For Abner Haynes and Leon King grew up in a different world. Segregation built an artificial barrier between blacks and whites in America. King and Haynes grew up just south of Fair Park. They attended the segregated Lincoln High school, they ate, drank, and went to the restroom in facilities designated for the “colored.”
A Gentleman’s Agreement
Crossing over into the other world was done at your peril. Lynchings, mobs, and beatings were routine, even in the face of Federal regulations and the National Guard. Dallas and Texas were very much in line with Alabama and Mississippi when it came to race relations. Fear of violence, mixing races, and ignorance led to laws and policies designed to keep the two worlds at arms length, even on the playing fields.
The Southwest Conference membership held to a “gentleman’s agreement” not to recruit black athletes until SMU’s Hayden Fry famously broke ranks and recruited Jerry Levias in 1965. The rest of the league trickled along, some holding out as long as 1970.
For decades Texas best African American athletes trekked outside the State to play college sports. Starting in 1956, they found an alternative at North Texas State College in Denton. The campus integrated in 1955 with the admission of Irma Sephas.
Though Sephas enrollment failed to cause the uproar that was common place at other Universities like Ole Miss, and Alabama, administrators in Denton dispatched crews to the clean racial epitaphs sprayed on building and sidewalks as well as extinguish a cross lit on University property.
For North Texas head football coach Odus Mitchell, integration became an opportunity. He decided to allow any student who showed interest, the chance to play football for his Eagles. The decision was calculated to enable the now integrated African American students to participate in athletics.
Despite other offers from out of state, Haynes and King enrolled at North Texas and in the fall of 1956, shared a cab to Fouts Field to announce their intention to join the team. They were so nervous they held hands on the ride. When the taxi dropped them off, three white players met them in the parking lot and shook hands with their new teammates. Haynes and King played on the freshman team in 1956. By 1957, Mitchell’s young charges were ready for their varsity debut.
North Texas opened the season against a burgeoning rival Texas Western. A year earlier the Eagles beat an undefeated Miner team in Denton as a last-second touchdown pass fell incomplete, preserving a 13-7 victory.
The fact that Haynes and King would start their varsity careers in El Paso was ironic.
For years the University of Texas system forbade its members from playing again persons of color. Worse, the Sun Bowl famously extended Lafayette College an invitation to the 1949 bowl game on the condition that the team leave its black players behind. Lafayette turned down the Bowl Committee’s conditional invite, and West Virginia came instead.
In 1950, Loyola University of Los Angele scheduled to travel to El Paso to play the Miners. Loyola team manager Red Hopkins, knowing the prejudice and policies of the Jim Crow south, called Texas Western to confirm arrangements for the Lions and their three black players. Texas Western responded that those players would have to stay with the housekeeper of a local Catholic Church rather than with the rest of the team.
As that alternative marinated with Hopkins, he received word that the University of Texas System had chosen to enforce its prohibition on colored athletes and that the three black Lions would not be able to participate in the game. Hopkins famously responded that Loyola wouldn’t be making the trip that weekend, thanks anyway.
Later that year, the University System lifted the ban, but the scars remained.
Six years later North Texas traveled to El Paso to open the 1957 season and, though not expressly, make history for African American athletes in the State.
Texas Western boasted future NFL Hall of Fame member, all-purpose player Don Maynard. The Miners averaged almost eight wins a year in the four seasons prior. First-year coach Ben Collins took over for Texas Western legend Mike Brumbelow, the winningest coach by percentage in Miner history, winning 65% of his games from 1950 to 1956.
Nearly 11,000 fans jammed into a sold-out Kidd Field for Collins’ debut, the Eagles struck first, marching 79 yards on twelve plays to take a 6-0 lead. After the score, officials called North Texas for an unusual illegal substitution penalty, the first time it had ever been called at Kidd Field, backing up the Eagles extra point attempt which North Texas promptly missed. That point came back to haunt the Mean Green as did several other questionable calls.
In the second quarter, Abner Haynes ran for a long, apparent touchdown, but officials ruled he’d stepped out of bounds. Eagle players insisted Haynes hadn’t come close to stepping out and claimed the whistle hadn’t blow until after Haynes crossed the goal line. The call negated the score.
In the third quarter Don Maynard, playing defensive back, intercepted an Eagle pass and returned it 48-yards for a score, after the extra point, Texas Western led 7-6.
Mitchell made a calculated decision to keep his talented sophomore class, including Haynes and King, together on the second string rather than inserting them as starters. The move paid off when J.N. Wright lofted a pass over Maynard and into the waiting hands of King for a third-quarter33-yard score and a 13-7 lead.
By all accounts North Texas dominated the run of play, leading in most statistical categories, but the Eagles lacked finishing ability.
In the fourth quarter, Maynard’s Magic struck again. With three minutes to play Texas Western’s Collins replaced starter Bob Forest with backup quarterback Bob Laraba. In spite of everyone in El Paso’s area code knowing Laraba was going to throw deep and probably to the fleet footed Maynard, Laraba connected with the future Hall of Famer for a 66-yard score. Laraba then kicked the extra point for the deciding margin, 14-13 Miners.
Haynes ended the night as the Eagles third leading ball carrier, and Mitchell was excited by King’s prospects as well. Little reference was made to the historic breaking of the collegiate color barrier, other than a few references in newspapers to the “negro halfback” Haynes.
King and Haynes went on to form the cornerstones of North Texas’ back-to-back Missouri Valley championships in 1958 and 1959.