By Andrew McGregor
During the 1950s, the University of Oklahoma was the class of college football. The Sooners entered the fall of 1956 poised to make history. They were the defending national champions and had won thirty-consecutive games, one win shy of the team’s record-long winning streak. Though the schedule was not easy – it included a visit from old nemesis Jim Tatum, now coaching at North Carolina, and a trip to South Bend to face Notre Dame – most of the team returned. The last time Oklahoma lost a game was September 1953, when the team’s seniors were paying their dues on the freshman squad. Optimism surrounded the Oklahoma program and its fans expected the winning to continue.
The Sooners were poised to make history in other ways too. While winning football teams captured headlines, helping to build a name for state and the up-and-coming Cold War University, the long-1950s saw an intense struggle for racial justice. The University of Oklahoma sat at the center of that struggle, facing multiple court cases that eventually reached the Supreme Court. During this era, the Sooners were a white team with white fans. African Americans had tried to make the team and failed. In 1956, however, that would change.
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This blog post comes out of an in-progress dissertation chapter examining the relationship between race and football during the University of Oklahoma’s period of dominance. In the larger project I investigate what it means to be a “Sooner” by exploring the history and impact of the Sooner football team during the long-1950s. My project looks at how Oklahoma football — and its unprecedented success during this period — shaped the political and economic climate, instilled pride in Oklahomans, and facilitated the rehabilitation of the word “Okie” from a John Steinbeck pejorative to Merle Haggard’s blue collar conservative archetype. During this period, I believe, Oklahoma became a Cold War utopia characterized by its masculine football culture, political consensus, loyalty, and an economic boom spurned on by the military industrial complex. Creating this Cold War utopia, however, also required redefining who counted as a “Sooner.”
It’s a tired, and not entirely accurate, narrative by now, but the Cold War played a crucial role in promoting Civil Rights activism. The hypocrisy of fighting for freedom abroad exposed many of the flaws within the American racial landscape. The immediate postwar era saw an increased militancy and eagerness to challenge longstanding Jim Crow laws. This was particularly true in Oklahoma, where Roscoe Dunjee, the editor of Oklahoma City’s Black Dispatch and one of the influential leaders of the state’s NAACP conference, led the charge for racial justice. Dunjee paid close attention to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions, plotting ways to use it to benefit black Oklahomans. By 1940, the court had become more active, ruling against Oklahoma’s all white primary, restrictive real estate covenants, and segregated interstate transportation. Education had always been one of Dunjee’s priorities, and following Gaines v. Missouri in 1938; he began considering ways to challenge Oklahoma’s system of segregated higher education.
Relying on Gaines as precedent, Dunjee along with Thurgood Marshall, announced plans to desegregated the University of Oklahoma in November 1945. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher was chosen for their test case, and the full on legal assault began in January 1946. The case dragged on, meandering through the courts, for nearly two years. In 1948, it was joined by a second case, McLaurin v. Oklahoma. While the Fisher case focused on desegregating the law school since Oklahoma did not have a black law school, and the creation of a sham law school was deemed unequal, the McLaurin case focused first on gaining access for graduate and professional programs for black students (Langston University, the state’s black college, did not offer any graduate degrees until 1980), and then later on the manner in which integration was implemented. Fisher and McLaurin both won their cases — expanding who could be a Sooner — enabling African Americans to attend the University of Oklahoma in 1949.
The degree that integration actually took place following these victories was severely limited, however. African Americans were only permitted to enroll at OU as graduate students, and it required special permission. Furthermore, for the first two years, black graduate students could attend OU, but had to sit in segregated areas. At first, McLaurin was seated in an alcove off of a classroom, and then later in a special chair cornered off by ropes and railings. Similar arrangement were made in the library and cafeteria. The conditions were humiliating and distracting, and, thankfully, declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1950.
The need for multiple Supreme Court case during this four-year period reveals that integration did not necessarily entail desegregation. It also shows the deeply ingrained systemic racism in Oklahoma. African Americans have largely been treated as second-class citizens throughout the state’s history. Though they were true Sooners, participating alongside the state’s first settlers in the Land Rush of 1889, white mobs often intimidated African Americans, resulting in segregated cities and sundown towns — including Norman. Furthermore, segregation was written into the state’s constitution in 1907, demanding “separate schools for white and colored children.”
By the 1920s, the racial tension was palpable. The Tulsa race riot in 1921 marked the climax of Jim Crow’s violent confrontations. Described by the New York Times as “one of the worst incidences of racial violence in the nation’s history” seventy-five years later. The incident looked more like Sherman’s “March to the Sea” than a riot. The National Guard played an active role in the melee, invading the affluent African American neighborhood of Greenwood – once known as “Black Wall Street” for its wealth and vibrant businesses. Over the course of only a few hours, more than 1,000 homes were burned or looted, the central business district reduced to smoldering rubble, and the last breaths of hundreds of African Americans gasped. The human and economic devastation emboldened the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership swelled to an estimated 150,000 members following the tumultuous conflict. The influence of the Klan reached far and wide, evidenced by the burning of 260 crosses throughout the state on a single night in 1923.
