Black History Month: Wiley alumnus Heman Sweatt helped desegregate Texas law schools
Before the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education, there was a lesser known case right here in Texas that paved the way for the end of segregation in the United States, Sweatt vs. Painter.
The plaintiff in the case, Heman Sweatt, was an alumnus of Wiley College in Marshall and a man who spent his entire life fighting for social justice in Texas and beyond.
“Sweatt vs. Painter had a huge impact on the work to stop the separate but equal ruling of the time,” said retired Harrison County Judge William Hughey, “What that case did was fought to desegregate professional schools, and it’s just one step from there to desegregate all of our schools.”
Sweatt grew up in the Houston area, attending segregated schools before eventually attending Wiley College to receive his undergraduate degree in biology. Sweatt worked a number of jobs after his graduation, including as a teacher and as acting principal, before moving to Michigan to attend medical school for a time. Sweatt then moved back to Texas, taking up work at the post office.
Working as a leader in the National Alliance of Postal Employees, Sweatt took a stand against racist promotional practices that often left Black employees out of the running for higher level positions at the post office.
While working on his case against the postal service, Sweatt became interested in the law and decided that he would attend law school in Texas.
However, at the time, no law school in the state allowed Black students to enroll. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Texas was looking to address this issue and needed someone willing to apply to the University of Texas school of Law to fight against it.
Sweatt agreed, and in 1946 he applied for admission to the law school and was rejected admission based on his race. This led to the filing of Sweatt vs. Painter in May 1946.
The case was a landmark case that directly addressed the issues with the separate but equal idea surrounding segregated professional level schools in Texas. Judges initially ruled in the case that the University of Texas would be required to create a separate, but equal educational alternative for Black students in the state.
However, Sweatt and his team of lawyers continued to argue against the ruling, stating that there was no equality in education if students were forced to attend separate schools. In 1950 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sweatt’s favor, and he officially attended UT law school in June that year.
Poor health, years of emotional stress and hardship, as well as the continued threats and violence perpetrated against Sweatt during this time period took their toll on him, and Sweatt decided to drop out of the school in 1952 and returned to Houston.
“Sweatt, he never completed his journey but he took the first step for all of us, and the first step, that’s always the hardest part,” Hughey said.
Though Sweatt never became a lawyer himself, he paved the way for Black students to receive law degrees in Texas, and later his case’s ruling became a key factor in the decision made by the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education.
“When I was at Wiley (as an adjunct professor) I made a point to ask those students if they knew the true impact of what Mr. Sweatt did,” Hughey said, “He walked these grounds, he walked through our buildings and he made a huge impact on the civil rights movement.”
The suit filed by Sweatt was also the reason for the establishment of the School of Law of the Texas State University for Negroes, later joining with another school to become Texas Southern University.
“He is largely credited, or at least the case Sweatt vs. Painter, is credited with the creation of what is now known as the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University,” Hughey said.
But Sweatt’s legacy lives on today around the country, and especially at his alma mater Wiley College, where in 2019 President Herman Felton officially opened the Hemann Sweatt Center for Social Good and Leadership.
Dr. Keyona White, who is an attorney herself, now runs the center, which she said focuses on continuing Sweatt’s legacy of social justice and impacting change by working to better both Wiley College and the community of Marshall.
White, like Sweatt, not only received her undergraduate degree from Wiley College, but went on to attend the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. Not only following in his professional footsteps, White shared that she was inspired by the case of Trayvon Martin in 2012 to get her legal degree, after the case against Martin’s killer failed to get justice for the teenage boy.
“Immediately I went to my brother and said ‘We have to go to law school, we have to do something about this so that when this happens again we can actually do something to change what happens’.” White said, “Which I did, and I graduated from law school a few years later.”
White said that she is inspirted by Sweatt’s legacy, and reflects on how without him, she would never be able to do all of the work she has done in her lifttime, including running the center at Wiley College.
She continues that legacy by work with students and local organizations to promote social justice and change, focusing on voting rights and awareness, womens rights, police brutality and much more.
White said a key component to the center’s work is not only bringing awareness to issues, but actively working towards change. The center has worked to organize a range of political rallies to keep voters informed and even organized to drive community members and students to the polls themselves.
Additionally, during Black History Month, the center will be working to host radio programs by Wiley Students along with Dr. White, which feature discussions on key issues faced by Black community members today.
“I really believe that we won’t get anywhere is we are too afraid to have these hard conversations, and to feel uncomfortable sometimes and talk about things that are difficult, that’s the only way we can work towards change,” White said.
She added that one topic of conversation on the planned program will be the recent killing of Tyre Nichols by five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Activism can come from anywhere, and I believe that Mr. Sweatt’s legacy shows that, I don’t think he set out to be a civil rights activist but he became one,” White said.