By Caden Ziegler
On the final day of the Youth and Government Conference, some trial court teams moved from hotel courtrooms to the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse in downtown Austin.
According to the Travis County Archives, the courthouse was “designed in the ‘Moderne’ style by Page Bros. Architects, and built by H.E. Wattinger Contractors, the 1931 Courthouse broke with the classical design elements of the past.”
It was a symmetrical building with bronze entrance doors on each of the four sides and high ceilings.
“The building was completed in 1931, only to outgrow its size, requiring renovations in both 1958 and 1962,” said Andrew Weber, web producer at KUT News in “A History of Travis County’s Aging Courthouses.”
The building has had to close several entrances and take down the high ceilings during renovations in order to acclimate to the exponential growth of Austin in the middle of the 1900’s.
In 2005, the building was dedicated to Heman Marion Sweatt, a civil-rights activist from the 1940’s. At a young age, Sweatt was a member of the Houston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), according to “A History of Travis County’s Aging Courthouse.”
Sweatt participated in voter-registration drives in the 1940’s, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. This act removes all legal barriers put in place by state and local government that could potentially prohibit people from voting on “account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” as the 15th Amendment states. Sweatt also became involved in the issue of segregation in his workplace, the post office.
“Sweatt challenged these practices in his capacity as local secretary of the National Alliance of Postal Employees,” said Richard Allen Burns, a writer from the Texas State Historical Association.
While being helped with legal documentation by an attorney, Sweatt became interested in law and applied to the University of Texas at Austin’s law school.
“Sweatt not only sought admission but also agreed to serve as the NAACP’s plaintiff if he was rejected on the basis of race,” said Burns.
Theophilus S. Painter, UT President in 1946, went to the Attorney General with Sweatt’s transcript, and obtained a ruling that upheld the states segregatory policies. Sweatt sued Painter and the District Court, and the presiding judge gave the state six months to create a course of equal legal instruction. After a course was created, Sweatt refused to attend a college that was inferior to UT and eventually brought the case to the Supreme Court.
“The court concluded that black law students were not offered substantial quality in educational opportunities and that Sweatt could therefore not receive an equal education in a separate law school. Surrounded by photographers, Sweatt registered at the UT School of Law on September 19, 1950,” said Burns.
Though he did not finish law school at UT, his actions made the university one of the first higher education schools in the south to be integrated. For his actions and achievements, the courthouse, a symbol of truth and justice, was dedicated to him 23 years after his death in 1982.