Purple and Black: Three generations of TCU grads recount university’s complex history with race

dfwnewsa | July 9, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Austin Person, LeAnn Sims-Person, Lauren Person and Mildred Ann Martin Sims (in the photo) all attended TCU over the decades, from the mid-1960s to now. (Shomial Ahmad | Fort Worth Report)
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To be young, gifted and Black at TCU in the mid-1960s meant opportunity — and a lot of responsibility. At least that’s how the late Mildred Ann Martin Sims felt, according to recollections by her daughter, LeAnn Sims-Person. Mildred died in 2012.

“We had a lot of pressure on us. Because if we didn’t do well, then we would have ruined it for future generations,” said LeAnn, recounting her mother’s thoughts on being among one of the first groups of incoming Black freshmen to desegregate the main campus at the private university. “She hoped that she could pave the way for other children of color.”


Pave the way she did. A lifelong educator who spent 40 years with Fort Worth ISD, Mildred forged a path that was both personal and political. Three generations of her family graduated from Texas Christian University: Mildred in the late 1960s, daughter LeAnn in the mid-1990s, and grandson, Austin Person in 2024. 

She was a trailblazer at a university that at times struggled with racism and negative publicity around diversity. Reviewing the family’s decades-long relationship with TCU is also a lesson in how far the university has come — and how far it needs to go. 

They had to contend with both overt and more subtle racism, LeAnn said. She feels TCU went from being a university that wasn’t always welcoming to Black students in the 1960s to one that inspires a sense of belonging and possibility in LeAnn and Austin.

While Mildred and LeAnn had no Black faculty who taught them, Austin can count several Black faculty members who taught his classes. The campus now features a chief inclusion officer and an office of diversity and inclusion. In the wake of nationwide racial justice protests in 2020, including in Fort Worth, TCU kicked off its Race & Reconciliation Initiative to research the university’s history with slavery, racism and the Confederacy.

Many of these measures resulted from student intervention, said Frederick Gooding Jr., the inaugural chair of TCU’s Race & Reconciliation Initiative and a co-author of A History to Remember: TCU in Purple, White, and Black.

“The students were on the ground and said, ‘Hey, we’re the paying client or customer. This is what we need. This is what we see,’” said Gooding, an associate professor in African American Studies at the John V. Roach Honors College at TCU. “They were able to leverage their collective power to force the administration to see things differently.”

Black enrollment at the university remains low — and has dropped over the last decade. In fall 2023, Black and African American undergraduate enrollment was 4%, according to TCU’s institutional research data. In fall 2011, the earliest data available on the university’s website, that percentage was around 5.2%. 

For many Black students, being part of the university has different layers of meaning.

“I’m here, but do I belong? I may be included but am I fully incorporated?” said Gooding. “I think these are still some of the questions that we’re wrestling with today.”

Those were the existential questions that Mildred and her family asked of themselves. Mildred graduated from TCU in 1969 with a bachelor’s in mathematics and a teaching certificate. LeAnn graduated from TCU in 1994 with a bachelor’s in business administration, and  Austin graduated 30 years later with a degree in child development. Her granddaughter, Lauren Person, will enroll as a freshman education major this fall.

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“It was a very big deal,” LeAnn said, talking about her mother’s education at TCU. “People in her community bought a lot of stuff for her to go to college. And they bought her nice things because they didn’t want her to go to college and feel less than.”

Desegregation at TCU

In the years before Mildred enrolled at TCU, integration at other colleges in the South were met with violence. There were riots at the University of Georgia and the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s, and President John F. Kennedy sent troops to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1963 to facilitate the admission of its first Black students.

Before 1964, Black students took classes at the divinity school, the college of education and the nursing school. But the university had never seen a group of Black students graduate from its main campus. 

In December 1963, TCU’s student government passed a resolution denouncing continued discriminatory practices, according to A History to Remember: TCU in Purple, White, and Black. By late January 1964, the TCU board of trustees declared “students be enrolled at TCU without reference to race, creed or nationality.” 

But the minutes to that board meeting also explicitly state, “We will never have very many negro students enrolled. This is due to two or three basic factors.” The factors? The board planned to raise admissions requirements, course requirements and tuition. 

In August 1964, five Black students enrolled in TCU but left before the conclusion of their first academic year. The next year, Mildred graduated valedictorian from Kirkpatrick High School, which was named after her uncle Milton Kirkpatrick, and was part of a group of 14 Black students who enrolled full time at TCU’s main campus. They went on to become the first group of Black graduates. 

“She had a crew of people who sort of stuck around and supported and looked out for each other,” said LeAnn. In that group was James Cash, the first Black athlete at TCU and the first Black basketball player in the Southwest Conference. “Because the athletes were crown jewels — and they still are — the fact that she was very close to (Cash) allowed her to feel a sense of safety.”

Mildred Sims, back row, fifth from left, who attended TCU for graduate school, stands with her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters. The sorority was chartered at the university in 1972. (Courtesy photo | LeAnn Sims-Person)

Mildred lived on campus. She worked in the summers so she could buy nice outfits to wear to school, one for each day of the week. Some white students noticed. Her “Monday outfit,” her “Tuesday outfit,” became a running joke. She had white roommates, and some white friends. But some classmates told her she wasn’t wanted there and said she was at the university as some type of “pity case.” Mildred wanted to be an engineer but, as a Black woman, she couldn’t enroll in the program and instead became a math teacher.

