Texas Southern University was established by the Fiftieth Texas Legislature on March 3, 1947, under the provisions of Senate Bill 140 as a state-supported institution of higher education to be located in Houston. The institution, which was initially named Texas State University for Negroes, was established to serve African Americans in Texas, offering them, for the first time, a program of study comparable to that available to white Texans. The state accepted Houston College for Negroes to begin the university, as it had one permanent building, a faculty, and students. Senate Bill 140 and subsequent enabling legislation authorized the university to offer a full range of programs, including "pharmacy, dentistry, arts and sciences, journalism education, literature, law, medicine, and other professional courses," and further stipulated that "these courses shall be equivalent to those offered at other institutions of this type supported by the State of Texas." The intent of the legislature was to perpetuate the segregation of higher education in Texas by offering the state's Black citizens a university equivalent to the University of Texas. The establishment of Texas State University for Negroes was the culmination of a long struggle by Houston Blacks to obtain an institution of higher education in their community. These efforts began in the nineteenth century, when the Reverend John H. (Jack) Yates tried unsuccessfully to have Bishop College located in Houston. Failing in this endeavor, Yates joined with other Black Houstonians in organizing Houston College (also known as Houston Baptist Academy). This institution opened in rented facilities in 1885 before moving to its own three-acre site on the western edge of the city in 1894. Its mission was to train Black youth for the ministry and to provide them with a general education. Like many Black institutions in the late nineteenth century most of its efforts went to providing precollege courses for its students. Indeed evidence suggests that the Houston College was a college in name only; virtually all of its students were enrolled in its primary, secondary, and industrial education divisions. By the early 1920s Houston College had closed. To fill the void and to meet the growing need to provide college level training for the teachers in the city's Black schools, in 1925 Wiley College, with the support of the Houston school board, began offering extension classes in the city's Black high school for Black teachers. The need for academic training for the teachers of the city's Black schools, the popularity of the Wiley College extension classes, and political pressure brought by Black community for an increased share of funds appropriated for education, persuaded Houston school superintendent E. E. Oberholtzer to support a junior college for Blacks in Houston. On March 7, 1927, the Houston School Board voted to establish a junior college system in the city. They formed two colleges, Houston Junior College and Houston Colored Junior College.
Despite the concern of many, including consultants from Rice University and the University of Texas that the proximity of Prairie View College and the popularity of Black church supported colleges would prevent the new college from achieving success, Houston Colored Junior College opened with seventy-five students in June 1927, and by 1934 it had grown to over 700 students. The following year it was expanded to a four year college. During this period the college held its classes during the evening in Jack Yates High School in Houston's Third Ward. In 1946 the Houston College for Negroes moved to a permanent campus southeast of downtown Houston on fifty-three acres donated by Hugh Roy Cullen. One year later the college and its facilities were acquired by the State of Texas.
The impetus for the acquisition of Houston College for Negroes by the state was the law suit filed by Heman M. Sweatt in an effort to desegregate the law school at the University of Texas. The Sweatt challenge grew out of a decision of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP in 1945 to target segregation in higher education. When it became clear that Sweatt had a good chance to win his case because the State of Texas had not provided a law school or a full service university for Blacks, the legislature attempted to perpetuate the dual system of education by forming a law school and a university for Blacks. This was the motivation for the decision of the legislature to appropriate $2,000,000 in 1947 to acquire the campus of the Houston College for Negroes and to establish Texas State University for Negroes. Ironically, it was not the intention, or even the desire of the Black community in Houston to acquire a Black university; their objective in the late 1940s was to end segregation. The establishment of Texas State University for Negroes was, then, viewed by many Blacks as a mixed blessing, one that perhaps would undermine their struggle for equality. Texas State College for Negroes opened in September 1947 with 2,303 students. Initially it offered programs of study in the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Vocational and Industrial Education, the Graduate School, and the School of Law. In 1949 the School of Pharmacy was added; in 1965 the university expanded to include a School of Business, and six years later a School of Education. That same year the School of Vocational and Industrial Education was renamed the School of Technology. In 1951 a delegation of students went to Austin to petition the legislature to remove the phrase "for Negroes" from the name of their university. They argued that the original name both perpetuated segregation and implied inferiority. Hearings over the proposed name change generated opposition from a number of conservatives, including the president of the University of Texas, who testified against the name change. In a compromise the legislature changed the name to Texas Southern University on June 1, 1951.
