Born to Serve: A History of Texas Southern University

Born to Serve: A History of Texas Southern University

by Merline Pitre

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Texas Southern University is often said to have been “conceived in sin.” Located in Houston, the school was established in 1947 as an “emergency” state-supported university for African Americans, to prevent the integration of the University of Texas. Born to Serve is the first book to tell the full history of TSU, from its founding, through the many varied and defining challenges it faced, to its emergence as a first-rate university that counts Barbara Jordon, Mickey Leland, and Michael Strahan among its graduates.

Merline Pitre frames TSU’s history within that of higher education for African Americans in Texas, from Reconstruction to the lawsuit that gave the school its start. The case, Sweatt v. Painter, involved student Heman Marion Sweatt, who was denied entry to the University of Texas Law School because he was black. Pitre traces the tortuous measures by which Texas legislators tried to meet a provision of the state’s constitution that called for the establishment and maintenance of a “branch university for the instruction of colored youths of the State.” When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1950 that the UT Law School’s efforts to remain segregated violated the U.S. Constitution, the future of the institution that would become Texas Southern University in 1951 looked doubtful.

In its early years the university persevered in the face of state neglect and underfunding and the threat of merger. Born to Serve describes the efforts, both humble and heroic, that faculty and staff undertook to educate students and turn TSU into the thriving institution it is today: a major metropolitan university serving students of all races and ethnicities from across the country and throughout the world.

Launched during the early civil rights movement, TSU has a history unique among historically black colleges and universities, most of which were established immediately after the Civil War. Born to Serve adds a critical chapter to the history of education and integration in the United States.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806161600
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/19/2018
Series: Race and Culture in the American West Series , #14
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 18 MB
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About the Author

Merline Pitre is Professor of History and former Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Behavioral Science at Texas Southern University. A former President of the Texas State Historical Association, she is author of Through Many Dangers, Toils, and Snares: The Black Leadership of Texas, 1868–1898, Revised Edition, and In Struggle against Jim Crow: Lulu B. White and the NAACP, 1900–1957.

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The Nucleus

Houston Colored Junior College and Houston College for Negroes, 1927–1947

Established to serve the African American citizens of the state of Texas, Texas Southern University (TSU) was born during the era of Jim Crow in a climate during which white Texans were desperately trying to hold on to a black-proof economic, political, and educational system. Although Houston Colored Junior College, established in 1927, formed the nucleus from which TSU became a state-supported institution in 1947, the call for a separate black university began as early as 1876, with the establishment of the University of Texas (UT). The 1876 Texas Constitution, in making provisions for separate schools, colleges, and universities, explicitly stated that "the Legislature shall also when deem practicable establish and provide for the maintenance of a college branch university for the instruction of colored youths of the state to be located by a voice vote of the people." Almost from the time that this clause was inserted into the constitution, both whites and blacks argued over its implementation. When Prairie View A&M College was established in 1878, the issue became even more complicated. Some individuals took the position to mean that with the establishment of Prairie View, the above-mentioned provision of the constitution had been fulfilled. Others argued that Prairie View was only a normal school and could not be classified as a classical university. Still others felt that if blacks were to receive a liberal arts education, a separate university with a curriculum similar to that of the University of Texas was required.

The chief proponents of a branch university were black legislators and the Colored Teachers Association. In 1888, Robert J. Moore, a black state representative, submitted a resolution that "the Board of Education be requested to make arrangements for a building site for the branch university and for raising funds as it thinks best." Another African Americanlegislator, Nathan H. Haller, introduced a bill in 1893 to establish a branch university for colored youths of Texas. Both bills died in committee. The evidence seems to suggest that from 1878 to 1895, both Democrats and Republicans were dealing more in rhetoric than in substance on this issue. But there appeared to have been a glimmer of hope on the issue in 1896, as blacks and some of their white allies gave support to the cause. In that year, the Texas Colored Teachers Association, one of the most vocal supporters for the branch university, asserted that "now is the time to strive for a colored university. ... Every teacher and preacher in the state must see the importance and necessity of this school." Robert Lloyd Smith, the lone black in the 1896 Texas legislature, made a motion in support of his white colleague's bill to set aside fifty thousand acres of taxable properties for the creation of a separate branch university. But no sooner had this bill passed than the Texas Supreme Court in the case of Hogue v. Baker (1898) nullified the action of the legislature and prohibited the land commissioner A. C. Baker from appropriating more land for educational purposes. It was not until 1915 that the state of Texas decided to take action on the branch university issue. Even so, the amendments that were proposed to provide land and money for black higher education were defeated.

