The North Texan Online UNT North Texan contents UNT North Texan feature stories UNT North Texan eagle tale UNT  North Texan alumni news UNT North Texan feedback
MoreUNT North Texan time tracksUNT newsUNT North Texan contact usUNT North Texan past issues
History of integration by Nita Thurman
Summer 2004      

story extras

African American enrollment

WFAA coverage of the 50th anniversary of desegregation

other features

History of integration

Opening doors

Transforming history

Making college home

Greek life

A team united

Pride and tradition

Remembering the early days

North Texas students

Above: North Texas students Bettye Morgan ('60), second from left, and from right, Burlyce Sherrill Logan, Floydell Barton Hall ('60) and Barbara Beverly Kincaide ('57) pose with friends on campus in 1956.

When high school principal Alfred Tennyson Miller enrolled at North Texas in 1954, he had a long history of legal segregation to overcome. In its 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court had sanctioned segregation of the races if facilities were relatively equal. The original case involved railway cars, but the "separate but equal" doctrine was expanded to apply to most facets of public life, including public education.

The first real crack in the doctrine came in 1950, when African American student Heman L. Sweatt filed a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination after he was denied admission to the University of Texas law school.

Since there was no equal facility for black students, the Supreme Court ordered that Sweatt be admitted to the all-white law school.
The ruling did not apply to all levels of study, but it set a precedent for things to come — and prompted Miller's enrollment in a North Texas doctoral course unavailable at the state's black colleges

He studied at North Texas that summer with relatively little notice and eventually went on to become an integration specialist with the U.S. Office of Education, helping many others along the path he pioneered at North Texas. Miller set a precedent for non-violent desegregation that endured.

The lawsuit at North Texas

However, when undergraduate Joe Atkins ('66 M.Ed.) applied to enroll at North Texas in 1955, a year after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, school officials balked.

In a 1977 oral history interview, North Texas President J.C. Matthews said he warned the Board of Regents that Atkins would file a lawsuit if he were denied admission.

"Their attitude was, 'Let him sue,'" Matthews said, "and he did."

In December 1955, U.S. District Judge Joe Sheehy issued an injunction prohibiting North Texas from denying admission on the basis of race. Atkins already had enrolled at Texas Western in El Paso, but the door he opened led to the arrival of North Texas' first African American undergraduates and master's students in 1956.

Irma E.L. Sephas began classes with little notice in February 1956, the same day a screaming, rock-throwing mob threatened Autherine Lucy as she entered the University of Alabama. After three days of violent rioting, the university expelled Lucy, saying it was for her own safety.

Determined to prevent similar scenes in Denton, Matthews ordered a virtual news blackout and kept television cameras out of classrooms. He even refused to brag about North Texas' peaceful desegregation.

"President Matthews' primary concern was that to point to the fact that nobody was throwing rocks at Sephas was to invite somebody to come and throw rocks at her," said James Rogers in a 1980 oral history interview. Rogers, now a Professor Emeritus of journalism, was university news director when Sephas arrived.

Yet, there were ugly incidents, Matthews said. Racial epithets were chalked on sidewalks, but crews were out before classes began to scrub them off. Crosses were burned in front of the administration building and at Matthews' home, but they were extinguished without publicity.

The freshman class

That summer saw several more African American students at North Texas, and in Fall 1956, the first group of freshmen enrolled. Among them were two young athletes, Leon King ('62. '72 M.S.) and Abner Haynes ('62), who integrated the North Texas freshman football team 10 years before an African American played in the Southwest Conference.

At the same time, Texas Gov. Allan Shivers was leading the fight against desegregation in Texas. In the fall of 1956, Shivers ordered state police to prevent the court-ordered desegregation of Mansfield High School. At Texarkana Junior College and Lamar State College in Beaumont, angry mobs turned away black students.

African American freshmen at North Texas did not encounter rock-throwing mobs, but they faced other forms of bigotry. African American students were not allowed to live on campus initially, so families in the traditionally black community of southeast Denton provided them with rooms and apartments. However, the neighborhood's distance from campus meant long walks in winter cold and summer heat.

Southeast Denton churches provided social activities for the students, who were not welcome in every store or restaurant. It wasn't until 1963 that the Denton City Council declared all city facilities and programs open to all races.

A turbulent decade

  Martin Luther King Jr. tribute

Students pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. after his death in 1968.

The 1960s saw the battle for civil rights turn deadly across the South. James Meredith integrated Ole Miss after weeks of violence. Civil rights demonstrators were beaten, jailed and killed. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail in 1963 and then led 250,000 people on a march to Washington, D.C., to articulate his dream for a united America.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. King was killed in Memphis. Robert Kennedy was shot in California.

Even so, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, prohibiting discrimination in schools, all public places and private employment. The act brought educational and job opportunities to African Americans.

Also in 1964, a group of local African American and white women formed the Denton Christian Women's Interracial Fellowship with the aim of making the integration process a smooth one for their children attending Denton schools. In addition to organizing tutoring and study sessions, they lobbied for street paving, held voter registration drives and supported integrated residential housing, among other projects.

At North Texas, African American students made small, slow gains in integrating student life throughout the '60s. Students joined the One O'Clock Lab Band and student spirit and service groups, worked for the student newspaper (the Campus Chat), and in 1968 chartered their own Greek letter organizations. They became cheerleaders, Yucca beauties and favorites, and student government senators and officers.

However, not until the end of the decade in 1969 did African Americans fill faculty and administrative positions. That year North Texas also offered its first Afro-American history class, and members of the newly formed Afro-American Student Union and campus NAACP chapter held a rally for better treatment, better housing and more faculty of color.

Next page: Protests and progress
1, 2, 3


UNT home UNT calendarCampaign North TexasNorth Texas ExesAthletics