Today@Sam Article

Bearkat Breaks Barriers: John Arthur Patrick and Desegregation

Feb. 21, 2024
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins

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John Arthur Patrick devoted himself to teaching others, but his life’s greatest lesson came before his professional career began. In 1964, he became the first Black student to be admitted to Sam Houston State University, known then as Sam Houston State Teachers College.

Over 50 years later, his grandson followed in his footsteps and earned his degree from SHSU in 2016.

“I would hear stories about him on campus from faculty members who knew him once they found out who I was,” said Jared Patrick. “That’s how I got to discover things about him more so than when I was a child, since I was very young when he passed away.”

Today, John Arthur’s lessons and work ethic are on full display through Jared, who is a photographer and teacher.

“He didn’t fear what people had to say about him or how people felt about him. He was God-fearing, but he didn’t fear the challenge of being a Black man going to college,” Jared Patrick said. “He knew what was at stake and took that challenge head-on to make history. Now, you see the growth of Sam Houston 60 years later. He was a man that broke barriers, but he only cared about pursuing his education.”

John Arthur Patrick’s legacy has also been well-documented through the years by family members and friends who knew him personally.

“If Jackie Robinson was the perfect man to start integration in baseball, John was the perfect man to begin the integration process at the university here in Huntsville,” said his cousin Richard Harrison to the Huntsville Item in 2014.

He was referring to his cousin’s constant state of positivity and endearing personality, even in the face of bigotry and, according to Harrison, death threats when he first came to campus. Along with his habit of making the best out of any situation, Patrick’s focus was on more important things.

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“I wasn’t treated any differently,” Patrick told the Houstonian in 1988. “If I was, I could not tell it because I was concerned with school. No one approached me differently; I wasn’t looking for friends or to bother anyone.”

According to the Huntsville Item, the Board of Regents of State Teachers College announced a policy in early June of 1964 that proclaimed, “A student is not going to be refused admission solely on the basis of race.” Former President Elliot Bowers held a press conference later that week to confirm Patrick’s enrollment status.

“(Patrick) is just another student and will be treated like anyone else,” Bowers said. “We are now desegregated. Any student who meets the standards of the college will be admitted.”  

Patrick, a Huntsville native, was valedictorian of Sam Houston High School’s Class of 1964. The all-Black, segregation-era high school was named for renowned local educator Sam Walker Houston and officially closed its doors in 1968.

Faculty members from SHSTC attended local graduations and were offering scholarships. The promise to pay for his tuition and books, as well as the nearby location of the college, was enough to entice Patrick, as well as his family.

“My mother thought it was a good idea to stay close to home, and I was a momma’s boy, I guess,” Patrick said to the Houstonian in the same 1988 article.

He would major in math and science and graduate in three-and-a-half years, earning his bachelor of arts in teaching degree in 1968. During his time at Sam, he was elected to the Student Government Association, known then as Senatorial Congress.

While Patrick’s experience at Sam was seemingly cordial overall, the Black community endured many hardships in the desegregation process itself. One of the most prominent players in the fight for local desegregation was Wendell Harold Baker Sr., whose story was told in detail in a 2011 edition of the Houstonian.

In the early 1960s, Baker was fired by Huntsville ISD after nine years of teaching when he refused to sell his property. His presence in the white community he resided in caused controversy among some of the locals. This injustice fueled his passion and inspired him to dedicated himself to equality.

“We decided to begin working on matters that would improve our community and lift the status of Blacks,” Baker told the Houstonian in 2011. “The best way to accomplish this was to work within the system and deal with the people who made decisions.”

Baker and his fellow activists worked with a number of Black students as they attempted to apply to the segregated SHSTC, including Willis teacher Maxine Haywood. After her transfer request was rescinded when personnel recognized her Prairie View A&M transcript, she contacted Baker and decided to file a lawsuit against the university.

The story of Haywood’s baseless rejection was soon published on the front page of the Houston Chronicle, which, according to Baker, led to former Texas governor John Connally ordering the school board to overturn its segregation policy and admit Black students.

By the time Patrick graduated from Sam, there were hundreds of more Black students on the newly desegregated campus, including Haywood.

“The university has changed dramatically since we first started rallying for desegregation,” Baker said to the Houstonian. “There is much more diversity and, because of the integration laws, my daughters were able to get good educations from Sam Houston. My philosophy is this: if not me, then who?”

After earning his degree, John Arthur Patrick worked as a teacher at Galveston Ball Senior High School for 29 years. He married Luvina Lee Patrick and the couple had two children, John Patrick Jr. and Michael Patrick. He passed away on March 8, 1995.

A decade later, SHSU honored Patrick with a brick commemorating him in the Alumni Garden. Patrick’s family and friends in the local NAACP chapter spoke on his behalf at the ceremony along with former SHSU President James Gaertner.

“John Patrick was a real pioneer for our university,” Gaertner said at the brick laying. “We have made significant progress. You can see by the audience that we are a university of many races and we are very proud of that fact.”

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