The Austin Chronicle

Texas Book Festival 2018: Making History: The Civil Rights Movement in Texas

By Katarina Brown, October 29, 2018, 1:45pm, All Over Creation

When Virginia Cumberbatch and Leslie A. Blair started the project that would eventually become As We Saw It: The Story of Integration at the University of Texas at Austin, they expected to be adding to a conversation. Instead, they found that they were starting one.

Cumberbatch and Blair detailed this process at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday. At a panel moderated by journalist Doyin Oyeniyi, the pair discussed the creation of the book and its history alongside Harriet Murphy, Texas’ first African-American judge and author of the memoir There All the Honor Lies.

Collectively, the panel and their books sought to fill a void in Texas history that has long been overlooked and overshadowed by a different narrative. “We adorn confederate soldiers,” Cumberbatch said. “But we have done nothing to honor these other stories.”

Seeking to fix this, in 2007 Cumberbatch began collecting stories from the Precursors, the first African-American alumni to integrate UT. Cumberbatch and Blair became stewards for the history of these students, capturing and sharing their stories through a blog series. Wanting to do more, Cumberbatch and Blair began As We Saw It in the midst of the Ferguson uprising and a fraught political and cultural climate, wanting to detail a history that had never received its due.

It was never an easy process. To complement the first-person interviews, Cumberbatch wanted to truly dive into the research. She expected boxes and boxes of articles to explore. Instead, at one library she was handed a thin envelope labeled “Negroes at UT.” When she later tried to find records of the Precursors at the registrar's office at UT, she had to wade through microfilm and scan close to 40 years of records for African-American students – already taxing work made even worse even by the fact that students at this time didn’t indicate their race on official documentation.

“The process itself has been very telling of the work that needed to be done,” said Cumberbatch. As she and Blair drafted the book, they sought to add back in the context of each story and explain the intense pressures the Precursors faced.

As the only African-American student in a school of 1,300 law students, Murphy was able to bring the personal perspective to UT’s efforts to integrate. She described her shock at discovering she was the lone student of color, as well as her efforts to bring more African-Americans to the law school back in 1966. Her memoir traces this journey, along with her later years as a judge and activist.

“I wanted to describe the challenges that students must be prepared to meet,” Murphy said as she closed the panel. “That way, they can then go farther to eliminate the barriers.”

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