White, Thelma Joyce (1936–1985)

By: Charles Martin

Type: Biography

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: July 3, 2022

Thelma Joyce White, civil-rights plaintiff, daughter of Ray and Johnnie Mae (Dickins) White, was born January 10, 1936, in Marlin, Texas. She moved to El Paso with her family as a small child. She attended the local public schools and in May 1954 graduated as class valedictorian from Douglass High School, the city's segregated school for African Americans. Shortly after graduation White applied for admission to Texas Western College, the local branch of the University of Texas. Since the university system still maintained a policy of racial exclusion for black undergraduates, her application was rejected. During the 1954–55 academic year White attended New Mexico A&M College in Las Cruces, New Mexico, some forty-five miles north of El Paso, rather than travel across Texas to all-black Prairie View A&M College. In March 1955 lawyers acting in her behalf filed suit in federal court, seeking her admission to Texas Western. Some two months later, while the case was pending, the United States Supreme Court issued a supplementary ruling confirming its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregation in schools. Responding to White's suit and the court ruling, the University of Texas Board of Regents voted on July 8 to permit TWC to accept black students. White's attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall, refused to abandon her suit, and on July 18 Federal District Judge Robert E. Thomason issued a declaratory judgment in her behalf, permanently enjoining the UT system from denying her or any other African-American student the right to study at Texas Western. Twelve black students subsequently enrolled at TWC in September 1955 for the fall term, but White was not among them. Apparently she felt somewhat uneasy about entering the college because of possible hostility toward her over the lawsuit. Moreover, she had made many friends at New Mexico A&M during her first year there and was very happy at the school, so she returned to Las Cruces. After another year there she left school and eventually married Maj. Curtis Camack. They had four children, three of whom subsequently attended the University of Texas at El Paso, as Texas Western College was known in 1967. White worked at White Sands Missile Range for many years before health problems forced her to retire. She died in El Paso on August 9, 1985. An academic support network for African-American students at UTEP was founded in 1993 and named in her honor.

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Francis L. Fugate, Frontier College: Texas Western at El Paso: The First Fifty Years (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1964). Joseph M. Ray, ed., Thomason: The Autobiography of a Federal Judge (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1971).

  • Education
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Lawyers, Civil Rights Activists, and Legislators
  • Politics and Government
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Authors and Writers
  • Civic Leaders
  • Women
  • Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Southwest Texas
  • El Paso

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Charles Martin, “White, Thelma Joyce,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 18, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/white-thelma-joyce.

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February 1, 1996
July 3, 2022

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