The accepted narrative in football-crazy Texas is that racial integral came to the state’s “national sport” in the mid-1960s, generally associated with Jerry LeVias’ celebrated arrival at SMU in Dallas. But the landmark achievement actually took place quietly almost a decade earlier only about an hour north of Dallas. In the town of Denton, two black football players from Dallas’ segregated public school system boldly walked on to play for what was then called North Texas State Collegeknown today as the University of North Texas. Abner Haynes and Leon King didn’t know what to expect, and neither their dozen or so teammates on North Texas’ freshman team.
The players’ arrival came only a few months after North Texas first welcomed a black undergraduate student in February 1956. The school worked its way through both that episode and the integration of its most public facethe football teamwith no fanfare and without the hostility on campus that accompanied similar events at many other colleges and universities across the South. There were, though, tense situations when a racial integrated football team played road games in small, segregated Texas towns. Jeff Miller, a veteran Texas sports journalist, has visited with those who lived through itfrom the mixed welcome that Haynes and King initially received from their white freshman brethren to those same teammates standing with them after the two blacks were denied service at eateries on the road to a squad that grew into a Bowl team.
In The Game Changers, Miller ties the tale of what happened at North Texas beginning in 1956 to contrasting events that took place not far away that reverberated into national relevance. He also chronicles the continued racial integration of major college football in Texas throughout the 1960s.
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About the Author
Jeff Miller has been involved in sports journalism in North Texas since 1987 with stops that have included The Dallas Morning News, CBSSports.com and ESPN.com. This is his sixth book. Miller and his wife, Frances, live in DeSoto, Texas. They have four children.
Read an Excerpt
"When the rabble hiss, well may the patriots tremble"
The county and town of Denton are named after John Bunyan Denton, a native Tennessean who came to Texas from Arkansas in 1837. Denton was orphaned as a child, taken in by a neighboring family, but took leave of their hospitality at the age of twelve, when he was greatly dissatisfied with his treatment at home. In his late teens, Denton took up a career in the ministry and married a school teacher by the name of Mary Greenlee Stewart. By the time he arrived in the Lone Star Republic, only months after the young nation's successful rebellion from Mexico, Denton's list of occupations had varied from preacher to lawyer to soldier. He's credited with delivering the first sermon on Denton County soil, in 1839, when he served as a volunteer accompanying a ranger force on an Indian campaign camped at Hackberry Creek.
Standing 5-foot-10 with blue eyes and curly black hair, Denton took up law when frontier preaching proved insufficient for supporting a wife and four children. Early in their marriage, he put his legal skills to the test in a murder case in which the defendant was none other than his wife. Mary Denton had briefly left her husband while they were living in Arkansas, and became a milliner — a hat maker. (According to the Denton Record-Chronicle account of the episode many years later, "a milliner's morals were often suspect.") A wealthy male merchant tried to enter her room one night, and Mrs. Denton refused. The undaunted gentleman then simply broke the door down, only to be halted by fatal gunfire.
Mrs. Denton faced an enormous obstacle in being cleared, considering the social status of the deceased compared to her own lowly standing. She was initially brought before a judge without any legal counsel. She told the court that she had no attorney, nor friends at all. It was then that John Denton, simply an out-of-town stranger to those in the courtroom, interrupted and said, "No, not without friends. If it pleases your honor, I will appear for the defendant, if acceptable to her and the court." He eventually revealed his standing as the defendant's husband in an emotional soliloquy: "Gentleman of the jury, look upon the defendant. Scan that face and behold something dearer to me than life and more precious to me than all things else under the blue canopy of heaven. Need I tell you that she is my wife. She never had an impure thought in her life." He then turned from the jury toward the defendant and said, "Behold, in me you have more than a friend — a husband." She jumped into his arms and broke into tears. The jury didn't even leave the jury box in returning a verdict of not guilty. Victorious counselor and defendant, reunited as husband and wife, left the courtroom arm in arm.
