Long before James Meredith became the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi, before a handful of black college students started a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a 33-year-old mail carrier walked into the registrar's office at the University of Texas. His name was Heman Marion Sweatt, and he sought admission to the university's law school. He might as well have chosen to walk into a hurricane.
The year was 1946. Sweatt, a Houston native with a college degree, was qualified to enroll. Administrators denied him for only one reason: He was black. In a nation divided by race, segregation was the law of the land, so the all-white university could shut the door on Sweatt. To unlock it, he sued. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor. That decision foreshadowed the Court's 1954 ruling, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that the mandated racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.
Although Sweatt v. Painter did not reject the doctrine of "separate but equal," the case affirmed that the state could not even come close to creating such conditions in higher education. The court concluded that established universities possess "qualities which are incapable of objective measurement, but which make for greatness." These subjective qualities, which would become known as "intangibles," include the "position and influence" of alumni. Moreover, Sweatt introduced a powerful idea: that student diversity serves an educational mission and public good. Sixty years later, this overlooked case continues to influence the ever-unfolding saga of college admissions.
The story of Heman Sweatt is a story about access, the law, and the struggle for civil rights. It's also the story of a man who left the comfort of anonymity to fulfill a purpose greater than his own aspirations. People cursed him and threatened him. Years of legal proceedings winded and weakened him. Still he persisted.
Long after Sweatt's death, in 1982, Gary M. Lavergne began to assemble the story of his life. As UT's director of admissions research and policy analysis, he had weighed questions about race and fairness. He had felt the heat of affirmative-action debates. He had testified before legislators and been deposed in a federal lawsuit, explaining how and why race factored into his office's admissions decisions.
Those experiences informed Mr. Lavergne's understanding of a man he could never meet. For five years he collected facts, reading tens of thousands of pages—court transcripts, correspondence, newspaper articles. He studied the early blueprints of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's plan for ending segregation. He drove to Houston to explore the neighborhood where Sweatt grew up. Along the way, he surveyed the history of Texas, of its flagship university, and of its black citizens.
This fall, Lavergne, 55, published his extensive account in Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice (University of Texas Press). The book provides a meticulous rendering of Sweatt's personal and legal struggles. Above all, Lavergne sought to portray this unsung applicant as a hero, but not as superhuman. The facts are that Sweatt stood 5-foot-5, weighed 130 pounds, and knew fear.
"When Superman stands in front of people and bullets are bouncing off of his chest, he's doing nothing courageous, because he knows the bullets are going to bounce off him," Lavergne says. "Heman Sweatt didn't know if he was going to be lynched. He didn't know if somebody was going to pull out a gun and shoot him on his way home."
Desegregation was a long, slow process. Fifteen years after Brown, Church Point High School, in southwest Louisiana, became one of the first secondary schools in the state to enroll a fully integrated freshman class. Lavergne, who is white, was a member of that class. He remembers the humid day that two black students—Walter Lewis Jr. and "Big John" Bellard—reported to football practice. Only later did he come to think of them as brave.
Most people in Church Point were Cajuns, a fact that, Lavergne believes, tempered the harshness of racism in his hometown. Most of the black people he knew growing up spoke French, just like his relatives did. Nonetheless, many white residents were opposed to integration. Lavergne recalls a popular sentiment among his neighbors: "Somehow, it was a burden being placed on us."
Time—and an education—sensitized him to the inequities in education. After earning a bachelor's degree in social-studies education from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (then known as the University of Southwestern Louisiana), he taught at a high school near Church Point for eight years. He later worked in other jobs within the school system, and then moved to Austin in 1989 to work for ACT Inc. In 1997 he became director of admissions and guidance services for the College Board's Southwestern Regional Office. That year he published the second of three true-crime books, A Sniper in the Tower, an in-depth account of the deadly 1966 shooting rampage on UT's campus.
Lavergne's many skills impressed Bruce Walker, who was UT's director of admissions from 1996 to 2009. Walker saw a man who understood admissions and statistics, who could distill complex issues with words, and who was also an advocate for access. "Gary's a student—always learning," says Walker, now the university's vice provost for special projects. "He has curiosity and a willingness to go find out." These qualities made Lavergne a perfect candidate to become the university's go-to guy for admissions data, which more and more legislators and parents were demanding to see.
When Lavergne arrived at UT in 2000, the affirmative-action debate was blazing. Four years earlier, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled, in Hopwood v. Texas, that the university's law school could no longer use race as a factor in admissions decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, and Robert M. Berdahl, then president of the university, declared that the decision would lead to "the virtual resegregation of higher education."
The Texas legislature responded with a new law meant to increase the enrollment of black and Hispanic students. Under the law, in-state applicants who graduated in the top 10 percent of their class would be guaranteed a spot at any state university.
