to Making the Case
HEMAN SWEATT (1912–1982)
Heman Marion Sweatt failed to achieve his goal of becoming a lawyer.
But Sweatt’s courage in pursing a lawsuit after he was refused
admission to the University of Texas School of Law paved the way for
other African-Americans to receive a legal education in Texas.
Born in Houston in 1912, Sweatt was the fourth of six children.
Sweatt was named after an uncle, Georgia businessman Heman Perry, but
his family always called him “Bill.” The young Sweatt
attended racially segregated schools in Houston, passing two all-white
schools on his walks to Douglass Elementary School. After graduating
from Jack Yates High School in 1930, Sweatt majored in biology at Wiley
College, a small, historically black college in Marshall. One of
Sweatt’s mentors at Wiley was the poet Melvin B. Tolson, who
encouraged his students to stand up for their rights.
After graduating from Wiley in 1934, Sweatt worked at several jobs,
including as a teacher and acting principal in Cleburne. But Sweatt
wanted to continue his education and enrolled in graduate school at the
University of Michigan in the fall of 1937. Michigan’s harsh
winter convinced Sweatt to return to Houston, where he found work at a
As local secretary of the National Alliance of Postal Employees,
Sweatt challenged discrimination against African-Americans at the post
office. Having developed an interest in law as a means to challenge
discrimination, Sweatt decided to apply for admission to the UT law
school. Sweatt agreed that if he was refused admission, he would be the
plaintiff in a suit that the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People wanted to file.
When Sweatt attempted to register at UT law school in February 1946,
officials there told him that nothing was available to him except an
out-of-state scholarship, which he deemed unacceptable. T.S. Painter,
the university’s president, kept Sweatt’s application but
requested an attorney general’s opinion on whether Texas law
permitted admission of an African-American at the law school. Attorney
General Grover Sellers decided to uphold “Texas’ wise and
long-continued policy of segregation.”
The dye was cast. On May 16, 1946, Sweatt filed Sweatt v. Painter
in a Travis County district court, seeking a writ of mandamus
compelling university officials to admit him to the law school.
Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African-American on the
U.S. Supreme Court, was one of Sweatt’s lawyers. On June 17,
1946, Judge Roy C. Archer declined to grant the writ and gave university
officials six months to provide a “substantially equal”
course of legal instruction for African-Americans. Although the state
did not provide the law school by the court’s deadline, Archer
dismissed Sweatt’s suit, finding that the state satisfied its
obligation when Texas A&M University board of regents passed a
resolution to provide legal education for African-Americans in
Sweatt appealed the ruling, and the Court of Civil Appeals remanded
the case for a new trial. The district court again denied
Sweatt’s petition, finding that the School of Law of the Texas
State University for Negroes established by the state on a temporary
basis in Austin was substantially equivalent to the University of Texas
law school, although Sweatt and other African-Americans refused to
register there. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the trial court,
and the Texas Supreme Court refused to grant error in the case.
In November 1949, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Sweatt’s
petition for writ of certiorari. At the April 4, 1950, hearing, Texas
Assistant Attorney General Joe
Greenhill presented a
historical argument justifying segregation in education under the
Fourteenth Amendment, but Sweatt’s attorneys argued that he was
not offered equal education and could not receive it in a separate law
school. A unanimous Supreme Court agreed in its June 5, 1950, decision,
finding that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
required Sweatt’s admission to the University of Texas law
school. The opinion laid the groundwork for the high court’s
landmark decision in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of
Sweatt registered at the UT law school on Sept. 19, 1950, but not
everyone was happy to have him on campus. Upon leaving the library late
one night, Sweatt found a large crowd brandishing a burning cross
waiting across the street from where he had parked his car; his tires
had been slashed. Ill health also plagued Sweatt, who had to have an
appendectomy that caused him to miss classes for seven weeks. He left
the law school at the end of the spring 1952 semester.
But Sweatt did not give up on furthering his education, earning a
master’s degree from Atlanta University’s Graduate School
of Social Work in 1954. Sweatt moved to Cleveland, where he worked for
the NAACP and the National Urban League. He later became assistant
director of the Urban League’s Southern Regional Office in
Atlanta. He died in 1982.
Sweatt’s contribution to the civil rights movement has not been
forgotten. In 2005, Travis County renamed its courthouse the Heman
Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse.