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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Campus

Behind the building: A.D. Bruce, UH’s history with integration


Serving as the campus’ primary hub for religious and spiritual affairs, the structure is named for the University’s third president and first chancellor, Andrew Davis Bruce.|Anjani Stewart/The cougar

A large part of a campus’s identity is defined by the buildings that comprise it, not only in their appearance but in their history and, in many cases, their namesake. Buildings like Ezekiel Cullen, Agnes Arnold Hall and many others are designed to embody the legacy of the names etched on their walls. 

The A.D. Bruce Religion Center is one such building. Serving as the campus’ primary hub for religious and spiritual affairs, the structure is named for the University’s third president and first chancellor, Andrew Davis Bruce. Despite the Center’s current status as an inclusive and diverse hub for students of all backgrounds, the man behind the building was not quite as accepting as many might assume. 

Bruce’s tenure at the University came during a time of international upheaval. Social causes were championed with renewed vigor as a jaded populace grappled with the bloody toll left in the wake of two world wars. For those in the U.S., this meant finally dealing with the issue of segregation. 

Bruce assumed the position of chancellor of the University just shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed the “separate but equal” doctrine in the U.S.

However, implementing the court’s ruling into American culture would be a slow process, particularly in the South. Educators and administrators alike undertook the task, not with the expediency one might expect but with a slow, dawdling approach that reeked of intentional deferment. 

UH was no exception. The UH library maintains a digital collection of yellowed, time-worn documents that detail the extent to which Bruce and UH President Clanton Williams delayed integration.

Spanning the better part of a decade, the documents tell a story of silent panic as University officials exchanged confidential memos and held secret meetings to discuss what they refer to as “the problemin reference to integration.

One report features an excerpt from the minutes of a Board of Regents meeting held June 12., 1956. The passage includes a quote from then-President Bruce detailing his stance on integration. 

“In light of current events, local and national, and in considering the problem from a long-range viewpoint, I do not feel now is the time for the University of Houston to integrate,” Bruce said. 

The Board of Regents agreed with Bruce’s assessment and, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, elected to maintain its current status.

“On motion by Mr. Fleetwood, second by Mrs. Dudley, and unanimously carried, the President’s recommendation to continue the present policy of complete segregation was approved,” the document reads. “The President’s recommendation that the problem be continued under serious study was also approved.” 

The “serious study” would take the better part of a decade to come to fruition. It wouldn’t be until 1961 that the University would accept its first Black graduate student, and not until 1963 before it admitted its first Black undergraduate. 

Just a few years after that, in 1965, Johnny Seals would attend the University as part of one of the first cohorts of Black students to be admitted. Seals had a gift for math and, under the urging of his mother, decided to attend UH to pursue a degree in mathematics.

“It was a new experience for me,” Seals said. “I had been around other races before, but we all went to segregated schools. It was a big difference attending an integrated school for the first time.”

While the clandestine meetings and shadowy correspondence exchanged between Bruce and administrators in the ‘50s painted integration as a Sword of Damocles hanging over campus, Seal’s experience wasn’t defined by racial turmoil. Instead, Seals remembers the people he met and the friends he made.

“I remember being in ROTC, and a couple of cadets used to tease me about my boots,” Seals said. “They ended up teaching me how to spit-shine them to the point where you could see your reflection in them.” 

Seal’s time spent in the UH ROTC frame much of his experience at the University. Though the Vietnam War would ultimately claim several of the friends he made there, including his commander, he fondly remembers the time spent with them. 

While Seal’s experience is one of many, he stands as a living testament to the ability for people to overcome.

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