Sweatt vs. Painter: Supreme court case that led directly to the end of school segregation

Sweatt family panel with author Gary Lavergne

Herman Marion Sweatt
Case Summary
In 1946, Heman Sweatt, a 33-year-old African-American mail carrier from Houston, Texas, who wanted to be a lawyer appeared on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. He presented the President of the University, Theophilus Painter, with a copy of his undergraduate transcript from Wiley College and formally applied for admission to the University’s Law School. He asserted that he had a right to the same legal training as any other Texan who was a college graduate and that since Texas did not have a law school for African-Americans, the state had to admit him to the University of Texas Law School.
Painter sought and received an opinion on Sweatt’s application from the Texas Attorney General. In his letter to the Attorney General requesting his opinion, Painter wrote: “This applicant is a citizen of Texas and duly qualified for admission into the Law School at the University of Texas, save and except for the fact that he is a Negro.” The Attorney General’s opinion stated: “There is no doubt that if equal educational advantages are not provided for the applicant within the state, he must be admitted to the Law School of the University of Texas.” However, the Attorney General wrote: “The state is entitled to a reasonable notice that the facilities providing equal educational advantages are desired before its established policy of segregation is abrogated.” The Attorney General pointed out that in 1945 the Texas Legislature had changed the name of Prairie View A&M, the state-supported institution of higher education for African-Americans, to Prairie View University. In addition, the Legislature had authorized Prairie View to teach any graduate or professional level course, including law and medicine, offered at the University of Texas and specified that these courses should be “substantially equal to those offered at the University of Texas.”

Once he received the Attorney General’s opinion, President Painter dictated a letter to Sweatt informing him that at this time his application for admission was denied. In May 1946, Sweatt filed suit against Painter and all the members of the University’s Board of Regents in a Texas District Court. The District Court denied Sweatt’s petition for an order directing his admission to the University’s Law School and gave the state six months to provide a law school for African-American students. If the state did not do so, the judge ruled, the University of Texas Law School would be required to admit Sweatt.
Before the District Court’s decision could be appealed to the Texas Third Court of Civil Appeals in Austin, Prairie View University established a Law School in a suite of offices in downtown Houston, but not a single individual applied for admission. This meant that Texas still had no law school for African-Americans. In 1947, the Texas Legislature quickly passed legislation authorizing the University of Texas Board of Regents to establish a temporary law school in Austin to serve as “the School of Law of the Texas State University for Negroes.” Such a Law School was established in four rooms in a building at 104 East 13th Street. The Legislature had mandated that students at this Law School would have access to the Texas State Law Library. Three professors from the University of Texas School of Law had agreed to teach classes for the African-American students. Heman Sweatt received a letter of admission to this new law school. Sweatt’s lawyer advised him to reject the offer. Not a single applicant applied for admission.
The Texas Third Court of Civil Appeals set aside the District Court’s judgment and directed that the case return for a rehearing before the District Court. After the rehearing where numerous witnesses for both sides testified, the District Court ruled that the state of Texas had now, as the court had earlier directed, provided Sweatt with a law school “substantially equal” to that of white students at the University of Texas School of Law. Therefore, the judge denied Sweatt’s petition for an order directing his admission to the University of Texas School of Law.

Lead attorney on Sweatt, Judge Robert L. Carter
In September 1947, Sweatt appealed to the Texas Third Court of Civil Appeals in Austin where Thurgood Marshall represented him. Marshall argued that the “separate but equal” argument was a fiction. The law school that the state had set up for Negroes on East 13th Street, Marshall asserted, was far from being equal to the University of Texas School of Law. The Third Court of Appeals, nonetheless, affirmed the District Court’s judgment. The Texas Supreme Court then denied Sweatt’s application for a writ of error, and the case was now appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Legal Issue
The Court considered the following question:
Does the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allow a state to provide separate law schools for students of different races if those law schools are “substantially equal”?
Vinson Court (1946-1953)
Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote the opinion of the Court.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the state of Texas and in favor of Heman Sweatt. Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote: “We hold that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that petitioner be admitted to the University of Texas Law School.” Vinson elaborated: “The University of Texas Law School, from which petitioner was excluded, was staffed by a faculty of sixteen full-time and three part-time professors, some of whom are nationally recognized authorities in their field. Its student body numbered 850. The library contained over 65,000 volumes. Among the other facilities available to the students were a law review, moot court facilities, scholarship funds, and Order of the Coif affiliation. The school’s alumni occupy the most distinguished positions in the private practice of the law and in the public life of the state. It may properly be considered one of the nation’s ranking law schools. The law school for Negroes, which was to have opened in February 1947, would have had no independent faculty or library. The teaching was to be carried on by four members of the University of Texas Law School faculty, who were to maintain their offices at the University of Texas while teaching at both institutions. Few of the 10,000 volumes ordered for the library had arrived; nor was there any full-time librarian. The school lacked accreditation.”
Vinson went on to write: “Whether the University of Texas Law School is compared with the original or the new law school for Negroes, we cannot find substantial equality in the educational opportunities offered white and Negro law students by the state. In terms of number of the faculty, variety of courses and opportunity for specialization, size of the student body, scope of the library, availability of law review and similar activities, the University of Texas Law School is superior. What is more important, the University of Texas Law School possesses to a far greater degree those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school. Such qualities, to name but a few, include reputation of the faculty, experience of the administration, position and influence of the alumni, standing in the community, traditions and prestige. It is difficult to believe that one who had a free choice between these law schools would consider the question close.”
Vinson added: “The law school, the proving ground for legal training and practice, cannot be effective in isolation from the individuals and institutions with which the law interacts. … The law school to which Texas is willing to admit petitioner excludes from its student body members of the racial groups which number 85% of the population of the state and include most of the lawyers, witnesses, jurors, judges, and other officials with whom petitioner will inevitably be dealing when he becomes a member of the Texas bar. With such a substantial and significant segment of society excluded, we cannot conclude that the education offered petitioner is substantially equal to that which he would receive if admitted to the University of Texas Law School.”
SOURCE: For a full treatment of Sweatt v. Painter see Gary M. Lavergne. Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice. University of Texas Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-292-72200-2.


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