In the fall of 1955, twelve African American students enrolled in Texas Western College (now UTEP), making it the first desegregated state senior college in Texas. The move came one year after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education and was prompted by a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of Thelma White (1936-1985).
In the wake of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education [347 U.S. 483 (1954); 349 U.S. 294 (1955)], Texas, as with many other states, delayed implementation of desegregation, as it followed the Court's rather ambiguous directive to desegregate at "all deliberative speed." By 1954, fewer than two percent of the segregated school districts in the United States had desegregated. However, in Texas, encouraged by the earlier ruling in Sweatt v. Painter [339 U.S. 629 (1950)], which directed the University of Texas to admit Herman Marion Sweatt to its law school as there were no "substantial equivalent" comparable to the first class institution in Austin. While state legislators scrambled to create a black graduate institution in Houston (Texas State University for Negroes, now Texas Southern University), the court ordered Sweatt admitted to U.T.'s law school. At the same time, Herman Barnett, a black medical student, applied to and was accepted by U.T.'s medical branch in Galveston.
Despite these gains by black students gaining admission to graduate schools and to several municipal junior colleges in Texas, the question of undergraduate desegregation at the University of Texas was held in check by the existence of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), such as Prairie View A&M in Texas. Required by the Texas constitution, these schools were held by segregationists to be comparable to other state schools, despite inequalities in funding and staffing.
In 1955, the NAACP chapter in El Paso sought to create a test case to challenge the segregation clause contained within Article VII of the state constitution. To bring the case, it needed a litigant from El Paso's segregated Douglass High School. The NAACP selected Thelma White.
Thelma White graduated first in her class from Douglass High School in 1954 and served as valedictorian at her graduation. With the assistance of the NAACP, she completed her application to Texas Western College and submitted it. The College subsequently returned the application along with her unopened transcripts, having rejected her for admission. Needing an explicit statement as to why she was rejected, White, accompanied by members of the NAACP traveled to Texas Western on the first day of registration. There they were met by the recently appointed president of the college, Alvin A. Smith. Smith politely explained to the group that under Texas law in force at the time, he could not admit White to the college, no matter her qualifications. White left the registrar’s office and drove forty miles north to Las Cruces, where White was accepted into New Mexico A. & M. College (now New Mexico State University).
White's attorneys filed suit in federal district court in March 1955, claiming White's rights of equal access to an education had been violated. That summer, in anticipation of an adverse ruling from the federal court judge (and former mayor of El Paso) Robert Thomason, the University of Texas Board of Regents voted to allow Texas Western to admit black students while promising to "investigate" desegregating the main university in Austin at a later date. On July 18, Judge Thomason ruled in favor of White, and ordered not only Texas Western College, but all Texas schools, including the University of Texas in Austin, to immediately desegregate.
That fall of 1955, Texas Western College admitted their first black students with Austin following the next year. In El Paso, ten students enrolled for the first day of classes and a total of twelve students in total attended that year.
Despite the ease at which the black students entered the formerly segregated university, the U.T. Board of Regents did not extend desegregation to all levels if university life. Participation in athletics, extracurricular activities, and campus housing remained segregated.
These bans on participation did not, technically, extend to the classroom. As a result, performance classes pushed the boundaries of integration. In 1956, the music department at Texas Western cast Bernice Bell in the lead role of the opera Mefistofele. Bell performed as the heroine Marguerita opposite a white male lead. Their love duets were the first interracial performances to take place on a University of Texas stage. Distance from Austin, however, proved the exception to the rule once again. When in 1957, one year after Bell's debut on the stage, the main university attempted similar interracial casting in their production of Dido and Aeneas, the backlash resulted in not only the removal of the black female music student from the production by the school's president, but also threats from the state legislature in funding cuts to the school should it attempt such casting again. The student, Barbara Smith (now Barbara Smith Conrad), would later be invited back to Austin to receive an honor from the Texas State Legislature in 2009 after receiving a distinguished alumnus award from U.T. Austin.
Article VII of the Texas Constitution addressed only the segregation of schools between the white and back populations, and never specifically addressed the creation of separate schools for the state's Hispanic population. In a quirk of the early censuses through the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. census classified all Hispanics, regardless of origins as "white," with the only reference to ethnicity in separate tables enumerating those who were foreign born or spoke a language other than English.
Amilcar Shabazz, Advancing Democracy: African Americans and the Struggle for Access and Equity in Higher Education in Texas (2004).