As one of the first black students to attend the University of Texas at Austin, Charles Miles faced a circumscribed life. It was 1956, and there were many places he and other blacks were not allowed to go. So when the pastor of a nearby church announced that blacks were welcome there, Miles and his friends saw no reason to not attend.
“Some of us were Baptist, some were not, but a lot of us went to that church regardless of denomination because, as far as I know, that was the only church at that time that was close to the campus that blacks could attend,” Miles said in an interview.
On Friday, 60 years after Miles and over 70 other black students enrolled at UT, the university paid tribute to them, celebrating a milestone in the school's history with a gathering featuring UT President Greg Fenves, Chancellor William McRaven and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.
"When I was a student at the university many years ago, it was not easy to give the [hook 'em] sign," said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas Chapter of the NAACP as he flashed the hand gesture to the audience. "We see just a few years ago that students were throwing bleach balloons at students. What must it have been like in 1956?"
Three of those first black undergraduates students — Leon Holland, Edna Rhambo, and Miles — reflected on their time on campus and some of the challenges they endured as students. Rhambo called her first year on campus difficult, saying that she wasn't allowed to do much outside of schoolwork.
"On campus we were not allowed to do certain kinds of social engagements," Rhambo said. "I wanted to be a member of the debating team, but that didn't materialize. I wanted to also be on the editorial board and be on the Cactus paper. That did not materialize either. We were relegated to just studying and attending classes. We depended upon each other."
In an interview, Miles suggested that the university could be doing more now to recruit black students. Since Texas was a slave state, he added, UT should specifically try to help descendants of slaves who apply to the school.
“The numbers for African-Americans are way lower than they should be in terms of the population of the state,” Miles said. “I think UT should have some type of special admissions program for descendants of slaves and help them with financial aid. That would a good program for Texas.”
The first attempt to integrate UT occurred in 1885 when a black man applied for admission. While he was denied enrollment, the fight to incorporate black students in public schools lived on. In 1950, Heman Sweatt and George Washington, Jr. became the first black UT Law School students.
“Some of us were Baptist, some were not, but a lot of us went to that church regardless of denomination because, as far as I know, that was the only church at that time that was close to the campus that blacks could attend.”— Charles Miles, one of the first black undergraduate students to attend the University of Texas at Austin
“Sixty years ago, these courageous trailblazers took on the challenge to integrate UT,” Fenves said in an emailed statement to the Tribune. “It was not an easy task. But they persisted, breaking down barriers for the next generations and creating a better future for everyone at the university.”
But Fenves acknowledged to the audience, that barriers remain to increasing diverse enrollment. In June 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the school’s affirmative action system in a 4-3 vote. The school's policy of factoring race into some admissions was on the line after Sugar Land native Abigail Fisher, who is white, sued the university saying she was passed over for less qualified minorities. The nation's high court rejected that argument.
"Diversity and inclusion are top priorities for me at the university," Fenves said to the crowd of several hundred attendees. "Today is a remarkable day, and I want to say thank you to this extraordinary group of men and women. ... You were breaking down barriers. Through your courage and perseverance, you set this university on the long road to integration and inclusiveness."
The university considered the affirmative action case — which gives a small boost to black and Hispanic students — a win, however, as of 2015 black students only made up 3.9 percent of the student population. According to Ellis, the state has ways to go in terms of diversity.
"Until we truly dedicate ourselves to addressing the continued disparities in wealth and income inequality that disproportionately affect communities of color, and as long as we maintain a pre-K through 12 educational system where access to quality educational opportunities too often depend on a child's wealth and zip code, those foundational inequities are going to create inequitable barriers to institutions of higher education and result in gaps in academic achievement," Ellis said in an emailed statement to the Tribune.
Ellis continued: "Texas has a long way to go on the path to ensuring every child, from every community, has access to quality educational opportunities."