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The Intersection of Athletics and Race on the 40 Acres

Coach on players' shoulders

During a period in American history when the social landscape was rapidly changing, racial advances in collegiate athletics were taking place across the South in the 1950s and 1960s. At the University of Texas (UT), that process proved harder to achieve than many expected as it would take nearly two decades to integrate athletics following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that admitted blacks to the university in 1950. ncf_droyal_5

By 1950, UT had established itself as one of the leading Southern universities in both the academic and athletic arenas. Likewise, UT began to make headway in addressing the integration quandary, admitting the first black graduate students to the 40 acres. “I like the word desegregated, because it certainly wasn’t integrated,” said Leon Holland, an African American freshman in 1956, the first school year Texas permitted black undergraduates. “At that time, nothing was integrated in terms of housing, athletics, bands and extracurricular-type activities.” Driven by the Board of Regents and university leaders who held deep-rooted political and social beliefs against racial integration, the process of total integration was moving slowly, if at all. This attitude towards race would continue into the next decade. Like so many Southern institutions, Texas’ high school interscholastic leagues were segregated. “They didn’t really integrate,” writes Gwendolyn Goldstone, author of Integrating the 40 Acres, “so, unlike Mississippi that said, ‘We don’t want them here at all,’ Texas said, we’ll admit them but we’re going to segregate them.’”

Two years after a 1961 student referendum called for integration of the University’s athletic programs, the UT System Board of Regents removed all of its race-based student restrictions on Nov. 9, 1963. Seven days later, the University’s Athletic Council opened its doors to black athletes for the first time. Nearly a decade after the Southern Conference called for all varsity sports to be integrated, the Texas football program in efforts to maintain dominance, opened its recruiting doors to young men of color. Having observed the likes of Jerry LeVias at Southern Methodist University and Sam “Bam” Cunningham at the University of Southern California, Whittier recalls Royal’s faith in him, “I knew he could play for us and handle any difficulties off the field.” Yet, the significance of his position on the Texas team had little effect on him. “I was a jock, plain and simple,” he said. “I didn’t care about civil rights or making a mark. I just wanted to play big-time football.”

While the gridiron had yet to be integrated prior to Whittier’s recruitment, smaller, less visible athletic inclusive efforts had been made. In 1954, Marion Ford Jr. applied to the University of Texas as a transfer student from the University of Illinois and became one of the first five black undergraduates ever admitted. Yet, the university rescinded the admissions of Ford and the other four black students after Ford publically stated that along with pursuing his bachelors, he also wanted to play football. His statements challenged the regent’s previously implemented policy that barred “participation of Negroes in football games,” even though the Longhorns were en route to a 1-9 record, their only victory coming by one point to Tulane. Two days after a demoralizing loss to the Sooners, coach Ed Price was in his office at Gregory Gym when he got a surprise visitor. Ford came in to introduce himself and offer his services. Ford told Price a bit about his background—that he had been an all-state lineman at Wheatley High School in Houston, that he had spent two years at the University of Illinois before transferring to UT and that he was in shape. “Ed,” Ford said, “you need me. I can help you.” Price, who had been head coach for the last five seasons, knew with his current record he would be fired at the end of the season, but he gave no consideration to Marion Ford’s proposal. “I just can’t do it, son. My hands are tied,” were Price’s words of woe. According to Dwonna Goldstone’s Integrating the 40 Acres, Ford’s interest in playing resulted in “a brief meeting of the regents, university administrators, and Governor Allan Shivers” and the eventual cancellation of the admissions.

On Feb. 29, 1964, nearly a decade after Ford demonstrated his desire to play Longhorn football, and a decade after the first black undergraduates had made their way to campus, UT athletics finally began to integrate the athletic program, when Oliver Patterson and James Means ran in a track meet in College Station. But in the struggle to integrate sports at UT, football was always the primary concern. Goldstone states that many of the thousands of white Longhorn fans who crowded into Memorial Stadium on game days “saw the Texas football team as a bastion of white supremacy that could not be tainted by a black athlete.” She writes that administrators and coaches expressed concern about where an integrated team would stay during travel to away games, since hotels and restaurants across the South were segregated. UT officials, coaches and supporters, Goldstone writes, unfairly blamed the team’s lack of black players on the poor academics of black student-athletes.

Ed Roby, a former student of Austin High believes that Austin High and L.C. Anderson had “the best two teams in the state” in the late 1950s. “They never got to play,” he says, “and they were right across town.” In addition to its 1942 title, Anderson’s football team won the Prairie View Interscholastic League championship in 1956, 1957 and 1961. Austin High, meanwhile, went to the University Interscholastic League playoffs in 1957 for the final time that century, led by quarterback Mike Cotten, who went on to quarterback the University of Texas Longhorns. For most of the 20th century schools like Prairie View A&M were the athletic bastions of Texas football for African Americans. Most of the top athletes matriculated to Prairie View and Texas Southern. Despite the demonstrated talent on Anderson’s football teams, no Anderson players ever got a chance to suit up for the Longhorns, which remained a segregated team until 1970.

In 1961, the Executive Board of Campus Interracial Committee gathered 3,000 student signatures supporting athletic integration. The Student Assembly voted 23-0 to petition the regents to adopt a policy supporting athletic integration after they conducted a survey that revealed 74 percent of students in favor of athletic integration. The General Faculty Council called for the university to pursue integration of all campus activities and students submitted a petition to the regents containing 6,000 signatures in support of athletic integration. UT’s student body president also joined six other Southwest Conference (SWC) school student body presidents in signing a resolution promoting integration. In Goldstone’s book, she notes the efforts of students and faculty in support of athletic integration that perhaps played a role in the regent’s decision. It was a historic ruling for the Southwest Conference. Texas became the first SWC program to integrate its athletic programs. Athletic Director Darrell Royal told reporters: “We will recruit anyone who will fit in our program. That is anyone who qualifies academically and athletically.”

A column in The Daily Texan described the social shift best noting that Southwest Conference schools had been in a “gentlemen’s agreement” not to integrate in previous years, but recognized the school’s political evolution, “We are extremely proud of our Board of Regents for deciding to be men instead of gentlemen. And we are glad to see that they may have instigated a state-wide awakening.” The first black player appeared in a SWC football game in 1966. John Hill Westbrook, a walk-on running back at Baylor University, appeared in a September game against Syracuse. Running back Jerry LeVias was the first black scholarship athlete in the SWC after signing to play for Southern Methodist University in 1965. After a year on the freshman team, LeVias made his varsity appearance in the first game of the 1966 season and would go on to become an All-American, academic All-American and the first black SWC Player of the Year in 1968.

As other SWC schools began to integrate their programs, the University of Texas lagged behind. Even non-SWC member and Texas archrival Oklahoma made Prentice Gautt the first black to receive a scholarship at a major Southern school in 1958. Gautt went on to earn All-Big Eight football honors twice and was named an academic All-American. Other programs used Texas’ racist image to help steer athletes from going to Austin. The success of Texas football served as further deterrent to recruit black players, they were winning without them. Texas had a football team that had gone 60-15-1 and won two national championships since desegregating athletics in 1963 to 1969. Both championship teams (1963, 1969) were all white. But the 1969 team would be the last all- white team to win an NCAA football championship.

The 1970s era of Longhorn football challenged both the athletic talents of black players as well as their ability to navigate the politicization of their place on the team and campus. In a 1969 Daily Texan article, the reporter poignantly wrote, “an 80-yard touchdown run by a fleet Negro halfback will do wonders in dissolving racial antipathy.”