May 17, 2004
By Darren Meritz
El Paso's Texas Western College was a pioneer in the desegregation of the state's higher education system.
The school, now known as the University of Texas at El Paso, was the first University of Texas undergraduate school to accept black students, hire black faculty and allow black athletes to compete.
But as Thelma White's family can attest, change didn't come without struggle. White was the valedictorian of Douglass High School's class of 1954 and was denied admission to Texas Western because she was black.
"My mother wasn't really a rebel, if you will," said White's daughter, Chantre Camack, who now lives in Washington. "It was similar to Rosa Parks," who sparked the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott after being arrested for refusing to give up her seat. "Her feet were hurting and she just wanted to sit down."
White had a powerful weapon to challenge Texas' policy of segregating undergraduate education in colleges. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Topeka (Kan.) Board of Education, issued 50 years ago today and just before her graduation from all-black Douglass, said laws mandating segregated public schools were unconstitutional.
Joseph Whitaker was Texas Western's registrar and director of admissions when White applied for admission. He denied the application because she was black.
"UT lawyers said the law says you can't admit into Anglo schools blacks," said Whitaker, now 89 and living in an East Side retirement center. "We can't admit you. It's nothing personal."
Whitaker said he received intense pressure from UT System officials who steadfastly opposed integration.
"One of the regents came to me and said, 'Whitaker, there's got to be a way you can keep these damn (expletive) out,' " he said.
White, aided by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, filed suit in March 1955 to seek admission to Texas Western. Her family says she received some legal assistance from Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who was the moving force behind the Brown case.
Whitaker said U.S. District Judge R.E. Thomason used a private meeting in chambers to warn UT lawyers and Texas Western administrators that little could be done to stop White from entering the college. White and her lawyer weren't present at the meeting, he said.
"It was all part of a plan, obviously," Whitaker said. "She was a pawn in the lawyer's hand really."
UT System officials decided to admit blacks to Texas Western before the suit went to trial. However, Thomason issued a judgment July 18, 1955, enjoining Texas Western from denying admission to White or any other black student based on race.
Twelve black students enrolled in the fall of 1955, the first integration of a UT undergraduate college.
White was not among them. She had already enrolled at New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces.
She spent two years at New Mexico A&M, then left school and married Maj. Curtis Camack. She had four children and worked at White Sands Missile Range before health problems forced her to retire. She died in 1985.
Her daughter said Texas Western's attempts to deny White admission based on race was part of a segregationist attitude that permeated El Paso.
"I remember her telling me about how they had to have in El Paso white-only water fountains," Camack said. "She had a lot of different atrocities in her family life in El Paso, so this isn't something different from that."
White paved the way for other changes at Texas Western. In 1956, a year after Texas Western admitted its first 12 black students, basketball player Charles Brown became the first black to integrate major college athletics in Texas.
In 1966, a Texas Western team with five black starters beat an all-white University of Kentucky team for the NCAA national basketball championship. It was the first time a team started five black players in the title game.
A few months later, Marjorie Lawson began teaching freshman and sophomore English at Texas Western, the first black faculty member in the UT System.
Marjorie Lawson died several years ago. Her husband, Juan O. Lawson, remembered his wife's hiring as one that involved the support of Anglo faculty friends, as well as some measure of cunning to urge the regents to consider her credentials rather than her race.
"At first, they did not want to hire her at (Texas Western) because she had let them know she was black," Lawson said.
Eventually, though, officials at Texas Western were able to find a way to diverge from practices that at the time could be used to deny her application based on race.
"They finagled around and were able to hire her without a picture," Lawson said.
Lawson, who also taught at UTEP, said that though he encountered some resistance from segregationists and some curiosity among academics who had never seen or known of a black physicist, he was able to focus on teaching and research.
"A number of them had not seen a black physicist per se, but the scientists were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt," Lawson said. As for the segregationists, "They just stood back and looked, and instead they didn't want to threaten themselves by getting involved."
Lawson, now a bishop in the Church of God in Christ, went on to have a prestigious career in the College of Science at UTEP, moving up the academic ranks and becoming from 1975 until 1980 the first black dean at a UT System school, then chairman of the physics department before his retirement in 1992.
As of fall 2003, UTEP's 21 black instructors made up about 2.5 percent of the faculty, while 33 percent of the faculty is considered minority -- either black, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, or American Indian.
Among UTEP students, 75 percent are from those minority groups, far higher than the statewide figure of 38 percent.
"Certainly in the area of students, the university enrollment very much reflects the demographics of the county that it serves," said Dennis Bixler-Márquez, director of Chicano Studies and a professor of multiculturalism at UTEP. "In faculty, it's a different story because you have almost a funneling effect with different choke points. I think we're still way out of proportion in terms of minority faculty."