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Pioneering black women help mark anniversary

Profile image for By Rachel Mehlhaff / Staff Writer
By Rachel Mehlhaff / Staff Writer

When Alsenia Dowells stepped onto on the Texas Woman's University campus 50 years ago, she ended years of segregation and paved the way for future students.

The university celebrated 50 years of desegregation Saturday by remembering Dowells' legacy and hearing from the first group of black students to graduate from TWU in 1966.

Although she died in 1988, a few of Dowells' children attended the celebration.

For Dowells' daughter Phylette Harrison, it was moving to see the difference her mom made.

"It made me so proud," Harrison said.

Dowells began studying nursing at TWU in 1961, after the board of regents voted to desegregate the university and allow her to attend. She was the only black student that first year - her first and last at TWU.

She went on to work in labor and delivery at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, said Brittany Martin, who presented the professional paper she wrote while she was studying history at TWU.

The paper, "Breaking the Color Barrier: the Desegregation of Texas Woman's University," chronicled not only the desegregation of TWU but a history of the civil rights movement in general.

Martin said other black students had applied for admission to TWU before Dowells but were not accepted.

In 1962, six black women enrolled.

"Alsenia Dowells opened the door," Martin said.

Among the first black graduates of TWU were Gloria Washington, Liz Johnson, Sharon Cranford, Ruby House and Bettye Gobern, who shared their experiences Saturday afternoon during a panel discussion called "Voices of the First Graduates."

The women shared their memories of what it was like to be students during that time from their first day on campus to their last, sharing the difficulties they encountered and the good times they had.

Because they were the only black women on campus and dorms were segregated, the women formed a tight bond.

"We just became family overnight," Cranford said.

House and Gobern knew each other before they attended TWU.

"Part of the comfort for me was having Ruby there and then meeting the rest of the black students," Gobern said.

The women shared some of the difficult times they faced on campus.

Gobern felt ignored during her time at TWU, especially when she first arrived on campus. House wasn't able to go into the segregated bowling alley even though she was in a league. And Cranford, eager to participate in and travel with the choir, found out she wouldn't be traveling because rooms weren't integrated.

She was also told that she couldn't take part in TWU's Modern Choir because that was for white students only; she was confined to the University Chorus along with the other "untrained voices," she said.

But her voice professor, Joan Wall, encouraged her to try again the next year. She did, and was accepted.

"There were difficulties," Cranford said. "But there were bright spots."

By the time graduation rolled around, some of the women were angry about how they had been treated. But their experiences weren't all bad; the women shared some good times at TWU.

Gobern remembers being late for room checks once, when her twin sister covered for her and let her back into their room through the window.

Cranford wasn't so lucky. Gobern's sister didn't save Cranford when she missed curfew and the gate was locked.

"We had fun with each other," Cranford said.

Gobern also remembers the women having their pick of men around town and from the University of North Texas as well as from the nearby air force base - "Gloria married one of them," she said.

She enjoyed going to the "old maid" movies and House enjoyed congregating in the cafeteria.

"We had really great times together," Gobern said. "There were a lot of bright spots."

RACHEL MEHLHAFF can be reached at 940-566-6889. Her e-mail address is