Desegregation at UH
By Dr. Teresa Tomkins-Walsh
Desegregation of the University of Houston was a more or less smooth process during the early 1960s, reflecting, at least on the surface, Houston’s preference for non-violent, quiet change. On the UH campus, the first few African American students experienced little hostility but instead almost total isolation, as white students generally opted out of interaction with them.
For African American students who attended UH in the early cohorts, desegregation opened opportunities for education, but the broader range of college experiences remained closed to them. It was predictable that the young students would seek solace and companionship among other African American students. As their numbers increased by the mid-1960s, they began to organize and protest, influenced by a range of issues infusing the broader culture.
Actions included establishing a base for initiative and sense of sanctuary with the formation of the Committee on Better Race Relations (COBRR) in the spring semester of 1967. One of COBRR’s first acts was to raise money to bring Stokely Carmichael to speak on the UH campus. Carmichael’s visit stirred debate and strengthened African American students’ resolve to enhance their college experience. In fall 1967, members of COBRR also protested the process for selecting the homecoming queen with a write-in candidate of their own.
Wishing to make their education more relevant, members of COBRR petitioned to add a course in “Negro” history. Some faculty and administrators objected initially on the grounds that such history was already covered in U.S. history courses. COBRR leaders continued to press for a course which eventually became the base for the African American studies program at UH.
As the decade of protest unfolded across the country, student activists at UH confronted the resistance of Greek organizations to African American initiates. Students worked to establish local chapters of national black organizations, often with considerable resistance from administrators. One requirement was that a sorority must have a faculty or administrative advisor, but there were no African American women in such positions in 1967. The wife of a library administrator agreed to serve, and in summer 1968, Delta Sigma Theta opened a UH chapter to provide the opportunity for sorority experience to UH students.
During the 1960s, African American students worked to establish a variety of new organizations to provide comfort zones at UH to recreate the sense the families and communities that students had left to acquire new opportunities for education.
Author Dr. Teresa (Terry) Tomkins-Walsh is historian and archivist for the Houston History Archives with the Center for Public History at the University of Houston. Located in Special Collections at the UH Libraries, the Archives collects historical documents on the growth and development of Houston with particular concentrations in energy, environmental and ethnic history. Contact her at email@example.com.