Meanwhile, from the Reconstruction era to two decades into the twentieth century, black higher education in Texas existed through a system of private, church-affiliated liberal arts colleges — since Prairie View did not become a full-fledged normal college until 1924. A paucity of black state institutions of higher learning in Texas not only caused teacher training to be heavily dependent on black private colleges but also hampered the education of black teachers and students. Yet, given the Jim Crow system that existed in the South, if black students were to receive academic, industrial, or manual training, they would have to be taught by black professionals.

Despite the shortage of teachers during Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction, African Americans exhibited an insatiable appetite for knowledge. The illiteracy rate declined not only among the masses but among black Texans as well. In Texas, that rate declined from 53.2 percent in 1890 to 35.5 percent in 1920. A similar decline was also seen in Houston, which because of economic opportunities was well on its way to becoming the largest city in the state during the 1920s. Two decades earlier, oil was discovered in a well at Spindletop, located in Beaumont. This discovery had a tremendous effect on the southeastern part of Texas, including Houston. It transposed Houston into a boomtown and catalyzed a population explosion. And as the total population grew, so did the number of blacks. As such, Houston boasted of having the largest black middle-class population of any southern city. As this socioeconomic trend continued, blacks pushed for more schools and more teachers. For example, in 1900 Houston had one black high school (Old Colored High), but by 1911 there was a need to add a night school component to it. By 1926, another school was needed and added, namely, Jack Yates High.

In-service institutes and extension classes offered by private black colleges were used as a means to ease the shortage of teachers in Houston, as well as throughout other cities in the South. While both programs were used to improve the quality of teacher preparation, the in-service institutes posed a special problem because they did not lead to the bachelor's degree. On the other hand, the extension class movement, which swept across the South in the 1920s, led to certification and the awarding of a bachelor's degree. Wiley College, located in Marshall, Texas, and considered by many at the time as the best historically black college west of the Mississippi River, took the lead in offering one of the first extension class programs in the Lone Star State. Wiley opened its first extension class operations in Dallas in 1924 and made a similar move in Houston in 1925. At that time, there were only 175 black teachers in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), and of that number, only 16 held bachelor degrees. So, on September 11, 1925, at the request from a group of Houston teachers, Robert R. Davenport of Wiley College came to Trinity Methodist Church, which was then located on Travis Street at Bell Avenue in the Third Ward area of Houston, with a two-fold purpose in mind: to set up extension class operations and to register students. For the 1925–26 school year, extension classes were held at Old Colored High on San Felipe Street and included the following subjects: child psychology, French, rhetoric and composition, history, and government. These afternoon and evening classes were so popular during the academic year that the Prairie View alumni demanded that their alma mater participate in the extension school program. The demands for the classes became so great that during the second year (1926–27), additional faculty and building spaces were required. Jack Yates High, located on Elgin Street, was secured, but enrollment trends dictated that plans should be made for the future. Consequently, a visionary group of black citizens that included Ernest Ollington Smith, B. H. Watson, W. J. Smith, Helen Lafond, Mary E. Ben Isaacs, W. Leonard Davis, and Jacob T. (J. T.) Fox met with L. T. Cunningham, assistant superintendent of HISD, early in 1927 and requested the establishment of a colored junior college.

The citizen committee was very perceptive. Its members were keenly aware that at the time Wiley College began its extension class experience in Dallas in 1924, Houston Independent School District had just hired a new superintendent, Edison Ellsworth Oberholtzer. Oberholtzer was not only concerned with filling the void of qualified teachers via in-service institutes, but he also was in the vanguard of the junior college movement that was sweeping the state. His position was of special interest to black teachers because many of them did not and could not attend Prairie View's in-service institute and had to travel to other sections of the country to become certified.

