harrington of the situation. He advised the chancellor that “a court fight of this case could lead only to hard feelings and the outcome would be the same.” He recommended that the A&M board allow ASC to change its policy and no longer “discriminate against any person on [a] racial basis.”

At the next regularly scheduled board of directors meeting June 29, Dr. Harrington polled the members on whether ASC should be allowed to change its admission policy immediately. The directors, realizing they couldn’t win in court, approved the integration. Shortly thereafter, Harrington called Woolf and told him of the board’s decision. ASC was to be the first school in the A&M System to integrate its student body.

Pleased with the decision and not wanting to hide it, President Woolf called a news conference for July 10. The Fort Worth Press learned of the policy change the day before, heightening media interest. The press conference was held at the Inn of the Six Flags, where Woolf announced ASC’s integration to 18-20 reporters. That same day he sent a memorandum to the college’s faculty and staff briefly explaining the new policy.

The first African-American students enrolled in classes two months later, and Arlington State College became the ninth state-supported college (out of 19) in Texas to remove racial barriers for admissions.

Source: Transitions: A Centennial History of The University of Texas at Arlington, 1895-1995

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