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Before Brown:
Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall and The Long Road to Justice

On February 26, 1946, a black man from Houston applied for admission to The University of Texas School of Law. By this seemingly simple act, Heman Sweatt began a journey that would begin a new era in American education—indeed in American society.

Heman Marion Sweatt

In 1946, the Houston Informer, one of the largest and most influential black newspapers in the country, wrote, “As a symbol, Heman Marion Sweatt marks the emergence of the Negro in Texas as an adult and citizen."

During the drama, Grover Sellers, the Texas Attorney General, reassured white Texans that, “Heman Sweatt will never darken the halls of The University of Texas.”

By the time his lawsuit came before the U.S. Supreme Court, Sweatt found himself a player in a master plan the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had for ending racial segregation in the United States. One of the authors of that strategy, and its chief soldier, was Thurgood Marshall, who would one day become the first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. The end of enforced racial segregation was not an event but a process—decades in the making. A crucial chapter in that story begins with an overlooked drama—the tale of Heman Sweatt.

From 1947 through 1949 the Sweatt case worked its way through Texas courts, and not surprisingly, each court relied on the accepted law at the time, the separate-but-equal doctrine. The NAACP understood that to end segregation ultimately the United States Supreme Court would have to reverse or at least emasculate the separate-but-equal doctrine. This happened when it ruled on Sweatt in a unanimous decision on June 5, 1950.


Before Brown:
Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall and the Long Road To Justice

Gary Lavergne Joins Dr. Hemella Sweatt-Duplechan, UT Law Dean Ward Farnsworth, and President Greg Fenves in the Unveiling of a Portrait of a Civil Rights Hero

From David Furlow, Executive Editor, the Journal of the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society: "On February 15, 2018, UT and Texas historian Gary Lavergne, UT Law School Dean Ward Farnsworth, Hemella Sweatt-Duplechan, MD and others celebrated the legacy and character of Houston postman and civil rights pioneer Heman Marion Sweatt, whose lawsuit and U.S. Supreme Court case ended racial segregation at UT Law School, in Texas, and throughout the U.S. These speeches tell an inspiring story about a man and a family who triumphed over adversity and the oppression of the Jim Crow. Heman Marion Sweatt deserves our gratitude and respect. Heman Marion Sweatt's story is worth remembering."

Excerpt from Gary's speech: "During the five years I spent writing a book about Mr. Sweatt, I was as profoundly moved by the story of the Sweatt family as I was by the Sweatt v Painter saga. Just yesterday, during a conversation with your Alumni Association President, I shared with her what the Sweatt family has meant to me and what a great gift they are to those of us who know them. And it has been suggested that I use my time here to make a deeply personal statement. I'm hesitant to be that self-centered, but I will say that in this room alone, we have two Drs. Sweatt who walked through the doors first opened by the man in this portrait. On occasions like this, it is a worthy to ponder what Jim Crow cost us as a nation. How many more architects could we have had to build magnificent structures? How many more scientists could we have had to make unimaginable discoveries? How many more physicians could we have had to treat us when we were sick and cure the diseases that plague us? How many more artists could we have had to make our world more beautiful? And yes, how many more lawyers could we have had to pursue justice? Beyond Sweatt v Painter, that is what Heman Marion Sweatt means to me. That is why, when his daughter, Hemella Sweatt, calls me her brother, my heart skips a beat. He is what we desperately need more of today. He never responded to bad manners with more bad manners. He responded to hate and intolerance with class and dignity. His response to ignorance was scholarship. He was a quiet and humble man who did great things and asked for nothing more than to be treated, in this country, as an adult and citizen."

Read David Furlow's excellent article by clicking here.

Click here or on the photos to watch Gary's speech.

Click here to watch President Greg Fenves's speech.

Click on the image to watch video

Before Brown and the Sweatt v Painter case featured in a KLRU/PBS documentary about the United States Supreme Court case Fisher v University of Texas.

Admissions On Trial: Seven Decades of Race and Higher Education is narrated by legendary newsman Dan Rather and provides background and context to help understand the Fisher case – what’s being debated, why the case was brought and how universities currently use race in the admissions process. Viewers learn about the Fisher case through interviews with key players at the heart of this debate. And they discover the deep roots of this story, beginning in 1946, eight years before Brown v. Board of Education when an early civil rights pioneer named Heman Marion Sweatt began his fight to integrate graduate programs at The University of Texas and at other segregated schools across the South. Gary Lavergne vividly tells of Sweatt and his times and a story of courage and perserverence.