The university opened in 1947 under the temporary administration of Allen E. Norton, who took leave from the Houston Independent School District to serve as acting president. On July 2, 1948, Ralphael O'Hara Lanier, who had earlier served five years as dean of Houston Colored Junior College and more recently as United States Minister to Liberia, became the first president of the university. Lanier had a record of leadership in higher education, which made him a good selection for the new university. His administration, however, was troubled with both internal and external difficulties. One problem was related to the resolution of the Sweatt law suit against the University of Texas. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1950 that the segregation of the University of Texas Law School violated the United States Constitution, the logic behind the decision of the Texas legislature to establish Texas State University for Negroes and its law school was undermined, and the future of the institution was in some doubt. Both President Lanier and his administration of the university were the subject of intense criticism from the very beginning of his administration. Charges against Lanier ranged from the accusation that he was undermining the Law School and that he was guilty of fiscal mismanagement and the violation of academic freedom to the charge that he was a Communist. Despite the difficulties he faced, the university not only survived, but grew under his leadership. Nevertheless, after seven often turbulent years at Texas Southern, Lanier was forced to resign by the university's board of regents in June 1955.
Samuel Nabrit became the second president of Texas Southern University on September 1, 1955. Nabrit attempted to expand the role of the university in community education and job training by involving Texas Southern University in programs such as the Minority Manpower Resources Project. Nabrit also presided over the university when its students took the lead in organizing sit-in demonstrations to force desegregation of public facilities in Houston. Nabrit risked political censure by publicly commending his students for their efforts to end segregation. In July 1966 Nabrit resigned from Texas Southern to accept an appointment to the Atomic Energy Commission. Nabrit's successor, Joseph A. Pierce, served as president for only one year. During his brief tenure the university was shaken by a violent confrontation with Houston police that took place on the campus in the spring of 1967. The TSU riots precipitated the resignation of Pierce. Granville M. Sawyer became the university's fourth president in July 1968. He confronted almost continual threats to the existence and independence of the university. The desegregation of the historically white state universities in Texas raised questions about the continued existence of a university for Blacks. The designation of the University of Houston, located almost adjacent to Texas Southern, as a state university in September 1963 had once again triggered rumors that Texas Southern's Law School (or, indeed, the entire university) might be absorbed by this new state university. These rumors persisted, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as minority enrollment increased at the University of Houston. Sawyer attempted to address the continued existence of Texas Southern by redefining its mission. In 1973 the Sixty-third Texas Legislature responded to these efforts by designating the institution as "a special purpose institution of higher education for urban programming." Sawyer also expanded the university's programs in public affairs and business to address this new mission and in 1974 received authority to offer the university's first doctorate degree, the Doctor of Education. Following his resignation in 1979 Sawyer was succeeded by Leonard H. O. Spearman, who came from the Department of Education and focused his efforts on increasing federal funding for the university, upgrading the physical plant, and expanding offerings. In 1984 the university added a doctorate program in pharmacy and a degree in accounting. Spearman resigned from the Texas Southern University in the fall of 1985. In July 1987 William H. Harris was named the seventh president of Texas Southern. (Everett O. Bell, who had served as interim president following Sawyer's resignation in 1979, was retroactively named fifth president of the Texas Southern in recognition of his long service to the university). Harris has focused his administration on increasing funding for the university, expanding the research and scholarship of its faculty, and upgrading the quality of its academic programs.
In 2001 the enrollment of Texas Southern University was approximately 6,500. The university was organized into eight schools and colleges: the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, the College of Education, the College of Continuing Education, the School of Technology, the Jesse H. Jones School of Business, and the Graduate School. It had 319 full-time and part-time faculty members, 55 percent of whom held terminal degrees. The university offered programs leading to seventy-five baccalaureate and twenty-seven graduate degrees. The university is housed on a 145-acre campus just southeast of downtown Houston. In 2001 the physical plant comprised forty-four buildings, including an FM radio station, a physical education complex with a 7,200-seat arena, a performance theater, three dormitories, and two apartment complexes. The Robert James Terry Library held more than 457,000 volumes of books and bound periodicals and housed the Heartman Collection on African American Life and Culture, the Barbara Jordan Archives, and the Mickey Leland Archives. Texas Southern University also housed several major research centers or programs, including the Minority Cancer Education Center, the Mickey Leland Center on World Hunger and Peace, the Economic Development Center, the Center for the Family, and the Center for Transportation Training and Research. In 2010 John M. Rudley was president, the fall student enrollment was 9,557, and there were 578 faculty members.