Prior to African Americans meeting with Cunningham, a group of white high school graduating seniors met with Superintendent Oberholtzer in November 1926 to discuss what they called "an urgent matter." They were concerned with furthering their education but could not afford to go out of the city to do so; nor could they afford the tuition or meet admission standards at Rice Institute, the only institution of higher learning in the city. As Oberholtzer listened to their testimonies, he became more and more convinced of the need for a junior college system (for blacks and whites) in Houston. There were those who were of the opinion that Oberholtzer came to Houston with the idea of starting a junior college there inasmuch as the junior college movement had become a trend in Texas in the mid-1920s. Time would prove them right. Amid cries from the citizens of Houston, Oberholtzer moved to establish a junior college system. He asked Rice Institute's board of trustees to help in the preparation for this two-year college system. After being rebuffed by Rice because of financial reasons, Oberholtzer turned to his own board of education, the Houston School Board (now HISD).

When Oberholtzer made a presentation before the board of education, he made it clear that a junior college system would be established with the provision that it would be self-sustaining and would not create a debt for the Houston Independent School District. Such a proposal aroused a number of critics; chief among them were the ones who said "it would not only be unwise, but impossible to operate these institutions on a self-sustaining basis." Many of the school board trustees, although supportive, questioned whether such a system could be successful without a tax base. Oberholtzer responded with a proposed budget: a tuition fee of $150 per thirty semester hours, or $6 per hour for a part-time student. He also proposed that the board of education open a bank account of $2,000 to cover any advance cost. This amount would be repaid to the board at the end of the first year.

Oberholtzer also had plans for the physical plant, the staff, the faculty, and the issue of accreditation. During its hours of operation in the evening, the white junior college would use Sam Houston High, and the black junior college would use Jack Yates High School. By using these facilities, the colleges would not have to worry about maintenance, utilities, and janitorial services. The administrative staff would operate on what Superintendent Oberholtzer called the "Two-Hat Tier." Most HISD administrators simply donned another hat when they left for their respective junior college. The faculty was drawn from the ranks of senior instructors in Houston's public schools and would be paid a modest salary collected both from tuition and other income generated by the school district. Full-time members of the faculty would receive salaries ranging from $66.60 to $166.66 per month depending on their qualifications. Accreditation was also a major issue that had to be resolved before the Houston School Board would buy into the idea of a junior college. To this end, Oberholtzer proposed that both the white and Negro colleges partner with an established institution of higher education. As part of a binding agreement, the University of Texas and Sam Houston State would accept credits from the white junior college, while Wiley and Prairie View would accept credits from the colored college, thus giving continuous assurances that the new junior colleges were being operated in accordance with standards of the department of education and the Texas Association of Colleges.

After listening to Oberholtzer's plan, HISD passed a joint resolution on March 7, 1927, which cleared the way for the establishment of a junior college for white students and made provisions for summer school for colored teachers. African Americans then had reason to hope that a colored junior college was in the offing. The enrollment of three hundred students that summer far exceeded the expectations of the administration and bolstered African Americans' efforts to continue to push for the formal establishment of a junior college. Black Houstonians' dream came true on September 14, 1927, when the board acted affirmatively as the superintendent "presented a petition signed by a large number of colored citizens to authorize the establishment of a junior college for colored people."

Houston Colored Junior College

The Colored Junior College grew out of the need for a college to serve African Americans of Houston, especially for those whose only hope for higher education was by simultaneously working and studying. The purpose of the Colored Junior College was twofold: to make two years of upper-level education available to many who might not otherwise have the advantages of college training, and to enable teachers already in service to secure or to extend certification or to make up professional deficiencies. Similar to the white junior college, the Colored Junior College was established under the supervision of the Houston School Board with Edison E. Oberholtzer as both president and superintendent of public schools. Also included were L. T. Cunningham, who as assistant superintendent served as financial and academic director, and Jacob T. (J. T.) Fox, dean of the college. Fox was charged with running the day-to-day operations of the college.

