Friday, July 16, 2010

"Keep the Negroes Out of Most Classes Where There Are a Large Number of Girls" -- 1954 University of Texas Registrar Henry McCown

Here in Austin the leadership at the University of Texas (my alma mater) has been shocked -- SHOCKED! -- to learn that one of their men's dormitories was named for a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The Board of Regents voted this week to rename Simkins Hall Creekside Hall. Everybody signed with relief, and that ended the matter.

And even I thought it had, though I had been amusing myself with speculating what the response of the regents during my years at the University would have been if we had happened to notice this history back then and brought it to their attention. I'm sure we would have been accused of wasting time on trivial matters and assured that the man was a distinguished professor, regardless of anything he might have done during that difficult time after the Civil War. I doubt they would have come up with an innocuous name like Creekside.

But this morning I read an enlightening blog post by USC Law Prof. Mary Dudziak that pointed me to the paper by University of Denver Law Prof. Thomas Russell that brought the whole issue to light. And I stopped finding anything at all amusing in this story.

To give you some context: William Simkins was from South Carolina, fought for the Confederacy, and after the war with the help of his brother organized the Florida branch of the Ku Klux Klan. He moved to Texas, and taught at the UT law school from 1899 until he died in 1929. He was known to give lectures on the Ku Klux Klan, but was apparently found loveable by the white, mostly male law students.

According to Russell's paper, Simkins was hired at the law school after the Texas Legislature had come sniffing around to see if the University was becoming too liberal and not educating students to be good southerners. (If you spend enough time around the University of Texas, you know this is not an uncommon exercise in legislative oversight.)

Fast forward to the 1940s, when Heman Sweatt, an African American working with the NAACP, applied for admission to the UT law school. After several years of machinations by the University, which included setting up a separate law school for African Americans, the U.S. Supreme Court put a stop to the nonsense with its ruling in Sweatt v. Painter. They didn't throw out the idea of "separate but equal," but they did find that what Texas was offering wasn't equal. Sweatt enrolled in the law school in the fall of 1950, one of six African Americans to do so (remember that number).

Sweatt v. Painter laid the groundwork for the landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which was originally decided in 1954, and then reargued in 1955, leading to a unanimous opinion that included the words "all deliberate speed." And now we get to what's worse than naming a dorm after an unrepentant founder of the Ku Klux Klan: The administrators at the University of Texas did everything in their power to limit the number of African Americans admitted to the University, going so far as to establish an entrance exam that favored white applicants. (The University had been open enrollment up to this point.)

The title of this post, which is also the title of Russell's paper, was said by UT Registrar Henry Y. McCown in presenting his post-Brown plan on admission of African Americans. The history Russell investigated finds efforts by all manner of administrators and elected officials to avoid complying with Brown.

Five weeks later in 1954, the University named its new dorm Simkins Hall. (Apparently his Klan history was not revealed to the committee in charge, even though it had been well known when he taught there 15 years earlier and was easily available.) I don't think there's any question that some of the people behind that decision knew exactly what they were doing.

But while the naming of the dorm for Simkins was a childish insult, the efforts to limit African Americans were all too successful. Remember back there when Mr. Sweat entered the law school in 1950 that there were a total of six African Americans admitted? When I entered the UT Law School in 1972, there were three African Americans in my class of 500 students. That was 18 years after Brown v. Board.

Things have changed somewhat, though I just discovered that the rumor I'd heard about law school tuition is correct: It's now $29,000 per year. To put that in perspective, tuition and fees came to about $400 a year when I was in school, and I got scholarships for it anyway. Even inflation can't account for an increase like that. These days, instead of behind the scenes machinations, finances are insuring that only the right people get to go to the flagship Texas law school, one of the best in the country.

The University is patting itself on the back for dealing with the dorm name change so promptly. Nobody is talking about the history of discrimination that went along with it. At least another generation or two of African Americans were actively denied education in Texas after Brown v. Board. Those were people of my generation and a little younger -- people who are still around. That didn't make the local papers.

Somebody want to explain to me again how racism is all in our past?


Timmi Duchamp said...

Nancy, what is the source of the quote in your post's title?

Just wondering.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

It's from Thomas Russell's paper. He also used it as the title of his paper. He attributes it to Henry Y. McCown, registrar of the University of Texas in 1954.

I do say that in the post, but it's low in the story because I wanted to take my time getting to it.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Ah yes, thanks. I caught it the second time through.

The distribution of income has just about returned to Gilded Age norms. I can't help thinking that the same people who've worked so tirelessly to make that happen are also interested in seeing the return of institutional & legislative enshrinement of the racist values dominating white societies of that same period return as well.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

One thing I'm pretty sure of: those living the Gilded Age lives do best when ordinary people blame their problems on other ordinary people of a different race, ethnicity, national origin, gender .... The current nonsense over immigration is one example. If people blame their job and social ills on "illegal immigrants," they won't look to see who's really pulling the job rug out from under them.

BTW, I added an attribution for the quote at the top, just so people would know who said it.

Josh said...

Yeh, Nancy, I often want to say to "post-racial" people, "So when do you think racism ended? The Seventies? Okay, did everyone whose lives were scarred by racism up to that point immediately die so we could start afresh?"

OT: down to its assumption that "Negroes" and "girls" are mutually exclusive categories, the registrar's statement is very reminiscent of Eisenhower's to Justice Douglas, to the effect that segregationists are "not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes." But Eisenhower sent the troops to Little Rock, believing more strongly in law and order than in his personal prejudices. We're seeing that kind of distinction break down, with military commanders defying their CiC, pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions, and of course the whole Monica Goodling business. People who neither believe that their duty to a larger institution might override their individual predilections nor recognizing that defying those institutions requires the courage to deal with the adverse consequences. It's like a grotesque parody of "freedom of conscience." And, with the assumption that all ethical decisions are made on the basis of individual leanings comes the eclipse of the idea that there could be any other loyalties or duties than the personal, so Lynne Stewart and Bill Kunstler are assumed (even by liberals) to share the beliefs of their clients.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Here's another good example for your list, Josh: A transit driver was fired for refusing to take two women to Planned Parenthood -- he was afraid they might be going there to get abortions. He's suing for religious discrimination, I guess on the same theory that some people in Michigan are using to oppose health reform (they might have to buy insurance from a company that covers abortion). It's very strange, these people asserting that their rights mean they can prevent the rest of us from exercising our rights, especially when you consider that most of the people making this assertion want to make the US a fundamentalist "Christian" nation and deprive the rest of us of our right to choose our own religious beliefs (or in my case, lack of them).

Eric Uys said...

It's interesting(?) that one can write a brief history of race relations at UT law school without mentioning Cheryl Hopwood.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Why would I talk about Hopwood in a discussion of the history of racism at the University of Texas? Her case might be relevant to a discussion of whether the University had changed its practices so that racism was no longer as big a problem, but that's not what this post is about. It's about the shameful history of the University with respect to African American long after the Jim Crow laws were thrown out, both before and after affirmative action was put in place.