The inspiring story of the courageous Houston mailman whose struggle to attend the University of Texas School of Law provided the precedent for the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that ended segregation in public education.
Series: Jess and Betty Jo Hay Series
On February 26, 1946, an African American from Houston applied for admission to the University of Texas School of Law. Although he met all of the school's academic qualifications, Heman Marion Sweatt was denied admission because he was black. He challenged the university's decision in court, and the resulting case, Sweatt v. Painter, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Sweatt's favor. The Sweatt case paved the way for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka rulings that finally opened the doors to higher education for all African Americans and desegregated public education in the United States.
In this engrossing, well-researched book, Gary M. Lavergne tells the fascinating story of Heman Sweatt's struggle for justice and how it became a milestone for the civil rights movement. He reveals that Sweatt was a central player in a master plan conceived by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for ending racial segregation in the United States. Lavergne masterfully describes how the NAACP used the Sweatt case to practically invalidate the "separate but equal" doctrine that had undergirded segregated education for decades. He also shows how the Sweatt case advanced the career of Thurgood Marshall, whose advocacy of Sweatt taught him valuable lessons that he used to win the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 and ultimately led to his becoming the first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
2010 Coral Horton Tullis Memorial Prize for Best Book on Texas History
Texas State Historical Association
2011 Carr P. Collins Award
Texas Institute of Letters
- Chapter 1: Prologue
- Chapter 2: One of the Great Prophets
- Chapter 3: The Cast of Characters
- Chapter 4: Iron Shoes
- Chapter 5: The Shadow of Failure
- Chapter 6: The Second Emancipation
- Chapter 7: A University of the First Class
- Chapter 8: "A Brash Moment"
- Chapter 9: The Great Day
- Chapter 10: "Time Is of the Essence"
- Chapter 11: "The Tenderest Feeling"
- Chapter 12: The Basement School
- Chapter 13: A Line in the Dirt
- Chapter 14: "I Don't Believe in Segregation"
- Chapter 15: The Sociological Argument
- Chapter 16: The House That Sweatt Built
- Chapter 17: "Don't We Have Them on the Run"
- Chapter 18: A Shattered Spirit
- Chapter 19: The Big One
- Chapter 20: Why Sweatt Won
- Chapter 21: Epilogue
- Bibliography and Notes on Sources
When I reported for football practice as a freshman on the campus of Church Point High School in Louisiana in the fall of 1969, the news on the insufferably hot and humid field was not about whether we were going to have a winning season but about how many "colored" students were going to report for school in a couple of weeks. Church Point High had enrolled a few African Americans as students the previous year, but my freshman class in 1969-1970 was going to be the first fully integrated one in the school's history—and one of the first in all of Louisiana. Under a court order at the time, Church Point High School would first have an integrated freshman class, then a fully integrated high school the next year.
I remember that two African American freshmen, Walter Lewis, Jr., and "Big John" Bellard, reported to football practice that day two weeks before the opening of school. They were fourteen or fifteen years old, and they must have felt terribly alone. Two years before, three girls in my class, Desiree Guidry, Priscilla Meche, and Roslyn Duplechin, first broke the color barrier when they attended Church Point Elementary School as part of a "pre-integration" program to determine how the whites of Church Point would react to racial integration. Today, Duplechin believes that the program added to the smooth transition of the integration of Church Point schools, and I know her to be right. Until I wrote this book, I never thought of Walter, Big John, Desiree, Priscilla, and Roslyn as courageous. I see now that none of the rest of us, in my four years at Church Point High, ever had to summon the courage they had to walk through those doors.
Among the advantages enjoyed by white students at Church Point, our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters had gone there before us. We knew the principal and almost all of the teachers, aides, cafeteria workers, and janitors. The high school was in our neighborhood.
We were kids. I wish we had appreciated the history going on around us. The integration of Church Point High School went fairly smoothly compared to the battles that accompanied desegregation in most other places in Louisiana and the South, but I look back on that experience and wish we had all been kinder to one another. I wish I had had enough brains back then to recognize heroes. Perhaps not surprisingly, we tended to racially segregate ourselves while on campus, and thirty years later we did so again during our class reunion until a DJ played music and we all formed lines and danced.
The desegregation of schools like Church Point High came about because courageous black applicants to white colleges, like Heman Marion Sweatt, of Texas, went inside those institutions while they were still segregated, submitted applications to sometimes hostile administrators, and fought long court battles.
I want Before Brown to be more than a biography of a single plaintiff in a Supreme Court case. Having been an American history teacher for many years, I have learned that before attempting to teach anything, teachers should do what is called a task analysis. For example, before students can learn algebra, they must know mathematics, and before mathematics, they must know how to count.
This book tells a story and is intended for a general readership of students of all ages interested in the history of the American civil rights movement. As Hugh Kennedy stated in the foreword of one of his books, "I use the word 'story' deliberately. I have written a determinedly narrative history that concentrates on people and events." The life of Heman Sweatt is an often-overlooked chapter in that remarkable history: the end of state-sanctioned racial segregation, usually associated with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling in 1954, was a linear process that started much earlier. Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and its two companion cases are tragically neglected milestones in that process. The result of my task analysis of the Heman Sweatt story took me down a longer road than I imagined, but every mile was worth it. The road to victory in Sweatt and Brown was the result of more than just cogent legal reasoning and courtroom arguments. To the social-science purist, rigidly wedded to the architecture of a scholarly thesis, I make no apologies, but provide extensive citations for everything in this book.
The first chapters provide an overview of the Texas African American experience as seen through the eyes of a family of former slaves by the name of Sweatt. By definition, my task-analysis approach requires extensive backstory on topics like Texas's oppressive constitution and voting laws and practices like the white primary. In the middle chapters, I cover the impact of African American pastors, private black colleges, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and African American newspapers as sources of hope for an oppressed people. Meanwhile, the Texas Permanent University Fund, the white primary, and the University of Texas represented examples of privilege for the white establishment. Each topic is a dot in the linear progression that was the long road to justice for Heman Marion Sweatt. I make the case that state-sanctioned segregation immediately after Sweatt, while not explicitly ruled unconstitutional, nonetheless became a legal and practical impossibility. The closing chapters are mainly about why Sweatt won his case.
Some of the material of this book is transcribed trial testimony. Direct and cross-examination of witnesses in a court of law can be as dramatic as any novel—it certainly is in this case—and I want readers to feel as if they are in the courtroom. But anyone with experience with transcripts and depositions (such as the Watergate transcripts) knows that reading words exactly as they were spoken can be maddening. Throughout this work, I alert the reader to the occasions I mildly edited spoken words purely for clarity.
Finally, writing about race is emotional and difficult. A story teaches nothing and serves no purpose unless it provokes emotion of some kind—satisfaction, laughter, sorrow, outrage, or fear. Effective storytelling is sometimes offensive. As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, our nation has not yet found peace from its sins; punishment for the sin of American slavery manifests itself in many ways, and one is persistent uncertainty about how to refer to African Americans. My choice of words, especially decisions on when to use "black," "African American," and "Negro," and related decisions on when to capitalize certain words, reflect my sincere determination to be both sensitive and historically honest.
“The fight to open the University of Texas to all was a turning point that led to the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the racial segregation it had sanctioned in Plessy. Those who take racial diversity at our preeminent institutions of higher education for granted do so at great peril and diminish the sacrifices of Sweatt and others. Read this book and find out why.”
Amilcar Shabazz, Professor and Chair, W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst
“Like Texas’s founding fathers, Sweatt fearlessly faced evil, and made Texas a better place. His story is our story, and Gary Lavergne tells it well.”
Paul Begala, political contributor, CNN