Sunday, March 30, 2014

Vol. 4 No. 21 James Means, University of Texas, the First African American Athlete in the Southwest Conference

Back in the 20th century, the Southwest Conference (1914-1994) was one of the premier college athletics groups in the United States.   Schools included the Universities of Arkansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech, Texas Christian, and Rice, and Southern Methodist.  In the early days, my own alma mater Oklahoma was in that group.   Football was king, and still is though the conference has melded into the Big 12 a few years ago , and the evolution of college conferences continues at a mind boggling rate.   However, over fifty years ago the Southwest Conference was also  burdened with the stigma of segregation in its enrollment and coincidentally with the lack of the diversity in its athletic teams.  Hispanic athletes may have participated to a limited extent, but the line was clearly drawn regarding descendants of former slaves. Wanting to confirm this statement about Hispanic athletes at UT, I wrote to Ricardo Romo.  See his reply at the end of this posting. 

  In 1963 Lyndon Johnson, a native of Texas, became president in the aftermath of John Kennedy's death, and Johnson began making integration of the nation a believable option for all citizens.  At the Texas Relays in April of 1962 there were freshly painted-over signs in the football stadium that had promoted segregated washrooms.  Johnson's daughters were students at the University of Texas at that time, so when I witnessed those painted over signs, it was understood that those things could no longer be allowed to exist with an administration committed to a path toward civil rights and freedoms.

This story about the first African American athlete to play in a Southwest Conference athletic event comes from  David Webb, a retired attorney from Houston, Texas, who was on that team.  He writes about his teammate James Means who was that athlete who stepped forward.   Following David's account I have added the 'official story' of that time, as published in Know a  University of Texas Online Journal. 
James Means

UT Track, James Means 1st to Integrate the SWC, 50 Years Ago
by David Webb

On February 29, 1964, James Means came out of the blocks in the heats of the 100, 200 and led off the UT sprint relay (as he then did for four seasons) at a very cold weather meet in Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.  This marked the first participation in a Southwest Conference event by a black athlete.  If you hear it said or written that Jerry Levias of SMU or John Westbrook of Baylor were first, it is not so.  Westbrook was the first football player in a game, Levias was the first football player after him, and a star, but both first played in 1966, almost 3 years after James Means. Several witnesses to this, in addition to me, are copied on this email.

James was also a star.  He steadily progressed a from a 10.2 walk-on sprinter to 9.5 in his fifth year, after taking off the 1965 season because he felt he was not making progress.  The next year, James was both the first black at Texas to earn a scholarship and the first to then become what we used to call a "Letterman."  James ran 9.5 his senior season in 1968 and narrowly missed 1st in the SWC 100 that year.  In 1969, he ran on the U.S. Army sprint relay, leading off for Olympians Mel Pender and Charlie Greene.  

This is the guy for whom the "James Means Spirit Award," given annually to a track /field athlete, was named.  He was my roommate on the track trips for the three years our seasons overlapped.  When I called him today to congratulate and reminisce, I asked if any UT Coaches or Staff spoke to him in the Fall of 1963 about any issues or if he was was ever hassled about race by any teammate, other schools' runners or fans.  He said no.  It apparently happened that smoothly in track and UT was, not early in all things, but in this, was first.

Congratulations, James

The following article is from the University of Texas online publication Know and was updated on March 30, 2014.

The 1970 Longhorn football team, which had its first African-American player, Julius Whittier, jersey number 67. [All photos courtesy UT Athletics]
Henry Reeves, trainer for UT football team, 1875-1915
Henry Reeves attends to an injured Longhorn.
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.
We invited UT scholars to reflect on the integration of sports for Black History Month.

Reflecting on Coach Charlie Strong’s recent arrival, what are your thoughts about sports integration at UT?

I applaud the hiring of Coach Strong. As a Texas Ex and a diversity researcher, I’m knowledgeable about UT’s history regarding access for African-Americans — Heman Sweatt sued UT for access in 1949; Erwin Perry broke the faculty color line in 1964; and freshman Julius Whittier was the first black football player at Texas in 1969 (he was ineligible for the 1970 championship team).
I’ve written about the uneasy feeling of standing in DKR Memorial Stadium and hearing the yells of majority white fans directed at a majority black team. I think 2014 is going to feel different — we’ll know that Coach Strong shares an identity with most of the players.
Richard Reddick, assistant professor, Department of Educational Administration

What’s important to know about the history of collegiate sports integration?

Although we view racial integration in sports as having an impact on the racial progress we’ve made in America, that impact is only symbolic, and there is still plenty of work necessary in the struggle for racial equality today in an Obama-led United States.
For example, after the slow moving racial integration of the Texas football team in the late 1960s and early 1970s, African-Americans now make up the majority of the scholarship student-athletes on the football team. However, of the 51,000 students on campus, less than 3 percent are African-American males and the university continues to struggle to recruit and retain talented African-American male students at the undergraduate and graduate levels — an issue also prevalent at other research universities across the country.
— Darren Kelly, director, McNair Scholars Program, and assistant director, African American Male Research Initiative

How does the U.S. stack up against other countries in terms of sports integration?

There’s a popular belief that sport is a meritocracy free from discrimination. While it is true that the soccer fields of Europe are more diverse than they were 30 years ago, racism remains a significant problem. Black soccer players are regularly subjected to abuse and have limited opportunities off the field of play.
By contrast, the United States looks much better. The appointment of Charlie Strong shows how far we have come in challenging antiquated views that African-Americans might be okay as position coaches but shouldn’t be allowed to be the head coach. Yet, perhaps a true marker of change will be when the person who appoints the UT head coach is a person of color.
Ben Carrington, associate professor, Department of Sociology
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.
James Means, the first black varsity athlete at UT Austin
James Means
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.
Julius Whittier, the first African-American to receive a football scholarship and play on the varsity football team at UT Austin
Julius Whittier
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.”

Reply from Ricardo Romo.  I had long forgotten about Joe Villarreal, and the rest of Dr. Romo's reply is seen below.

George.  Oh No!  There were many before me—including the great Rene Ramirez who played football in the late 50s and early 60s.   When I broke the UT mile record, it had been held by Joe Villarreal.   I researched this topic when I taught in the History Dept. at  UT and I found Mexican Americans on the track and basketball team in the 1910s and 1920s.   I also testified in one of the Federal Affirmative Action cases in the late 1990s—and I noted that the first Black to live in a UT Dorm came to Moore Hill Hall in 1965—66.  He lived next to me—without a roommate—and across from David Webb!

BTW.  UT Austin opened its doors to students in 1883—not before as noted.   A&M began earlier in mid  1870s as a Land Grant Institution.   RR

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