But the Dentons' days in Arkansas were over. They settled in Clarksville, Texas, about 140 miles northeast of what is now Denton, in Red River County. He partnered with Edward Tarrant, for whom Tarrant County is named. While Denton's fractured upbringing was greatly responsible for him not participating in formal schooling for terribly long, he made himself into a well-read man and boasted possibly the best personal library in Clarksville. In 1840, Denton attempted to add politician to his stable of avocations, but was defeated in his pursuit of a seat in Texas's 5th Congress by Robert Potter. It turned out Potter was killed in 1842 in an east Texas land battle called the Regulator-Moderator War. But he outlived Denton, who was felled by an Indian's arrow in May 1841 at the Battle of Village Creek, just east of the present-day Fort Worth. Denton's troops encountered the Indians on the opposite side of the creek. Gen. Tarrant urged a group to cross the creek, Denton among them. There was concern that Indians would exhume Denton's body in order to claim a scalp, so he was initially buried in an unmarked grave with squares of grass carefully placed back in their original places. He was later reburied, first in the yard of his home, and finally in the lawn of the county courthouse. In November 1856, the settlement of Denton — officially incorporated in 1866 — was chosen as the county seat. The county's first jail, located just behind the courthouse, was a two-story structure made of logs and featured a creative design meant to bolster security. Prisoners were taken upstairs, and then lowered through a trap door into their accommodations.
The vote on Texas's secession from the Union on January 18, 1861, was 166-8 in favor of separation. One of the eight nay votes came courtesy of Denton's representative to the state legislature, Collin County resident James W. Throckmorton. While small in relative number, the eight were siding with Gov. Sam Houston. After Throckmorton delivered his simple "No," he wasn't booed or jeered — merely hissed. "When the rabble hiss," Throckmorton retorted in disdain, "well may the patriots tremble." It was weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and battles such as the first Bull Run in Virginia, that news of the ultimate escalation of tensions, an actual Civil War, reached the citizens of Denton County. Their sentiments were with the southern cause, but more so to enthusiastically carry the banner for states' rights than to prevent the Yankees' eradication of slavery. It was estimated there weren't even a dozen slaves present in the county at the time. While Texas was geographically on the fringe of Dixie's boundaries, there apparently was no lack of avidity to don the battle grays. So wrote Ed F. Bates in his 1918 History and Reminiscences of Denton County: "The hearts of our people were filled with human liberty as never before. ... The military spirit prevailed and young Denton County, sixteen years old, furnished eight companies of as brave, hardy, and fearless soldiers as could be found in the State, with many joining companies from other counties. Nearly one thousand men enlisted from the county and went to the front." (Bates previously served as a Denton councilman and mayor, and was credited with installing the city's first sewer system.)
Curiously, one of the county's fighting men was a native of Maine and a graduate of Yale. Otis G. Welch came south in 1852 to practice law, became legal advisor to the city of Denton, and helped plot and name its streets. In the Confederate army, he rose to the rank of colonel and indicated no conflicted feelings toward his former home in a letter written in August 1861: "The most of us are well and in fine spirits and anxious for a brush with the damned Union men of Missouri or anywhere else." Another officer from north Texas was none other than James Throckmorton. He put together a company of men from Collin and Denton counties and combined them with soldiers from Cooke County, which separated Denton County from Oklahoma to the north. The fighting force crossed the Red River and captured northern military installations at Fort Arbuckle, Fort Washita, and Fort Cobb.
The conflict had about reached its midpoint in 1863, though no one was aware that two more deplorable years of bloodshed lay ahead, when a black man living in Denton County learned justice could be relatively swift and not necessarily balanced. Pess White, age thirty, was accused by a white woman whose husband was fighting with the Confederate army of entering her home uninvited and attempting an assault. White was tried in a town on the east side of the county, Little Elm, which borders Lewisville Lake. The proceedings were run by Joel Clark, the justice of the peace. White "was given a speedy trial and condemned to death," Bates wrote. The woman's husband actually wasn't fighting on some far-off battlefield, but was relatively close by, serving in nearby Fannin County, just northeast of Collin County. Clark had the husband summoned to serve as executioner. White was provided fifteen minutes in which to pray. He was kneeling with his hands together in prayer when a bullet rendered him dead instantaneously.