Click on the image to watch video

Before Brown:
Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall and the Long Road To Justice
Featured in Educational Video

Before Brown and the Sweatt v Painter case was the subject of an educational video sponsored by the State Bar of Texas. Gary appears in a segment filmed in his home in Cedar Park, Texas.

U.S. Supreme Court Case
Fisher v University of Texas
draws attention to Before Brown and the story of Heman Marion Sweatt.

The price for diversity
by Libby Lewis, CNN

'Sweatt v Painter': Nearly Forgotten, But Landmark Texas Integration Case
by Andrea HSU

Mailman brought case that desegregated UT
By Allan Van Fleet and Craig Jackson

(click on the story titles)

Before Brown Awarded the Writers' League of Texas Award for Best Book of Non Fiction

With over 200 entries, the 2011 Writers' League of Texas Book Awards Contest was more competitive than ever before. A big congratulations to the four winners below! The WLT will recognize the winners at our January Third Thursday meeting at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 19 at BookPeople in Austin.

April 30, 2011

Before Brown Awarded the Carr P. Collins Award for Best Work of Non Fiction at the Annual Awards Banquet of the Texas Institute of Letters...

The Carr P. Collins Award is awarded annually to the best non-fiction book published during the calendar year. This year the awards banquet was held on April 30th in Dallas.

Pictured above with Gary is the winner of the 2010 TIL Scholarly Book Award, Dr. Neil Foley for his book Quest for Equality.
Click here to see a video of Gary accepting his award.

Before Brown Awarded the Coral Horton Tullis Memorial Prize for Best Book on Texas History at the Annual Meeting of the Texas State Historical Association

The Tullis Memorial Prize is awarded annually to the best book on Texas published during the calendar year. This year the awards banquet was held in El Paso, TX on March 4th.


Dr. Hemella L. Sweatt of Cincinnati, Ohio
Reverend William Lawson of Houston
Dr. James Douglas of Texas Southern University
Ms. Ada Anderson of Austin
Dr. James L. Sweatt III of Dallas
ALCALDE excerpt with introduction by Gary M. Lavergne
Gary Orfield post on InsideHigherEd.com

Gary Lavergne's Blog for the American Constitution Society
Gary Lavergne's article on social sciences in Texas Supreme Court Historical Society Journal

Eric Hoover's "Diversity in the Heart" for the Chronicle Review


Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice


Leland Ware, University of Delaware, for Journal of American History, June 2011, pgs. 260-61.

"Before Brown is an engaging narrative about the people and events involved in Sweatt v Painter (1950)... a well-written book that makes a worthy contribution to the literature."

Joan C. Browning, Independent Scholar and Freelance Writer for Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South, Fall/Winter 2010, pgs. 97-99.

"Gary M. Lavergne eloquently demonstrates that before Brown, there was Sweatt v Painter (1950)... This 'Long Road to Justice' is a welcome addition to lengthening the Montgomery to Memphis civil rights chronology, joining scholars who have greatly enriched our understanding of the struggle by and for black freedom... Lavergne harnesses scholarly techniques to tell a compelling story in the words of its actors. Historians will find his research compelling. He spins the history as a yarn that legendary folklorist J. Frank Dobie might have spun--except this story is true."

Jerome Teelucksingh, The University of the West Indies, for The Western Journal of Black Studies, Spring, 2011, pg. 157.

"Undoubtedly, Before Brown is essential for anyone desiring to learn about those forgotten personalities, before the 1960s, who bravely battled disenfranchisement, challenged the Constitution and sought to overturn decades of U.S Supreme Court precedents.

Andrew Cohen, Legal Analyst and Commentator, CBS News and Columnist for PoliticsDaily.com

"This is a great read and adds valuable detail to our knowledge and understanding of the hard work, great risks, and cast of characters that set the stage for the Brown decision"

Stuart Stern, Office of Development and Alumni Relations, South Texas College of Law

"In his engrossing book Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice, Gary M. Lavergne presents the stories of plaintiff Sweatt, a black Houstonian, and his attorney Marshall, the star counsel of the NAACP, and depicts the painstaking groundwork that was laid by Marshall and his legal team to achieve victory in the landmark case."

Thomas D. Russell, Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law, in a Special to the Austin American Statesman, October 17, 2010

"In law schools — including UT's law school when I taught there during the 1990s — many professors teach nothing about the political and social change between Plessy in 1896 and Brown in 1954. Students are left thinking that Brown sprang spontaneously from the heads of enlightened Supreme Court justices. Lavergne's "Before Brown" fills a gap in knowledge and also presents a well-researched and engaging tale of law, race and history in Texas."




