Reclaiming a Forgotten Legacy - Part 2 The History

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

K-State as an institution "was a relative late- comer to the quarter-century struggle to guarantee the right of black athletes to play in every league contest and venue."(Link 1) However, K-State entered the struggle with more passion and resolve than any other school under the leadership of President Milton Eisenhower, the first native Kansan and K-State alum to serve as University President.

There had been attempts to integrate the conference prior to Milton Eisenhower. However, when the segregated schools would not yield and threatened to leave the conference, self preservation and love of money kicked in. Those pushing integration always backed down. Milton Eisenhower understood the issue of segregation and racial justice was a place where compromise was not an option. He knew that selling the soul of the institution to maintain an allegiance with segregationists would make for a far worse future than any possible result of taking a stand. He understood on this issue you stand firm and make them back down from their view. You make them change. He also had the coaches, the players and just enough community support to call Oklahoma’s bluff and integrate the conference. Here is how the recently departed Gene Wilson described President Eisenhower’s efforts, "It was easy (breaking the color barrier) because the university president was really pushing integration, and that made it easier for all of us,"(Link 2)

"Since assuming the presidency in 1943, "had waged a war of his own against segregation on campus, yielding modest results."(Link 1) He felt football was the place to galvanize his fledgling efforts. He encouraged coaches to flout the rule by accepting black freshmen as the rules applied to varsity. But he needed a player good enough to make the varsity team and a coach with the resolve to play him. When he finally found the player he needed in Harold Robinson and the coach he needed in former K-State great Ralph Graham, he made a bold move. Eisenhower sent Graham to the coach’s meetings to announce K-State will break the color barrier codified in the conference rules. Over objections from conference members and local and regional media, Harold Robinson, Hoyt Givens and Veryl Switzer became not only the first three black athletes to compete in varsity at K-State, but the first three in Big 7 conference history. Earl Woods would break the conference color barrier in baseball in 1951. In the 1951-52 season Gene Wilson along with LaVannes Squires of KU broke the color barrier in basketball. In 1978, K-State athletic director DeLoss Doods hired Dave Baker as head baseball coach. The first, and to this point only, black head baseball coach in Big 8, SWC or Big 12 history. In football, basketball and baseball, K-State played the first five black athletes in conference history. Nebraska would add the next black football player in 1952.

Here is a brief history. All sources are linked and full stories are available.

Shortly after Jack Trice played at Iowa state the conference split into the Missouri Valley and the Big 6 conferences. To keep the peace and the conference together between the northern Big 6 schools and Oklahoma and Missouri, a "Gentlemen's Agreement" was reached stating each school had the right to deny a black player from playing in varsity games at their stadiums. To preserve the conference in the first few years, schools left their black players at home for those games, eventually voluntarily banning them altogether.

"Similar concessions to southern racism persisted in the Big Six (as the league was initially known), becoming so ingrained within its competitive culture that by the late 1920s, even those member institutions where African Americans could enroll as undergraduates discouraged or banned their participation on the varsity football team, knowing that they could not be used in every game." (Link 1)

By 1946 Missouri and Oklahoma, by threatening to leave the conference, forced the gentleman’s agreement into a codified conference rule. University Presidents did not have a rules vote at the time. Milton Eisenhower was determined to break it.

By 1949 K-State found a black player who was "up to the competition" of varsity in Harold Robinson and before the season Eisenhower summoned Ralph Graham for a meeting. "Eisenhower and Graham met to discuss their options. "Ralph," Eisenhower asked pointedly, "how do you feel about playing Negroes?" Without missing a beat, Graham exclaimed, "I’m 100 percent for it!"

"It was the answer that the president wanted—and expected— from his coach, who had made a name for himself at the University of Wichita for coaching Linwood Sexton, the best halfback in the Missouri Valley Conference and one of the best-known black players of the mid-1940s. Graham was forced to leave Sexton at home whenever his team traveled south, including a loss at the University of Tulsa that cost Wichita the 1947 Missouri Valley championship. He had no desire to repeat these indignities with Robinson—or the competitive disadvantages they caused his team. Nor did Eisenhower, who listened intently as his coach warned of the hostile reception that likely awaited Robinson. It was safer to bench him, Graham advised, but that did not make it right. With that, Eisenhower’s mind was made up. Graham would attend the Big Seven’s spring meetings in Kansas City the following week with a message for his fellow head coaches. "I want you to make an announcement down there," he instructed Graham, "that we plan to use colored personnel on our football team from now on." Other coaches could raise their objections, but Kansas State had made its choice. Robinson would play, Eisenhower proclaimed, "and that was the end of it."(Link 1)

"With its decision to play Robinson in every conference game, Kansas State claimed the prerogative to determine its own starting lineups, an act of will that upended the Big Seven’s competitive culture—a culture predicated on the exclusion of African Americans." (Link 1)

Of course even newspapers in abolitionist founded Kansas mocked the statement. "A few days later, sportswriter Harry E. Morrow groused in the Lawrence Journal-World that Eisenhower’s ‘flat statement’ was ‘typical of the way . . . the school up the Kaw moves.’ ‘The Aggies make their own rules,’ he sneered, and tell the ‘rest of the conference go hang.’"(Link 1)

