Honorary docs go to pair who dared to be first

Joseph L. Atkins
Joseph L. Atkins
A. Tennyson Miller
Photo courtesy of Earthly Miller-Ahmed
Wednesday, November 24, 2004

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- In the summer of 1954, doctoral student A. Tennyson Miller became the first African American to attend North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas). A year later, a lawsuit filed by Joseph L. Atkins paved the way for African American undergraduates to enroll at North Texas.

Nearly fifty years ago, Miller and Atkins initiated the university's non-violent integration and paved the way for thousands of African Americans to pursue their college education at UNT.

In December, UNT plans to conclude its yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary of desegregation by recognizing these two barrier breaking alumni for their contributions by awarding them honorary doctoral degrees during the 2004 fall university commencement ceremony.

UNT's fall 2004 commencement speaker will be National Public Radio's Senior Correspondent Juan Williams. Williams is considered one of the nation's leading journalists. He also is the critically acclaimed author of "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary" and "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965." Williams also led a team of veteran reporters in the production of a new book, titled "My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience."

The ceremony will take place at 12:30 p.m. Dec. 18 (Saturday) in the UNT Coliseum, located on Highland Street at North Texas Boulevard.

The pivotal case of Sweatt v. Painter in 1950 made it possible for Miller and other African Americans across the state to apply for admission to professional and graduate schools. Miller applied and was accepted into the North Texas education doctoral program.

After earning a North Texas doctoral degree in education, Miller became a champion of desegregation of Texas public schools and the protection of African American teachers against discrimination.

He worked as a principal in Port Arthur until 1967, when he accepted a position as integration specialist with the U.S. Office of Education. Miller died in 1993.

Atkins, with the help of his family and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, mounted a legal challenge that abolished segregation at North Texas and made the university one of the first colleges or universities in the south to desegregate. Due to the lengthiness of the litigation, he worked for and received his undergraduate degree from another university. However, he returned in 1967 to earn a master's degree at North Texas.

Atkins served as a public school teacher from 1963 to 1974. He went on to be a field representative for the Texas State Teachers Association from 1974 to 1997. For his civic and professional accomplishments the Texas Legislative Black Caucus presented him with the "Outstanding Texan Award" in March 2001.

UNT will award doctor of humane letters degrees to Atkins at the ceremony and posthumously to Miller.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108