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Opening doors by Nancy Kolsti
Summer 2004      

other features

History of integration

Opening doors

Transforming history

Making college home

Greek life

A team united

Pride and tradition

Remembering the early days


Joe Atkins' reasons for wanting to attend North Texas were the same as those of many other 19-year-olds at the time — the university had a good academic reputation and it was close to home. Atkins ('66 M.Ed.) wanted to transfer from Philander Smith College, a small private institution in Little Rock, Ark., that he had attended on a one-year scholarship.

But in 1955, Atkins wasn't sure he could attend North Texas. Although the university was open to African American doctoral students, no African American undergraduates had been admitted, despite the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. that outlawed public school segregation.

'I just wanted an education'

  Joe Atkins

Joe Atkins

Atkins, now 68 and a real estate broker with Blair White Realtors in Dallas, says he wasn't looking to make history by deciding to enroll.

"I just wanted an education," he says. "My sister was going to be in college the following year, and I knew it would be hard for my parents to continue to send me to Philander Smith."

With violence erupting in Dallas at the time over civil rights, Atkins says his mother was a little reluctant about his decision to enroll at North Texas. However, they "were told that Denton was a college community and the attitudes there would probably be a little different," he says.

Accompanied by his mother and Juanita Craft, member of the Dallas NAACP, Atkins went to the North Texas admissions office in June 1955. He met with registrar Alex Dickie and then with Arthur Sampley, vice president for academic affairs.

Sampley described the university's plan to admit African American undergraduates, starting with senior students in the fall of 1956, juniors in 1957, sophomores in 1958 and finally freshmen in 1959.

"It was a cordial conversation," Atkins says. "He never told me that they would not admit me during that conversation. We insisted on an application, and finally they gave us one."

The court rules

A month after sending in his application and transcripts, Atkins received a letter from Sampley denying him admission based on race. Atkins and his father then met with the regional NAACP attorney, U. Simpson Tate, and Atkins' father filed suit on his son's behalf for admission to North Texas.

The attorney asked for a temporary injunction to allow Atkins to enroll in August. But after a judge's denial, Atkins instead enrolled at Texas Western College in El Paso, now the University of Texas at El Paso, which had just started admitting African American undergraduates.

"I had to continue my education while I was waiting for the decision about North Texas, and my parents did not want me to go back to Arkansas," Atkins says.

In December 1955, a permanent injunction was passed by the U.S. District Court in Sherman abolishing segregation at North Texas. Two months later, the first African American undergraduate student, Irma E.L. Sephas, began attending classes.

Atkins, however, was already comfortable at Texas Western. He didn't enroll at North Texas until 1962, when he began work on his master's degree.

"I was a part-time student and didn't live on campus, so I went unnoticed when I came back," he says. "I didn't experience any problems with prejudice. I was delighted."

Teaching success

While still a graduate student, Atkins began a nine-year teaching career with the Dallas Independent School District. He worked for 23 years as a field representative with the Texas State Teachers Association before joining Blair White Realtors.

He frequently speaks to UNT student groups. He was made an honorary member of the Progressive Black Student Organization in 1990 and previously received the Pioneer Integration Award from the campus chapter of the NAACP.

He says he is delighted about the experience of African American students today.

"The kids really fit into the campus," he says.



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