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Propelled into his field

Herman TottenHerman Totten, right, dean of the College of Information, was finishing his master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

The law had a “tremendous impact” on him, particularly his career opportunities, he said.

As the country marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the law, Totten reflected on that impact.

He went on to graduate with a doctorate degree in 1966 from the University of Oklahoma and work at Wiley College as a librarian. While there, he got a call from Dr. Arthur Monroe McAnally, “a giant” in the library and information sciences industry, to consider taking a directorship of a new undergraduate library that was planned for the University of Oklahoma. He received a small retainer from the university to help develop the new program.

“At the time I went to the University of Oklahoma, blacks couldn’t even own land in Cleveland County, so you can imagine the impact that had on me,” he said. Although the job never came to fruition because of national library funding issues, Totten points to that offer as an impact of the act. 

In 1971, he accepted an offer to serve as the associate dean of the College of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Kentucky, where he worked three years until he joined the University of Oregon as dean of its school of librarianship.

“None of these things would have happened had it not been for the passing of that act,” he said.

In 1977, he came to UNT as the associate dean of the School of Library and Information Sciences.

“I certainly wouldn’t have been able to come here if I hadn’t had the experience of going to the University of Kentucky and the University of Oregon, and that wouldn’t have happened under the separate-but-unequal provisions in the 13 southern states,” he said.

“It made it possible for me, based on experience and qualifications, to receive appointments. All of the appointments were firsts,” he said.

He was the first African-American academic administrator at the University of Kentucky and the first African-American academic administrator when he came to UNT.

In 2004, UNT recognized Totten as a “Barrier Breaker” at its 50th anniversary celebration of desegregation.

 “The act impacted my life very directly in that it made people make judgments on my qualifications rather than the color of my skin,” he said. “The assumption that I had to be inferior was very much in place with Jim Crow laws, and this made it possible for people to have to look at me as they looked at everyone else.”

He doubts he would have been able to become a leader in the field of library and information studies without its passage.

“But through integration I became a part of the mainstream of the field, and I have been able to hold hands and measure myself against the leaders of the field, and that’s inspiring,” he said. “That’s motivating.”

Totten said that experiences such as the one Bland recalled about being unable to eat at certain restaurants were ones many African-Americans alive in that time shared, and the Civil Rights Act didn’t necessarily erase that discrimination immediately.

 “Those didn’t go away just because of the passing of that law,” he said, noting those things did begin to stop because of economic sanctions imposed by communities. “The changes were very slow, but sure they changed. The rapid changes came from other pressures other than the law itself. The community caught a hold of its social responsibility in many areas.”

  • Learn more: Read other reflections on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act from: Dorothy Bland, dean of the Mayborn School of Journalism, and Todd Moye, associate professor of history and director of UNT's Oral History Program.

—Megan Middleton, student assistant, University Relations, Communications and Marketing

Posted on: Tue 01 July 2014

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