ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW WITH CORWIN W. JOHNSON

 

Corwin W. Johnson started as Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Law in 1947, was promoted to Associate Professor in 1949, became Professor of Law in 1954, and took emeritus status in 1988.  He was The Edward Clark Centennial Professor Emeritus in Law, is an expert in land use, real property and water rights law, and has published two casebooks. Before coming to Texas, Johnson was an F.B.I. agent for four years, and taught for a year at the University of Iowa. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Iowa.

Presented here are selections from an interview with Professor Johnson.  Johnson was one of several professors from the University of Texas School of Law who were pressed into double duty as law professors for the Texas State University for Negroes (TSUN). In the interview, he describes the curriculum, students, and facilities at TSUN, which began operations in the basement of a building just north of the State Capitol before its permanent establishment at Texas Southern University in Houston. Johnson also discusses his opposition to segregated education, and the attitudes of UT Law School faculty and students toward segregation and Heman Sweatt.  A transcript of the entire interview is held in the Rare Books & Special Collections, Tarlton Law Library, The University of Texas at Austin. 

 

The following is an interview with Professor Corwin Johnson, The Edward Clark Centennial Professor Emeritus in Law, at The University of Texas School of Law.  This is Sheree Scarborough, on November 15, 1996, for The University of Texas School of Law.  I am meeting with Professor Johnson in his office at the Law School.

...

SS: That was a different time. Life is so casual now, in comparison. One of the first things that happened upon your arrival to Texas, was this developing issue of separate but equal education. And there was a so-called "Negro" Law School created here in Austin, at which you taught, is that correct?

CJ: Yes.

SS: Could you tell me about that experience?

CJ: Yes. Heman Sweatt had been denied admission [to The University of Texas Law School] before I came. So that was history. I knew a little bit about it when I came, but not much. When I first arrived, I found in my mailbox, among other things, a note from Dean McCormick asking me if I would be willing to teach the same course that I was teaching here, which was first-year Property, at that school. I agreed to do that. Of course, the Legislature had established the school, or were in the process of establishing it, in Houston, called The University of Texas School of Law for Negroes. But they weren't ready to start down there. So, the Legislature directed the University of Texas to provide the education here temporarily, until they could get started.

SS: Excuse me, let me break in here a moment. Now, you're coming from Iowa, how did this seem to you coming into this situation? I don't know if your school was integrated?

CJ: Oh yes, they were integrated. There is my class picture and there is one black student there. He was from West Virginia. He obviously was not able to get an education there. He was a member of my class, graduated in 1941, from the University of Iowa. I was repelled by segregation. But, of course, this whole society was segregated, that is in the South. And, to some extent, even elsewhere. Also I lived in New Orleans for two years before I came here, so I had experienced it there. It was something I was opposed to. Of course, the law at the time did not make that illegal.

SS: It had to be established in the courts that segregation was unconstitutional?

CJ: Yes, they hadn't done that yet. The law of the land at that time was separate but equal. Segregation would be all right if the facilities were equal. Of course, Texas didn't have any [facilities]. Texas was clearly in violation, at that time, of the United States Constitution. And they hurriedly attempted to finally comply. So that was the purpose of setting up the school. We got involved simply because they needed something quickly, so they set up this school in Austin. It was temporary, and it turned out to be for one year. It just took first-year students. At first we thought there were going to be three students: one woman, two men. The woman stayed about one week, although her enrollment required a change in the physical facilities there. We had to construct an additional rest room.

SS: Where was the school located?

CJ: It was a residence just north of the state capitol. I'm sure there is some state building there now. It was almost across the street from the capitol. I recall it as a two or three story building, a rather large residence. And the law school part was the first floor, it has sometimes been referred to as the basement law school. I didn't think of it at the time as the basement. I don't recall going down steps to get in it. Of course they had remodeled that part of this building.

SS: For this purpose?

CJ: Yes. They had created two classrooms. They didn't know how many people were going to show up. They had two classrooms, a library, and the two rest rooms.

SS: Two rest rooms? Women and men? So you shared a rest room with the black, male students?

CJ: I guess so. I don't really remember. Only two students came. That first week we had the three, but from then on we had the two men.

SS: Do you know why she dropped?

CJ: No, I have no idea.

