Southwestern University renames residence hall in honor of first Black student and graduate Ernest Clark

Southwestern University has renamed a first-year residence hall to honor the university's first Black student and graduate.

The university says the renaming is the second act it's taking to fulfill its promise to support Black students, faculty, staff, and alumni in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“As a historian, I know that our understanding of the past grows, and what we recognize as praiseworthy often needs to catch up. This is the appropriate time to honor a particular Southwestern graduate's courage and accomplishments as well as the turning point in Southwestern's history that his experience represented,” said university president Dale T. Knobel. “Ernest Clark was not only the first Black student at our university, but he initially was the only Black student. Our students today deserve to know his story and honor his legacy.”

Ernest Clark enrolled at the university in fall 1965, initiating the school's desegregation 11 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. The university says the young pianist discovered Southwestern after studying at Georgetown’s Negro Fine Arts School, an integrated after-school music program for middle- and high-school students established in 1946 by Iola Bowden Chambers, Southwestern professor of music, and three of her students.

As an undergraduate, Clark was a member of the band, the choir, and Mask & Wig, the student-run theater organization. He completed his music degree in 1969 as the school’s first Black graduate and went on to become a band director and music instructor at Dallas ISD, teaching an estimated 36,000 students during the course of his career.


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In 2009, Clark was awarded the Southwestern University Medal, the institution’s most prestigious honor, for charting the path for later Black students and in recognition for his contributions as a long-time educator, says the university.

Clark initially had his doubts about attending when, at the age of 19, he was featured on the local news. Seeing himself on TV made him briefly consider dropping out because “too many people were interested in where I was going” to college. However, he continued on because he realized that “a lot of people [were] depending on me to go to school.”


“The Black Lives Matter protests over the past month have provided all of us with opportunities not only to reflect upon our past, our biases, and our mistakes but also upon our future,” said Stephen G. Tipps, chair of the Southwestern University Board of Trustees. "I hope that honoring Ernest Clark in this way represents the beginning of a serious effort on the part of Southwestern University and its board of trustees as we all examine changes we can make to come to grips with our past and build a better future."

The renaming of the residence hall in Mr. Clark’s honor will be commemorated in a rededication ceremony that will take place in the coming months.