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Caitlyn Jones

Denton shows strength and strife when integrating schools

Profile image for By Caitlyn Jones
By Caitlyn Jones
Alsenia Dowells poses for a 1962 Texas Woman’s University yearbook photo. Dowells was the first African American admitted to TWU in 1961, but left after one year.Courtesy photo
Alsenia Dowells poses for a 1962 Texas Woman’s University yearbook photo. Dowells was the first African American admitted to TWU in 1961, but left after one year.
Courtesy photo
Joe Atkins poses for a yearbook photo in the 1960s. Atkins sued North Texas State College — now the University of North Texas — in 1955 for discrimination after his application was denied.Courtesy photo
Joe Atkins poses for a yearbook photo in the 1960s. Atkins sued North Texas State College — now the University of North Texas — in 1955 for discrimination after his application was denied.
Courtesy photo

In 1896, a U.S. Supreme Court court case established public facilities should be “separate but equal” for the races. More than a century later, the lens of history shows us the fallacy of that phrase.

State and local ordinances — known broadly as Jim Crow laws — were put in place to establish segregation as an unquestioned way of life in the South. In Texas, that meant black citizens couldn’t live in certain parts of town, patronize certain businesses or attend certain schools.

In places where African-Americans could go, facilities were separated into “colored” and “white” categories. Unsurprisingly, the facilities for white people were far superior to those belonging to their black counterparts.

By the 1950s, the status quo was beginning to shift, albeit slowly. The 1954 landmark court case Brown vs. Board of Education declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, a decision that was met with much resistance.

Many schools in the South kicked off their school years with visits from the National Guard — sometimes to prevent black students from entering schools and other times making sure white citizens didn’t harm them.

The threat of violence wasn’t relegated to places like Little Rock, Arkansas, or Clinton, Tennessee. In Mansfield, just 60 miles south of Denton, a white mob hung effigies in the entryway of the high school to try to intimidate black students.

Though not without its challenges, the process of integration in Denton public schools and universities went along smoothly. Many attribute that to the people, both black and white, who worked tirelessly to turn “separate but equal” into “together and fair.”

University of North Texas

Before Brown vs. Board of Education went to the U.S. Supreme Court, an African-American man named Heman Sweatt sued the University of Texas at Austin in 1950 to attend its law school. The court ordered the university to admit Sweatt and thus opened doors for other universities to desegregate.

The University of North Texas — then known as North Texas State College — admitted Alfred Tennyson Miller to a doctoral summer course in 1954, but problems arose when Joe Atkins tried to enroll in the fall of 1955.

Atkins’ application had been approved by the admissions committee, but the Board of Regents refused to let him attend. Then-President J.C. Matthews said later in a 1977 UNT oral interview that board members weren’t concerned about a potential lawsuit.

“Their attitude was, ‘Let him sue,’” Matthews said, “and he did.”

Atkins had already enrolled in the University of Texas-El Paso by the time a judge ordered North Texas to desegregate, but the impact of the lawsuit was lasting. The university admitted its first black students in 1956 with little media attention, but racially motivated incidents did occur.

Matthews said slurs were chalked on the sidewalks and crosses were burned in front of his home. And while classes had been desegregated, black students weren’t allowed to live on campus or go to restaurants around the school.

Dennis Dunkins, a 1963 African-American graduate, recalled an incident at a restaurant near Voertman’s bookstore with a group of white students who had invited him to lunch.

“We went over and the [restaurant owners] wouldn’t serve me,” he said during a 2006 UNT oral interview. “The guys decided, ‘If they’re not going to serve him, then we’re not going to stay.’ So, we all walked out.”

Afterward, a group of white and black students launched a picket campaign to desegregate businesses around the school. Dunkins said though he never experienced much in the way of overt racism from students or professors, his four years at North Texas strengthened his character.