Then in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Grutter v. Bollinger, that the Constitution allowed the University of Michigan's law school to use race as a factor in admissions decisions because its policy was narrowly tailored to "further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body." Lavergne read every word of the ruling the day it was issued. In the text, he saw a reference to another case: Sweatt.
Lavergne knew some things about Heman Sweatt, but not much. As he soon discovered, little had been written about the applicant who challenged the university and prevailed. "It never really got the attention it deserved," he says.
Hoping to change that, the author embarked on a different kind of journey than he had known before as a writer. His experience chronicling crimes, however, had sharpened his appreciation for details and his willingness to follow leads, he says. Accounts of Sweatt's upbringing had offered differing descriptions of the neighborhood where he grew up. Using records in the Houston Public Library, Lavergne determined that three-quarters of Sweatt's neighbors had been white. "The character of a person is shaped by place," Lavergne says. "I wanted to separate myth and folklore from reality."
For all the facts Lavergne unearthed, some things are unknowable, such as why Sweatt, an introverted mail carrier, agreed to help the NAACP in its crusade to invalidate the laws of segregation. Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer for the organization, needed a plaintiff to bring a case against UT's law school, but finding one proved difficult. Then one night in the fall of 1945, Sweatt stepped forward at a Houston church. "Many wondered why he would volunteer for such a grueling civic service," Lavergne writes in Before Brown. After all, Sweatt had a wife, a comfortable home, and a post-office job that paid him two or three times what black schoolteachers earned at the time. Sweatt would later call his decision "a brash moment."
That decision took him around a corner of history, changing his life as much as it would change the university.
Lavergne's account begins with the riveting story of Heman Sweatt's first visit to the University of Texas, on February 26, 1946. Sweatt and several representatives from the NAACP were greeted by a group of the university's administrators, which included the president, Theophilus S. Painter. The meeting took place in the registrar's office—Room I of the Main Building.
Sweatt carried a copy of his transcript from Wiley College, where he had earned an undergraduate degree. When he finally spoke, he told the administrators that he had a right to the same legal training as the state's other college graduates. Painter explained that scholarships to attend out-of-state colleges were available to Sweatt. The applicant replied: "I cannot go out of state to school, and I cannot wait indefinitely until some provision is made." He then handed his transcript to Painter.
After the meeting, Painter wrote to the state's attorney general, Grover Sellers. In the letter, the president wrote that Sweatt was "duly qualified for admission ... save and except for the fact that he is a Negro." The statement was significant. Administrators did not scrutinize Sweatt's credentials; that his alma mater was not accredited during his first two years as a student never became an issue.
"In a single sentence," Lavergne writes, "Painter reduced the issue to one of naked racial discrimination." Sellers rejected Sweatt's application and later proclaimed that the applicant "would never darken the door of the University of Texas."
By the time Sweatt filed his lawsuit, Texas politicians were scrambling to create "some semblance of the graduate and professional-school opportunities that generations of African-Americans had been pleading for and promised," Lavergne wrote. "Semblance" is the key word. The state established a makeshift "law school" for blacks in Austin, but Sweatt and his lawyers challenged the idea that the institution—created in haste and housed in an office building—could possibly become the equal of UT's illustrious law school.
Eventually, this argument prevailed. In its unanimous opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that UT's law school possessed various intangible qualities, including "standing in the community, traditions, and prestige." The brand-new law school, the court concluded, could not begin to offer students the benefits enjoyed by graduates of an established law school.
"Before Sweatt, equality, and by association, access, tended to be defined by material things, like books, buildings, salaries, and budgets—stuff that you could objectively measure," Lavergne says. "Sweatt introduced subjectivity into the argument, the ideas that there were some things that could not be measured, like the reputation of the faculty, the heritage, the influence of alumni. It didn't say that separate but equal was unequal, but it did something almost as good. It made separate but equal impossible."
The court went even further. In their conclusion, the justices wrote that a law school could not effectively operate "in isolation" from society: "Few students ... would choose to study in an academic vacuum, removed from the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views with which the law is concerned."
The threads of this idea entwine with the conventional understanding of college applicants. Just as institutions offer benefits to their students that are not measurable, students bring qualities to campuses that their grades and test scores cannot reflect. Moreover, admissions processes hinge on the understanding that diverse classes keep campuses from becoming a "vacuum." This is one reason public flagships recruit students from other regions. "We don't want our in-state students to have an insular experience," says Nancy G. McDuff, associate vice president for admissions and enrollment management at the University of Georgia. "They learn how to communicate with people who haven't eaten grits for breakfast."
