AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new outdoor exhibit at the Univeristy of Texas at Austin aims to share the stories of the university’s first Black students in the 1950s.
The exhibit, called “Precursors — We Are Texas East Mall,” honors and tells the story of UT’s first black undergraduate students. The university’s Contextualization and Commemoration Initiative created the project, located on the East Mall near the Martin Luther King Jr. statue.
The first Black undergraduates began at UT in the fall of 1954, but the first official cohort started classes in the fall of 1956. This group is knowns as “precursors,” according to the project.
“The East Mall project will commemorate these precursors’ experiences as well as those of the other Black students in the early days of campus integration,” the project website said.
UT began admitting Black graduate and professional students in 1950 but didn’t allow Black undergraduate students until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court decision, according to the CCI project.
The first Black students were admitted to UT’s law school and other graduate programs not available at Texas Southern or Prairie View universities — two historically Black schools in Texas, according to UT’s diversity and community engagement division.
But it wasn’t until a decade later that UT began to integrate other parts of the university such as dorms, the student health center, student government and athletics. The university’s first Black student assembly member, Gwen Jones, was elected in 1962, and UT’s first African American football player, Julius Whittier, was recruited in 1970, according to UT.
Some of the first Black graduates include Earnestyne Terry Bell, Mamie H. Ewing, Leon Holland and Willie Jordan Jr., who all started at UT in 1956. Visitors can scan QR codes to learn more about students from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s and listen to their stories.
The exhibit is free and open to the public through March 31.
The project is the first of three parts of a commemoration project that will turn the walkway into a narrative timeline from the East Mall to Speedway.
“As CCI conducts ongoing research about early Black UT students, we will continue to add information to this online archive and to honor their important role in the university’s history,” the project’s website read.