Reserved Student Became Catalyst for Desegregation at TWC

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Few people talk about the role Thelma White Camack played in the 1955 desegregation of Texas Western College, now UTEP, and according to friends and family members, that’s how she’d like it.

White, who died of breast cancer in 1985, would have turned 78 on Jan. 10. She rarely volunteered information about her participation in the pivotal event that opened the college’s doors to black undergraduate students or its ripple effect, which led to landmark municipal legislation and opened the door for blacks and Hispanics in El Pass to gain access to previously off-limits restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses.

Thelma White’s lawsuit to desegregate Texas Western College (now UTEP) in 1955 started a local chain reaction, which led to groundbreaking anti-discriminatory legislation in El Paso. Her birthday is Jan. 10. UTEP file photo.Thelma White’s lawsuit to desegregate Texas Western College (now UTEP) in 1955 started a local chain reaction, which led to groundbreaking anti-discriminatory legislation in El Paso. Her birthday is Jan. 10. UTEP file photo.

Local NAACP leaders saw an opportunity to push the issue of desegregation after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the doctrine of “separate but equal” in public education with its Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954.

White was the valedictorian of the 1954 graduating class at Douglass School, a K-12 institution in Central El Paso that served the area’s African-American students. She was described as sweet, reserved, helpful and the perfect person to carry the desegregation banner, said UTEP alumnus and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson, who used to be tutored by White when both were students at Douglass School.

“She was the right person to take on the right issue for the right reason at the right time,” Richardson said. “I appreciated what she did. She decided (segregation) was wrong and she was not going to take it. It still brings the fight out of me. I was so proud of her.” 

White, accompanied by an NAACP representative, tried to register at TWC in September 1954 but college officials refused her request based on the laws of the day. At the time, blacks who wanted to attend a four-year university in Texas were limited to Texas Southern in Houston and Prairie View A&M about 50 miles northwest of Houston. Instead, White enrolled at New Mexico A&M College (now New Mexico State University) in Las Cruces, N.M., about 45 miles away.

She filed a lawsuit against The University of Texas Board of Regents and TWC leaders for depriving her of her civil rights on March 30, 1955. The Regents decided to open TWC to blacks on July 8, 1955. In an official ruling 10 days later, U.S. District Judge R.E. Thomason ruled in White’s favor. That fall, 12 black students were admitted to Texas Western without incident. White, who decided to stay at NMSU, never attended the institution.

Her son, Alex Camack, a juvenile probation officer who lives in El Paso, said he heard others talk about his mother’s involvement in integrating The University of Texas at El Paso.

“I marveled at her accomplishments,” said Camack, who also remembered her as a doting mother.

White, daughter of Ray and Johnnie Mae White, was born in Marlin, Texas, about 20 miles southeast of Waco. The family moved to a modest home in Central El Paso when Thelma, one of four children, was young.

As a fashion-conscious young adult, she frequented the Club Society dance hall on Alameda Avenue. Friends recalled her as a woman of quiet dignity who demanded respect and was up for any challenge. She met an Army infantry officer, Curtis Camack, while at NMSU and the pair soon married. The family, which eventually would include four children, moved briefly to Germany before settling in Northeast El Paso. She worked at White Sands Missile Range for many years until she had to quit for health reasons.

John Douglas, White’s cousin and a retired El Paso police officer, said the NAACP needed someone like her – academically accomplished with a clean record – “to carry the load.” He said her decision to not play up her role in Miner history was true to her character.

“She didn’t get involved (for fame),” Douglas said. “The reason was to end segregation.”

Maceo Dailey, Ph.D., associate professor of history and director of UTEP’s African-American Studies program, mentioned the ripple effect of White’s case on the greater community. He said the integration led to inclusion of blacks in extracurricular activities such as athletics, and greater social awareness among city officials and business leaders.

He said a group of progressive whites, Jewish families (many who had experienced comparable discrimination), some houses of worship, and business leaders began to provide those black players and their families with places to eat and sleep, which led to a 1962 El Paso city antidiscrimination ordinance, the first of its kind in Texas.

Dailey said White was among the young, courageous black students nationwide who became aware they were agents of change in the great struggle to democratize America.

“By putting themselves in harm's way, physically and educationally, to challenge the draconian consequences of school segregation, black students such as Thelma White knew they had to be brave, focused, resolved and disciplined,” he said. “It is a remarkable story of their vanguard vigilance."