Soon after, a Denton County slave named Nelse was suspected of trying to poison some of the soldiers' wives — "war widows" — though the description thankfully didn't accurately apply to all of them. Nelse was found guilty and hanged from a tree. And there was the case of the black man from north of Denton in Pilot Point who was found guilty of murder and hanged. Bates, after detailing the troika of incidents, wrote:
These three cases are the only ones where the negro was involved in our county during the war, and are recorded to show not only the fact, but the method, of meting out justice by the white men or home guard. Quite a number of white men were hanged in like manner. The executions of these three negroes may seem unauthorized and barbarous, but when compared to the lynchings and the use of the torch of this age, which took place in our adjoining counties, we can but commend the wisdom, patience, and mercy of the home guards of 1861-65 in their effort to protect the women and children of Denton County. ... Fifty-two years have passed [as of 1918]. People have made rapid progress in every other line, but the negro question is still unsettled in the matter of crimes against women. Lynchings are of frequent occurrence, and the wild passions of men seemingly cannot be controlled, either in the North or the South, when these horrible crimes are committed. Denton County has never yet burned a man at the stake.
It required almost a year following Gen. Robert E. Lee's begrudged visit to the Appomattox court house in April 1865 for the last of the Denton County militia to make it back to hearth and home. Like the defeated athlete who bemoaned that his team simply ran out of time, Bates depicted the soldiers' succumbing as a near inevitable consequence of the Confederacy's disadvantage in funding and materials. "Not conquered but disarmed," he wrote. "... heroes of the lost cause!" Texas's post-war politics were greatly shaped by Throckmorton, who was returned to Austin as the area's representative to the new constitutional convention. He was named the chairman of the convention, was instrumental in shaping the document and — in June 1866 — was elected governor.CHAPTER 2
The Green and White
That North Texas would later assume a leading role in desegregating its student enrollment in general, and its football team in particular, during the 1950s might have been traced to the school's roots. It was initially named Texas Normal College — normal as in the era's moniker for an institution of higher learning dedicated to the instruction of teachers. Texas Normal began educating students on the second floor of the B.J. Wilson hardware store at the northwest corner of the town's courthouse square in September 1890. Only weeks after the school opened, its enrollment became more diverse than most. Twenty-eight Creek Indians who lived in the territory located just beyond the Red River in what would become Oklahoma were admitted as students.
The institution's name was changed in 1894 to North Texas Normal College, and in 1901 to North Texas State Normal College. A more significant transformation took place in 1916, when the teaching certification was replaced as the ultimate didactic goal with a full-fledged bachelor's degree, which soon after led to another name change — North Texas State Teachers College, in 1923. Athletics had been introduced in 1902, when a group of boys informally started a football team and were outfitted in uniforms financed by town businessmen. What is recognized as North Texas's first intercollegiate sports competition took place in September 1903, when a baseball team representing the school defeated the team from a private school across town, John B. Denton College, by a score of 14 — 6.
During the next two months, a North Texas intercollegiate football team entered the fray and scored victories over an aggregation known as "the Denton boys" and Polytechnic College of Fort Worth. School colors of green and white were chosen, and the nickname Eagles came aboard through a student election in 1922.
That same year, North Texas became a charter member of the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association, whose members were primarily teachers' schools. Lest anyone fear North Texas would stray from its mission and make academic concessions for the benefit of its athletic program, the school's president from 1923 to '34 — Robert Lincoln Marquis — wasn't interested in having a football team that would be proud of him. (Google "George Cross" and "Oklahoma" or "Gordon Gee" and "Ohio State" if that's unclear.) Marquis prohibited North Texas coaches from recruiting, essentially telling them to make do with whoever decided to enroll. He also bristled at the prospect of freshmen being eligible for varsity competition, a practice common at that time. Were those constraints not enough, Marquis also touted the idea that athletes should compete on the varsity for only one season, in order to allow more students the opportunity of benefitting from athletic participation.
During the 1927 — '28 school year, a new male social fraternity unique to North Texas made its debut. It didn't have a name like the nationally affiliated Greek frats, such as Kappa Alpha or Beta Theta Pi. The "Geezles" were started by six students, one of whom — Tom Lawhorn — came up with the curious name, according to one of the other charter members, Cap Gilbreath, in his writing of a history of the Geezles in 1983. Just how Lawhorn concocted such a name Gilbreath failed to explain. As the Geezles caught on, a fair number of its members were North Texas athletes, particularly football players.
