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.
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.
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.
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.
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.