Norman was not immune to the Klan’s influence. OU President George Cross recalled that when he first arrived at the university in the 1934, “there was an unwritten law…that a Negro could not remain within the city limits after sundown.” Those that violated the code were harassed and intimidated into compliance. It was not until the Second World War and the establishment of Navy training facilities that African Americans were permitted to sleep in Norman. For many of these early years the Klan’s influence permeated the walls of the University of Oklahoma and its upper administration.
The Ku Klux Klan was listed among the student clubs in the 1920 yearbook with its own full-page spread. The club was banned later that year after an incident with a rival club involving a firearm. But the KKK’s presence on campus extended well beyond the students. In 1922, Upton Sinclair estimated that 2/3rds of the OU faculty were Klan members. A year later, the University’s Vice President and one of its original four faculty members, Edwin Debarr, was dismissed for “pernicious” and “aggressive” political activities. The truth was, Debarr served as the Grand Dragon of the Oklahoma KKK. He was fired only after disregarding an official censure from the Board of Regents for using KKK talking points in speeches he gave as a representative of OU. Only gradually did Oklahoma decided that KKK members were not allowed to be Sooners. In fact, although he was terminated, the chemistry building on campus continued to bear DeBarr’s name until 1988.
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Like its colonial history tied to the 1889 Land Rush, on campus “Sooner” represented systemic racism at a historically white college. This is particularly true regarding athletics. Following McLaurin’s enrollment in 1949, the Board of Regents realized that integration required a litany of new policies. A series of memos were circulated in 1949 reflecting concerns about African American seating at football games. Wilkinson first broached the topic with President Cross in March, recognizing that more black students would soon be matriculating at OU. All students were entitled to purchase football tickets plus an additional seat for their spouse. The memos hint that African American fans were not admitted to the stadium prior to then, thus requiring the university to develop a new seating policy.
The plan was to segregate African American students within the current student section, essentially giving them the top row. Additionally, it required constructing barriers to sufficiently and safely keep them separate. Ticket manager Clee Fitzgerald offered two ideas for the barrier. The first required placing hinged boards set up to form a pyramid-like blockade on top of an empty row of seats. The second idea involved constructing a solid wall between rows that divide the sections and protected both sides. As requested, each of these barriers would be temporary. Fitzgerald shared sketches of each plan in his memo to President Cross.
The Board of Regents reviewed the sketches and new policy at their July meeting. The new seating policy was quite detailed, reflecting the Regents concerns about the optics of segregation. While they clearly wanted separate seating and restroom facilities, the Regents also wanted to avoid bad publicity. Ultimately the Regents selected the wall option to divide the seating areas. They also mandated that the instructions to African American students regarding the policy be given privately, and suggested that they “arrive early” and “avoid the surging-crowds.” This preference certainly reflected safety concerns as well as appearances. Next, the Regents described the type of signs they wanted to denote separate accommodations. The markers should have “adhesive backs that may be put up the morning of the game and taken down soon after the game” they explained. The goal was to “avoid as much as possible publicity and photographs which will result” from segregation. Finally, the tickets needed to be “designated” for African Americans “by using a simple rubber stamp overprint.” This was done in-house, rather than at the printers. The Regents hoped that with this policy “the colored students can be accommodated at-football games with the least possible adverse publicity to the University.”
The details of the policy reveal three things. First, it hints that there was no prior segregation plan in place in the stadium. The Oklahoman confirms this, noting when the new policy was announced, “no action was taken in regard to Negroes who are not students.” Second, the insistence on using temporary barriers and signage reveals not just an overt concern for the optics of segregation, but also the realization that segregation was impermanent and unsavory. The Supreme Court had already forced the university to admit black students, and the Regents knew that in time the entire system of segregation would be overturned. Thus, permanently retrofitting the stadium for segregation was a poor long-term investment. Finally, the policy shows a world of segregated integration. Prior to 1949 black students were not allowed to attend the university and African Americans were prevented from supporting Sooner sports teams in the stadium. The walls of university and the stadium were now integrated by allowing access to African Americans, but within those walls they remained segregated. Furthermore, only African American students could attend games. Complete integration and full-desegregation were yet to come.