In 1931, North Texas and about half of the schools in the TIAA formed a new league, the Lone Star Conference, again populated primarily by teaching institutions. The Eagles dominated that conference into the late 1940s, primarily under the direction of coach Jack Sisco. Most of the defeats suffered during Sisco's thirteen seasons came while playing "up" against the more dominant Southwest Conference schools. Most of those games were competitive, but North Texas's 54-0 loss to SMU opening the 1941 season — Sisco's last campaign before retiring — revealed how unacceptable he found such a margin of defeat.
When the team returned from Dallas after that game, he steered the bus driver down a back alley and insisted the players enter a local restaurant that night through a back entrance, apparently to avoid the embarrassment of being seen. Sisco told his beleaguered troops that he initially considered ordering them back on the practice field the following day for a rare Sunday workout, but changed his mind. He instead suggested they all attend church, that they'd need some religion before hitting the field on Monday afternoon. Indeed, Sisco worked them that Monday well after sunset. When it was too dark to continue football-related activities, he had his charges end their day by doing leap-frog drills in pairs, lap after lap around the perimeter of the practice field. Deterrent or not, the Eagles followed their long, punitive session on the practice field by winning each of their remaining seven games that season.
Meanwhile, membership in the Geezles grew and began overlapping that of the school's male service organization known as the Talons. Attendance at one particular Talons meeting proved embarrassingly thin until those who were also Geezles belatedly arrived following the fraternity's meeting that same night. The sponsor of the Talons then essentially challenged those who were members of both groups to choose one or the other. All of the Geezles immediately rose to their feet and bid adieu. Such discord produced a rivalry between students who belonged exclusively to either the Geezles and Talons, even those who were North Texas football players. It reached the point that Sisco called a meeting of football-playing Talons and Geezles one afternoon in the locker room to negotiate a peace agreement.
As with the Greek frats, there was a Geezles house located at various points around campus through the years. It eventually sported a handsome statue of an eagle in the front yard. Also like the Greek frats, the Geezlers performed initiation rituals that weren't for the faint of heart. If a pledge couldn't swim, for instance, asking him to reach the shoreline of Lake Lewisville after being dumped well off into the briny deep could be a challenging assignment. There were other innovative exercises involving blindfolds and body parts that probably weren't all that different from what was asked of newcomers in the Greek houses across campus. Geezles initiations were scaled back in their creativity after one pledge's assignment resulted in hospitalization. What the other fraternities didn't have was Spiriki (pronounced SPEAR-a-kee), the greeting that Geezles used solely among themselves. The origin of Spiriki is as hazy as how the group was named, though one explanation offered is that it combined the word spirit with the "kee" cry of an eagle.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Game Changers"
Copyright © 2016 Jeff Miller.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction "How do you act?",
Chapter 1 "When the rabble hiss, well may the patriots tremble",
Chapter 2 The Green and White,
Chapter 3 "There was a colored boy in the lineup",
Chapter 4 "I came here to win",
Chapter 5 "Dear old North Texas-I just love it!",
Chapter 6 "Butch" and "Bitty Bubba",
Chapter 7 "Blacks don't play",
Chapter 8 "You will never enroll in this school",
Chapter 9 "Go back to Africa",
Chapter 10 "Is it really worth it?",
Chapter 11 "They were out to get me",
Chapter 12 "You shouldn't have any problem trying to pick out which one I am",
Chapter 13 "You're not like what our parents said",
Chapter 14 "I won't be surprised if you beat any team on our schedule",
Chapter 15 "Just soon beat them by one as 72",
Chapter 16 Disappointment and Delight,
Chapter 17 "Maybe we just weren't ready",
Chapter 18 "A chance to exploit prejudice where prejudice exists",
Chapter 19 "I'll be here four years from now. Will you?",
Chapter 20 "I don't believe he will quit",
Chapter 21 "We will kick to the clock",
Chapter 22 Going their separate ways,
Chapter 23 "The Movement",
Chapter 24 "Someone just said, 'We're going for two'",
Chapter 25 "My spirit is rejoicing",