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On November 27, 2020, the University of Texas unveiled a statue of Julius Whittier, the Longhorns' first black football letterman. Read the Dallas Morning News story here

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The statue of Julius Whittier outside Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

(Photo by Stephen Spillman.) 

 

Below is of Whittier in his Dallas law office in 2001, when I interviewed him for Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming.     

 

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Here's an excerpt of the introductory passage on Julius in the book, which came out in 2002.

 

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UT’s first black letterman came from San Antonio. Julius’s father, Oncy, was a doctor, and his mother, Loraine, was a teacher. As he was being raised, Julius was somewhat naïve, because the San Antonio schools were a Texas oasis, integrated for years. White kids and black kids and brown kids went to school together, and from junior high up, students got “bus cards” and could attend any school in the district. But it was as if the city couldn’t quite figure out how far to extend this progress.

 

One example of San Antonio’s reticence was that blacks still had to enter the historic Majestic Theater through the back door and sit in the back. Julius’s sisters, Cheryl and Mildred, worked at the Handy Andy market, and discovered that they wouldn’t be allowed to advance to cashier’s jobs; those were reserved for the white girls. Loraine, active in the NAACP, helped organize a protest march on the store; eventually, Cheryl and Mildred and other black girls were allowed to handle the money, too.

 

Julius’s older brother, also Oncy, set the example for Julius—one he didn’t always pretend to match. Oncy was meticulous in his dress, polite in manner, and studious to an extreme. “He was the gentleman,” Julius says. “I was the renegade.”

 

But Oncy also was involved in the Black Guerrilla Theatre group, which was in the same building as the militant Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and was raided at one point by San Antonio police.

 

“My brother got clubbed in the head, along with several other people, and we had to get him out of jail,” Julius says.

 

At Highlands High School, predominantly white, Julius took part in a protest of the dress code, wearing a dashiki he borrowed from Oncy. Oncy could argue with teachers and win them over, at least earning their respect; Julius could say what was on his mind and be tossed from class.

 

Oncy was an all-city offensive lineman in football, and he ended up at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

 

Julius was surprised when he discovered his options included attending the University of Texas and playing football—with all those white boys! At the end of his senior season, he discovered that his parents and his high school coach had cut a deal to lessen the recruiting pressures.

 

“When the season was over, we were tearing down our lockers and my coach called me into the office,” Julius says. “There were three bags of letters on his desk.”

 

“This is for you, as a reward for the year you had.”

 

“What is it, Coach?”

 

“They’re letters from different colleges and universities, Julius. And I want you to read this one first.”

 

Coach Darrell Royal was telling Julius Whittier the University of Texas Longhorns wanted him.

 

“I didn’t know who he was,” Whittier says. “I don’t say that to minimize who he was, I say that to show how sheltered I was.”

 

Royal’s head defensive coach, Mike Campbell, came to San Antonio, met with Whittier, and helped schedule a visit to the UT campus.

 

“I bought into Campbell’s honesty,” Whittier says. “He was straightforward. He was just an old white man who knew how to play football. He turned out to be just what he showed me—a straight shooter.”

 

As Julius also set up visits to North Texas State and SMU, and he sifted through the letters from Big Ten schools, his mother’s NAACP friends were aghast that he was considering UT.

 

"They had this fear that I wouldn’t get a fair shot, that I would be just suiting up and holding a dummy,” Whittier says. “My mom was fascinated by the challenge, though.”

 

Royal didn’t make the kid from San Antonio any promises about how much he would play. “That part’s up to you,” Royal said.

 

Like James Street and others before him, Whittier took that as a challenge.

 

"You know the bumper sticker that says ‘Hire a teenager while they still know everything?’ That was me,” he says.

 

And he wouldn’t be the only black player in the program, he was reminded.

 

On his recruiting visit, Whittier was shown around by the freshman halfback, Leon O’Neal.

 

"He told me the white folks were OK,” Whittier says, smiling. “Then he left. It didn’t bother me at first, until I thought about it later and he kind of left me there. I was expecting to go there and be real good friends with him for the next two, three years. We got along real well on my recruiting trip.”

 

As he settled in at UT during that 1969 season, Whittier became increasingly bothered because his teammates seemed blinkered and insulated from the events swirling around them. And at times he didn’t feel welcome.