Grutter affirmed that colleges have a compelling interest in enrolling diverse students. "Sweatt talked about how people interact and learn from students from different backgrounds," says Jonathan R. Alger, senior vice president and general counsel at Rutgers University, who coordinated the University of Michigan's legal efforts in two landmark affirmative-action cases, Grutter and Gratz v. Bollinger, also in 2003. "This foreshadows the idea that people do learn from that face-to-face interaction in ways that prepare them for life after they leave those institutions."
Amilcar Shabazz, a native Texan, has researched the history of desegregation at several of the state's public universities. In Advancing Democracy (University of North Carolina Press), he quotes from a revealing letter written to Painter in 1950. The author was Luciel Decker, a UT student, who sought assurance that W. Astor Kirk—a black man who was to enroll temporarily in the university's graduate government program—would not be allowed to take classes with white students, as the president had promised. Kirk's very presence, Decker suggested, would spoil the idyllic campus. "From one who used to sit out in front of the Old Main Bldg & pet your beautiful collie," she wrote, "please don't change your mind this year anyway."
Shabazz, a professor and chairman of the department of African-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, believes the sentiment expressed in Decker's letter illuminates the significance of Sweatt's story.
"The lesson to learn from Sweatt isn't just a question of a victory of a race, but instead it's a question of advancing the cause of democracy, in the most expansive reading of that," Shabazz says. "We all benefit when these institutions are not only diverse racially and diverse economically, but diverse in the heart. It wasn't just that Sweatt was black. The game changer was that he altered people's perceptions of who had a right to be someplace."
Those perceptions did not change overnight. Before Sweatt won his case, he and his wife received death threats. Vandals damaged their home. Stomach ulcers sent him to the hospital, and he suffered a heart attack.
By the time he enrolled at UT in September 1950, he was drained. That October, a wooden cross was set ablaze near the law building, yet Sweatt played down the incident in a letter written days later; students had been "very agreeable," he wrote. In the 1970s, however, he recalled that "the hostility was terrifying." Lavergne writes that the absence of violence would not have assuaged the fear Sweatt must have felt, and quotes Alfred Hitchcock: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."
Sweatt struggled as a student. Lacking the preparation of white peers, he could not write adequately. Stomach problems and an appendectomy forced him to miss weeks of classes. After failing several courses, he left the law school and returned to Houston in 1952.
The thirst for education did not leave him, however. Sweatt later earned a master's degree from Atlanta University's Graduate School of Social Work. For more than two decades, he worked for the Urban League. The grandson of a slave and the son of one of the first graduates of Prairie View University, in 1890, Sweatt raised a daughter who would become a physician. All of his brothers and sisters earned master's degrees.
The arc of the Sweatts' story awes Lavergne. "There was something in that family that drove them to want an education so badly that most of them left the state of Texas to get it," he says.
Lavergne's office lies just across from Room I, where the Sweatt case began. The long, dim hallway, lit by muted lanterns, looks much like it did in 1946. Today, though, the university's leaders and the state officials stand on the opposite side of the continuing debate over access. In court they have defended the use of race-conscious admissions policies, most recently in Fisher v. Texas, in which two rejected white applicants challenged the constitutionality of the university's admissions policies. (A federal district court ruled in the university's favor last year, and an appeal is pending in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.)
This fall, for the first time, a majority of the university's freshmen were nonwhite students, yet Lavergne believes that the institution has yet to move past its unfortunate racial history. "There are stories told by grandparents in living rooms and dining rooms throughout the state about how the University of Texas wasn't open to them," he says. "No wonder some people don't believe that we're trying to diversify this campus."
A poster of Sweatt hangs over Lavergne's desk, where he compiles regular admissions reports, loaded with statistics, for the university. At selective institutions, who gets in—and why—is a matter of public concern, yet the question of how to select applicants fairly has no perfect answer. Last year state legislators voted to cap the number of students automatically admitted to UT's Austin campus at 75 percent of the incoming class. The purpose was to give the admissions office more flexibility to achieve greater diversity than the 10-percent policy alone achieves. Since Grutter, the university has used race as one of several factors in its "holistic review" of applicants to fill the remaining seats.
For all the hard numbers colleges use to evaluate students, enrolling a freshman class is not a mechanical process. On many campuses, it's an artistic endeavor, based on subjective judgments and the consideration of "intangibles." This is the great and frustrating fact of sorting applicants at institutions where the demand for seats far outstrips the supply.
Each year rejected applicants and their parents walk into this office to plead their cases for admission. "I've seen people collapse with grief when their appeal wasn't successful—collapse with grief," he says. "For some reason, they believe there's nowhere else they can go. To me, that's a tragedy."
In 1946, Sweatt had no reasonable alternatives, no second-choice colleges. He was denied admission inside a building that symbolized the promise of an education—but only for some. Although one can only imagine what he thought when he walked out of the Main Building that day, what he would have seen on the edifice is certain. It's an inscription from John 8: "Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free."