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Borderlands: Thelma White Case Forced College Integration 14 (1996)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Thelma White Case Forced College Integration

Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.

By Veronica Herrera and Alan A. Johnson

On May 17, 1954, a little girl named Linda Brown won the right to attend a school three blocks from her home rather than walk another three blocks to catch a bus that took her to an all-black school three miles away. That was the famous Brown vs. the Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas.

Thelma WhiteImage caption:  Thelma White..  (Photo courtesy of the UTEP Special Collections / 

On March 30, 1955, a high school graduate named Thelma White filed suit in the U.S. District Court challenging the denial of her admission to Texas Western College (TWC). This case was in El Paso, Texas.

These landmark legal cases marked the beginning of a slow but steady fight to integrate America's public schools.

Thelma White, valedictorian of the 1954 graduating class of El Paso's all-black Douglass School, became the first black student to be admitted to an all-white Texas University. When she applied at TWC (later UTEP), officials rejected her application because of her race. The college was forced to obey the state's segregation law. Blacks could attend only two public colleges in Texas: Prairie View A & M or Texas Southern University, both considerable distances from El Paso.

While waiting for her lawsuit to go to court, Thelma White enrolled at New Mexico A & M (later NMSU), where she was to continue her education.

Before the case went to judgment, the University of Texas System decided that the El Paso school could admit blacks. Meanwhile, Judge R. E. Thomason ruled that the state laws requiring segregation were invalid, that White must be admitted, and that the entire U. T. System must admit blacks to its undergraduate programs. Before this case, the law and medical schools and several graduate programs had been opened to blacks, but all undergraduate schools remained closed.

According to Leona Washington, also a graduate of Douglass School, Thelma White was quiet and studious. But White felt that she and other blacks were being denied their educational rights.

Meanwhile the Prospector, TWC's student newspaper, ran an article with the results of an opinion survey on segregation. The survey results showed that the majority of the students were not opposed to integration.

Texas Western admitted White and twelve other blacks for the 1955 fall semester: Joe Atkins, Bernice Bell, Mabel Butler, Sandra Campbell, John English, Marcellus Fulmore, Silverlene Hamilton, Margaret Jackson, Leonard McNeece, William Milner, Clarence Stevens, and Mildred Parrish Tutt. White's victory opened the door for the students, although she remained at New Mexico A & M.

Several other universities followed Texas Western's lead, but others moved slowly. Texas A & M admitted its first black student eight years after TWC, and Rice did not admit blacks until 1965. Other colleges in the South resisted integration and some required federal intervention.

The next year several more black students came to Texas Western College. Charles and Cecil Brown became the first black athletes to receive scholarships at a previously white Texas university. Edna Nixon, the daughter of Dr. Lawrence Nixon, also enrolled that year.

Thelma White died in 1985, but her legacy lives on at UTEP to this day. In her memory, UTEP has founded the Thelma White Network for Community and Academic Development. Sandra Braham, a member of the Network, said the committee was launched in September of 1993 by members of the UTEP staff, the black community and 100 UTEP students.

The network's single purpose is to assist black students with social and academic development at UTEP. Because black students make up only about 3 percent of UTEP's total enrollment of over 15,000, many suffer culture shock upon arrival on campus. The organization assists students in participating in campus and community activities as well as advising the university in ways it can be more responsive to the academic concerns of its black students.

Though White never attended UTEP herself, she paved the way so many others would be able to, including her daughters, Chantre and Kelly, and her son Lee. Today, black students are enrolled in virtually every academic program at UTEP, a fact made possible by Thelma White and her pioneering efforts to change the educational system in El Paso.

Tags: biography


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