Per Gene WIlson, "If it wasn’t for Milton Eisenhower, the Big Seven would not have integrated for another few years. Eisenhower was determined it was going to happen and he suffered a little because of it. They called him a socialist, a communist and looking back now it was crazy back then because he came from Abilene and his brother was the president." (Link 3)

Missouri, sensing a changing political climate, backed down to Eisenhower making Robinson the first black football player to play a game at the University of Missouri. The University of Oklahoma, segregated by state law, came to Manhattan in 1949. Legendary coach Bud WIlkinson raised no objections to Robinson’s participation. "After the game he declared, ‘If I can find black players of the calibre of Harold Robinson,’ he pledged, ‘I will play them.’ Wilkinson’s statements were a not-so-subtle marker for his own fans that the world of college football was changing, even at home in Oklahoma." (Link 1)

In 1950, the supreme court struck down Oklahoma’s university segregation law. With this setback to segregation and knowing Milton Eisenhower was resolute, Oklahoma backed down and refused to enforce the segregation rule. Harold Robinson and Hoyt Givens became the first black athletes to compete at the University of Oklahoma. Fans held signs behind the K-State bench that said "Colored Section". After the game racist adults that formed the sports media made things unimaginably worse.

"But later in the locker room, Robinson and Givens heard shouts echoing down the hall, ‘There they are, in the shower!’
Flash-pop-click! Flash-pop-click! Flash-pop-click! Flash-pop-click!
Imagine the tears. Humiliation. Confusion. Anger. All Givens and Robinson could do was stand there in their suds, doing their best to cover themselves from the shower of flashes. On-field sideshow. Post-game peep show.
I said, 'Robbie, these guys are taking our pictures, man!’ Givens said of the newspaper cameramen.
‘I remember that like it happened yesterday,’ said Givens, who never saw the photos. ‘Things that like stay on your mind.’" (Link 4)

That is just one example of what they had to endure to bring opportunity to others. There were death threats from opponents as well. How did these men handle themselves in the face of racism even from their own teammates? "We had guys on the Kansas State team who were racist and I had all those guys around me and they wanted to be with me and they lost their racist stuff," Robinson said. "I knew how to talk to them and next thing you know, they were my friends. That's how I've carried myself through life to this day the same way. I'm friendly with everyone. Everyplace I go, I have a natural smile on my face. I don't know how to frown." (Link 4)

Harold Robinson playing is what convinced Veryl Switzer to attend K-State.

While there were highs and lows, Manhattan native Earl Woods stayed away for Manhattan for many years. "My dad certainly talked about his days at K-State quite often," Tiger Woods said in 2007 of his father. "It was a great time for him. Also, he talked about that it was very difficult as well." (Link 3) Part of both would be when he was not allowed to take the field in Mississippi. His teammates refused to play the game if Earl was not allowed and returned home.(Link 5)

Dave Baker was a young Manhattan native who crossed the tracks to Griffith Park to shag fly balls from Earl Woods. From second through sixth grade, he was allowed to be a batboy for the team. In 1978, he returned to Manhattan to become the first, and as of this writing only, black head baseball coach in Big 8/12 conference history. He would win 137 games in 6 seasons which is no small feat given the slim to none financial support baseball received at that time. "Race wasn't something I thought about. I was coming here trying to win baseball games," said Baker, who had a salary of $45,000, which included managing the athletic complex ... which included cleaning up the football stadium after games and having his team help park cars. "Honestly, I can't remember any racial issues that I had at K-State with my teams."((Link 6)

These are all huge accomplishments by K-Staters. Racial components aside, just focusing on the impact these accomplishments had at K-State, across the region and nation, we believe they rise to the level of naming prominent things. These events were noticed nationally. "After Harold Robinson made the football team, Jackie Robinson -- who was not related -- wrote Harold Robinson a letter of congratulations. '’He didn't know my address, so he just sent it to K State Athletics,’ Mr. Robinson said of the man who had broken baseball's color barrier just two years earlier in 1947. '’I still have the envelope.’" (Link 7)

Stories written after Robinson’s death in 2006 were carried by ESPN. Gene Wilson recently passed this June and had a story about him in the Indianapolis paper. Breaking the color barrier in a conference with segregated schools was an is an incredible accomplishment. We do not make these proposals because these were simply the first black athletes at K-State, as if they were simply followers of an established national trend.

These people were fearless trailblazers. Each of them took huge personal risks to put their institution on the right side of history. More accurately, they created the right side of history in this conference. That is a legacy worth proudly standing on.

While some stories have been written by the athletic department and others, these accomplishments are largely forgotten. To date only one less prominent building on campus and one Hall of Fame honor, that did not take place until 2004, mark this entire history at Kansas State University. The Hall of Fame bios of Veryl Switzer and Ralph Graham make no mention of this history. Milton Eisenhower’s bio on the alumni association site fails to mention his war on segregation and his role in integrating the conference.

They deserve to be living history that is taught for generations. They deserve to be a focal point of Purple Pride. This requires naming prominent things instead of issuing forgettable memorials, stories that must be searched for and biographies with no mention.

Part 1 - Honoring Proposals

Part 3 - Rationale









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