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Jim Olvera Olvera Jim

First in Class Though he doesn’t consider himself a pathfinder, James L. Sweatt helped integrate some of the country’s top institutions, including Washington University School of Medicine. BY ROSALIND EARLY 32

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aa trim trim man man with with cotton-white cotton-white hair hair and and aa deep deep voice, voice, laughs laughs as as he he thinks thinks back back to to his his admission admission interview interview with with Washington Washington University’s University’s School School of of Medicine. Medicine. “I “I had had the the impression impression for for years years that that itit was was routine routine for for all all the the professors professors of of the the departdepartments ments in in the the medical medical school school to to sit sit around around and and quiz quiz applicants applicants for for admission,” admission,” he he says. says. “I “I think think or 50 50thth Reunion Reunion when when II found found out out itit was was the the 25 25thth or that that everyone everyone else else had had been been seen seen by by one one person person and and that that was was that.” that.”  The The year year was was 1958, 1958, and and though though the the School School of of Medicine Medicine had had been been integrated integrated since since 1947 1947 (several (several months months before before President President Truman’s Truman’s Commission Commission on on Higher Higher Education Education called called on on states states to to repeal repeal laws laws requiring requiring segregation segregation in in education), education), only only one African one African American American had had previously previously matricumatriculated lated there, there, and and he he had had dropped dropped out. out. Sweatt Sweatt didn’t didn’t know know that that he he could could potentially potentially become become the the school’s school’s only only black black student student and and first first black black to to graduate. graduate. No No medical medical school school had had interinterviewed viewed him him before, before, so so when when he he arrived arrived and and saw saw all all the the professors, professors, he he took took itit in in stride.  stride.  When When he he found found out out years years later later that that he’d he’d gone gone through through aa more more rigorous rigorous interview interview than than his his white white classmates, classmates, he he took took that that in in stride stride too. too. “I “I was was the the first first one one through, through, so so II guess guess they they were were just just trying trying to to make make certain certain that that II was was going going to to use use the the King’s King’s English,” English,” he he says. says. “They “They accepted accepted me me before before my my holiday holiday break break was was over. over. They They sent sent me me aa telegram.”  telegram.”  When When Harvard Harvard Medical Medical School School asked asked him him to to come come in in for for an an interview, interview, Sweatt Sweatt politely politely declined, declined, saying saying he he was was going going to to Washington Washington University. University.

Growing Growing up up in in segregated segregated schools schools James James L. L. Sweatt Sweatt was was born born in in 1937 1937 and and grew grew up up in in North North Dallas Dallas on on Thomas Thomas Avenue, Avenue, the the main main drag drag for for North North Dallas’ Dallas’ black black community. community. His His family family later later moved moved to to the the newly newly built built Southern Southern Terrace Terrace apartments apartments in in South South Dallas.   Dallas.   “I “I was was behind behind the the move. move. My My mother mother was was aa teacher teacher in in the the school school II was was attending, attending, and and II caught caught hell hell from from the the other other kids,” kids,” Sweatt Sweatt chuckles. chuckles. “She “She taught taught eighth eighth grade, grade, and and II was was scheduled scheduled

to go there. I told her ‘uh-uh; I am not going to be taught by you.’”  Sweatt’s parents were divorced, and he lived with his mother while his father worked as a high school principal in Galveston, Texas. Dallas was still a segregated city. “Whites Only” signs peppered the landscape well into the 1950s. Downtown, blacks were allowed to buy clothes in the department store, but they weren’t allowed to try them on.  When Sweatt was in elementary school, his uncle, Heman Marion Sweatt, integrated the University of Texas Law School. Heman had applied to UT but was denied entry. The university’s president, Theophilus Painter, told Heman privately that his credentials should have gained him admittance. The school cited segregation laws as the basis for denying him entry, and Heman (with the help of the NAACP) filed suit against Painter in the spring of 1946. Sweatt v. Painter made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in June 1950 that students were not given an equal quality law education in the state of Texas, and, therefore, UT would have to admit qualified black applicants. That fall, Heman registered for classes. “I was proud,” Sweatt says. But his uncle, who died in 1982, struggled at UT. The court cases had taken a toll on Heman’s health, and his marriage broke up while he was in school. Largely ostracized, and with external pressure mounting, Heman dropped out in 1952. (Later, Heman’s heroism was recognized: The courthouse where he filed his suit was named in his honor.) Despite his uncle’s efforts, Sweatt still went to segregated schools, first interacting with whites when he was in high school and got a job as a dishwasher at a medical facility. After graduation, Sweatt was planning on attending Lincoln University, an all-black school in Pennsylvania. But that changed when a representative from the National Negro Scholarship Society and Fund (NNSSF) traveled through the South testing black high school students to see if they could compete in integrated East Coast schools. Sweatt and two of his friends took the test; all three passed. WASHINGTON MAGAZINE


Washington Magazine - Fall 2015  
Washington Magazine - Fall 2015