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Treasures from the Trunk

Heart of the Law School : Houston and Its Academic Law Libraries

by Christopher Anglim

This series on the history of the three academic law libraries presently operating in Houston, we now looks at the library at the Texas Southern University Law Library.

Texas Southern University Law Library

The present Thurgood Marshall Law School originated in the lawsuit filed by Herman Sweatt, an African-American who was denied admission to the University of Texas Law school. In order to comply with the "separate but equal doctrine" of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Texas legislature, enacted Senate Bill 140, which created the "Texas State University for Negroes" and provided for an emergency appropriation of $100,000. The law school began with an interim facility and makeshift facilities in three rooms the basement of the Supreme Court Building in Austin, pending the construction of a permanent facility in Houston. The law school had no independent faculty, library, full-time library staff, and accreditation. Although the university was authorized to offer several programs, the law school was the only component in existence in 1947.

TSU’s library modestly began when the librarian of the law school at the University of Texas, Helen Hargrave, prepared a list of nearly 10,000 volumes ( the then required number to meet the requirements of the Association of American Law Schools -- AALS), which the State would immediately seek to purchase..

In the summer of 1947, the State of Texas purchased the Houston College for Negroes from the Houston Independent School District, to create a permanent home for the new university.

The Law school moved to Houston on September 1, 1948. Professor Roberson King was appointed law librarian at the new school and he was assisted by Bessie Randall, a full-time professional librarian. The first year was mainly spent organizing and processing the library materials.

Accreditation was the first goal of the law school and one vital to its long-term survival. A crucial issue was whether the library had the required materials to satisfy the ABA. During its first year the library acquired 9,000 volumes, bringing its collection up to 25,000 volumes, including 62 up-to-date legal periodicals. The college was inspected by the ABA in 1949 and was found to be in compliance with ABA standards. Later that year, the college received ABA provisional accreditation, which was remarkable since the normal minimum time before accreditation by the ABA was five years. Upon approval by the ABA, the law school was immediately accepted as a member of the AALL, despite initial reluctance because of concerns that it would be condoning segregation. The law school also applied to AALS, which had found that the college had met its requirements, but deferred its decision until the US Supreme Court had decided Sweatt v. Painter. In 1950, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause required that Sweatt be admitted to the University of Texas School of Law. Despite the decision, the Texas State University for Negroes was not abolished. The US Supreme Court, although not overruling Plessy, found that the new law school was separate but not equal. An inadequate library was one of the main reasons for this decision. The law school by 1950 had a faculty of five full-time professors, a student body of 23, and a library of 16,500 volumes. While the law school would continue to grow, it would take time to dispel the idea that because the college was established to prevent integration, its continued existence was a threat to integration and that it would always be inferior.

On its new campus in Houston, the law school was initially housed in the Thorton Fairchild Memorial Building along with the newly established undergraduate and graduate programs. It was eventually relocated to Hannah Hall. In 1951, the University was renamed Texas Southern University (TSU) and continued in its mission to educate African-Americans and other traditionally disadvantaged individuals while addressing the needs of its community.

Conditions at the law school unfortunately tended to deteriorate after the Sweatt decision. In the mid-to- late 1950s, the college faced the danger of losing its provisional accreditation. One problem was that it did not have a regularly appointed dean from 1955 to 1957. Another concerned the library. The card catalog had become practically useless and the collection had become outdated and contained useless supplementary material and broken periodical sets. Through the efforts of Dean Harry Groves, the college was able to bring the collection up-to-date and revised the card catalog. TSU became fully-accredited in 1958. Dean Groves had begun work on winning AALS accreditation. He worked with the law librarian, Betty Stuart, to determine what was needed to develop the collection to meet AALS standards. This would have required an expenditure of close to $4,000, which the Dean could not justify based on the size of the enrollment. Dean Groves then turned his attention to student enrollment.

The law school for many years struggled with inadequate support. It had marginally adequate resources, including an inadequate library collection and a marginally adequate education program as compared with other state-supported law schools due to insufficient funding. Underfunding caused problems for the college in hiring and retaining faculty, maintaining the facility, and purchasing needed library materials. The law library’s collection had increased by only 2,000 volumes from 1949 to 1964. Lack of proper maintenance in the library lead to rain falling into the library, which was caught by large garbage cans situated next to studying students. The most serious threat to TSU’s existence came when the Texas Commission on Higher Education recommended that the law school be phased out beginning in September 1965. TSU supporters argued that the college the school was essential in providing equal opportunities to African-Americans, specifically that it bridged the gap created by years of inferior and unequal education. The legislature, however, voted to continue the law school indefinitely.

The students, realizing that the future of the college would shape their own, endeavoured to help the law school. During the summer break in 1969, law students extensively volunteered refurbishing the law school’s premises, including reorganizing the library. Law school Dean Kenneth S. Tollett praised the effort as one of the most remarkable displays of self-help and espirit de corps ever in higher education.

The long-term overfunding at TSU, however, required an overdue correction. TSU Students and faculty boycotted the school in 1972 to send a message to the legislature, which eventually granted funding for a new building in 1973. In July 1974, construction began on a $3.5 million facility that was more than 66,000 square feet in size, which was dedicated as the Thurgood Marshall School of Law on February 14, 1976. The building was renovated and redesigned over the years to add space, much of which went to the new library.

During the 1980s, there were continuous efforts to improve the law school, including substantial improvements in funding and collection development for the library. A comprehensive plan of action was developed by the University and the State Bar of Texas. One of the goals of the law school was to attract and retain a high quality of students and this was done by seeking sufficient funding to upgrade facilities, including the library. During the late 1980s, the law school underwent major renovation and expansion which resulted in vastly expanded facilities by the early 1990s.


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