Symposium celebrates legacy of UT's first black law student

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Members of Heman Sweatt’s family sat among faculty, staff and students at a book talk Thursday to honor UT’s first African-American law student. The talk was the first event of the 25th Annual Heman Sweatt Symposium, which will last throughout the semester. UT admissions officer Gary Lavergne spoke to a standing-room-only crowd to discuss his new book, “Before Brown: Heman Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall and the Long Road to Justice.” Following a U.S. Supreme Court case, Sweatt was admitted to the University’s law school in 1950, paving the way for integration on campus. “[The case] is an important part of UT’s history,” said Greg Vincent, vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement. “It’s also an important part of Texas history and American history.” When Sweatt applied to the School of Law in 1946, he was denied admission. At the time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attempted to find a plaintiff to launch a case to fight segregation. The civil rights group eventually chose Sweatt. Initially, the state attempted to avoid allowing Sweatt admission to the school by building another law school for African Americans in Houston. Ultimately, however, the Supreme Court decided that the new school was not sufficient, largely because the school was not equal in prestige or faculty experience to the UT law school. As a predecessor to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, Sweatt’s case ultimately allowed for admission of African American students at other institutions, Lavergne said. “You do not get to Brown v. Board without the Heman Sweatt decision,” Lavergne said. “In order to knock down the unanimous decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, you had to make sure that everyone understood that law was wrong.” In addition to providing details about the case and Sweatt’s life, Lavergne and Vincent also discussed Sweatt’s personality and his ability to stand up for his rights. “[The case] stands for the epitome of moral courage,” Vincent said. “Heman Sweatt was a modest, unassuming man. But he wanted to do what all of us wanted to do, which was to pursue his dream of a quality education at his university. Because of his moral courage, he made it easier for all of us.” Students at the event said Lavergne’s talk helped explain some of the roadblocks African-Americans faced in the mid-20th century. “The fact that this guy was willing to be the center of all this hatred blows my mind,” said finance sophomore Joe Niehaus. “It’s cool that he went through all the rungs of hardship to deal with that, especially since it’s so pertinent to this University.” The symposium will continue throughout the semester. The next event will feature a panel discussion about the history leading up to the creation of the symposium. It will culminate with a special evening of honors on May 6.