Two prominent features of the Texas A&M University-Commerce campus have new names. The main library building and the small lake on the west side of campus, both previously named after former university president James Gilliam Gee, have been named in honor of two African-American students who played historic roles in the university’s desegregation. The change was announced on Aug. 21 after being approved by the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents on Aug. 20.
From the university’s news release:
The library will be renamed Velma K. Waters Library. In 1964, Velma Waters was the first undergraduate African American student to enroll at East Texas State College (now A&M-Commerce). She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from the university in 1968 and taught in Carthage, Texas. She passed away on January 10, 1999.
The lake will be renamed Charles S. Garvin Lake. Charles Garvin became the first African American to earn a degree at East Texas State University (now A&M-Commerce) when he received a master’s degree in elementary school administration on January 25, 1966. He went on to teach at Park public school in Pickton, Texas, before serving as principal of Ralph J. Bunche school in Royse City. Mr. Garvin passed away on June 30, 1993.
The university also announced that a group of anonymous donors have helped to fund “an unrestricted library endowment,” intended “to provide a voice to under-served student communities via multicultural programs.”
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, no official ribbon cutting event has been scheduled, the university said, but a ceremony will be scheduled when conditions allow.
Gee, the fifth president in the school’s history, held the office from 1947 to 1966. Under Gee’s tenure, East Texas State Teachers College changed its name to East Texas State College (1957) and then East Texas State University (1965).
During most of his tenure, Gee maintained segregationist policies, as did many other Texas public college and university presidents of his era. No historically white four-year college or university in Texas desegregated voluntarily.
East Texas State College was desegregated in 1964, along with Sam Houston State Teachers College and Stephen F. Austin State College. Those three schools were the last public four-year institutions in Texas to desegregate. The desegregation of Texas public colleges and universities was a gradual process that took more than a decade, beginning with Midwestern University (1954) and Texas Western College (1955).
East Texas State was part of the Texas State Teachers College system during the beginning of the Civil Rights Era. Four days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which generally mandated the desegregation of public education in the U.S., Texas State Teachers College System president Charles P. McGaha sent a letter to member institution presidents stating a response to be given to all African-American student applicants stating “so far as Board rulings and state laws are concerned in Texas, Negroes are still not permitted to register.”
A&M-Commerce history professor Dr. Jessica Brannon-Wranosky welcomed the name change.
“The renaming of the library to Velma K. Waters Library and the lake to Charles S. Garvin Lake is an important for the university to commemorate watershed moments in the university’s own history,” Brannon-Wranosky said.
“Historians point out that commemoration is not about the past as much as it is the present and the future, and the recognition of Waters and Garvin in this way stands as a way to celebrate the Texas A&M University-Commerce community and culture that exists now and the continued aim for increased inclusion and diversity into the future,” Brannon-Wranosky said.
Gee oversaw the development of the institution’s first doctoral programs in 1962. During his tenure, the school enjoyed a rapid development of its facilities, academic programs, and role in the region’s public life.
Gee earned a bachelor of science degree from Clemson Agricultural and Mechanical College (Clemson, S.C.) in 1917. He later received a master’s degree from Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.) in 1919 and a doctor of philosophy from Peabody College for Teachers (Nashville, Tenn.) in 1933.
A United States Army veteran, Gee served during both world wars, advanced to the rank of Colonel, and was awarded both the Decorated Bronze Star medal and the Army Commendation medal. Gee was stationed in the U.S. during World War I. During World War II, Gee was deployed in the European Theatre, and received four combat stars for his service there.
Born in 1896 in South Carolina, Gee died in 1982 and is buried in Huntsville.