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?