One Saturday morning in the fall of 1959, Bobby Smith would’ve been found walking his way up to a big white house on Santa Fe street. The owner, a man by the name of Colonel Blakely, had heard of Smith’s success playing for the Miller football team as a running back and wanted to meet him.
Inviting him to his home, the Colonel asked, “How many touchdowns you score?” Smith answered three. The Colonel handed Smith $300.
This back and forth continued throughout the season as the Colonel wanted Smith, one of the top running backs in the country, to play for the Michigan Wolverines, one of 61 schools vying for Smith’s commitment.
While Miller missed the playoffs by one game in ‘59, losing the district title 14-10 to rival Ray, who went on to win the Class 4A state championship that year, Smith still made history. Smith became the first black football player to be named to the Texas Sports Writers Association all-state first team in Texas high school football history.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Smith receiving that honor.
“It really didn’t mean that much to me at the time,” said Smith, 77. “I was the first in a lot. I got along with everybody at Miller. My senior class we had about eight or nine blacks and back in those days Miller was a huge school because you had just Miller and Ray. I was class favorite, I got voted class favorite, I got to know it didn’t make me no different.”
Smith may have broke a barrier in Texas but his experience was not uncommon in the Coastal Bend. From Refugio to Robstown and from Kingsville to downtown Corpus Christi, South Texas helped lead the way with integration in the late 50s following Brown vs. Board of Education’s landmark ruling that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
While many areas of Texas did not integrate until the late 60s or later, blacks, whites and Hispanics were going to school together in the Coastal Bend in the Fall of 1955, just one year after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
Many of these men did not see themselves as trail blazers, but they paved the way for the generations of black football players who step onto a football gridiron any given night. But at the time, they did not realize their accomplishments, they were playing the high-quality football that Corpus Christi and South Texas experienced in the late 1950s.
PAVING THE WAY
Smith, along with linebacker LeeFord Fant, integrated the Miller football team in 1957 and became the main running back for head coach Pete Ragus’ Wing-T offense. But he almost never got to play.
Despite receiving a football every Christmas from the time he was six years old, and always playing with the neighborhood kids, Smith was undersized all through junior high. John Thomas, the head coach of Solomon Coles Junior High, told Smith he would never play football.
“I couldn’t run at all man, I was the slowest thing in town,” Smith said. “But I wanted to play football, I didn’t care. Everybody in the neighborhood used to laugh at me because I’d come home from school and I’d just run, run, run around the block. The next year, I don’t know what happened, like God just touched me. And I could run, I grew, that’s the end of the story.”
For the students at Miller, going to school and playing football with all races was all they had known since junior high. Corpus Christi ISD integrated all levels — kindergarten through 12th grade — in 1955 following the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.
“We were all used to seeing blacks by the time we got to high school and we all got along great,” said Ray Gonzales, who quarterbacked Miller in 1960. “There was no controversy, there was no prejudice from the white guys who went to Miller from the Driscoll area. Within the athletes everybody respected each other.”
Stephen F. Austin adjunct professor Robert D. Jacobus’ book “Black Man in the Huddle: Stories from the Integration of Texas Football,” includes an entire chapter about the Miller football teams from the 50s and 60s.
To him, a large reason integration was successful was due to the smaller black population in Corpus Christi and South Texas as opposed to places like East Texas where the population can be as much as 50 percent, Jacobus said.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the demographics of the area,” Jacobus said. “Like in the Valley where you have one percent African-American, putting a couple black students into a white environment is not going to be a big deal. If you’d have done that in East Texas there’d have been a riot.”
With individuals such as Johnny Roland, Willie Adams, Art Delgado and others all following Smith to Miller, the players focused more on how good they could be by the time they were seniors rather than how they were bringing the races together on a football team.
Smith led Miller to the 1958 state semifinals, a 7-6 loss to Pasadena, where Miller became the first team with black players to play at Rice Stadium. But the game that stuck with Smith the most was against Midland.
“They all started chanting ‘Let’s beat the n****r team.’ It was messed up. I’ll never forget about that,” Smith said.
In that game, where racial slurs were hurled at the black and Hispanic players on the team, Smith all but single handedly beat them by returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and scored an 81-yard rushing touchdown in the 18-8 win.
After the game, Ragus skipped his regular postgame prayer and told the team to get on the bus with their helmets on and the windows shut as they drove home.