Amilcar Shabazz, Professor and Chair, W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, U. Mass Amherst

"At last someone has told the story of Heman Sweatt, one of the great sons of the struggle for freedom and justice, with all the drama and passion it deserves. Gary Lavergne’s  Before Brown takes readers down the long road Sweatt courageously traveled to oppose legalized white supremacy and racial discrimination. His sojourn is one we all should know. The fight to open the University of Texas to all was a turning point that led to the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the racial segregation it had sanctioned in Plessy. Those who take racial diversity at our preeminent institutions of higher education for granted do so at great peril and diminish the sacrifices of Sweatt and others. Read this book and find out why.”

Patrick Weil, Directeur de Recherche au CNRS, Centre d'histoire sociale du XXe siècle, Université de Paris 1, Sorbonne-Pantheon

"What a great idea to bring to life the ordeal of Heman Marion Sweatt, his fight for justice, and the landmark victory that paved the way to Brown vs. the Board of Education.  And who better than Gary Lavergne, a talented writer and admissions officer at the center of other Texan breakthroughs in the quest for greater access to higher education, to write this compelling narrative?"

Paul Begala, Political Contributor, CNN 

Heman Sweatt is a hero whose name should be enshrined with Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston and William Barrett Travis.  Like Texas' founding fathers, Sweatt fearlessly faced evil, and made Texas a better place.  His story is our story, and Gary Lavergne tells it well."

Pamela Colloff, Senior Editor, Texas Monthly 

“Vivid, absorbing, and gracefully written, Before Brown explores the human cost of Heman Marion Sweatt’s simple, but hard-earned, ambition: to get a good education. Gary Lavergne’s gifts as a storyteller bring Sweatt’s journey, and the context of his struggle, alive. With a novelist’s eye for character and detail, Lavergne gives us an intimate portrait of Sweatt. His story reminds us that in the not-so-distant past—when a black man could be denied admittance to law school solely because of his race—‘change’ was slow-going. Before Brown is both a monumental work and a great read. Sweatt’s story is one that every American should know."

Jonathan Alger, Vice President and General Counsel, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey 

“Before Brown is a welcome and important addition to the chronicle of this nation’s ongoing civil rights struggles.  This carefully researched work brings an underappreciated but critical legal case to life and demonstrates the very real human triumphs and toll of major civil rights litigation.  Lavergne places Sweatt v. Painter case in a larger historical and social context in the fight for racial equality and integration.  This compelling story reminds us that higher education was (and still is today) a key civil rights battleground as the gateway to opportunity for so many facets of our society, and should help ensure that this case will no longer be a mere footnote in the shadow of Brown v. Board of Education.  Before Brown demonstrates how the law can serve as both a reflection of our society’s evolving values and a tool for social justice.”

Richard W. Lariviere, President, The University of Oregon 

“This is a story of human frailties and human fears and how individual courage and community resolve can overcome them.  Lavergne’s telling of the human drama around Sweatt v. Painter gives us a fuller and more accurate picture of that legal landmark in American history.  He captures the physical and emotional price that was paid to bring Texas and America closer to their own ideals. The telling and the story are both inspirational.”

Teresa Sullivan, President, The University of Virginia 

“This is a story that the nation should not forget, and it is told here with rich context and nuance. The battle for civil rights here is so much more than a successful Supreme Court case.”

Lodis Rhodes, Professor, Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin 

"Gary Lavergne has traced a significant chapter in the struggle to secure civil rights in this country – a struggle of collective triumph amid personal tragedy.  Before Brown ably captures the complex, layered interplay of power, politics, and ideology that is the human drama in Heman Sweatt’s story. Lavergne masterfully highlights key ethical, legal, and policy issues throughout the book. The careful reader sees that the intractable problems of justice and fairness that befuddled many in the past are still with us today, albeit in new forms. The moral of this story is there is unfinished work to be done by all of us."

Daniel J. Saracino, Assistant Provost for Enrollment & Director of Admissions, University of Notre Dame 

Before Brown gives us much more than just a fascinating history of a courageous young Texan's refusal to settle for anything less than what a human being deserved. Gary Lavergne’s masterful portrait of Thurgood Marshall (and the NAACP in the pre-MLK, Jr. years) teaches us how he peacefully, and with dignity, challenged America to live up to the promises guaranteed in our Constitution.”

Saul Geiser, Research Associate, Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley 

Before Brown is a meticulously researched and movingly written account of the African American community’s efforts to integrate admissions at the University of Texas.  Deftly interweaving political and legal history with personal biography, Gary Lavergne’s account is a must for any who would wish to know the backstory of people and events in Texas that would lead four years later to the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.”


Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road To Justice

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