skip to Main Content

RH: Track and field played a role in the university’s mission on the run

Athletics | 02/24/2021 17:39:00

Through Paul Suellentrop

Lester Foust played football in 1926 for the University of Wichita and his presence attracted attention because of his race.

Like many pioneering black athletes – including Linwood Sexton and Cleo Littleton of Wichita – Foust had to carry burdens and expectations that his teammates did not have.

“It’s hard to be a gentleman on the football field,” the Wichita Beacon wrote. “There are times when the primitive instincts of battle overcome the thin varnish of civilization. But those moments felt by most football stars must never come to Foust. He has to endure insults and smile. He surrenders. counts the handicaps he works with and just keeps playing as hard as he can. “

Foust and Herbert King, who both played soccer and competed in track and field in 1926-27 for the University of Wichita, are recognized as the school’s first black student-athletes.

Over time, their histories as leaders of black students and athletes in college have been eclipsed. Faculty member Joe Jabara, a member of the President’s Diversity Council, believes it is important to pay attention to their journey. He compiled a presentation titled “The Black Student / Athlete in Wichita State: A Review of History and Social Impact 1926-1981”.

“They’re both really cool stories and they’ve endured a lot,” Jabara said. “It’s a labor of love. I love the history, the college and the city and I think it’s fascinating, black history in Kansas.”

The athletics and historic mission of the university as a place for students of all races are closely linked. Nathan Morrison, first president of Fairmount College, the predecessor of Wichita State University, wrote that “Fairmount College is for all races, as well as for all creeds and both sexes. We must never go back on this principle… ”. In 1928, John Wesley Hayes and Lotta Hayes became the university’s first black graduates.

The university’s early opening to minorities and women stems from Fairmount College’s roots as a congregational religious college.

“It’s a segregated world, but right now Fairmount College is pushing the boundaries,” said Dr. Jay Price, chairman of the history department. “Congregationalists are known to be education-conscious, they’re from New England, so there will be a lot more openness to a religious denomination that comes from a much more openly segregated part of society. “

King held the university record in the 100 meters with a time of 9.7 seconds, according to a story published in the Wichita Beacon. He also won All-Central Conference honors as a defensive end in 1929.

King transferred to the Tuskegee Institute in 1930, according to the Beacon, before becoming a high school football coach in Lawton, Okla.

Foust spent 32 years as a firefighter in Wichita after leaving college.

“They both endured, of course, some hatred and prejudice, but seemed welcomed by their teammates, welcomed and encouraged by the media,” Jabara said. “It drew people’s attention to the fact that there was a place for integrated sports teams and integrated schools. What really strikes me is that these two guys have become very loyal public servants. “

College athletics, with its connection to a community, can help broaden perspectives and pave the way for new attitudes and thinking.

Missouri Valley Conference schools recruited black athletes earlier than universities in the southern United States. Stars such as Littleton, Oscar Robertson and Paul Hogue of Cincinnati, Chet Walker of Bradley and Wes Unseld of Louisville led the MVC to basketball notoriety in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Wichita, as a member of the MVC, made black athletes such as Littleton and Dave Stallworth of Texas prominent figures representing the university during this time.

“People support a team even though they’ve never set foot on a college campus,” Price said. “If a sports team is open to people of color, for example, even at a time when society as a whole might not be, it pushes the boundaries to a degree that many other areas of the community cannot. just not achieve. “

Sexton became the university’s first prominent black student-athlete when he enrolled in 1944. He won All-Missouri Valley Conference honors three times as a half-back and also raced for the Shockers. Sexton, who attended East High School, often missed games in places such as Tulsa and West Texas State due to his race. On some trips, Sexton could not stay at the hotel or eat with his teammates.

“He explained to me:” You cannot retaliate against players or fans who mistreat you. You just have to suck it up and keep going, ”Littleton told The Wichita Eagle. “If Linwood can do it, I can do it. I have modeled my life on him and I thank him for his advice and words of wisdom.”

Littleton, who remains the school’s top career scorer, followed East High coach Ralph Miller to the University of Wichita in 1951. With his Shocker teams drawing crowds to the Forum in downtown Wichita, the university opened its field campus with approximately twice the capacity in 1955. In the 1960s, star black athletes such as Gene Wiley, Ernie Moore, Nate Bowman and Stallworth filled the arena and led Shocker basketball to new heights of popularity.

“The sports department… did the right thing, but at the time it seemed like a fear risk to alienate the fan base,” Jabara said. “It turned out to be more galvanizing than anything else and opened the eyes of the fan base to the fact that it only makes sense and the right thing to do, morally and ethically.”

Most college campuses relied on race in the 1960s and 1970s, and the state of Wichita experienced its own issues. After the 1968 football season, members of the Black Student Union accused the coaching staff of prejudice and held a 90-minute meeting with the university and athletic administration, Jabara’s presentation shows. In 1967, several black student-athletes from different sports threatened to boycott training when no black women were selected for the support team, a situation corrected by the expansion of the team by four women, including one was black.

Terry Benton, who played basketball from 1969 to 1972, remembers the uproar at East High in 1968 as news of Martin Luther King’s assassination spread through the cafeteria.

When Benton first arrived at Wichita State, he encountered a tense atmosphere on campus. Being a basketball player gave him status in the community. On campus and in the locker room, however, he sometimes felt pressured to take sides.

“It was an eventful time,” he said. “I wasn’t an activist person. I had opinions, but I wasn’t going to be a frank person carrying a flag or a banner. It’s just not my personality. I had a rough time. as much as indoors with other black students and athletes as I did outdoors with the general population. “

Levitt Arena provided refuge and he said he felt supported by Shocker coach Gary Thompson and felt a connection with assistant Ron Heller.

“Heaven, honestly, was basketball,” Benton said. “You could focus on that.”

Cal Bruton came from New York to Wichita state and played for the Shockers from 1972 to 1976. Some of the racial divisions in the Wichita neighborhood surprised him. He recalls a road trip down South in his early days as a Shocker when a restaurant refused to serve black athletes. Bruton said the team had left the restaurant.

He credited his white teammates such as Greg Boxberger and Bill Lang for showing strong leadership during this time that kept the locker room together.

“The team has always supported us,” said Bruton.

Wichita State continued to take the lead in 1978, when it hired Willie Jeffries as a football coach, making him the first black head coach at an NCAA Division I school. Jeffries coached five seasons at Wichita State and went 21-32-2. Wichita State’s 8-3 record in 1982 was the program’s highest winning tally since the 1961 season.

In 2008, Wichita State appointed Eric Sexton athletic director. Sexton, a former Shocker golfer, held the position for seven years and was the first black athletic director at a Kansas NCAA Division I school. In 2020, the State of Wichita appointed Isaac brown interim head coach. He became the first black head coach at a Kansas NCAA Division I school.

Paul Suellentrop covers Wichita State Athletics and the American Athletic Conference for University Strategic Communications. History suggestion? Contact him at [email protected]

Back To Top