Paving the way

After graduation, Mildred went on to teach math and become a principal at Fort Worth ISD schools. Later, she was district-level director of K-12 math education. She would go on to get her master’s in mathematics at TCU. She took her children to TCU games. Always, she demanded academic excellence for them. 

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LeAnn says that decades later, even after her mother was established as an education leader, Mildred feared that one small failure could cause one to lose their spot — their chance. 

In 1990, LeAnn graduated from Dunbar High School for Science and Engineering Professions and enrolled in TCU.


“By the time I got there, there were quite a few children of color,” LeAnn said. “There were not a lot, but enough of us to feel like, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ And we’re worthy of being there just like everybody else.”

LeAnn Sims-Person, front row, far right, was on the TCU cheerleading squad. She was one of the few Black cheerleaders on the squad while she attended TCU. (Courtesy photo | LeAnn Sims-Person)

LeAnn shared positive experiences with the vast majority of students, she said. But others let her know they believed she was admitted as a “token,” or “jokingly” used the N word in her presence. 

Even with her campus involvement — homecoming court, cheerleader, campus tour guide and member of the Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta — LeAnn remembers feeling the pressure to work harder than her peers. Some cheerleaders asked why she always rushed off after practice.

“And I said, ‘Because I don’t have the ability to fail.’ I mean, physically, I did,” said LeAnn. “But I knew that if I failed, I didn’t have other avenues. I mean, this was it.” 

LeAnn didn’t fail. She graduated from the Neeley School of Business, went on to work for Texas Commerce Bank, which became JPMorgan Chase, and rose to the rank of assistant vice president. She made a pivot later in her career and now works as a math specialist at Everman ISD. 

Being at TCU taught her life skills. 

“In the real world, you are going to encounter people that do not always look like you. And you’re going to encounter people that are for you. And you’re gonna encounter people that may be full out against you,” said LeAnn. “TCU helped me to really know how to navigate that process.”

‘A very racially heightened time’

When it came time for LeAnn’s eldest child, Austin, to go to college, the choice wasn’t obvious to him. The teenager wanted to chart his own path. He didn’t want the generational pressure of carrying on a family legacy. Eventually, his own path led him to TCU. 

As a senior at Fort Worth ISD’s Young Men’s Leadership Academy, Austin was recruited and applied for an academic scholarship at the university through TCU’s Community Scholars program. He got a full ride to TCU. At that point, the decision was obvious.

In his scholarship interview, Austin was asked, “Why TCU?” He said his answer was simple. 

“I’m a third generation TCU student. My dad always tells me that I’m great because I have greatness in me,” recalled Austin. “I’m going to bring greatness to TCU’s name,” he told them.

Austin Person, a member of the third generation in his family to go to TCU, attends the university’s graduation ceremony in May 2024. (Courtesy photo | Marc Person)

For Austin, who majored in child development, going to TCU was a time of “coming of age.” There was COVID-19 and the beginning of virtual classes. There was the murder of George Floyd, which kicked off a summer of racial justice protests across the country. There was the November 2020 presidential election, and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

In the midst of a historic period, Black athletes, with administrative approval, led an effort to paint the message “End Racism” outside TCU’s basketball arena. 

“It was a very racially heightened time,” said Austin, recalling moments when racism was a topic of class discussions, and students expressed belief it was a problem of the past. “(Some students thought) it was a 1990s issue, like Rodney King, or that it was a 1960s issue with MLK and Malcolm X.”

Like his mother and grandmother, Austin had to contend with some students’ impressions that he didn’t make it to the university through his own merit but rather through affirmative action — what some students called a “handout” or a “DEI mindset.” But Austin wasn’t out to prove that he belonged. He knew he had earned his spot. 

At the same time, Austin was happy to be a part of the TCU community. He went to games. He took pride in being a Horned Frog, especially during the 2022-2023 school year, when the football team advanced to the national championships. Going to TCU at that time, Austin said, “had a ring to it, it had a pop to it.”

Today, he feels like TCU’s senior leadership is committed to advancing diversity, not as a public relations move but in an effort to be a more representative campus. His sister, Lauren, starts at TCU this fall. The small classes, the individual attention and the campus atmosphere spoke to Lauren, who graduated from Arlington ISD’s Martin High School. During her senior year, her top two choices were TCU and Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black university in Austin. 

“I just saw so many green flags with TCU,” said Lauren. “One thing I liked was how much I see TCU is pouring into the students. They’re constantly renovating. They’re constantly building new buildings for new programs or new dorms.” 

While it was up to Lauren and Austin to make their choice for college, destiny means that a member of the next generation will find their way to TCU. At least, that’s how Austin sees it. 

“We will have the fourth generation and then the fifth,” said Austin. “We have to keep this rolling.” 

Shomial Ahmad is a higher education reporter for the Fort Worth Report, in partnership with Open Campus. Contact her at shomial.ahmad@fortworthreport.org.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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