CJ: One of the students was named Henry Doyle and the other was Heaullan Lott. We never used our classrooms, since there were just two students. We would simply sit at a table in the library. We had ten thousand volumes there. Books that were carefully selected for first-year students.

SS: Were they from the UT Law Library?

CJ: Yes, they were on loan from UT. They were extra copies.

SS: How did that library compare with the UT Law School Library?

CJ: Well, of course, it was smaller. But it probably was a very good library for the first year. And it was much more accessible to the students. They never had to check out a book. In fact, one of the students, Henry Doyle, was the assistant librarian. The books were right there and we would teach in the library. It was very informal, just across the table. The student-teacher ratio was much different from what it was on the main campus. I don't disagree at all with the Supreme Court decision in that case, Sweatt v. Painter, that the facilities there were much inferior to those on the main campus for many reasons. But in terms of teacher-student ratio and what went on in the classroom, I think the experience there was in some ways superior. It was informal and if a student had some difficulty in something in particular he didn't hesitate to speak up and go over it again. And, if you wanted to refer to one of the textbooks or treatises on the subject, you just said, "Let's see what Prosser on Torts has to say about this." Bring it down and look at it. In that respect, that was a very superior educational situation. I met the class at 7:45 in the morning. I taught the same course that I did over here [at the UT Law School]. I actually had two sections of my Property class here, and that was the third over there. Actually, that was the first. I often feared that some morning I would get there and find nobody there, with just two students. But that never did occur; and usually they both were there. They were both very dedicated students.

SS: What was their caliber?

CJ: I think good. At the end of that year Henry Doyle continued at the Houston location, now called Texas Southern University. He graduated and became a judge. The other student, Heaullan Lott, who was from Austin, decided not to go to Houston. He left after that first year. Then, after the court decision in Sweatt v. Painter, he enrolled here as a second year student and completed his legal education. I think they're both deceased now. So I've always been pleased that they did succeed in their legal profession.

SS: So the course that you taught at the "Negro Law School," which was first-year Property, except for the informal nature of it, was the exact same material that you taught at the UT Law School?

CJ: Yes.

SS: What about the other professors that were teaching there, how did they feel about their activities there?

CJ: I don't recall much discussion. These were generally younger teachers. None of the older faculty were there. I'm sure that we all were opposed to segregation. We felt it was demeaning and wrong in many ways. There may be some today who would criticize those of us who taught there. They might say, "You were trying to help the state avoid integration." I never thought of it that way. I thought of it as providing education for some people who needed it and hadn't been able to get it. As far as segregation goes, those people who were teaching on the main campus were teaching at a segregated institution. Our whole society was segregated: movies, theaters, restaurants, hotels. You were participating in segregation if you were here.

SS: It sounds like you provided a good service to those two students.

CJ: I think so, yes. Of course, I completely agree with the Supreme Court decision in Sweatt v. Painter. But even that didn't end segregation. Segregation wasn't held unconstitutional until Brown v. Board of Education many years later, involving public school education.

SS: Even now, some might suggest, public schools are still segregated, elementary schools that is.

CJ: Yes, public schools and residential neighborhoods are often segregated in fact.

SS: Right.

CJ: The University of Oklahoma used a strategy that, to me, was much more demeaning than what we did. They physically segregated the blacks in the classroom at the university. They put a railing around the black students in the classroom. And they wouldn't allow the black students to eat in the cafeteria at the same time. They had to eat at a certain time when the whites would be gone. That also reached the Supreme Court. In fact, it was a companion case to the Sweatt v. Painter case. It was McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents.

SS: Yes, that type of visual and physical segregation sounds severe. Wasn't Dean Keeton at the Oklahoma Law School for a while?

CJ: Yes, he was. And I believe they did that in the law school too. This was a university-wide regulation. It wasn't just the law school. In fact, the McLaurin case was not a law school case. I think he or she was a graduate student. Of course the law school was part of the University of Oklahoma, and they were subject to those same rules. Dean Keeton told me that the white students at Oklahoma tore the railing down in the classrooms in the law school. Dean Keeton just ignored it and didn't put it back.

SS: That is a wonderful story. Was there talk among the faculty about this issue that was boiling in the courts, concerning Sweatt v. Painter and such.

