On The Outside Looking In (Part One)

By Richard Pennington
Updated: August 24, 2008

SWCTEXAS — College football got its start in 1869 when Princeton and Rutgers faced off in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Soon adopting the sport were Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Michigan and many others.

And while the identity of the first black player at erstwhile white schools is uncertain, the honor seems to go to teammates William Jackson and William Lewis of Amherst 20 years later.

Some of the other early black stars would include George Jewett of Michigan, George Flippin of Nebraska, Matthew Bullock of Dartmouth, Fritz Pollard of Brown (the first black man to play in the Rose Bowl and possibly the first in pro football), Paul Robeson of Rutgers (Robeson, of course, later went on to fame as a singer, orator and civil rights activist), Duke Slater of Iowa, Joe Lillard of Oregon, Bobby Marshall of Minnesota, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh of Syracuse, Brice Taylor of Southern California, Jerome “Brud” Holland of Cornell, Marion Motley of Nevada and Levi Jackson of Yale.

None of them had it easy. Virtually all could tell horror stories about discrimination and abuse. I will give two particularly egregious examples. Jack Trice integrated the Iowa State football team in 1923. In just his second varsity game, against Minnesota, he suffered a broken collar bone when several Gophers gang-tackled him at the end of a play.

Trice left the field on a stretcher and soon died of internal bleeding and a ruptured lung. Six decades later, Iowa State honored Trice by naming its stadium after him.

The second example involves Johnny Bright of Drake, who led the nation in offense in 1949 and 1950 and was doing the same in 1951 and might have been the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy if not for a racist attack on the field.

A vicious blow to the face (in the days before face masks) by Wilbanks Smith of Oklahoma A&M fractured Bright’s jaw and caused him to miss two games and thus the honors he deserved. A series of photographs of Bright being assaulted on the field won the Pulitzer Prize and heightened awareness of the whole issue of athletic integration.

But the deck was stacked against black athletes in those days. None were named first-team all-American between 1918 and 1937, a ridiculous oversight given the abbreviated list of fine players I listed above.

And the National Football League had no black players from 1934 to 1946, the first of three so-called “gentleman’s agreements” in this story. (By the way, the last NFL team to integrate was the Washington Redskins in 1962.)

The second gentleman’s agreement pertains to the interaction of Southern and non-Southern teams back in those days. After college football integration had become a reality elsewhere, the South closed up. Most teams from Texas to Maryland just played among themselves.

When a Southern team went to play an opponent from the North or West, the coaches of those schools acceded to the request of the Southern coaches by sitting their black player or players.

And in those rare cases when they came South, their black athletes were often left behind because they surely were not going to play and they wanted to avoid the indignity of dealing with Jim Crow arrangements.

But the players, coaches and administrators of these non-Southern colleges increasingly resisted such a setup, which, naturally, favored their Southern opponents.

The aforementioned Johnny Bright played for Drake, an Iowa school that chose to visit Stillwater, Oklahoma for a football game in 1951. The South, by resisting integration, became more and more isolated. LSU, for example, did not play a non-Southern opponent, whether at home or on the road, from 1942 until 1970.

But things were slowly changing. It was considered a sign of social progress when, on October 11, 1947, Harvard played Virginia in Charlottesville. The Crimson’s lineman, Chester Pierce, became the first black athlete to compete in any of the former Confederate states on the home turf of a white college.

By Pierce’s recollection, the Cavaliers (three-fifths of whom were World War II veterans and aware that blacks helped in the struggle for democracy abroad) were as civil as any football players, but many of the fans at Scott Stadium were not. UVa, for the record, won by a score of 47-0.

Just two months later, Wally Triplett and Dennis Hoggard accompanied their Penn State teammates to play SMU in the Cotton Bowl. Yet we must remember the times. There were people in Texas whose attitude about athletic integration could be summed up in the words “over my dead body.”

And the thought of having black players on the football teams of the Southwest Conference was just as abhorrent to most coaches, alumni and administrators of the SWC, which then consisted of Texas, Arkansas, Texas A&M, SMU, Rice, Baylor and TCU.

The Southwest Conference, which lasted from 1915 until its dissolution in 1995, a total of 81 years, was one of the premier conferences in the country. In the pre-integration era, it could boast of five national champions — SMU in 1935, TCU in 1938, Texas A&M in 1939, Texas in 1963 and Arkansas in 1964, and three Heisman Trophy winners — Davey O’Brien of TCU in 1938, Doak Walker of SMU in 1948 (widely regarded as its best player yet), and John David Crow of Texas A&M in 1957.

There were dozens of all-Americans and future pro stars, and the SWC got the lion’s share of media attention in this region, and why not? It had the premier schools, the money, the alumni and the big stadiums.

The Southwest Conference may have been royalty here, but it did not matter to many of Texas’ black citizens. Oh, a handful of black football fans attended SWC games and sat in segregated areas and had their own restrooms and water fountains inside Texas Memorial Stadium, Amon Carter Stadium, Rice Stadium, Baylor Stadium, Razorback Stadium, Kyle Field, Jones Stadium (Texas Tech joined the conference in 1960) and the Cotton Bowl.

Most, however, paid scant attention, since their sons were forbidden from participating by custom and/or edict. Generations of bigotry made the idea of integration of SWC football unthinkable, although a handful of black undergraduate students had been allowed on some campuses by the late 1940s.

To the long-suffering black citizens of Texas, change must have seemed to be coming at a glacial pace.

NEXT: Warren McVea and his debut in the Southwest Conference.