AUSTIN (KXAN) — A souvenir from 83-year-old Texanna Huff’s sophomore year of high school is stapled to the front page of her 1956 Austin High yearbook.
It was a letter from her 15-year-old self: one she had almost forgotten, summarizing a historic year for the country — and in her own life.
The year she, and 11 other students, became the first Black children to integrate Austin schools.
Struggling to decipher her own cursive writing, Huff read part of the letter dated the fall of 1955, back when she was Texanna Davis: “I think back now, and I was very naïve and innocent to what was happening at that time. It never crossed my mind that I was making history in Austin.”
The Austin 12
For decades, Black students were required to attend separate schools.
But, in 1954, in the middle of the school year, the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark decision, unanimously ordering schools to begin integration immediately.
The high court ruled separate public educational facilities for the races are inherently unequal and therefore school segregation laws in Texas and across the country were unconstitutional.
The Austin-American reported the local Austin branch of the NAACP began petitioning the Austin Public School Board to open all schools to Black students. Despite this decision, then-Texas Gov. Allan Shivers warned school districts integrating could cost them some state funding.
In the summer of 1955, the Austin School Board voted to allow Black high school students to enroll in white high schools if they chose to do so.
“My mother was on the school board when Austin integrated,” Ruthann Rushing said. “I was always told that the school board made a very conscious decision to integrate from the top down rather than from the bottom up.”
“The reason being that they felt like parents would be much more protective of a young student than one that was in high school and already had thoughts of their own and ways to of their own,” she continued.
Thirteen Black students filled out the registration forms to enroll in McCallum, Travis and Austin High for the 1955-56 school year, according to the Austin American newspaper.
A month later the Austin Statesman reported one girl, who cleared the way for transfer, decided after visiting the white high school that she would continue at the all-black school in east Austin, L.C. Anderson.
On the first day, 12 Black students became the first to attend integrated classes in Austin schools.
Austin High School
The walk from Huff’s house to Austin High School was short. Her family owned a home in the Clarksville neighborhood — a pocket of houses where both Black, Brown and white families lived.
Despite the commute being mere blocks from the high school on the west side of Austin, Huff got on a city bus every weekday morning during her freshman year and traveled miles to attend the city’s all-black high school — L.C. Anderson.
“That was in east Austin. That was on the other side of I-35,” Huff said.
On her walk to the bus, and drive to the school, she passed Austin High and several other white schools, and recalled wondering why her skin color prevented her from going.
“I am passing by this big, nice school and I just live down the street,” Huff said, recalling how she thought then, “Why should I keep passing by there?”
“I wanted to go,” Huff said. “I wasn’t afraid. I wanted to be part of that group.”
Huff and six other Black students attended Austin High School during the first year of integration. The then-Texas governor’s son was also a student at the school.
“I was not forced to go. [I] went not as a risk, but on faith that I would be accepted as a student,” Huff said. “What was it like? The white students were curious about us. Some would look at you dirty, but that was as far as that would go. Nothing negative was said in my face.”
Huff remembers her parents warning her there could be problems that school year and told her to watch for fights, prejudice from teachers and students, name-calling and threats.
“They always said ‘Be aware of people who don’t have the same type of upbringing that you have,’” Huff said. “Most were very nice. However, were a few, very few — their parents didn’t tell them much there about Black people. They were segregationists.”
Travis High School
John Shaw remembers the day his mother, a community activist, gathered his older brother and several other teenagers in their south Austin neighborhood together to talk about going to Travis High School.
His mother, Jenny Shaw, was one of the parents petitioning the school to allow Black students to enroll.
“She was mostly concerned with us having to go from one side of town to the other side of town for school when a school was right there in our area,” Shaw said.
“My mother called us together one day and we had a discussion. ‘You are going to Travis High School.’ [She told us] what we needed to do to survive there,” Shaw continued.
John’s brother James, his neighbors Herman Hicks and Rose Jenkins (née Fowler) — and L.C. Anderson transfer Forrest Williams started the 1955-56 school year at Travis High School together.
“He, and Hicks and Rose Fowler … yeah they gave them a pretty hard time,” Shaw said. “He wasn’t prepared for what he had to go through. Even though he had a few friends, neighborhood friends. There wasn’t enough of them.”
Shaw said his brother left Travis at some point to go back to L.C. Anderson to finish high school.
“It put him in a bad situation when people started calling him names and stuff — he couldn’t react,” Shaw said. “I talked, tried to talk him out of bailing out myself. You know, because I didn’t want to be there by myself.”
Shaw, who was two years younger than his brother James, came to Travis High School in 1957 as one of the first Black football players.
