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K-State Travels to Oklahoma: A Story to Tell

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K-State’s game against Oklahoma next week marks the 70th anniversary of the Wildcats breaking the conference color barrier. Will we tell the story?

Veryl Switzer Running With the Football

K-State’s football team will get on a plane and travel to Norman, Okla., next Friday for their annual game against the Oklahoma Sooners.

That is, their entire football team will travel to, and play in, this game. Including the Black players that account for almost half the roster. And nobody in the crowd in Oklahoma will put a sign behind K-State’s bench that reads “Colored Section.”

Not really newsworthy, is it? Seventy years ago, it was.

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If you haven’t already, then you should read Ken’s excellent three-part breakdown of K-State’s forgotten legacy of leading on racial fairness issues (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). And Tim Fitzgerald took the story to a broader audience earlier this week.

So I won’t rehash the story at great length. But in the late 1940s, the Big 7 Conference was segregated at the behest of schools like Oklahoma and Missouri. Other schools could field teams with Black players, but those players couldn’t travel to Norman or Columbia for games.

Enter K-State President Milton Eisenhower. He fought the southern schools on integration and, in 1950, K-State football coach Ralph Graham took Black players Harold Robinson and Hoyt Givens to Norman, where they would become the first Black players to take the field at Memorial Stadium. Robinson was the first Black student-athlete at K-State and the first Black scholarship football player in the Big 7 Conference.

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K-State was once a fearless leader on racial-fairness issues. But these days, it doesn’t seem like we’re in any hurry to publicize this, let alone visibly honor that history.

The athletic department has done a commendable job of giving K-State’s current players a platform and supporting their message. Gene Taylor says he’s listening. And that’s a good thing. We need to listen to today’s issues and understand them, the better to address them effectively.

But K-State has a story to tell, too. The story of the school that broke the color barrier in football, baseball and men’s basketball. The story of a school that hired the first, and to date only, Black baseball coach.

The school that led.

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Seventy years ago, K-State’s football team got on a bus and went to Norman, Okla. It’s time that we honor Harold Robinson, Hoyt Givens, Milton Eisenhower and Ralph Graham for that trip.

And while we’re at it, honoring Earl Woods, Dave Baker and Gene Wilson is overdue. For good measure, let’s throw in George Washington Owens, the first Black student at K-State, and John Brooks Slaughter, the K-State engineering graduate who was the first Black director of the National Science Foundation.

K-State has great stories to tell. Let’s tell them so that we can remind ourselves frequently of what has been accomplished and what we can aspire to in the future.