Civil rights symposium celebrates 25th anniversary

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The students who helped coordinate the first Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights in 1986 boycotted their own event because of animosity toward the UT System Board of Regents, said two of the original planners.

The professors who created the symposium spoke on Thursday about the event’s history and the difficulties they faced in light of racial tension at the University at the time.

The symposium celebrates 25 years of commemorating the history and struggles of Heman Sweatt, the first black to be admitted to the UT School of Law. The U.S. Supreme Court case that allowed Sweatt admission was a predecessor to the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.

“His living legacy can be seen across our campus today, as the African-American students that are here participate broadly in every aspect of our wonderful university life,” said executive vice president and provost Steven Leslie.

George Wright, a former UT history professor, and Edwin Sharpe Jr., a clinical professor in the College of Education, played a key role in starting the symposium in 1986. At the time, black students represented 2.8 percent of the University’s enrollment. In Fall 2010, black students represented 4.3 percent of University enrollment, according to the Office of Information Management and Analysis.

“A group of the black students in my class, having learned a few things about Heman Sweatt, wanted to find the right way to honor the memory of Heman Sweatt,” Wright said.

A year later, after getting approval and a small allocation of funds from then-dean of the McCombs School of Business William Cunningham, Wright and Sharpe formed a committee to set in motion the process of creating the symposium.

However, the racial climate between UT and the black community in East Austin was tense because the UT System Board of Regents decided to secretly buy land in the East Austin area, Sharpe said.

“[UT] showed disregard for the lives of people living in the neighborhood,” Sharpe said. “[It was the] ultimate repudiation of the good neighbor policy.”

Sharpe and Wright said, as a result, the students who had worked to create the symposium refused to attend.

Despite the difficulties and racial tensions during the symposium’s first year, as well as continuing tensions throughout the 1980s at UT, the symposium continues to educate students about the story of Sweatt.

Students who attended the talk were unaware of the history of the University’s racial climate in the 1980s.

“Personally, I don’t know much about black history [at UT],” said freshman Chance Vaughan. “I think the talk helped me diversify my knowledge on people and culture.”