by Virginia A. Cumberbatch
Photographs by Aaron Pinkston
Bill Lyons, Judge Harriet Murphy, Albert Hawkins and Dr. Herschel Shelley
The integration of the University of Texas at Austin is a story that transcends the Forty Acres, Austin and Texas education. The 1950s Sweatt v. Painter decision, the lawsuit that opened up the UT Law School to students of color, set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which desegregated schools nationwide. As Austin (one of the most segregated cities in the country) and the nation engage in important conversations around justice, civil liberties and equity, these ever-critical conversations mandate our attention, empathy and continued understanding.
One such group helping Austin confront its past and reconcile continued practices of inequity is the Precursors, the first generation of black students to integrate UT. Seventy-plus years after Heman Sweatt courageously challenged UT’s discriminatory admission policy, the Precursors continue to assemble yearly as narrators of Austin’s civil rights history. They represent a generation of pioneers who, in their adolescence, helped dismantle the systems that had denied the rights of black scholars for a century.
The men and women who make up the Precursors have created a precedent for how to stand up in the face of injustice and dissent with both guts and grace.
Bill Lyons (pictured above, class of ’71) was one of the first black student-athletes recruited to play basketball at UT. While a career-ending injury prevented him from pursuing a full collegiate athletic career, Lyons would become a pivotal figure in helping break the color barrier in Texas sports. He became a resident assistant and tutor assigned to athletes, and his support helped players remain eligible—and crucially encouraged them to remain at school—amid the social hardship.
“When I came to UT, it felt like there were about 40 black people on the Forty Acres. I made it my business to use athletics as an avenue to bring more black students to Texas. It was time that we not only got to study there but take advantage of all the offerings of the university — that included athletics,” Lyons explains.
This meant creating a system that ensured that black students would thrive on and off the field. Ultimately Lyons was responsible for the presence of the majority of black student-athletes at UT for the next few decades, and his legacy serves as a reminder of the multidimensional approach required to dismantle prejudice.
After nearly a decade at UT, eventually helping to recruit UT’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Earl Campbell, Lyons went on to pursue a career in law and community advocacy. In surveying his time at UT, it is clear that Lyons didn’t just transform athletics, he transformed the Forty Acres. At a recent gathering, Lyons declared, “Everything I have I owe to UT. If it hadn’t been for this school, I would still be down at the foundry in Lufkin.” Grace personified.
Judge Harriet Murphy’s (pictured right, UT School of Law class of ’69) voice has been a consistent sound of resistance and resilience. Recalling her first day on campus, Murphy remembers students protesting with signs that read “Put the Black Man in the History Books.” Perhaps with a slight edit — “Put the Black Woman …” — these protest signs would serve as a premonition of Murphy’s place in history.
When she entered classes in the summer of 1966, “low and behold, I was in for a shock,” Murphy says, explaining that upon her arrival she discovered that “there were only five other women enrolled in the summer class, and there was only one other African-American student, but he promptly graduated.”
This reality fueled much of her work on and off campus. While in law school, she taught at Huston-Tillotson University and involved herself in advocacy and activism. At one point, she had the opportunity to invite civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall to Huston-Tillotson (his response by letter hangs on her wall). Despite resistance from many who doubted her ability to graduate and pass the bar, in 1973, Murphy would become the first black woman appointed to a regular judgeship in Texas.
It is clear that she took the signs that marked her first day on the Forty Acres to heart, creating her own pathway through the UT experience to put her, a black woman, in the history books. Murphy served on the City of Austin Municipal Court for 20 years and recently chronicled her life’s journey in her memoir, “There All the Honor Lies.” Judge Murphy’s story confirms the importance of how we use storytelling to cultivate an environment where diverse populations feel heard, included and, most importantly, seen.
Entering UT in the last leg of the school’s integration period, both Albert Hawkins (pictured left, class of ’75) and Dr. Herschel Shelley (pictured below, class of ’78) have exemplified a commitment to transformation.
Hawkins has consistently leveraged his skills, experience and determination which, he no doubt refined at UT, to serve this city. But Hawkins had “extremely mixed emotions about coming to UT. Having been aware of the reputation of the university in the black community, I recognized that African Americans were not universally welcome. I was apprehensive but I was also excited, because it was a tremendous step to pursue the career I’d hoped for.”
Shelley had similar apprehensions, but as a graduate of one of Texas’ premier Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Prairie View A&M University, UT would offer an entirely new experience. Shelley reflects, “Coming out of Dallas, we had heard that UT wasn’t necessarily the place to go for black students. UT did not make any concessions to minority students, particularly African Americans. There were less opportunities for us to get involved in campus life. So we had to make our own communities.”
Perhaps the necessity to build community is what set both the intention and impact for many of the Precursors to be critical community voices and advocates. Both Hawkins, and his wife, Jacqueline (class of ’76), have been active volunteers and members of Austin’s Jack and Jill Chapter, a nonprofit devoted to strengthening children and developing African-American leadership. Hawkins’ long and devoted career as a civil servant is well-documented: He served as secretary to the president’s Cabinet in the George W. Bush administration and as the executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services, to name a few of his vital appointments. He also played an essential role in leading Austin’s oldest institution of higher learning, Huston-Tillotson, into an era of innovation and impact, as president of the school’s board of trustees.
Huston-Tillotson also served as the site that would welcome Shelley as the professor to spearhead the pre-engineering program, an appointment that would lead to his work at Manor New Tech High School. Shelley pushed to build opportunities in technology for black students at Manor New Tech, an effort that ultimately brought President Obama to the campus to offer his support and pride in the work.
This path connects him to the consistent theme that is evident within the Precursors, a varied and nuanced group like any other: They are truly exemplar. They have revealed that, although a focus on the future of equality and access is crucial, we cannot forget the past. We honor the brave, bold and beautifully united first generation of black students at UT.
“As We Saw It: The Story of Integration at the University of Texas at Austin” was published in April 2018. Thanks to the book’s editors —Virginia A. Cumberbatch and Leslie Blair — for allowing us to use quotes that originally appeared in its text.