At the time that the Houston Colored Junior College was established, Houston was experiencing both economic prosperity and troubling race relations. Spindletop, the site of the discovery of oil in the surrounding area in the Gulf Coast region of Texas, had not only placed Houston on the map, but it brought newcomers to the city from the countryside, from small rural towns, and from many other cities and states. Moreover, this was a time when black Houstonians were waging a legal battle against the white Democratic primary statute that held that "only white males" and no others could vote in primary elections. The full impact of this statute cannot be grasped unless it is understood that Texas was a one-party state. Winning in the Democratic primary was thus tantamount to winning in the general election. To be excluded from the Democratic primary was in effect to be disenfranchised. Because blacks perceived this action by the state in a negative light, they were determined to alleviate their plight. In the early 1920s they defined their problem as being twofold: the need for political freedom and the need to extend economic and educational opportunities. In their minds, their plight in Houston could only improve with a junior college in the midst.

On September 14, 1927, Houston Colored Junior College opened its doors amid joy, jubilation, hopes, and doubts. For those who were in charge, their uncertainty stemmed from the fact that the fall enrollment would not be as good as the summer's, since a large percentage of the summer students were teachers who had to return to their respective jobs, thereby leaving the college to rely on high school graduates. The opening of the college also was contingent on the number of students enrolled. The magic number needed for fall 1927 was 50 students able to pay tuition. Inasmuch as the college was self-sustaining, without having the requisite number of students meant that the professors had little or no assurance of receiving their salaries. Determined not to close the college, Fox came up with a plan to pay the teachers in the event that his recruitment efforts fell short of 50 students. The plan stated that at the end of the first month, one ninth of whatever money had been collected would be divided among the teachers; at the end of the second month, one eighth, and so on. As it turned out, the funds came in better than expected because three weeks after the opening date, Fox announced that he had 88 students. Perfecting its recruitment efforts, the college enrolled 103 students in the spring of 1928.

The Houston Colored Junior College made tremendous strides during J. T. Fox's administration. During his tenure, academic departments increased from eight to ten. They included science, education, English, history, mathematics, sociology, music, home economics, vocational education, and philosophy. The increase in the number of departments of necessity required an increase in faculty; and an increase in faculty brought a broader perspective to the students. In recognition of the rapid increase in enrollment and the quality of its work, Houston Colored Junior College received a first-class rating from the state department of education in 1927. In 1931, it became a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the accrediting agency for educational institutions in the South. Upon the death of Fox, the board moved quickly to get a replacement. It selected William Lucky D. Johnson as dean. No doubt Johnson was selected as acting dean for his administrative skills. He had served as principal of Blackshear Elementary and as former principal of Adult High School at Old Colored High (which is now Booker T. Washington).


Excerpted from "Born to Serve"
by .
Copyright © 2018 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

1 The Nucleus: Houston Colored Junior College and Houston College for Negroes, 1927-1947 3

2 The Emergency University and the Lanier Era, 1947-1955 21

3 Building despite the Odds: The Nabrit Era, 1955-1966 41

4 The So-Called TSU Riot: Joseph A. Pierce and the Committee of Three, 1966-1968 61

5 Carving a Niche: The Special Purpose University and the Sawyer Era, 1968-1979 78

6 A New Image, a New Vision, and a New Plan: The Bell and Spearman Eras, 1979-1986 102

7 The Fight against Merger: The Interim Years of Robert J. Terry, 1986-1987 119

8 Toward a Bold New Vision: The Harris Era, 1988-1993 130

9 In Search of a New Direction: The Horton Era, 1993-1995 145

10 Toward an Urban Academic Village: The Douglas Era, 1995-1999 157

11 Challenges, Opportunities, and Accountability: The Slade Era, 1999-2006 172

12 A New Beginning: The Rudley Era, 2008-2016 196

Epilogue 209

Chronology of Texas Southern University History 215


A Schools and Colleges of Instruction and Dates Established 219

B Academic Degrees Conferred and Dates of First Conferral 220

C Distinguished Alumni 221

D Athletic Championships 223

Notes 225

Bibliography 253

Index 257

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