CJ: I'm sure there was.

SS: What was the feeling among the faculty? Not just the professors who taught at the separate law school, but other faculty members at the UT Law School, about the upcoming decision or after the decision was made?

CJ: I don't have a specific recollection. On this faculty, the Law School faculty, I don't know of anybody who really would have openly supported segregation. Maybe some of the senior faculty would have. I don't know. I don't recall any debates among the faculty on the segregation issue. I think it was generally understood it was bad and that eventually the Supreme Court was going to get around to making it unconstitutional. I think that was the general feeling.

SS: What about the students? Do you remember any incidents in classes once the black students were allowed in, in 1950?

CJ: No. I believe that's when Sweatt came. I believe he was the only one the first year. He wasn't in any of my classes. I never really met him. I had the impression that the students and faculty were receptive and friendly. Although I understand that later on Mr. Sweatt took the position that he was not too well received here, by faculty or students. Jerre Williams, one of my deceased colleagues, received a letter of praise from Heman Sweatt concerning the treatment that Jerre Williams had provided. Jerre had apparently gone out of his way to be friendly to Heman. At the time I thought Mr. Sweatt was satisfied with the situation. But later on, he did make statements that were critical.

SS: I believe it was written about later that there were some cross burnings on the lawn of the Law School, or across from the Law School.

CJ: I don't know anything about that.

SS: While you were living through that time, were you aware that history was being made? You know, we live through certain times and we may or may not be aware, but you being a law professor may have been especially aware that this was a precedent-setting, history-making period.

CJ: Well we were aware of it, yes. Although it is often so slow. When you look back on it, though, you can see the huge changes that look bigger now than they did at the time.

SS: Right. Well, is there anything else that stands out in your mind about that period? This is an issue and a period of time that The University of Texas Law School is interested in tapping into and understanding what went on at the Law School.

CJ: The race issue?

SS: Right.

CJ: I can't think of anything else. I don't remember any incidents, parades, or protests. I didn't know anything about the cross burning. Maybe it didn't happen when I was here. I taught one year at the University of Iowa. Then also during my career here, I visited different law schools. It was usually in the summertime. Many law schools have summer programs. Many did then, especially after the war. Now there aren't so many summer programs. It was an opportunity to go to some other location, sort of a vacation, and teach. I took of advantage of those opportunities. ...

SS: Were there other things that Dean Keeton established here that were crucial to the development of the Law School?

CJ: I'm sure there were. Recruitment. He always played an active role in recruiting the faculty. There was at least one faculty member who objected to hiring Jewish members. And Dean Keeton dealt with that. In the early days, we didn't have very many Jewish faculty members. There was one when I came here, Clarence Morris. He left to go to the University of Pennsylvania, which would have been a step up. But I don't know whether he felt alone here or not. He did establish excellent rapport with the younger faculty. I think there was some tension with the senior faculty. I feel I owe him a great deal. He was an informal mentor to the younger faculty; some of the seniors might have resented that. But if we ever had a problem we could go to him. We called him "Uncle Clarence." He was middle-aged. He was older than we were, but younger than the senior faculty. He played a very important role here. You can't organize it. I think at times here we have assigned a faculty member to serve as a kind of a mentor to the younger ones, but it's structured. I don't think it really works. It doesn't work as well as Uncle Clarence did. He was a wonderful man. It was a big loss when he left. He was Jewish. Later on, we began to hire more Jewish people. Dean Keeton was going after the best prospects, regardless of race or creed. Plus, it was my understanding that the law firms in those years were not hiring Jews. The big law firms were not. There weren't really very many opportunities. I don't think there was a big law firm in Houston or Dallas that would hire a Jew in 1950.

SS: That was an unwritten policy?

CJ: Yes. Talk about segregation. That was in many ways even worse.

SS: That's ironic after World War II.

CJ: Yes, I suppose so. As I say, at least one faculty member here did not like it. There was a time when we didn't have any. He was opposed to hiring any Jews. This matter of anti-Semitism reminds me of something else. The law fraternities, or most of them, accepted only Christians.
...

End of Interview


Transcribed and edited, January 1997
Professor Johnson's edits included, April 1997
Professor Johnson's final edits included by Mike Widener, September 1997
Sheree Scarborough, Oral Historian


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