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 post office.
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 Houston.
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 Topeka.
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.