Heman Marion Sweatt, civil-rights plaintiff, was born on December 11, 1912, in Houston, the fourth of six children of James Leonard and Ella Rose (Perry) Sweatt. Like other Black Houstonians, Sweatt attended racially segregated schools. He graduated from Jack Yates High School in 1930 and subsequently attended Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, where he earned an undergraduate degree in 1934. After returning to Houston, Sweatt pursued several occupations before teaching at a grade school in Cleburne in 1936 and serving as the school's acting principal for a year. He decided to enter medical school and matriculated in biology at the University of Michigan in 1937. After completing his second semester, he left Ann Arbor and again returned to Houston, where he worked as a substitute mailman. In April 1940 he married his high school sweetheart, Constantine Mitchell, and bought a house. He was acquainted with several plaintiffs in civil suits, including Richard R. Grovey, his barber, and Lonnie E. Smith, his dentist. As a boy Sweatt had attended several meetings of the Houston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During the early 1940s he participated in voter-registration drives and raised funds for lawsuits against the white primary. An outspoken Black Dallas publisher, Carter W. Wesley, who was a friend of Sweatt's father, allowed Sweatt to write several columns for the Houston Informer. Concerned with discrimination against Blacks in the post office, where a worker had to be a clerk before promotion to a supervisory position and where Blacks were systematically excluded from such positions, Sweatt challenged these practices in his capacity as local secretary of the National Alliance of Postal Employees. After an attorney helped him prepare a documentation of their case, he became more interested in the law. By the mid-1940s he decided to go to law school; William J. Durham advised him to seek admission to the University of Texas School of Law, particularly since Durham knew there was no law school for Blacks in the state. Sweatt not only sought admission but, responding to an appeal Lulu White made to a group of Houston Blacks for a volunteer to file a lawsuit, also agreed to serve as the NAACP's plaintiff if he was rejected on the basis of race.
On February 26, 1946, he met with an NAACP delegation in Austin that accompanied him to the University of Texas registrar's office, where he met with UT president Theophilus S. Painter and other university officials. After Painter explained that nothing was available for Sweatt except out-of-state scholarships, NAACP delegates contended that such a provision was unacceptable and recommended that Prairie View A&M be divorced from Texas A&M and that a graduate and professional school for Blacks be established in some large urban center. Sweatt presented his college transcripts and formally requested admission to the UT law school. Painter kept the application until he could get a ruling from the attorney general, who decided to uphold the state's policy of segregation. Sweatt filed suit on May 16, 1946, against Painter and other officials in district court. On June 17, 1946, the presiding judge refused to grant the requested writ of mandamus and gave the state six months to offer African Americans an equal course of legal instruction. Six months later, though no such course yet existed, the same judge dismissed the petition, arguing that Texas A&M had passed a resolution to provide legal education for Blacks and claiming the state had satisfied its legal obligation. Sweatt appealed the case, and on May 26, 1947, the Court of Civil Appeals set aside the court's ruling and remanded the case to the lower court for a new trial.
Sweatt and other Blacks declined to attend an inferior, newly established law school in Austin. Meanwhile, Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers decided to challenge segregation itself, arguing that their earlier suits for equal facilities only succeeded in producing "Jim Crow" schools. Although the NAACP lawyers had advised him before his deposition in June 1946 to consent to attend a segregated law school at Prairie View if it were equal to that of the University of Texas, they advised Sweatt by May the following year to testify that he did not believe that there could be equality under segregation. As the case passed through the courts, Sweatt participated as a speaker at NAACP fund-raising rallies at cities throughout the state, including San Antonio, Beaumont, and Austin. After the case was remanded to the district court, he went to Austin for the trial, which lasted from May 12 to 16, 1947. Although the suit attracted much attention from the New York Herald-Tribune and Life and Newsweek, it received most of its attention from the two Black weeklies in Texas, the Dallas Express and the Houston Informer. The Express selected Sweatt as its 1946 Texan of the Year. The proceedings also took their toll on Sweatt: while he was working at the post office his life was threatened, vandals defaced his house, and both he and his wife received threatening notes and telephone calls at home. Already in poor health from stomach problems that had worsened after several years, Sweatt suffered ulcers and required hospitalization; before leaving the hospital he had at least one heart attack. Toward the end of 1947 he resigned from the post office. Carter Wesley gave him work in the Informer's circulation department, a job he kept for nearly a year before returning to the postal service.
After their petition was denied and after the Court of Civil Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court reaffirmed the lower court's ruling, Sweatt and his attorneys took their case to the United States Supreme Court, which in November 1949 granted the petitioners' writ of certiorari. The case was decided in June 1950. The court concluded that Black law students were not offered substantial quality in educational opportunities and that Sweatt could therefore not receive an equal education in a separate law school. Surrounded by photographers, Sweatt registered at the UT law school on September 19, 1950. By this time, he was emotionally and physically exhausted. Moreover, he required an appendectomy that caused him to miss classes for several weeks. While such physical and emotional problems contributed toward his poor performance and failing grades, they also created tension between him and his wife, who eventually returned to Houston and divorced Sweatt. By the summer of 1952 Sweatt gave up law school and returned to Houston; however, he received a scholarship to study at the Atlanta University Graduate School of Social Work and earned a master's degree there in the field of community organizations in 1954. He then moved to Cleveland, where he worked for the NAACP and the National Urban League for eight years before returning to Atlanta and becoming assistant director of the Urban League's southern regional office. During his twenty-three years with the Urban League, Sweatt worked in a variety of projects, ranging from voter registration drives to the study and establishment of programs for southern Blacks migrating to the North. He also taught classes at Atlanta University.
Sweatt was married in 1963 to Katherine Gaffney; with her he had a daughter and adopted another. He died on October 3, 1982, and was cremated in Atlanta. He is not only remembered for the famous lawsuit but is considered responsible for the establishment of Texas State University for Negroes (later renamed Texas Southern University), a college for Blacks that included a law school. Additionally, in 1987 the University of Texas at Austin inaugurated the Heman Sweatt Symposium in Civil Rights, an annual conference. That same year, the UT Little Campus was renamed the Heman Sweatt Campus, and a $10,000 scholarship in Sweatt's memory was established in the UT law school. See also CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT.