University unveils historical marker

Brendan Wynne

Shayla Owens, SGA president, gives a speech at the Desegregation Historical Marker Ceremony on Feb. 25. Photo by Timothy Jones

Placed just outside Ferguson Hall, the Midwestern University desegregation historical marker stood cloaked beneath a scarlet, velvet veil. Keith Lamb, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, gave the opening remarks for the ceremony held Feb. 25 in honor of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Hardin Junior College, one of Midwestern State University’s former titles, and the enrollees of the 1954 integrated class.

Marilyn Virginia Menefee-Billouin, the last surviving member of the original six plaintiffs that attempted to enroll in Midwestern State University’s segregated system, was in attendance along with two of the original enrollees, Edwin Fuller and Horace Pope.

“When I arrived at Midwestern State University just a year and a half ago, I was not aware of the significant events that led to integration in 1954,” Suzanne Shipley, university president, said. “The lawsuit filed against the university was the first lawsuit of its kind, even predating the landmark, Brown v. Board of Education.”

Robert Stewart and Chase Thornton were both graduate students when they began the research that would highlight this significant event in the university’s history.

“This is a very proud moment for us,” Thornton said. “When we began this journey several years ago, we never imagined our humble project would evolve into what it has become, today. This project introduced us to so many wonderful people and uncovered a lost piece of history essential to the struggle of equality in education. It has been a great privilege and a crown jewel of our academic careers.”

Thornton said this crown jewel comes with a history of its own.

“This story began with Robert taking an African-American Politics course here at the university. Robert wrote a class paper originally designed around the procession of African-Americans in local media here in Wichita Falls,” Thornton said. “He invited me to start working on an independent research project concerning the integration of Midwestern State University. Eventually the historical association helped us in getting the historical marker that we’re celebrating here today.”

Thornton credits the magnitude of his research to the struggles faced not only by the plaintiffs involved, but all individuals that sought equality in education.

“Today we honor the individuals that broke the chains of segregation for future generations,” Thornton said. “In 1951, if an African-American student wanted to go to college, they could do so in one of two ways. The first would be for the local university to offer courses in the likes of carpentry, plumbing, or other jobs related to skill or manual labor. The second option was to petition the local school to pay for their education at the nearest all African-American college. The second option was not deemed viable for the residents of Wichita Falls because the nearest school that fit that criteria was located at Prairie View A&M, a distance of about 367 miles, or Texas Southern University at about 411 miles.”

One of the original plaintiffs, Willie Faye Battle-Fields, stood at the helm of abolishing segregation at the university.

“Willie Faye Battle, later Willie Faye Battle-Fields, the valedictorian of the Booker T. Washington High School 1950 graduating class, would be approached by members of the African-American community, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, including Thurgood Marshall himself to apply to Hardin Junior College,” Thornton said.

Battle-Fields would receive an initial acceptance letter from Hardin Junior College, but when she went to register for that fall semester, she would be pulled out of line and told she would be unable to attend college. However, Battle-Fields wouldn’t let this keep her from school, and she would attend her freshman year at Prairie View A&M University. In the summer of 1951, a year after Battle-Fields’s initial rejection from Hardin Junior College, there would be a large meeting of the NAACP and the black community to form a plan to rend out segregation at Midwestern University.

The result: Midwestern University became the first fully integrated and state-funded higher learning institution in Texas by admitting the first African-American students in June 1954.

“What they gave us changed the social, political and educational direction of this country, forever,” Thornton said. “We’d just like to say thank you.”

Thornton wasn’t the only speaker to express his gratitude to the honorees.

“Today’s Midwestern State University has grown to differ in many important ways from the Midwestern University of 1954,” Shipley said. “We’ve become Texas’s only public liberal arts university and the only Texan member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Our 6,000 students come from 44 states and 54 foreign countries, and represent striking variety. 10 percent are international, 14 percent are African-American, 16 percent are Hispanic, and 50 percent of our students are first generation college students.”

Shipley said that the barriers broken down by the original plaintiffs have paved the way for current and future students.

“The institution that grew from the event we commemorate today has been refined by change. The effect of a college education on a first generation families can revolutionize opportunities for generation after generation. For many families, it all begins right here,” she said.

Robert Palmer, chairman of the Wichita County Historical Commission, said he was very pleased to be able to dedicate the marker.

“This is one of the most important markers that we have dedicated to Wichita County. I think it’s very important that we stress just how important it is,” Palmer said. “As a commission, we’re charged with preserving the history of Wichita County. That includes people, events and sometimes challenges. What is preserving history? It’s a window to the past and a window to the future. We want future students at Midwestern State University to be aware of the events that led to this county being the great county that it is. It’s important for people to know the struggles and battles that were fought to get us where we are and where we want to be in the future.”