The legacy of the first black student is still being felt 61 years later

Alsenia ankle

She may not have fully grasped the magnitude of it at the time, but the first step Alsenia Dowells took as a student 61 years ago on the campus of Texas Woman’s University in Denton was huge.

Dowells was the first and only black student enrolled at Texas Woman’s in the fall of 1961. It was only a month earlier, in August of that year, that TWU’s board of directors voted no dissent to desegregate the institution. Other Texas higher education institutions have been slower to embrace such a change.

It was a time of extraordinary turmoil in the United States, a time when activists seeking racial equality often clashed with others determined to keep institutions segregated. In December of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., led protests against racial discrimination in Albany, Georgia, to reinvigorate a desegregation movement.

But it took another three years before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, which led to greater integration and accelerated equal access to restaurants, transportation and other facilities. public.

Although Dowells attended classes at TWU for less than a year, her enrollment at Texas Woman’s broke the color barrier and laid the groundwork for others to follow. According to one historical account, Dowells left college in 1962 to work in labor and delivery at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Dowells died in 1988.

The same year Dowells left Texas Woman’s, six other black women enrolled in college. Although the university was officially incorporated, black women enrolled at TWU at this time recall being abused by some members of the university community.

A black student said she was told she couldn’t participate in the choir because it was for whites only and none of the six were allowed to live in halls of residence, which remained separate.

Still, the women persevered and they graduated in 1966. This made Gloria Brannon, Marvia Elmore, Ruby Griffin, Bettye Person, Minnie Smith and Liz Williams the first black women to graduate from Texas Woman’s University.

Since then, registrations for people of color have continued to increase dramatically. In 2021, Texas Woman’s reported its most diverse student body ever, and U.S. News & World Report that year ranked TWU as having the fourth most diverse student body in the nation. As of fall 2021, minorities make up approximately 58% of the university’s entire student body, and black students make up 21.4% of the incoming class.

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