ARLINGTON (AP) – Dr. Maxwell C. Scarlett’s biography is punctuated by firsts.
In 1966, Scarlett became the first African-American to graduate from what is now the University of Texas at Arlington. In the fall of 1962, he was among the first three African-American men to live in a college dormitory at the North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas.
Scarlett, 67, was also the first African-American to teach in the biology department at North Texas.
“My generation came along in a different day,” Scarlett said. “I never went to school with any students who were white and never had any teachers who were white until I was a freshman in college.”
Scarlett’s experience will be part of an oral history project at UTA that focuses on black alumni. The project is the first major undertaking for the university’s new Center for African American Studies. The center is described as unique to North Texas and the third of its kind in the state. The University of Texas at Austin and Texas Lutheran University in Seguin have similar centers.
The center’s creation cements an understanding that the African-American experience needs to be accessible to today’s students.
A lack of historical visibility has been a complaint, said Marvin Dulaney, chairman of UTA’s history department. Dulaney said visitors to the university have said there is no celebration of African-Americans on campus.
A national search for a director is under way, Dulaney said. The center is expected to be officially launched in August. It is a collaboration between the School of Social Work and the College of Liberal Arts.
An introductory course and a new minor in African-American studies will be offered at the center, according to UTA.
Initial costs are estimated at $295,000 annually. The center director will seek outside funding.
Research will include documenting African-American heritage and experience with focuses on politics, culture and society. Projects will touch on issues such as voting rights, healthcare, homelessness and criminal justice.
The history project will also add to the work of former Library Dean Gerald Saxon, who wrote Transitions: A Centennial History of The University of Texas at Arlington. Saxon described integration at Arlington State College, which was a former name of UTA, as a slow process. About 25 African-Americans were estimated to have enrolled in September 1962. Enrollment grew to 30 students out of 9,000 that spring.
Today, students mention diversity as one of the reason they choose the university. About 19 percent of about 33,500 students are Hispanic, and about 15 percent are black, according to UTA.
Dulaney said those at the center will videotape and audiotape responses by interviewees to a list of questions — such as why they came to UTA. Among alumni to be interviewed is state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who in 1972 became the first black student government president. Dulaney said that vote — by the entire student body — came as the campus was making a controversial mascot change from Rebels to Mavericks. They are also collecting responses from Walter Price, who in 1984 became the second African-American elected student government president.
By documenting the history, students can learn from the past and see what it took to build the campus diversity they experience daily, Dulaney said.
“It shows how much progress we have made in 50 years,” Dulaney said, adding that it is important to document the struggles that students went through to gain equal access to higher education.
Students might not know that the first black students came to UTA after a lawsuit was filed, Dulaney said. The suit was dropped when the president decided to admit African-Americans, he added.
“It was that threat that forced UTA to desegregate,” he said.
After UTA opened its doors to African-Americans, acceptance into the dormitories and integration of sports teams followed. The struggle continued with efforts to encourage the hiring of black faculty and staff. In the 1970s, a major step was made with the hiring of Bob “Snake” LeGrand as basketball coach.
Scarlett, who became a physician and practices emergency medicine, said the oral history project and the new center will expose more people to the biographies of African-Americans.
“I think we need that because it will enlighten many people,” said Scarlett, who was named a distinguished alumnus of UTA’s College of Science in 2005.
The center and oral histories will help younger generations of Americans understand desegregation and the struggle for change. Ideally, it will lead to better community understanding and communication, he said.
“It’s important to know the history,” Scarlett said. “If you don’t know the history, you don’t know who you are or where you came from and you don’t know how to prevent future mistakes.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)