“I learned how to cope with life,” he said. “I learned how to take the punches and move on. I learned how, when you get knocked down, how to get back up and continue to fight, to not give up.”

Texas Woman’s University

On the north side of town, the Texas Woman’s University Board of Regents followed in UNT’s footsteps and unanimously voted to desegregate in 1961. The school admitted its first African-American student that year, but Alsenia Dowells only stayed for a year.

“She wasn’t treated very well,” TWU spokeswoman Amanda Simpson said. “She was alone. The women who came after her had each other.”

The following year, seven black women enrolled in TWU and became the university’s first African-American graduates four years later. In a 2011 Denton Record-Chronicle article celebrating the 50th anniversary of integration, the women said they encountered many of the same problems their North Texas counterparts faced.

They had to attend movies on campus because they weren’t allowed in the city’s theaters. Some professors continued to use racial slurs in their lectures, and when students went to visit Texas A&M University, the black women weren’t allowed to go.

One of the women, Gloria Washington, worked for the student newspaper at the time and had to write an article about one of the visits. Because she was black, she had to ask a white student to tell her about the trip.

“The main thing for us was we were there for one reason, and that was to graduate,” Washington told the Record-Chronicle.

Not all of the experiences were unpleasant, the women said. Many of them developed a bond from living in the same dormitory, and several faculty members encouraged them to pursue the same opportunities white students had.

“TWU was not perfect, but for that time it was perfect for me,” graduate and Denton resident Dianne Randolph told the Record-Chronicle.

Denton ISD

Desegregation didn’t come for the city’s public schools until 1963. The Denton school board voted unanimously to begin the process of desegregation that year.

“I had school board presidents calling me from all over the state that same night,” then-board president Raymond Wheeler said later. “It made The Associated Press and television. And they’d say, ‘We know what y’all did is the right thing to do, but we just don’t have the courage to do it.’”

Before that decision came down, the city was very much split between whites and blacks. White students went to Denton High School, while black students went to Fred Douglass High School — later renamed after educator and community member Fred Moore.

“I never knew anybody’s name, or a white person period, until the ninth grade,” 1971 Denton High graduate Greg Varner said in the 2014 documentary When We Were All Broncos.

When the district desegregated, black students had the option to stay at Fred Moore for five more years or go to the previously all-white schools. Fred Moore closed in 1967 and all students were funneled in together.

To make sure violence didn’t break out in Denton once the schools were officially desegregated, black and white women in the community formed the Denton Christian Women’s Interracial Fellowship. The women would gather in each others’ homes to cook dinner and discuss issues. They would also bring their families to picnics and host play dates for their children.

“I don’t think any of us thought of it as creating a social movement,” group member Dorothy Adkins said.

“We were interested in getting to be friends because we were finding a whole new group of people with very different backgrounds and very different situations in our home. We were just interested in how each faced their own problems.”

Some in the community, however, resisted integration.

When interviewed for When We Were All Broncos, a white 1973 Denton High graduate named Malinda Potynski remembered going to a friend’s house for a sleepover in the fourth grade. Her friend’s father asked Potynski over dinner if she was friends with a certain black student. She answered yes and his response shocked her.

“He proceeded to tell me that if I continued to be friends with that little girl, and he used the N-word, that I was not welcome back in his home,” she said.

Within the school walls, however, black students seemed to fit in well. Many were active in sports and clubs, while several were named all-school favorites.

Linnie McAdams, an African-American member of the Women’s Interracial Fellowship, saw the impact of integration when she looked into the multicolored faces of Adkins Elementary School third-graders on Wednesday. During a discussion with Adkins — the school’s namesake — in the campus library, McAdams told the children the main idea that drove the civil rights movement.

“What color a person is has absolutely nothing to do with anything,” she said. “If you can be open-minded about anyone you meet and think in terms of what they might have to offer, you may have a lot in common as long as you aren’t put off by the fact that they’re a different color than you are.”

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @CjonesDRC.