The desegregation of higher education in the United States was often contentious and volatile. Multiple cases made it to the nation’s highest court over several decades forcing recalcitrant and hostile southern universities to open their campuses to students of color. But, America also has instances where integration happened voluntarily, without fanfare or violence. The integration of Tyler Junior College was one of these instances. Although full racial integration at TJC did not happen overnight, the cooperative efforts of individuals on both sides of the color line give hope for greater interracial partnership, equality, and unity both now and in the future.
Tyler Texas’s history is not so different from other towns in East Texas. Like much of the region, the Brown v Board of Education decision in 1954 failed to integrate the local schools and colleges. If anything, the Court’s decision provoked enough local anger and resentment that in 1958 when the public school district opened a new, all-white, high school they named it after Robert E. Lee. The school adopted the corresponding confederate imagery, including a replica confederate cannon, the confederate flag, and rebel mascot. Only in 1970 did the federal government force Tyler schools to integrate “fully” and “immediately” resulting in the closure of Emmett J. Scott High School, the Black high school.
Higher education had a similarly segregated start in Tyler. On September 17, 1926, Tyler Junior College (TJC) admitted its first students, holding its classes at John Tyler High School. Texas College and Butler College, both founded before TJC, provided private post-high school education or vocational training for African American students. It was into this environment that Dr. Harry E. Jenkins stepped when he accepted the position of TJC President in 1946.
Dr. Jenkins dedicated himself to the development and advancement of junior college education in America throughout his professional career, thirty-five of those years as TJC’s president. Not always a popular man, Jenkin’s nevertheless had a reputation for “efficiency” and conscientiousness that helped TJC through some of the most turbulent years of American history and some of the institution’s greatest changes. Dr. Jenkins launched the extensive building campaign that resulted in some of TJC’s most visible landmarks including the first academic hall, Wise Auditorium, and Ramey Tower. At the same time, Dr. Jenkins and the board of trustees also “assumed responsibility” for local African Americans’ educational opportunities by establishing a separate junior college campus for Tyler’s Black students. Tyler Junior College Branch for Negroes, later renamed Tyler District College, became Tyler’s first public institution of higher education for African Americans.
Tyler Junior College Branch’s existence from the late 1940s until TJC’s integration in 1966 exemplifies the complexity of race relations in the South at that time. “Separate” is an oft repeated word in Branch related documents. Dr. Jenkins and others labored hard to keep TJC and TJC Branch’s accreditation, accounting, and campuses maintained separately. TJC gave significant financial and administrative assistance to both Texas College and Butler College to help those schools maintain their accreditation, largely so that TJC could rent campus facilities for its Branch students and preserve segregation. However, many of these same documents from Dr. Jenkins’ office show that providing Tyler’s black students with vocational and higher education opportunities, at least superficially, “equal” to white students remained an important objective. Students paid the same tuition costs, in-district students were to receive access to free transportation to and from campuses, and faculty held comparable credentials and earned commensurate salaries, all regardless of color.
In 1966, at the same time the U.S. Commissioner of Education determined Tyler’s Independent School District’s plan for integration was too slow, TJC’s board of trustees decided to discontinue its black campuses, or Tyler District College, as they were then collectively and officially known. Surprisingly, compared to the protracted struggle toward public school integration in the area, TJC’s decision to mix racially made few visible waves. Only one local paper, the Tyler Morning Telegraph, printed an article confirming TJC’s hiring of three African American faculty members at the newly integrated junior college, nearly a year after the board decision was made. In the article, Dr. Jenkins, and A.D. Clark, Jr. president of the TJC board of trustees, emphasized the voluntary nature of the decision to integrate black students and a few “’highly qualified’” faculty at TJC, adding that doing so would result in taxpayer savings and help TJC come “abreast of the times.”
Among the three Tyler District College faculty “reassigned” to TJC was Mrs. Eugene Long. Mrs. Long had been the lifeblood of the disbanded black campus, acting as dean of students and the official faculty sponsor for every one of the student clubs organized there. At TJC, Mrs. Long became a student counselor, making her available to help African American students weather an emotionally tense and “cold “atmosphere. Other strategically positioned African American instructors were gradually added to the faculty to help soften integration, such as Katie Stewart in the English department and Genevia Taliferro in the rapidly growing nursing school. Many new hires in the Social Sciences department during the late 1960s and early 1970s had military backgrounds, which one former professor believes also helped the junior college’s efforts to integrate because these men came to TJC with experiences in interracial cooperation.
Student life outside of academia also began a gradual integration process starting in 1966. Judge Sam Biscoe credits Dr. Jean Browne, director of the Speech Department with inspiring and equipping him for his future academic and professional successes by recruiting him for the first interracial debate team at TJC and helping him see “’the other side of Tyler’” that cared more about “character” than “color.” African American students ran and won positions in the Student Senate body as early as 1968. Sports provided another space for bringing black and white students together. TJC’s 1967-1968 men’s basketball team in drew large crowds and helped build school spirit and a degree of collegiality across racial lines. Some credit the excellence of the African American students and athletes recruited to TJC for the mostly peaceful integration of the school.
However, not everything was rosy after 1966 at TJC. Although no major incidences occurred along the lines of Ole Miss, racial prejudices and tension continued for the first few years. Dr. Jenkins, who helped TJC make the transition from a segregated white school to a racially diverse institution of higher education, rejected faculty proposals for African American studies courses and was “highly inflamed” when faculty members, including Mrs. Long, sponsored the junior college’s first Afro-American society. Dr. Jenkins dealt with at least one anonymous complaint that Black students were not being allowed on TJC’s free-to-student bus transportation. Despite the unifying effect successful and integrated sports teams had, one contemporary remembers being surprised and grieved at hearing TJC fans yelling at white athletes to throw the ball to their “chocolate” teammate at a football game. Racially mixing the campus could and did not undo learned prejudices overnight.
For some at TJC, Vietnam and the Lansdale v. Tyler Junior College, “long hair” case, had a greater, or at least more visible, impact on the school’s climate and culture than racial tensions after 1966. Both written documentation and oral histories describe TJC’s gradual integration like they describe Dr. Jenkins, quiet and effective. Although not without pain and difficulty, TJC’s integration efforts appear progressive and peaceful, especially when held up to the contentious backdrop of Tyler’s public school desegregation.