Racial separation by force of law was a historic custom in the United States until the decision of Sweatt v. Painter by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1950. The manner in which segregation of the races by state action in a variety of contexts became established at law, in the face of the Fourteenth Amendment's prohibiting a state from denying to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, is perhaps best revealed by the case of Plessey v. Ferguson, decided by the Supreme Court around 1900. Though that case involved the segregation of the races on a common carrier, the separate but equal doctrine utilized in the case to sanction segregation in that situation was subsequently recognized as applicable in a wide variety of situations, including that of segregation of the white and black races for public education. Among other reasons given for the approval of the separate but equal doctrine were that it was simply a recognition of a fundamental and ineradicable difference and that it was reasonable in the context of established customs of the people. Absolute equality in treatment was not deemed necessary. Those who sought to challenge segregation in public education before Sweatt v. Painter did so primarily by contending that there was in the particular situation in question gross inequality of facilities or a complete failure to provide African Americans with higher education of the type in issue. Although decisions had been rendered prior to Sweatt v. Painter indicating that the Supreme Court was shifting to a new and more exacting standing of equality that would ultimately require the state to be "color-blind" in all its activities, these decisions had not proceeded to the point of shaking the foundations of the long-established tradition of an attempt to get equality through segregation. Sweatt v. Painter did so.
Heman Marion Sweatt applied for admission to the University of Texas School of Law in February 1946. His was perhaps the second application of any black to the University of Texas. He met all eligibility requirements for admission except for his race. On that ground he was denied admission pursuant to Article VII, Section 7, of the Texas Constitution, which read: "Separate schools shall be provided for the white and colored children, and impartial provision shall be made for both." Mandamus proceedings were then instituted by Sweatt to require state and university officials to enroll him. The trial judge continued the case to give the state an opportunity to establish a "separate but equal" law school, and a temporary law school was opened in February 1947, known as the School of Law of the Texas State University for Negroes. The school of law was located in Austin in a house on Thirteenth Street north of the Capitol. The students had access to the Supreme Court library, and several members of the law faculty of the University of Texas School of Law taught the classes. Mandamus was then denied by the state courts of Texas pursuant to the separate but equal doctrine. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari and thereafter held that the equal protection clause required Sweatt's admission to the University of Texas School of Law. Sweatt enrolled at the beginning of the 1950–51 school year, as did several other blacks.
Sweatt v. Painter did not establish the invalidation of race separation per se by force of law, but the criteria used by the court in the application of the separate but equal doctrine gave legal experts cause to believe that the doctrine was virtually dead. It was clear from the opinion that a good-faith effort to supply equality of treatment without integration was insufficient; rather, it must be equality in fact. The case had a direct impact on the University of Texas in that it provided for admission of black applicants to graduate and professional programs. However, black students could pursue only those degrees that were not available from Prairie View or Texas Southern, since the university opted for a narrow interpretation of Sweatt. Black undergraduates were not admitted to the school. Graduate students, however, were allowed to enroll in undergraduate courses when necessary for their program of work. The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) decision was the next step on the long road to integrated educational facilities in Texas. It was only necessary for the court to say in Brown that equality in fact was not a possibility under a policy of separation because to separate children in public schools "from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." See also CIVIL RIGHTS.