The University of Texas — School of Law Atrium
Thursday, February 14, 2018, 3:30 p.m.
This is the speech President Fenves gave during the unveiling of the portrait of Heman Sweatt at the School of Law.
This is a very important day for The University of Texas, and for the School of Law in particular. We are here to unveil a portrait of Heman Sweatt, which will rest alongside images of esteemed graduates and supporters of Texas Law. This portrait is an honor to Heman Sweatt and it is also a symbol. Symbols matter a great deal. They leave an impression on people. They allow us to make clear our values. What we celebrate. What we stand for. Who we are.
When I think of Texas Law, I think about the remarkable students and faculty who have learned and taught within these walls. I think of the fact that this school, without question, is the best law school in the state of Texas. For hundreds of miles in every direction, there are students who dream of attending. But when I think about the law school as a place — what it looks like, what defines it — I immediately think of the portraits, hanging on the walls of the main floor.
The portraits send two messages: One — this is who we are … these are the very best of us. And two, which is just for students and aspiring students — this can be you. This is what you can become. This is who you can draw inspiration from.
But when Heman Sweatt was a young student, growing up in Texas, there were no African American UT graduates or students for him to look up to, or aspire to be like. He, and other qualified students, were not allowed to attend this university and this law school because of the color of their skin. The legacy of segregation is part of the history of UT and we have Heman Sweatt to thank for making it just that … history.
When I was reading about Heman, I came across a quote from Dr. Hemella Sweat, Heman’s daughter, who is here with us this afternoon. In talking about her father, she said: “Nothing was more important to him than education. Whatever comes in second was so far distant that it didn’t really matter.” And that singular focus and desire to learn is what helped him through four years of litigation, that would ultimately result in his admission to The University of Texas School of Law.
When I reflect on Heman’s legacy, I think of all that he’s done for our university. Creating a pathway for others to follow, as the first African American student admitted to UT. But I also can’t help but think of him, simply, as a potential UT student.
He was everything we look for today in a Longhorn — remarkably intelligent, dedicated to causes he believed in … a person who led through his actions and deeds. At the time he applied to UT, he had a Bachelor’s degree, had written newspaper columns, studied at The University of Michigan, participated in voter registration drives and other activities aimed at challenging the inequities of the Jim Crow era — inequities that had been ingrained in American society since Reconstruction. In short, he was exactly the kind of thoughtful, engaged student that we would actively recruit today. Someone we would be honored to have on campus as part of our family.
And so, it’s fitting that we are here this afternoon, further solidifying his importance on the Forty Acres. Placing his portrait on this wall, to let everyone who walks past know: this is who we are, this is who we can be, this is who we look up to. This is an important member of the UT family — Hemann Sweatt.
To Hemella and the entire Sweatt family, I simply would like to express my gratitude, for Heman’s bravery, vision, and courage. He challenged the greatest injustice in the history of UT, and pushed this university to truly become a university of the first-class, for all Texans.