UH celebrated the 50th anniversary of its integration Monday by inviting two black alumni who witnessed the initial challenges of desegregation and the award-winning author of a novel set during that time period to discuss their experiences.
The department of political science, in conjunction with other UH departments, hosted “Revolution on Cullen: The Personal Challenges of Integrating UH in the 1960s” to commemorate this semicentennial.
The event featured a discussion panel with Don Chaney, the first black basketball recruit at UH and former NBA player and coach; and Gene Locke, one of the first black students at UH, political activist and former mayoral candidate.
Keynote speaker Attica Locke, daughter of Gene and author of “Black Water Rising,” called for recognition and awareness of the hard work required to achieve integration.
“My hope is that people pause to contemplate that the University that they’re walking around in is the way it is today because of other people’s efforts 50 or 60 years ago,” Attica said. “Remember that and do not take for granted how great this University is now and that it took a lot of work to get here.”
UH President Renu Khator began the event by welcoming those in attendance and thanking Locke and Chaney for coming to the event and all they had done for UH.
“You’re two heroes here, both of you in different ways — one in sports, one in activism — here on campus. You both broke barriers. You both took a lot of risks that were totally unconventional. What courage it must have taken,” Khator said.
“Thank you so much for coming back here, for gracing us, for giving us part of you and part of your wisdom. Your involvement and your engagement and your encouragement are going to push us to really continue on this path to excellence.”
During this discussion, Gene and Chaney touched on why they chose to come to UH. For Chaney, the decision wasn’t truly up to him; his mother decided he should come to UH.
“She got together with Guy Lewis (head coach in 1964 when Chaney enrolled), and they made the decision for me. She said, ‘This is where you’re going. Here’s an opportunity for you to be one of the first black athletes at the University of Houston,’” Chaney said.
“For her, it was an easy decision just because the opportunity was there. I didn’t see that. First of all, I didn’t want to go anywhere where I’d have to make an adjustment.”
Chaney was also being recruited by the University of Chicago, which already had an integrated basketball team. He was less interested in being a pioneer and more interested in enjoying the game. Gene, on the other hand, was more willing to serve as one of the first in the movement.
“Somebody had to walk through the door. And for me at least, I had seen the police dogs on people at Wiley College. I had seen the civil rights movement throughout the South,” Gene said. “If folks could ride the freedom ride and know that the bus was gone be burned and they might die in it, and somebody was saying all I had to do was go to school?”
Both men talked about their unique struggles as the first black students. For Chaney, the challenge was in making an adjustment and getting used to interacting with white students.
“It was a different type of situation. I grew up in Baton Rouge and went to an all-black high school, lived in an all-black neighborhood. So it was very different coming here in that I had to make the adjustment with the integration situation,” Chaney said.
“We lived in an athletic dormitory, which was great and all — athletic housing — but I still didn’t feel comfortable watching TV with everyone because there were certain people who didn’t like blacks and didn’t want to be around blacks.”
Gene focused on changing race relations at UH and in the surrounding communities. He served as the chairperson for the Committee on Better Race Relations, a multiracial student organization.
“That was a more in-your-face-organization for the University,” Gene said. “I think after a year of kind of begging and talking and politicking trying to get things done, we were an impatient group at a time when most people were impatient, and we were unapologetically impatient.”
Some demands made by the committee included creating an African-American studies department, hiring more black faculty and staff, providing more financial aid for students, recruiting more minority students and requiring that service workers be paid minimum wage.
Malachi Crawford, assistant director of African-American studies, emphasizes the organization’s significance.
“This is profoundly important principally because we talk about this — these speakers and these events — in our classes all the time. And as Gene Locke said, we are the most ethnically diverse in the nation, and we need to have an understanding of how that came to be,” Crawford said.
At the end of the discussion, Gene left those at the University with a bit of advice.
“I’d like to say with regard to the University that I like the idea of UH as a Tier One school. I like the concept of UH being internationally recognized, but part of being a Tier One school is not just the academics,” Gene said.
“It’s also the service. And if the University is going to swing Tier One status, you’ve got to have a footprint in this community. We’ve got to see you here and know that you’re making a difference in people’s lives.”