In 1928 Iowa State College, University of Kansas, Kansas State College, University of Missouri, University of Nebraska and University of Oklahoma split from the M.V.I.A.A and formed the Big Six Athletic Conference, precursor to the current Big 12. The former league’s gentlemen’s agreement that black athletes would not play against segregated schools was extended to bar black athletes from competing in the conference at all. This color barrier would eventually become codified in the conference rules as part of a compromise giving home schools sovereignty to deny visiting black athletes from participating at their facilities. Integrated schools would continually bow to the threat of breaking up the conferncerence for twenty one years.
The forming of the new conference in 1928 is sandwiched in between the Manhattan arrival of three people critical to forcing segregation rules off the books and being the first school to play black athletes at and against segregated schools. Five years prior to the Big 6 in 1923, Milton S Eisenhower, the youngest brother of Five Star General and two term US President Dwight D Einsehower, graduated from K-State with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism before embarking on a meteoric rise in the federal government. He would leave government to become the President of Kansas State College putting it on a university path, then lead Penn State College to become Penn State University and finally be honored as President Emeritus at Johns Hopkins.
Shortly after the formation of the conference, two lifelong friends were born in segregated Manhattan, KS. Harold Robinson would be the player to break the conference color barrier becoming the conference first black scholarship varsity football player in 1949. The next school year Earl Woods, father of 14 time major golf champion Tiger Woods, would break the conference color barrier in baseball. He would do this before any other school in the conference integrated.
Milton Eisenhower returned to K-State as University President in 1943 and waged a war on segregation in the formerly abolitionist founded town of Manhattan, KS. He left government to start a stellar academic career shortly after resigning from his position as Director of War Relocation, aka, Japanese American internment. He was assigned this post directly by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He quit after 90 days. After being unable to secure equivalent housing, educational opportunities and business and property protections, he refused to take part in this unjust action.
Eleven years before the Supreme Court Brown vs The Board decision declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Milton S Eisenhower returned to K-State to find segregation was not just a deep south issue. The nearly 150 African American students could not reside in the dormitories, use the student dining hall. The university had waived the requirement to achieve minimum competency in swimming because they were not allowed to use the campus pool. They were also banned from athletic competition.
"Angered and appalled", Milton Eisenhower set out to end segregation at K-State and in Manhattan, KS. Rather than cause a firestorm of edicts, he employed his tactics of evolution over revolution. He led the student body into passing reforms such as opening access to the swimming pools, dining halls, schools dances and the student leaders even approved of using GI bill money to build the first interacial housing in town. Where evolution wouldn’t work with an athletics director or movie theater owner, he brought his presidential foot down. Eventually a black student was able to get his coffee from the most popular coffee house in town stating, "it took Milton Eisenhower to bring this about." It was noted K-State was "integrated so smoothly no one noticed." A campus and town were integrated without so much as a newspaper article or protest.
Eisenhower would hire top notch administrators with high character like Athletics Director Thurlo McGrady, Naismith Hall of Fame basketball coach Jack Gardner, former K-State Football All American Ralph Graham, and baseball coach Ray Wauthier. Along with existing coaches like US Track Hall of Famer and Us Olympic Track Coach Ward Haylatt, these people were bound and determined to end the, now, Big 7 Conference’s gentlemen’s agreement turned conference rule.
Their determination to do what was right was only made possible by the courage and character of athletes like Harold Robinson in football who would break the color barrier, Hoyt Givens, who with Robinson, became the first black athletes to compete at the University of Oklahoma, and All American Veryl Switzer.. Earl Woods in baseball who would watch head coach Ray Wauthier load his team back on the bus in Mississippi and leave if Earl was not allowed to play. In basketball, Gene Wilson would be given an opportunity denied to his older brother in their home state and break the conference color barrier in basketball. Don Wilson would do the same in tennis and Johnny Caldwell would become a track star.
Not only did these players become the first African Americans to play at K-State, they were willing to step into the fire of being some of the first black athletes anywhere to break the tradition of sitting out against segregated schools. These athletes would compete against and at segregated schools, breaking down barriers for athletes at all schools in the process.
This is a legacy that needs reclaimed. The story of how they achieved this; their struggles, controversies of interacial marriages and the intense obstacles faced from threats to leave the conference to death threats from opposing players needs to be told. Remind, Educate, Motivate. It is a story that should be honored in a way that Reminds us of the past, Educates in the present and Motivates us towards the Future.