 

“It’s almost a southern gentleman kind of racism to the extent that I never got invited out on the drinking sprees,” Whittier says. “Everybody knew I didn’t drink. But there were also white boys invited out on these sprees who didn’t drink.”

 

He was quoted in the February 15, 1970, San Antonio Express-News as saying: “The problems I’ve had have been with some of the players. Texas seems to recruit a lot of boys from small towns, and most of them have small minds just like their fathers. I’ve gotten the message from them. It’s subtle, but to them I’m definitely an outsider.”

 

Years later, Whittier can repeat his “small-town boys” newspaper statement almost verbatim. You bet he heard about it, and he hasn’t forgotten. He doesn’t seem to give the Longhorns, even when all except Whittier were white, enough credit for their wide spectrum of attitudes, viewpoints, and level of seriousness, but it’s understandable why.

 

“By that I meant they weren’t out to change the world in any way,” he says. “They were out to play first-class football at a first-class football school. Race didn’t get in our way. The social change that I was into and used to in my home life, through my mom’s stewardship, was not part of what they were about. They were about playing football and stepping into the life that a solid football career at a solid football school gets you.”

 

But in 1969, Whittier was just a freshman linebacker, anyway, not a part of the varsity. The tricky part was freshmen were considered lower life forms in the football area of Jester Center, subject to the usual hazing rituals of being ordered to shine shoes, do laundry, go out for hamburgers or beer at two in the morning, or make beds. The freshman season was a plebe experience, and the tradition was that the first-year players couldn’t even enter through the main door of the dining hall until they had beaten the Texas A&M freshmen.

 

Whittier regarded a few upperclassmen as his protectors—including sophomore Randy Stout, who shared time at left guard with Bobby Mitchell, plus backup running backs Billy Dale and Bobby Callison. He felt they were watching out for him, making sure the freshman indoctrination pranks didn’t go beyond the norm, to racial harassment. (When Dale was a senior and Whittier was a sophomore, they roomed together in Jester.)

 

Whittier also came to like quirky defensive tackle Greg Ploetz, destined to be named UT's top art student one year.

 

“It didn’t appear that I was being treated any different than any other freshman,” Whittier says. “I think I was respected, too, because I was aggressive and got after it. I didn’t slink to the back of the line when it was time for shit drills. In fact, I had made a promise to myself that when they said to line up I always would be first in line, even if I had to push and shove to get there. I wanted the coaches to know they didn’t have to worry about me being willing to stick my face in there.”

 

During that fall, the other Longhorn freshmen and a few of the upperclassmen noticed a few other things about the black kid: He could be late for lunch because he was at a protest! He would hang out with the hippies!

 

He went to the Moratorium march, and he was sympathetic when students protested a Memorial Stadium and street expansion project that forced the bulldozing of Waller Creek between the stadium and the main part of campus. The administration and many students couldn’t understand why moving the channel thirty feet was such a problem. So what if it killed a few trees and a few turtles?

 

“I had to walk by this fight to go into the stadium to get dressed to play football,” Whittier says. “I was having to face the fact that what I was doing and the system I was playing in was the dynamite behind the movement to move Waller Creek. I’d have to walk past Frank Erwin”—the chairman of the board of regents—“and the other regents observing the protesters to make sure they didn’t interfere with construction. Kids tied themselves to trees to stop the bulldozers.”

 

Whittier says that while coaches made snide remarks every once in a while—Heard you were up there with all the hippies!—they never attempted to tell him he couldn’t take part in protests or be politically active, either that freshman year or later. In fact, he says, trainer Frank Medina surprised him by saying, “If you take care of business here, you’re fine with us.”

 

The 1969 freshman team went 5–0, finishing off with a victory over Texas A&M in Austin on November 21. Then the first-year players settled in to watch their “heroes” close out the varsity season against Texas A&M and Arkansas.

 

“Those guys were like gods to us!” Whittier says. “You could tell that there was never a thought in their mind that anyone was going to beat them.” Certainly not Arkansas. 

 

*   *   *

 

Unfortunately, Whittier and several other Longhorns from that era died too soon. Among them, Whittier (at age 68) and Greg Ploetz (65) died of causes related to dementia/Alzheimer's/CTE, quarterback James Street (also 65) suffered a fatal heart attack, and defensive backs Freddie Steinmark (cancer at 22) and Danny Lester (highway accident) passed away as very young men.     



 
     

 

 terry@terryfrei.com

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