“By the time I got there, it was a little bit different,” Shaw said. “I had it a little bit easier than my brother or other students. I had a little recognition and my name in the paper.”
“I know that helped him to integrate into the school, because of course football was everything and he was very good,” said Ruthann Rushing, who was in the same classes as John.
But Shaw’s first year on the team only highlighted how the world around Travis High School was changing at a much slower pace.
“The first year at Travis, I couldn’t play in certain games — the schedule was already fixed,” Shaw said. “We came to Houston, and I couldn’t play, and from the very beginning we were traveling on the road — I would have to eat in the kitchen. The rest of the players would eat in the cafeteria.”
Shaw said the next school year, his coaches at Travis promised to not schedule any games where he couldn’t play or eat with the rest of the team.
“They were true to their word,” Shaw said. “Everything was rescheduled where we could participate except for one time we went to Abilene, and I had to spend the night — the team stayed at the hotel — me and my roommate stayed with the principal of the black school in Abilene.”
As Texas school districts began to integrate, there was pushback from some communities, according to UT Austin History Professor Dr. Edmund Gordon.
“There was a case, the Mansfield School District case up by Ft. Worth, where the community — actually, the school district had decided to integrate, but the community pushed back and there were demonstrations around the high school against integration,” Dr. Edmund said. “I think the situation in Austin is slightly different than in other places. I think the push for at least integration at the public school level was probably a little less strong than in some other places.”
Though there was less racial violence going on in Austin, there was enough to draw concern from Rose Jenkins’ family at the time.
“We were a little bit nervous in the house about what could possibly happen. We had an incident where someone put a burning cross in our front yard,” said Rose’s sister, Edith Fontenot. “[My parents] expected some people to be angry about it.”
Like many of the other students who integrated throughout the 1950s, Shaw said the group of Black students at Travis was bullied by some students.
“They didn’t want me there,” said Jenkins, who was a sophomore at the school that first year. “I was a little afraid, but not too much. I felt brave.”
“Hicks, myself — it was like the four of us. We tried to go to events and participate. Sometimes they would throw stuff at you, but we just had to ignore it until we got some friends. Once we got some friends, we didn’t have too many problems because they stood up for us,” Shaw said. “I remember their names because they would talk to you regardless — in the hall or the kitchen.”
Shaw said he recalled Rushing, and her brother Terry Bray, would come and talk to the Black students around the school.
“We would go sit at a table by ourselves, and they would come there and sit and talk,” Shaw said. “Which helped a lot. It helped ease the tension with everybody.”
“I feel bad that he was going through it, but I know it was happening at the time. It was just the way it was,” Rushing said. “That means a lot to know that without even thinking about it, we were kind to someone and treated them the way they should be.”
McCallum High School
The late Margie Bedford (née Hendricks) was the only Black student to enroll at McCallum High School during the first year of integration. Hendricks lived in northwest Austin, but her mother worked down the street from McCallum.
“She was at Old Anderson High School, and she left all her friends to go to McCallum. I know she was a little bit scared, but she enjoyed the school,” her son Douglas Bedford said.
In an interview with the Austin Statesman in Oct. 1955, Margie said her intention was “to like everybody and make everybody like me.”
“There was a lot of jeering and heckling toward my mom for graduation that happened, but she was ultimately able to watch the stage,” Bedford said. “She helped raise all her siblings and a lot of her siblings went behind her to McCallum also.”
The next school year, eight more Black students enrolled in the previously all-white high schools. The majority stayed at the all-Black high school L.C. Anderson.
‘Someone had to break that barrier’
Shaw went on to play football at Texas Southern University, and after college graduation, he joined the U.S. Marines. His older brother, the late James Shaw, also served in the United States Army.
“Each year it got a little better, and a little better, but I guess someone had to break that barrier for the first two or three years,” Shaw said.
“How I felt then and how I feel now is different. When I look back on it, it’s just amazing to me the way things were back then and the things we had to accept.”John Shaw, integrated Travis High School
“It was more than just her going to school. It was about what was happening in our country at that time, in our city, you know, the rights that we had,” Edith Fontenot said.
Huff later opened her own nurse staffing agency in Austin, and her daughter, Angela, graduated from Austin High School.
“I knew it was going to change. I didn’t know when. I didn’t know if I was going to be a part of it, but I knew it was going to change,” Huff said. “I am just glad I was able to stop passing by and go in and help move on up for the next generations.”
Digital Data Reporter Christopher Adams, Investigative Photographer Richie Bowes, Photographer Andrew Choat, Creative Producer Eric Henrikson, Graphic Artist Aileen Hernandez, Social Media Producer Jaclyn Ramkissoon, Executive Producer of Special Projects John Thomas, Executive Producer Laney Valian and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.