In fall 1963, Dana Jean Smith, Georgia Hoodye, Gloria Odoms, Mabeleen Washington and Helen Jackson walked onto the Southwest Texas State campus and became the first African-Americans to attend, marking the beginning of what has now been 50 years of integration at the university.
The 2014-2015 Common Experience theme, “Exploring Democracy’s Promise: From Segregation to Integration,” aims to show the struggles of desegregation and the importance of integration. The theme raises the question of how people internalize change.
Keith Needham, English department senior lecturer and member of the Common Experience committee, loaned two signs to the university that say “White Waiting Room” and “Colored Waiting Room.” Needham said he acquired the signs by chance 25 years ago. The signs originally hung in the Santa Fe railroad station in Lubbock, Texas until President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“When you see them for the first time, it really does kick you in the stomach because it brings to reality the whole Jim Crow era,” Needham said.
The signs represent the past and now are a means to show how attitudes and times have changed, he said.
“People often say we haven’t come very far, but there’s no way you can look at these signs and say we haven’t,” Needham said. “I know prejudice and racism is very much embedded in the American culture, but it is no longer the law of the land, and that demonstrates how far we’ve come.”
Needham acquired the signs when he was a student at Southwest Texas State in the mid 1980s driving through an Austin neighborhood with a friend. They passed a woman in her front yard about to set fire to a burn pile, and the two signs were on the top of the pile.
Needham’s friend rushed out of the car and asked the woman what the signs were. She said they hung in the Santa Fe station until 1964 and she kept them for 25 years at her home.
“She wanted to get rid of them because of what they were reminders of, and he asked her, ‘May I have them?’” Needham said.
Needham asked his friend for the signs because he knew he was going to be a teacher someday. When he learned of the Common Experience theme, he knew it was time to take the signs out of storage. The signs are being displayed in Alkek Library.
News Reporter Ben Enriquez sits down with Professor Keith Needham who is a senior lecturer at Texas State University. Needham and Enriquez discuss what it means for the university to celebrate 50 years of integration and what history has been made over the years.
University officials have been asked why they are bringing up a topic that is 50 years old, and he said it is because they have “an appreciation for the past,” Needham said.
“Without that appreciation for the past, the cliché is that we are destined to repeat it, and maybe not in the exact same way but in some form or fashion,” Needham said.
The purpose of the Common Experience theme is not to remind students of a past that is “tainted” and something to be ashamed of, Needham said. The purpose is to explore history and look at the progress made in the past 50 years.
“In 50 years we’ve gone from colored waiting rooms to an African-American President,” Needham said.
Alex Walkuski, undeclared junior, said she is proud to go to a university that celebrates the struggles and triumphs of the past.
“I feel like equality is very important.” Walkuski said. “That’s why I chose to come to Texas State—‘cause we all just mesh well together with our diverse population. I just transferred here, and I love it.”
Alisha Clemons, English sophomore, said schools in particular have changed from the days of separate rooms and buildings for people of different races.
“The values system has changed and has had a big impact on society, but I think we still have progress to make more in the individual than in society itself,” Clemons said. “I feel like once we change, generation by generation, it’ll impact society a lot more.”
Alicia Thomsen, psychology sophomore, said people have different attitudes on race in different states and places.
“Equality in society is as important as anything,” Thomsen said. “A human is a human no matter gender, race, sexual orientation—we all have rights as a human being.”
Joanne Smith, vice president of Student Affairs, said the university wanted to do a tribute to the five women that desegregated Texas State in 1963, and it evolved into this year’s theme.
“We’ve come a long way, and part of the conversation has to be that we don’t want to go back to that,” Smith said. “We have to understand where we’ve come from to make sure that we don’t (go back).”
Smith said it is important to have a dialogue about how different things were in the past.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania, but when I was a young girl I traveled to Georgia, Virginia and the South,” Smith said. “It was very segregated. You had to sit in certain places.”
Smith said she wants students to engage in the Common Experience theme.
“I just hope that everyone takes the time to attend these events and join the dialogue on this important issue,” Smith said.