The StoryCorps MobileBooth is in Dallas, and for the next few weeks, we’ll hear some of the stories being shared by North Texans.
The year was 1953. The football coaches at San Angelo College were getting ready for the season, when a young black athlete walked in and asked to be on the team. That man was Benjamin Kelly, and he became the first black athlete to enroll at the school – a year before Brown versus Board of Education outlawed segregation.
Phil George was an assistant football coach at San Angelo at the time. He sat down to talk with his daughter, Judy Haven, about Ben Kelly’s first season with the Rams.
“Did the university at large embrace him?” Haven asks.
After Kelly enrolled, the school didn’t hesitate to allow two black women to enroll at the college. Annie Laura Owens and Mary Frances Simpson had attended Blackshear High School, like he had. The tough part, George says, was that the state was still segregated.
“Ben couldn’t eat in restaurants with the team,” he says. “He couldn’t stay in motels with the team. So when we’d go on the road, we’d have to find a separate place for Ben to stay because in those days, at least that first year, we couldn’t get anyone to accept him.”
Kelly was already used to this sort of treatment.
“He would say, ‘Coach, don’t worry about me. I can handle it, I can handle it.’”
When the team would travel, most restaurants agreed to feed him, but only if he ate in the kitchen or on the bus. George says that didn’t sit right with the coaches or the players.
“The white players wouldn’t allow that, staying on the bus, so they said, ‘c’mon Ben, we’re gonna eat in the kitchen,’” he says.
“Until many years later, I thought they were doing that to protect Ben, and they were in a way, but they were doing it for ulterior motives,” George continues. “They found out they’d get more to eat if they eat in the kitchen.”
Despite the acceptance of his teammates, Kelly was still a target of racial slurs and dirty play on the field.
“They broke [his] nose every year because we didn’t have face masks in those days,” George says. “They would cheap-shot him and step on his hands when he’d get up from running with the ball. And all [he’d] do is get back in the huddle and just play harder.”
Kelly played for the Rams for two years before going on to the NFL. A few years ago, George visited him in a nursing home.
“I said, ‘I never figured out how you were strong enough to handle that plus the deals of not staying with us, not eating with us, and all that,’” he recalls. “He said, ‘aw Coach, it’s my mother.’ And I said, ‘tell me. What was it about your mother?’”
“’She’d say, Ben, when other people call you bad names or treat you dirty or try to get you in a fight, remember: that’s their problem, not yours. Don’t you make it your problem.’
“Now that’s profound,” George says, “But try to live that. That’s the part that’s admirable to me, that he lived that.”
Benjamin Kelly died November 14. He was inducted into the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame earlier this year.
The booth is at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in the Dallas Arts District through Dec. 20. StoryCorps is a national initiative to record and collect stories of everyday people. Excerpts were selected and produced by KERA. Learn more here.