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El Paso lies farther west than Denver, Cheyenne and Dodge City. Although it is in Texas, it is nearly 1,000 miles away from the "grits zone"—that portion of the United States where hominy grits come with your breakfast whether you ordered them or not. El Paso is just about as far as you can go in Texas and not be in Mexico, old or New. Geographically, at least, the city should be a coldbed of racial prejudice and, for the most part, it is. Negroes make up only about 2% of the city's permanent population; the economic competition that aggravates race relations is missing. And besides, there are the Mexican-Americans—some 45% of the population—to siphon off the natural disdain that well-fed people feel for the hungry.
The only conspicuous exception to El Paso's orderly Negro and white relations lies in parched foothills just to the north of the central business district. There, framed on the west by a horizon line of rocky desert, one finds an institution that now calls itself the University of Texas at El Paso, but until last year was celebrated in sports circles as Texas Western. Most people now call it UT at El Paso, or simply UTEP, and its players are "The Miners." The campus is neat, honest and, for the most part, architecturally cohesive, with its buildings—old and new—designed in a bizarre Tibetan style that is actually Bhutanese. The overwhelming feeling of the place is one of dryness, geographic and climatic dryness. It is a big school, it is still growing and it is one other thing: it is the first campus where black athletes have become so incensed at their treatment that they refused to compete and thereby gave up their scholarships.
You may be excused for assuming that UTEP is an all-Negro school. Many do. In fact, there is a story among UTEP athletes that a high school football player recently turned down a UTEP recruiter by explaining that he did not count himself a bigot, but neither did he want to be the only white in an all-black school. He was surprised when the recruiter explained hastily that UTEP is almost entirely white, that there are fewer than 250 Negroes in a student body of almost 10,000.
The school's reputation for being all black was established two years ago when its basketball team played the University of Kentucky in the nationally televised NCAA finals. Although UTEP had a few white players on the bench, none of them got into the game. The starting five was black, and the first two replacements were black, and they made a startling contrast to Adolph Rupp's lily-white aggregation from Lexington, whom they beat handily 72-65.
The idea of gaining a national reputation from the muscles and skills of Negro athletes was not new at UTEP two years ago. Long before that, the school had recruited Jim (Bad News) Barnes and many another nationally noted black athlete, starting with Charlie Brown in 1956. The walls around the university's athletic department are covered with pictures of Negroes who have brought glory to the school. In a glass trophy case at the place of honor in the hall is a huge oil painting by El Pasoan Tom Lea (author of The Brave Bulls), showing Negro Bob Wallace catching the pass that defeated Utah in the last few seconds of a crucial game in the 1965 season. Farther down the hall is a two-by-three-foot photograph of Detroit Negro Bobby Joe Hill, with basketball in hand, and other testimonials to famous black athletes from the school: Dave Lattin, Fred Carr, Charlie West, et al.
Under the leadership of an enterprising and widely respected president, Dr. Joseph M. Ray, UTEP has doubled its enrollment in the last eight years, and even now the jackhammers are tearing up the campus, ripping out space for new buildings and additions to old ones. Dr. Ray—who is resigning this September—and his staff of professors and his high-powered team of coaches admit that the exploits of the school's Negro athletes have not hampered the expansion program. "The Negro athlete has helped us tremendously," says Football Coach Bobby Dobbs. "We wouldn't have built this institution as quickly without the Negro, because they have been very fine kids and we have been happy to have them."
Dr. Ray himself says that UTEP would not be so well-known throughout the country without its black athletes, but he also says, "It's not too wholesome to be known as a jockey strap college. We've got some quality undergirding this." Nor is there any reason to think that Dr. Ray's achievements have not been significant, that he has not built a good college or that it does not have an undergirding of quality. It may even be that the school had a practical, viable approach when it chose to use athletics to help itself become established. But that is beside the point. This is a story about those who were used and how they were used—not why they were used.
One might suppose that a school which has so thoroughly and actively exploited black athletes would be breaking itself in half to give them something in return, both in appreciation for the achievements of the past and to assure a steady flow of black athletes in the future. One might think that UTEP, with its famed Negro basketball players, its Negro football stars and its predominantly Negro track team would be determined to give its black athletes the very squarest of square deals. But the Negroes on the campus insist this is not the case—far from it.
For a starter, the black athletes wish a simple thing: that members of the UTEP athletic department would stop referring to them as "niggers."
"This was the first institution in Texas—right here!—that had a colored athlete, and George McCarty, our athletic director, was the coach who recruited him," says Assistant Athletic Director Jim Bowden. "George McCarty's done more for 'em than this damn guy Harry Edwards that's coming in here to speak. George McCarty's done more for the nigger race than Harry Edwards'll do if he lives to be 100."