Looking Back: Joe Atkins and the Desegregation of North Texas

Looking Back: The Desegregation of North Texas

The Early Years

Joe Atkins did not plan to initiate the desegregation of North Texas State College, now known as the University of North Texas, but his pursuit of higher education would eventually lead him down a path that would forever change the history of UNT. Born in 1936 in Jefferson, Texas to a farmer and a housewife, Atkins displayed a passion for education and self improvement that was instilled in him at a young age. Atkins’ father started out as a farmer living in a little rural community west of Jefferson. Wanting better for his family, he came to Dallas in the late forties during the migration of blacks to the cities and got a job as a plumber’s helper. He soon learned the trade and became a master plumber and eventually built his own business. Atkins’ mother was equally driven. Although a housewife for a while, she also sold insurance working for the American Woodman’s. She would later work with Atkins’ father as he established his own business.

Atkins’ childhood was admittedly sheltered. His family lived in a black community, went to a church in that community, went to school in that community and went to the movies in that community. He remembers that the only times when he truly felt discriminated against was when he rode the bus, the streetcar, or went to use the water fountain downtown. It wasn’t until he joined the Dallas Youth Council in 1952 and met Mrs. Juanita Craft, who is credited with revitalizing the NAACP in the state of Texas, that he truly became conscious of discrimination.

Youth Activism and a Lesson in Equal Rights

Mrs. Craft was the sponsor of the Dallas Youth Council. They met on a monthly basis and, as Atkins recalls, it was a very popular group. Atkins was no stranger to activism since his own parents were active members of the Dallas branch of the NAACP. Mrs. Craft helped motivate a young Atkins to look at other issues, especially those that dealt with segregation at that time. Atkins had always been very interested in North Texas State, but didn't think he would ever attend because of segregation. When the pivotal decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education came down during Atkins’ senior year in high school, it became a very real possibility that he could attend.

Although Atkins attended Philander Smith for his first year of college, he disliked the lengthy commute and wanted to apply to schools closer to Dallas. He spoke with his parents and decided to enroll at North Texas State. Although his mother was reluctant, both of his parents supported his decision. In June of 1955, Atkins went to the registrar’s office with his mother and Mrs. Craft.

The meeting with the registrar turned into a meeting with the vice-president for academic affairs, Dr. Sampley. Dr. Sampley mentioned the admittance of Tennyson Miller, a black graduate student who had been admitted to the university the previous year. However, he also mentioned a stair step plan they wanted to put together. The idea was to admit senior transfers then juniors and so forth. Dr. Sampley stated that they did not want a test case. Atkins submitted his application and waited. After a month, Atkins received a letter from Dr. Sampley denying his admission based on the fact of his race; stating that his admission would be a violation of the Texas constitution.

Fighting for What Was Right

Atkins gave the letter to the regional NAACP attorney at the time, U. Simpson Tate, who filed the paperwork for the case. The NAACP financed the lawsuit. In the meantime, Atkins was accepted to Texas Western, now the University of Texas at El Paso. While at Texas Western College, Atkins became the target of Attorney General John Ben Shepperd, who was attempting to outlaw the NAACP. The Attorney General claimed at the time that plaintiffs in civil rights cases had been prompted by the NAACP. Atkins stated that fortunately at the time, when Texas Rangers attempted to visit him in El Paso they did not find sympathetic supporters. The attempt to intimidate Atkins was thwarted as the dean of Texas Western forced them to leave. Any attempts to get the law on their side were also futile as the sheriff would not cooperate with them.

Back at North Texas, Dr. Matthews, the university president, was not entirely unsympathetic to Atkins’ dilemma. He spoke to the Board of Regents, but the consensus of the board was, “If a black applies, we will reject his application. He’ll probably bring suit, and we’ll lose. But at that point we can then go to the mamas and papas of the white students and say, ‘Look, we tried to prevent blacks from enrolling in North Texas, but we failed, and the law was the law, and now we have to comply.’” Atkins’ suit against North Texas went to court and the judge ordered North Texas to desegregate. When Dr. Matthews was offered the opportunity to appeal the decision he passed. North Texas admitted its first black students in the spring semester of 1956.

North Texas Changes For the Better

Despite his win in the lawsuit, Atkins decided to finish his undergraduate career at Texas Western. However, his fight and case won the right for others like Abner Haynes, Joe Greene, and many more to attend North Texas. For a while, North Texas had the largest number of blacks of any state-supported institution in the state of Texas. Atkins did eventually return to North Texas to obtain his master’s degree in 1966, graduating from the College of Education.

While Atkins was still a graduate student at UNT, he worked for nine years teaching in the Dallas Independent School Joe AtkinsDistrict. After graduating, he worked for 23 years as a field representative with the Texas State Teachers Association before joining Blair White Realtors. In 1990, Atkins was made an honorary member of the Progressive Black Student Organization and previously received the Pioneer Integration Award from the campus chapter of the NAACP.

Today, the University of North Texas embraces diversity and there is a scholarship named after Miller and Atkins available through the Division of Equity & Diversity. You can apply for the A. Tennyson Miller and Joe L. Atkins Scholarship Award by going to http://edo.unt.edu/.