Thelma Mitchell Elliott, desegregation at UT Austin, and the War on Poverty in Texas.
In May of 1966, residents of Hergotz Lane in South East Austin celebrated the installation of a water spigot in their neighborhood. It was just a single, public spigot, but it meant that they no longer had to travel 10 miles to the nearest drinking water supply.
In early June, “a task force of three men and a fogging machine,” as the Austin Statesman put it, descended on Montopolis to wage war on mosquitoes. Later that month, after a hard battle for access to public transportation, Montopolis families were able to board a bus that connected them to Austin bus lines.
And in September, the newly minted Parents Club of the Booker T. Washington Terrace public housing organized a cleanup day. Parents and children cut down the high grass in the complex’s playground and removed trash, bottles and rocks.
This flurry of activity in mostly Mexican and African-American areas of Austin owed much to the late Thelma Mitchell Elliott (MSSW ’54). Elliott was the leader of ENABLE, one of the many programs through which the Lyndon B. Johnson administration waged the War on Poverty across the nation. Under Elliott’s leadership, ENABLE empowered diverse communities in Austin to tackle everything from living conditions to neighborhood safety and infrastructure.
But even before Elliott was publicly recognized for this important work, she did something else that, at the time, went unrecorded. She was among the Precursors, the first generation of black students who desegregated The University of Texas at Austin in the 1950s.
Integration at UT Austin
As told in As We Saw It. The History of Integration at The University of Texas at Austin, the struggle to desegregate the university started only two years after it was founded, when in 1885 an African-American man (unnamed in the records) applied for admission. He was rejected on the basis that “admittance of negroes” was “not of standard practice.”
The turning point was after World War II. In 1946, with the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Heman Marion Sweatt applied to the law school and was denied access on the basis of his race. The case (Sweatt v. Painter) went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1950 ruled in Sweatt’s favor. Amidst much media attention and demonstrations in favor and against desegregation, Sweatt started law school in the fall semester of that year.
That same fall, the university’s newly minted graduate program in social work opened its doors to students. In its two first years, the program admitted the late Gus Swain — who in 1953 became the first African-American male graduate — and then Elliott, who in 1954 became the first African-American female graduate.
In a speech Swain gave in 1982 he described going to campus with the threat of violence, at a time when buildings off the main drag were plastered with sayings like “Nigger go home.” But he also recalled that the school of social work felt like an “oasis” and a safe place during this time.
Anita Swain, who was married to Gus Swain when he was in school, said in a phone conversation that “the school of social work was pretty liberal as far as race relations.” She also remembered her late husband as a fighter for equality.
“He would not tolerate racial discrimination. He was a crusader. He was in the right field, always trying to make things better and help people move on. When we lived in Washington [after Swain graduated], we were marching every Saturday!” she recalled. I just kept my boots ready because whether it was cold, or snowy or wet, we were going to march!”
The Swains knew Elliott as a neighbor and family friend. Anita Swain remembered her husband giving Elliot information about the newly opened social work program and encouraging her to apply.
At the time, Elliott was married to O. H. Houston, then a business manager at Sam Huston College. They had a young daughter, Ora Houston, who is now Austin’s Council Member for District 1. She still lives in the house in East Austin where she grew up.
At least as remembered by Ora Houston, Elliott was not the marching type. But she was a multifaceted community leader for whom the graduate social work program was a great match.
“She was president of the PTA; she was very involved in the community; she was very involved in the church… and she had a very deep sense of social justice,” Houston said.
Project ENABLE and Beyond
After receiving her Master of Science in Social Work in 1954, Elliott worked as a probation officer for the Travis County Juvenile Court until 1966, when she was tapped to lead project ENABLE.
ENABLE stood for Education and Neighborhood Action for Better Living Environment. It was sponsored by Child and Family Services and received funding through the new Office of Economic Opportunity, the federal agency responsible for administrating most of the War on Poverty programs.
In Austin, ENABLE started by reaching out to mothers of children enrolled in Head Start — another War on Poverty program.
“ENABLE is meant to give them [the mothers] a sense of self, purpose, confidence and power, something that will grow, a motivation, and the tools to get something done for a better life,” Elliott explained in a Statesman article of May 19, 1966.
ENABLE soon expanded into “neighborhood group problem-solving” initiatives that engaged community members to tackle everything from unsanitary living conditions in rental units to neighborhood safety and infrastructure.
Barely a year after it was launched, ENABLE Austin was considered one of the most successful of 60 such projects that existed across the nation. Because of the program’s positive impact in communities such as Montopolis, in October 1966 Elliott was asked to address a national conference of Head Start teachers.
In true social work fashion, Elliott chose to emphasize self-awareness and strength-based perspectives during her address. As reported in the Statesman, she told Head Start teachers to be aware of their own insensitivities and blind spots when working with families, and make efforts to involve and empower parents.
“We in ENABLE are also committed to involving the parents in the education of their children. We encourage parents to use their native talents and constitutional rights to make decisions affecting them, their children, and the neighborhood where they live,” Elliott told the teachers.
In late 1966, Elliott left ENABLE to join the Texas Office of Economic Opportunity, where she was tasked with developing resource materials, ideas and techniques to be used in community projects across the state.
As the War on Poverty and its accompanying federal funding dwindled down in the context of escalation of the Vietnam War, Elliott continued her career in social services. She first joined the Austin/Travis County public health system and then the Texas Department of Human Services, from which she eventually retired. She died on July 21, 1998.
“I tell people all the time that I have my mother’s sense of social justice,” daughter Ora Houston said. “She was not a rebel, she was not out there marching on the streets. But on her own quiet way, she made important changes.”
By Andrea Campetella / Photos Courtesy Austin History Center