CANYON, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — Sports has always been a significant part of college life, but at West Texas A&M University in the 1960’s, it was the main driver of social change.
“Some of the other schools were integrating, and they had African-American students on their campus, and playing football, WT did not,” said Angela Allen, Chief Officer of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion at WT. “So, there’s a push to win, a push to be able to compete, and the way they saw to do that, was to allow African-American athletes to enter school.”
While the U.S. legal system paved the way for integration, athletics helped make the transition easier. Billy Cannon knows about it first hand.
“One good thing about it, I was a basketball player,” Cannon said.
In fact, the first African-American walk-on basketball player at WT. Coming from a school that integrated a year earlier, he was ready for this.
“We had to get used to new people, and all the things that come with that,” he said. “So, that first year at Childress, kind of prepared me what was happening at West Texas.”
Integration at WT opened the doors for many firsts at the school, like Claudia Stuart. The first full-time, female African-American faculty member at the institution.
“I was grateful for the opportunity, because many of my students said they had never had a teacher who was African-American in the classroom,” Stuart said. “I was glad that I was there to provide perspective from an African-American person.”
As well as the late Helen Neal, who was the first African-American to graduate from WT.
“Mama, she liked helping people,” said Delores Thompson, daughter of Helen Neal. “The fact that she was one of the first black people who graduated, that opened doors for other people to say, ‘well, I can go do that'”.
Before coming to WT, Judy Turner never shared a classroom with white students, and said as hard as those times were, the message they sent, was timeless.
“I think by us coming through there when we did, staying there as long as we did, that we did send a message to those who were to come, and that was, ‘it’s ok, it’s going to be alright,'” Turner said.
Times have changed, and WT has a culturally diverse and booming population today, but the message of yesterday is still the same.
“It was all of us working together,” Stuart said. “It’s not all of my responsibility, it’s all of us.”