UT celebrates the 60th anniversary of its first black undergraduate class

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Sherryl Griffen Bozeman, a member of the Precursors, speaks to faculty and students at a the LBJ auditorium Friday afternoon as part of a tribute honoring the first black undergraduate class of 1956.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Lopez | Daily Texan Staff

A weekend-long celebration kicked off Friday afternoon with a salute to the 1956 black undergraduate class, the first year the University allowed black students to enroll and attend UT.

The tribute, called “Facing the Winds of Change with Dignity, Courage and Wisdom,” honored around 75 men and women from the Precursors, a group of black UT alumni who attended the University more than 40 years ago.

“There were faculty and staff that provided the education to which you were entitled,” UT President Gregory Fenves said, emphasizing the importance of the Precursors’ courage to attend the University. “But you encountered hatred, and you faced segregated residence halls and dining halls. You remained undaunted, demanding your basic human rights. You were breaking down barriers.”

Fenves said diversity and inclusion remained his top priorities at UT and added that students were showing him the benefit of fostering a more inclusive 40 Acres.

UT System Chancellor William McRaven voiced similar sentiments and read the July 8, 1955 memo from a University Board of Regents meeting that unanimously voted to permit black students at UT.

State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and state Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) offered a proclamation and resolution respectively on behalf of their chambers to honor the 60th anniversary. 

“I commend the Precursors at UT on their commitment to equality and excellence to education,” Watson said.  

Austin City Council member Ora Houston, the council’s sole black member, also presented a similar proclamation to the Precursors on behalf of the city of Austin.

Sticking to the common themes made present throughout the two-hour event, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) delivered the keynote address.

“If you really look at our history, there’s really no question that the African Americans, descendants of slaves, would be successful,” Ellis said.  

Ellis added the Precursors’ movement didn’t stop with Friday’s event and said the organization’s purpose was to continue moving forward to “make sure we never go back to the way things were again.”

Texas NAACP president Gary Bledsoe also spoke at the tribute.

“To see the University taking the front seat to make sure our country goes forward, not backward, makes you really, really proud,” Bledsoe said.

Edna Rhambo, an alumna who attended the University in 1956, spoke at the tribute. Rhambo frequented the Littlefield Fountain on campus as a child and said she transferred to UT because she knew it would offer the best education she could receive. 

“If anyone were to ask me why I went to the University of Texas when I could have gone to any school in the nation, I answer them, why not?” Rambo said.

Cloteal Haynes, president of the Precursors, said retaining black students at the University was a current challenge but noted progress had been made.

In the fall of 2015, almost 4 percent of the student body at UT was black, Haynes said. She compared this to the black student population on campus in 1956, which was only .38 percent.

In addition to the salute, the Precursors were recognized before the UT vs. UTEP football game Saturday night, aligning with the UT Black Alumni Homecoming from Sept. 8 to 11.

Several hundred people were in attendance at Friday’s tribute, and perhaps the loudest applause came in Rhambo’s closing remarks.

“If I were to take a look at some of the difficulties I experienced being a student on campus, I would say to myself, ‘Edna, you cannot stop the waves or the tide, but you can sure learn how to surf,’” Rhambo said. “And I’m still surfing.”