This dissertation centers on the life of Dr. Lawrence Aaron Nixon, an African American physician and civil rights activist who lived in El Paso, Texas from 1910 until his death in 1966. Born in Marshall, Texas in 1883, Lawrence Nixon graduated from Wiley College in 1902 and Meharry Medical College in 1906. He then established a medical office in Cameron, Texas in 1907, but due to the racial climate and violence of central Texas he moved west to El Paso in hopes of a better life.
Although several historians have mentioned Dr. Nixon in their works, they have tended to limit their analysis to his victories in two important Supreme Court cases, Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Nixon v. Condon (1932), which successfully challenged Texas’s all-white Democratic primary. Despite these legal successes, Texas continued to deny Blacks from voting in the Democratic party primary. However, Nixon’s challenges would establish the legal precedence that ultimately would dismantle all-white primaries throughout the entire south in the famous Smith v. Allwright Supreme Court decision in 1944. Nixon’s courage, independence from the white economy, and the backing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) allowed him to contest the 1923 Texas Terrell Law which barred African Americans from participating in a Democratic primary election.
This study is a fuller and more contextualized reading of Nixon’s life which corrects a few mistakes, factual and interpretive, which are in the historiography about Nixon such as his specific profession, date of birth, and the inception of the NAACP’s El Paso branch. By combining archival research, oral interviews, and secondary sources this dissertation biography reveals the many facets of Nixon’s life not previously written about, including his futile effort to save Henry Lowry from being lynched in 1921, his failed attempt to get an all-Black pool built by the city of El Paso in the whites-only Washington Park, his unsuccessful endeavor to start an all-Black hospital in El Paso, his temporary involvement in Nixon v. McCann (1934), and his brief participation in the short-lived Southern Conference for Human Welfare—a liberal southern multiracial organization which existed in the South from 1938 to 1948.
The interpretation and analysis of Nixon’s life is also intended to contribute to the growing literature on Blacks in the Borderlands, the participation of the African American professional class in ‘racial uplift’ during the pre-Civil Rights Movement, and the history of Blacks in the United States West and Southwest.