Long before the University of Texas at Austin hired Charlie Strong, even long before the first African-American athlete was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin, the university had Henry Reeves. From 1875 to 1915, Reeves was trainer, doctor and manager — generally the most significant figure in early UT football. The students loved him.
But Reeves, who was black, wasn’t permitted to eat with the players or room with them. Despite this separation, the students rebelled when the UT president wanted to fire him, and when he died, they collected money to pay his funeral expenses. Doc Henry, as the students called him, was elected posthumously to the Longhorn Hall of Fame.
More than 40 years after Reeves’ death, UT Austin allowed African-American athletes from other schools to participate in intercollegiate events, including football, on its campus but prohibited its own black students from playing on teams in those same events. Among Southwest Conference teams there was an unwritten policy that “if you don’t play your black students, we won’t play ours.” Few Texans noticed or cared if there was a black student in the Chemistry Department or the Latin Club, “but having just one on the football team was another matter,” according to Richard Pennington, author of Breaking the Ice: Racial Integration of Southwest Conference Football.
Darren Kelly, a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement who wrote his master’s thesis on the integration of Texas football, said several factors caused UT to delay the integration of its teams later than other schools. Texans tended to connect with their university through football, and some alumni exerted pressure on the university to remain segregated on the field. “Whether it was hesitation because of fear of losing money from boosters or lack of being able to get great white recruits who didn’t want to play with African-Americans, or fear from other fans or parents and players who didn’t agree with integration — all of these were factors,” Kelly said. “You didn’t want to rock the boat too much and lose support.”
In August 1954 Marion Ford Jr., a good student and athlete who wanted to major in chemical engineering and play on the UT football team, was admitted to the university along with four other African-Americans. The registrar, athletic director and two members of the Board of Regents met to decide what to do. Ford had been admitted to UT, but the university still segregated its varsity teams. Their decision was to revoke the admission of all five students, making the athletic decision moot. Ford was angry and protested, but the decision stood. He enrolled in University of Illinois, where he did well both academically and on the football team. Ford transferred to UT in 1956, the first year African-Americans were admitted to the university as undergraduates, but he still wasn’t allowed on the football team. He graduated magna cum laude, earned an M.A. and a doctorate in dental science, and in 1963 received a Fulbright scholarship. But he never played football.
By the early 1960s a majority of students favored integration both on the playing field and off. In May 1961 the Regents received a Student Assembly and faculty petition with 7,000 signatures to support “the immediate integration of all housing and athletic programs.” A concurrent petition from students opposing integration contained only 1,300 signatures.
As it turned out, the university’s first black varsity athlete would be in track, not football. James Means, an Austin high school student, planned to attend UT in the fall of 1963 and wanted to participate in track. His mother, Austin civil rights activist and teacher Bertha Means, called Frank C. Erwin Jr., who was then a new member on the Board of Regents, to protest the fact that her son was ineligible for varsity track only because he was black. A few months later, the Board voted unanimously to integrate athletics, stating that extracurricular activities would be open to all students without regard to race or color.
At the same time, the Regents gave Darrell Royal, then-athletic director and football coach, the authority to decide when and if a black student might participate in a UT athletic program. Despite the fact that university athletics were opened to blacks in 1963, there were no black athletes on the football team for the rest of the decade, and few on any of the competitive sports teams. It took seven more years for change to come about.
In 1970, Julius Whittier was the first African-American to receive a football scholarship and play on the varsity football team. In a 2005 New York Times story, Whittier said, “I had no real time or hard-drive space in my brain to step back and worry over how potentially ominous it was to become a black member of the University of Texas football team and all of the horrifying things that, from a historical perspective, could happen to black people who dare to accept a role in opening up historically white institutions.”
Roosevelt Leaks came to UT in 1971 and played his first year on the Shorthorns freshman team; he became the university’s first black All-American in 1973. Both Whittier and Leaks changed the attitudes of white parents and fans through the state and helped draw other black athletes, including Earl Campbell, who in 1977 was the first UT student to win the Heisman Trophy.
This is an excerpt from a new manuscript by Louise Iscoe, co-author of “Overcoming: A History of Black Integration at the University of Texas at Austin” (1979), which features stories from the first African-American students at the university.
You may also like: