The NAACP and Black Texan
Civil Rights Leaders
(1920s – 1980s)

This project recognizes Heman Sweatt and other key figures by narrating their legal struggle for racial equity in higher education at UT and around the country.


Juanita Jewel Craft. Photo by LeAnn Gillette, 1974, Courtesy of Michael and LeAnn Gillette.
William Joseph Durham. Photo by R.C. Hickman, 1956, The University of Texas at Austin, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
Antonio Maceo Smith. Photo by R.C. Hickman, 1952, The University of Texas at Austin, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
Lulu Belle White. Courtesy of Michael Gillette.

It’s no coincidence that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chose to pursue its legal struggle for racial integration in higher education in the state of Texas. The organization opened its first Texas branch in El Paso in 1915. By 1919, Texas had the highest NAACP membership of any state.1 Membership grew with the support of national anti-lynching campaigner Mary B. Talbert, who traveled Texas organizing NAACP branches in nine cities. The Texas Attorney general tried to shut down the organization’s activities by targeting its office in Austin, subpoenaing all of its records.2 John Shillady, the NAACP’s National Executive Secretary, a white man, traveled to Austin to speak with Texas officials about the matter. A gang of men, supported by the governor and including local officials, violently beat and ran Shillady out of Austin.3 This climate of racism and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan curtailed NAACP membership and activities in Texas by the mid-1920s.4

In the 1930s, the national NAACP in coordination with local branches made efforts to revive the organization’s presence in the state. In 1937, Antonio Maceo Smith, an NAACP activist in Dallas, convened the Texas State Conference of the NAACP and helped determine its primary objective: “to begin the fight to get Negros admitted to the University of Texas.”5 This Texas- based initiative was part of a long-term strategy to desegregate higher education in the nation. It kicked off by demanding infusions of state funding to send Black students out of state to study in graduate fields not available to them in Texas’ segregated universities. It also insisted on increased appropriations for Prairie View, the segregated state college.

The desegregation of higher education was also taken up by academics. Also in 1937, sociologist Henry Allen Bullock, a professor at Prairie View at the time, convened a state conference at the college called “The Availability of Public Education for Negroes in Texas,” to gather research as a basis for attacking the disparities in the funding of racially segregated education in Texas and across the South.

Meanwhile, UT clung to its segregationist policies as evidenced in the case of George L. Allen. Allen, who was of Creole descent and light-skinned, applied for and enrolled in a UT extension business course in 1938.6 Ten days later, upon learning that Allen was in fact Black, university officials cancelled his enrollment.

During the late 1930s and through the 1940s, the NAACP and the cause of civil rights continued to gather strength and numbers. Black women like Juanita Jewel Craft in Dallas, who helped to organize 182 chapters in eleven years, and Lulu Belle White of Houston, who became director of the state organization in 1949, led the way. A key victory was achieved in the Smith v. Allwright Supreme Court decision, ending white-only Democratic primaries in Texas. This had the effect of opening up voting to Black people in Texas, a state that suffered from one-party rule.

NAACP Civil Rights Leaders, Courtesy of Michael Gillette.

Bolstered by this and other successes, the NAACP laid plans for a lawsuit against The University of Texas in 1945. Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP attorney, worked closely with activist Antonio Maceo Smith, Attorney William Joseph Durham, and Newspaperman Carter Wesley to plan the legal action. For more than a year the Texas NAACP, led by then Houston executive secretary Lulu Belle White, prepared and raised funds for the suit. They also searched for a suitable plaintiff with the requisite qualifications that could stay the course in a long legal fight. White, a friend of the Sweatt family, found their plaintiff in Heman Marion Sweatt.


  1. Michael Lowery Gillette, “The NAACP in Texas, 1937-1957” (The University of Texas at Austin, 1984), 2. ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. “White Secretary Negro Society Chased out of the City,” The Statesman, August 22, 1919. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 2–4. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 39. ↩︎
  6. Listen to George Allen share his experience about registering at UT. ↩︎




Juanita Jewel Shanks Craft (1902-1985) attended Prairie View Normal Industrial College and worked as a Dallas-based civil rights activist with the NAACP. Working in collaboration with Lulu Belle White of Houston, Craft organized 182 branches of the NAACP in Texas over eleven years. Craft helped integrate two universities in Texas, desegregate the Texas State Fair, and the wider-Dallas community. Between 1975 and 1979, she served on the Dallas City Council for two terms.




Lulu Belle White (1907-1957) left teaching to work for NAACP for the rest of her life. She enrolled thousands of members and opened dozens of chapters across the state and personally recruited Heman Marion Sweatt as a plaintiff in the case against UT. She served as the Executive Secretary of the NAACP Houston branch, Interim President and later director for all branches in Texas, working closely with national NAACP leadership to end all-white primaries, end racial segregation in education and job discrimination.




Antonio Maceo Smith (1903-1977) was educated at Fisk and NYU before returning to Dallas a businessman, activist, and civic leader in 1932. He spearheaded the creation of a statewide conference of the NACCP branches in Texas and organized for more than two decades in Texas, and also on the national board of the NAACP, earning him the nickname “Mr. Civil Rights.” He was involved in most of the specific actions that desegregated the city of Dallas.




William Joseph Durham (1896-1970) was a WWI veteran and self-taught lawyer. In 1930 his law office in Sherman, Texas was burned to the ground by a white lynch mob. Durham was resident council for the NAACP in Texas, litigating dozens of civil rights cases, often with Thurgood Marshall. He made preparations to fight UT in the Sweatt v. Painter case. In 1956 when Texas Attorney General attempted to discredit and ban the NAACP from Texas, Durham successfully defended the organization.