The spirit – and the family – of Heman Sweatt were present in the courtroom Wednesday as the Supreme Court heard debate over race and admissions policies at the University of Texas at Austin.

It was 1950 when a unanimous Supreme Court, in a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education, ordered the university’s law school to admit Sweatt, who had been rejected because he was African-American and had been offered admission to a hastily built law school for blacks that had few resources or faculty. The case was Sweatt v. Painter.

Sweatt died in 1982, but his family filed a brief in the case argued Wednesday, Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the same university’s modern-day affirmative action policy came under tough scrutiny. His family was also in the courtroom, supporting the program as they thought Heman Sweatt himself would have.

“He would have been really excited that his work is still being carried on,” said his daughter Hemella Sweatt-Duplechan after the argument was over. “The door he opened is being propped open by the university, so that so many people, including his grandchildren could walk through.”

She glanced at her 13-year-old son Heman Duplechan, named after his grandfather. He is a top student at a school in Cincinnati, and was on hand to report on the arguments for his school newspaper.

“It was a little confusing, and they used a lot of big and complex words,” Heman said. Echoing the sentiment of several justices, he added, “They kept using the words ‘critical mass,’ but the problem is, no one can define it.”

Sweatt v. Painter is playing a role in the Fisher case not only because both arose from the University of Texas, but also because Sweatt was the first Supreme Court ruling describing student body diversity as a valuable experience that Sweatt would lose out on if shunted to another law school for blacks. He would be “removed from the interplay of ideas” with students from other racial groups, Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote for a unanimous court.

Then-university president Theophilus Painter was candid in stating that Sweatt was denied admission for only one reason: “the fact that he is a negro.” On Wednesday, current UT president William Powers Jr. was eager to have his picture taken with the Sweatt family, and the university has named a professorship and scholarship program after Heman Sweatt.

Sweatt, whose grandfather was a slave, was a college graduate who became a teacher and then a postal worker. At an early age he became active in local civil rights causes, challenging the state’s white-only primaries, and filing a grievance against the Post Office. “From that experience grew his desire to study law and to use the law to combat discrimination,” wrote Houston lawyer Allan Van Fleet of McDermott Will & Emery in the family’s brief.

After being rejected by the UT law school, Sweatt sued in Texas courts with the assistance of late civil rights lawyer and justice Thurgood Marshall – whose widow was in the courtroom Wednesday. With the landmark Supreme Court victory in hand, Sweatt and five other African-Americans enrolled at the UT law school in 1950. According to the family brief, the stress of being in spotlight as well as some reported harassment against him affected his health. He left in 1951 before finishing his second year and went on to become an organizer for the Urban League.

“As a kid, I thought of him as a serious man,” said Sweatt’s daughter. “It took energy to hide some of the shadows of that time at the University of Texas. He thought he should have been able to finish at law school.”

Sweatt-Duplechan said her father’s case should stand for the proposition that “you cannot get an adequate education in a segregated environment. There has to be diversity.”

Their lawyer Van Fleet said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the court will agree and not totally erase the university’s policy. In Sweatt’s case, he said, “there was no question he was denied because of his race.” But in the case of Abigail Fisher, the white student in Wednesday’s case, “it’s more complicated,” Van Fleet added. “There were a lot of factors,” he said, noting that the record indicates that some African-Americans were rejected under the university’s holistic approach to admissions.

Heman Sweatt’s grandson may not be up on all the legal nuances, but he said he was excited to witness the next step in a debate in which his grandfather played a significant part. “There were a lot of cases after his, but my mom said he put the dent in the tree. And that’s the hardest part.”

Tony Mauro can be contacted at tmauro@alm.com.