In just a few days, it will be the 105th birthday of Heman Marion Sweatt, born December 11, 1912 in Houston, Texas, a mere eight years before the KKK opened its city chapter there.
In 1946, Sweatt filed his historic lawsuit against University of Texas School of Law alleging racial discrimination as the only reason for denying his admission. He won four years later when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the law school to admit him. But more about that shortly. Let’s discuss his background first.
At age 17 in 1930, Sweatt entered Wiley College, which is the Marshall, Texas-based HBCU that in 1935 won the National College Debate Championship against white University of Southern California and recently in 2014 won the Pi Kappa Delta Collegiate Forensic Debate Tournament in a competition involving 80 (mostly white) universities from 26 states.
He graduated with academic honors in 1934 and two years afterward became a scholarly teacher and an academically-fixated principal. In 1937, he attended the University of Michigan and enrolled in intellectually demanding pre-med courses with many arduous subjects including immunology, bacteriology, and prophylaxis. His goal was to become a community physician. Although he excelled with a B+ average as a freshman, he chose to leave school and accept a much needed job as a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier because he needed a steady income and also because the Michigan winters were quite harsh compared to his experiences in Texas.
As a result of the systemic exclusion of Blacks in promotions to supervisory positions in the Postal Service, Sweatt, in his new role as local secretary of the National Alliance of Postal Employees, began to loudly expose and oppose that racist exclusion.
And outside his work activism, he engaged in political activism by leading voter registration drives to end white-controlled primary elections in Texas and also engaged in litigation activism by organizing fundraisers to finance the costs of civil rights lawsuits. It was his volunteer work with pro-Black civil rights attorneys that inspired him to want to become a lawyer and use the courts to demand justice for his people.
Accordingly, Sweatt applied to the University of Texas School of Law, knowing he’d probably be rejected, which is exactly why he had previously agreed with Texas’ NAACP chapter to be the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the law school. When his application was ultimately rejected, he- with the NAACP’s backing- filed his historic lawsuit in 1946. And check this out. In a letter from University of Texas President Theophilus Painter to Texas Attorney General Grover Sellers, Painter wrote, “This applicant is a citizen of Texas and duly qualified for admission to the Law School at the University of Texas,... except for the fact that he is a negro.” That racist actually wrote that.
Despite that, this heroic and intelligent Black man, with his lead NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, won the groundbreaking Sweatt v. Painter case in June 1950- but probably not for the reason you think. You might think the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that academically qualified Blacks should be allowed to enter any American law school. No. That wasn’t it. Instead, the Supreme Court said in its 9-0 decision that it was ordering the University of Texas Law School to allow Sweatt in only because there was no actual Black law school in Texas. In other words, if there had been an actual Black law school in that state, the Supreme Court would’ve completely agreed with the University of Texas. Nonetheless, the ruling did lay the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Sweatt enrolled into the law school in September 1950. But because this 37-year-old man, who was about 15 years older than the average law school student, had gone through hell emotionally as a civil rights employment/political activist, mentally as a civil rights plaintiff, and physically as a mail carrier, his health began to deteriorate.
At the same time, these problems were adversely affecting his marital life, which sadly led to his wife of more than a decade divorcing him. And as you can imagine, all of this emotional, mental, physical, and marital stress caused him to miss several class sessions and therefore receive poor grades, which resulted in him having to withdraw from law school during the second year of the three year program.
But this great man didn’t allow bad circumstances to beat him. He was knocked down but not knocked out. After leaving law school, he applied for and received a top academic scholarship at Atlanta University Graduate School, where he earned a Master’s Degree in 1954. He then worked for the NAACP and later the National Urban League where he was employed for 31 years, primarily in voter registration and also in support for southern Blacks migrating to the North.
As an aside, I must say the following: Just like Wiley College, Atlanta University (now known as Clark Atlanta University) is also an HBCU. If stories like Sweatt’s don’t compel today’s and tomorrow’s Black students to “come home to HBCUs where they’re loved, respected, appreciated, and empowered,” nothing will.
At age 50 in 1963, he remarried, had a daughter, and adopted a daughter. Sweatt died in 1982 at 69 years old. In 2005, the Travis County (Texas) Courthouse- where his historic 1946 lawsuit was initially filed- was renamed The Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse.
And in 1985, yours truly, Michael Coard, Esquire, graduated from Ohio State University School of Law, thanks to my ancestor Heman Marion Sweatt. Despite the emotional, mental, physical, and marital hell he went through for me and all other Black law school students, it’s good to know there was a happy ending for him.
That’s precisely why I say, with tears streaming uncontrollably down my face right now, “Thank You & Happy 105th Birthday, Courageous Ancestor Heman Marion Sweatt!”