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Sweatt v. Painter set the stage for Brown v. the Board of Education

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Library of Congress

When Americans think about school desegregation, they often think of the 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education. However, between 1896 — when the U.S. Supreme Court set the precedent of "separate but equal" — and 1954, there were several cases that challenged this concept and helped build the case for Brown.

One such case is Sweatt v. Painter. It was decided on June 5, 1950, and involved a man from Texas, Herman Sweatt. Sweatt was denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law because integrated education was unconstitutional in Texas. In response to Sweatt's lawsuit, the state district court paused the case for six months so Texas could create an equal school for Black students. The state expanded a previously established Black university to include professional schools and renamed it Texas Southern University. However, this proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to preempt any additional legal action. With the assistance of the NAACP, Sweatt and his attorneys — Robert Carter and Thurgood Marshall — took the case to the federal courts and ultimately to the Supreme Court.

Up until this case, the NAACP had advocated for states to uphold the equal, and separate but equal. However, in Sweatt v. Painter, they argued that even with Texas Southern, the state still had not provided for equal legal education. They argued that there are tangible elements of education, such as alumni networks and the school's reputation, that have a direct effect on employment that remained absent and impossible to replicate. In a unanimous decision, the court agreed and required that states now must consider substantive equality in segregation cases. This expansion of equality set a precedent for future cases, including Brown.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.