Of all the changes that the university experienced in the past 75 years,
none have been as significant as desegregation. A. Tennyson Miller, a
black educator from Port Arthur, entered graduate school in 1954. In
June 1955, Joe L. Atkins of Dallas applied for admission as an
undergraduate student. He was refused entrance and brought a suit in the
United States District Court, Fifth Circuit. During the time the suit
was pending Mr. Atkins began his studies at another institution. Mrs. I.
E. L. Sephas of Fort Worth became the first African American
undergraduate when she enrolled in February 1956. By summer more than
fifty African Americans were enrolled.
This issue of Campus Chat barely mentions her arrival on campus, with a
below the fold headline stating “First Negro Undergraduate Enrolls,”
however the mild headline belies the turmoil on campus at the time. It is
known from later interviews that President J.C. Matthews dispatched crews
to campus in the early morning hours to erase racial epithets which had
been chalked on sidewalks and to extinguish a burning cross on the lawn
of the Administrative Building.
Abner Haynes and Leon King became the first African-American students to
play on the football team in the fall of 1956. Playing on one of the first
integrated teams in Texas, Haynes and King faced racism on and off the field.
Coach Fred McCain had to ensure in advance that the team had places to eat
and sleep while they were on the road, and resorted to bologna sandwiches
on at least one occasion. Rival teams also took issue playing an integrated
team. After winning a game against Navarro Junior College in 1956 the team
was chased onto their bus by an angry mob.