They are older, wiser and share the distinction of being among the first black students to attend and integrate The University of Texas at Austin more than 40 years ago.
They could easily harbor resentment for having to push for equal access to participate in all aspects of university life, but many do not. Instead these alumni, who formed a group called the Precursors, have returned to campus to ensure that future generations of black students are supported at the university.
The Precursors and several of its members were honored at the 25th Anniversary of the Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights at a special Evening of Honors hosted by the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement last month. A total of 21 individuals, four couples, and three groups received Heman Marion Sweatt Legacy Awards. The awards were given to those who embody the spirit and legacy of Sweatt, the first black student to attend the University of Texas School of Law in 1950.
History of the Precursors
Since forming, the group has worked to create a shared modern history. It started with a handful of black men, called the Dudes, who met annually during the Texas Relays.
“We were once invited to meet a group of students and in one meeting we racked up $3,000 for student scholarships and then we said, ‘look at what we’ve done — let’s continue to do this,'” said Lonnie Fogle, the Precursors’ current president.
When the men invited the first black female students to join they changed the name of the group to the Precursors and set out to fulfill their mission to enhance the experience of black students on campus. Still, the Precursors actively apply their efforts to recruitment and retention and work with the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement as well as student groups.
During the Evening of Honors event, the Precursors also celebrated their own members’ contributions to civil rights and commemorated the 50th anniversary of the lawsuit that led to the integration of the university’s residence halls.
In 1961, Precursors Leroy Sanders, Maudie Ates Fogle and Sherryl Griffen Bozeman, two of whom were still minors and required their parents’ permission, filed suit against the university. During an emotional acceptance speech Bozeman, an ordained minister at Houston’s Brentwood Baptist Church, called the filing of the lawsuit a watershed moment that also created a watermark by leaving a lasting impression on the university.
Notable black alumni
Fogle and his wife Maudie were one of the couples honored recently for their commitment to bettering the campus climate for a new generation of black students. Fogle has been actively involved in the recruitment and retention of black students since the mid-1980s.
While living in Houston and working for DuPont, Fogle read about incidents of students donning blackface and chose to act.
“I said I could get involved with this, having been involved in the sixties and go and talk to the students and people on campus,” Fogle recounted. “The majority’s kids were doing some of the same things that their parents did twenty years earlier when I was a student.”
He became a life member of the Ex-Students’ Association, and began serving as a council member at-large, a role he continues today. During his involvement he saw the formation of a black alumni task force and served on a committee charged with developing a proposal to improve the campus climate.
Another Sweatt award recipient also honored by the Precursors was William Spearman. When Spearman graduated in 1964 it was bittersweet, he said. He had successfully fulfilled his degree requirements, but like many of his black peers he felt frustrated and shut out of the daily and social aspects of student life. Black students had to live in separate dorms, could not participate in official university-sponsored sports teams and were not allowed to enter the movie theatre or restaurants along Guadalupe Street. As a young activist, Spearman participated in protests and chaired the Campus Interracial Committee. On September 28, 1963, he delivered a resolution to the Board of Regents that called for the complete integration of university housing and athletics and the abolition of racial discrimination in faculty and staff hiring. Eight months later the Board of Regents voted to remove all racial barriers to housing and hired the first black faculty member, Ervin S. Perry, as an assistant professor in engineering. Coincidentally, Dr. Perry was Sweatt’s cousin.
Advancing the cause
During the 1950s and early 1960s when a significant number of Precursor males were majoring in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), there were no black faculty members on campus.
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“We had each other, but we were on our own,” said Dr. Charles Urdy, who received his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1962 from the university.
Despite the efforts the university has made to diversify its student body and staff since, there are still areas for improvement, in Fogle’s opinion. Fogle would like to see more faculty diversity in the STEM fields.
Another future goal that Fogle wants to see implemented is the creation of a university chapter of the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. As a former director for the organization, he identifies mentoring as one way that he has given back to his community. He said his time with youth has also allowed him an opportunity to not only counsel them on potential careers, but to also share through his story one attribute that he never lacked — persistence.
The Precursors said they are proud of what they achieved during their time on campus and believe that current students have the potential to serve as change agents if they collectively identify and rally around a common cause.
“We took the hits,” said Precursor Rev. Bozeman. “We took the licks because it was worthwhile to open the doors of UT for everyone.”