Joseph Louis (Joe) Atkins is best known for integrating Texas Western College (now the University of Texas, El Paso). In 1956 he became the first African American student to graduate from the institution.
Joe Atkins was born in Jefferson, Texas, on March 6, 1936, to Willie and Mable Atkins. Willie Atkins supported the family as a farmer but later moved to Dallas in 1950 where he became a plumber while Mable sold insurance. Joe’s parents recognized his aptitude and encouraged his education. He graduated from Lincoln High School in Dallas in 1954 and then moved to Arkansas to attend Philander Smith College, but after only a semester, the homesick student decided to move back to Dallas.
After returning to Dallas, Atkins applied to North Texas State College in Denton (now University of North Texas). However, because school policy barred black students, Atkins was denied admission. His father, on behalf of Joe, filed a lawsuit against the school. On December 2, 1955, Judge Joe Sheehy ruled in Atkins’s favor, thus forcing Texas education officials to admit blacks to any Texas state-supported institution. In 1950 a United States Supreme Court decision allowed Heman Sweatt to enroll in the University of Texas Law School, but undergraduate student bodies remained segregated throughout the state until the Atkins lawsuit.
Atkins, however, did not return to North Texas, because he had already moved to El Paso and was attending Texas Western. After he arrived, however, Texas Attorney General John Ben Shepherd, a staunch segregationist, sent Texas Rangers to intimidate Atkins. Texas Western, however, allowed his enrollment, and in 1956 he completed his bachelor’s degree there.
While a teenager in Dallas, Atkins joined the NAACP youth council under the guidance of Juanita Craft, a long-time veteran of the civil rights movement. Atkins attributes becoming “aware” of discrimination and the limits that Jim Crow placed on his life because of Craft, so it was not surprising that this organization backed his lawsuit against North Texas. When he moved to El Paso, he joined the local NAACP and remained a member until he returned to Dallas where he continued his membership there.
Upon arriving home, Atkins continued his education and received a Master of Education from now desegregated University of North Texas. After he graduated, he taught journalism and English at James Madison High School and North Dallas High School for more than ten years. He also served two years in the U.S. Army. After retiring from the classroom, Atkins worked as a field representative for the Texas State Teacher’s Association from 1974 to1997. His next major career was as a real estate broker, and he eventually went to work with his son at Joe Atkins Realty.
Active in his community, Joe Atkins sat on several boards, including the African American Museum in Dallas, the Dallas Police Chief Advisory Committee, Educators Archives and History Project, Good Street Baptist Church, and the Dallas Public Schools Advisory Committee. He was vice chair of the Public Education Committee in Dallas and vice president of East Texas Historical Association.
Joe Atkins has received numerous awards. He was named the Outstanding Texas Award in 2001 and received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the UNT Alumni in 2004. He also received the Texas NAACP 2005 Heroes Award and in 2007 received the Maurine F. Bailey Cultural Foundation Award.
Joseph Louis Atkins died in Dallas on July 7, 2015, leaving behind his wife Marjorie, son Joe B. Atkins, and two sisters, Eva Burleson and Billie Lewis, both of Dallas.