In the fall of 1950, the university decided to “follow the policy of refusing to sell tickets to football games to Negroes who are not students in the University.” They explained their decision as a matter of safety, “Because of the rather free expression of emotions found in a football crowd, the presence of Negroes who are not students might encourage public demonstrations of racial prejudice…” Staying true to their accommodationist philosophy, the university opted to wait until “sometime in the future” when “persons attending University of Oklahoma football games have become more accustomed to seeing Negro students in the crowd.”
The opening of the university to African American students quickly put pressure on the athletic department. Bruce Drake, the OU basketball coach was eager to embrace black athletes. During the legal battles in January 1948, he told The Oklahoman that “the school’s athletic teams would benefit if Negro students are admitted.” Ironically, it was a decade before OU’s got its first black basketball player, and by then Drake was no longer coaching. Following the McLaurin decision in 1950, Wilkinson similarly explained that “the University of Oklahoma will use any undergraduate Negro on its varsity team” provided that they are permitted to enroll.
By 1952, black undergraduates began to enroll at the University of Oklahoma, but only with prior approval and documentation that Langston University did not offer their program of study. During this period, OU also began admitting non-student African Americans to football games on a segregated basis. Beginning in the fall of 1955, OU was finally open to all African American students, regardless of degree program. The same year, President Cross decided to do away with segregation at football games. “We should no longer try to segregate with respect to any University function,” he explained while conceding that ”we may have some trouble about this, but I see no other way of interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision.”
With the restrictions finally removed, African Americans now had the chance to become both Sooner fans and Sooner athletes. They had access to the pride surrounding OU football that heretofore had excluded them. Integrating both the stadium and the football team granted them access to the emergent Cold War utopia known as Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma.
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On February 23rd, 1956, Prentice Gautt, a star running back from Oklahoma City’s all-black Douglass High School, announced his decision to enroll at the University of Oklahoma. In choosing OU, Gautt turned down athletic scholarship offers from nearly a dozen institutions, including Iowa State, Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State), and Ohio State. Gautt’s decision was front-page news in the Black Dispatch, Oklahoma City’s weekly African American newspaper. Though Gautt was not offered an athletic scholarship, he still planned to try out for the Sooners football team. The paper had little doubt that Gautt would make the team, explaining “the current rumor [was] that Coach Charles (Bud) Wilkinson has vowed that if he attends OU he will have a berth on the ‘Big Red’ football team.” Gautt’s decision to attend OU represented a significant moment in the history of race relations in Oklahoma.
Unlike other black players who tried to make the Sooner’s roster before him, Gautt received a four-year academic scholarship from the Med-De-Phar Society of Oklahoma City, an African American organization comprised of doctors, dentists, and pharmacists. Andy Dement hoped to become Oklahoma’s first black player in 1954, but decided to attend Maryland State College when Wilkinson declined to give him a scholarship. The next year, four black players — George Farmer, Jr., Sylvester Norwood, Charles Parker, and Frank Wilson, Jr. — tried out for the team. They practiced with the freshman for several weeks, but as the season wore on one by one they eventually quit. Injuries prevent Norwood and Parker from continuing. Farmer felt pressured to quit after his car was broken into and vandalized with racial epithets. Wilson lasted the longest, but without the support of the other players he found it hard to continue, checking in his gear only a few days before the first freshman game.
While Gautt had to earn his spot, he did not have the financial pressures as those who came before him. Likewise, he benefited from significant experience playing in integrated settings. As a junior, Gautt played in Oklahoma’s first integrated high school football game. He was also the first black player invited to the Oklahoma high school football all-star game. Gautt dominated the game, scoring a 23-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive. Then, he returned the second-half kick 90-yards for a touchdown. His performance proved he belonged in the game, and earned him honors as the “game’s outstanding back.”
Most importantly, Gautt was an excellent student with the right disposition to make it at OU. He was quiet, easy-going, and not the type to focus on the negative. He also recognized the significance of his choice. “I figured that since it is for Oklahoma, and no boy of our race has ever been on the team at O.U., I would go there and do my best to try to make a way for other Negro boys,” Gautt told the Black Dispatch. “I hope it will encourage more of them, and be a beginning.” Gautt’s optimism reflected an awareness of the collective. Playing for Oklahoma mattered more than playing for Langston, Oklahoma A&M, or Wichita. And it mattered more not because he would be the first, but because of what Oklahoma meant. Oklahoma mattered more because of its national reputation and its success, but most importantly because of the pride it gave to Oklahomans. The Black Dispatch rarely reported on the Sooners because they were disconnected and did not represent the black community. After all, if you cannot attend games and no members of your race can play on the team, why read about them. Gautt’s decision to attend OU and become its first black football player changed all of that. Playing for Oklahoma meant sharing that pride and extending Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma to a new demographic. It meant expanding who could be a Sooner. Gautt knew before setting a foot on campus that he was not just breaking a barrier but changing a culture.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African-American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter:@admcgregor85