A race over the years

Julie Thompson

The Texas Relays started as a small, regional competition for white males, but has grown into one of the nation’s most important
track-and-field meets.

Every April, the Texas Relays bring more than 3,000 athletes to Austin from high schools, universities and the professional ranks to compete at Mike A. Myers stadium on campus. It all begins today and continues through Saturday.

According to the visitors bureau website, the Texas Relays bring in 40,000 visitors every year and contributes an estimated $8 million annually to the local economy.

“It is an incredible legacy event and we are happy to have it here,” said Beth Pratt, a spokeswoman for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The hotels plan for it, the city plans for it, and we are looking forward to welcoming visitors back.”

Clyde Littlefield, a former UT basketball and football player and track star, created the event in 1925. Littlefield coached track at UT from 1920 to 1961 and won 25 Southwest Conference Championships during his 40-year career. He was also on the Texas Relays committee for 30 years.

Two years ago, the African-American community criticized the city’s response to the relays, including closing parts of Interstate Highway 35. The city also did not provide extra police officers during the relays, which prompted store owners in Highland Mall to close early that weekend.

Jerome Williams, a former UT advertising professor, said the small number of African-Americans in Austin makes the influx of black visitors appear larger. Blacks make up 8.1 percent of the city’s population, according to the most recent census data.

In the 1960s, Williams, who now teaches at Rutgers University, competed in the Penn Relays, a similar event in Pennsylvania.

“I don’t know if the city has embraced the Texas Relays like Philadelphia has the Penn Relays,” Williams said. “I think what happened in Austin wouldn’t have happened in Philadelphia because the community and university worked together to embrace the event and make it an opportunity to bring in people from many different areas and make them a part of this atmosphere. I never got that feeling with Austin.”

The University of Pennsylvania, which has hosted the Penn Relays since 1895, has fostered a strong history of community involvement, Williams said.

Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP chapter, said during the 20 years he has lived in Austin, the city’s approach to the Texas Relays has been tainted.

“I think most of the community of Austin embraces this event, I think people have enjoyed it,” he said. “From a cultural standpoint, because of the large number of African-Americans, there is a hostile environment. I think there is some hostility out there, but I think it is a small population.”

After 2009, the Austin City Council passed a resolution intended to reflect the community’s interest in diversity and equality. Since then, Linder said the city’s attitude toward the event has improved.

“The biggest thing is the police department is involved and there has been better communication,” Linder said. “In 2009, there was a lack of communication and now it is clear that we want to provide security and handle it from a strategic standpoint. They understand what we want — accommodation and not overreaction.”

UT women’s track and field head coach Beverly Kearney hosts the annual Minority Mentorship Symposium. She has brought high-profile African-American speakers to campus, including athletes such as Vince Young and Keyshawn Jackson and Morace Landy, executive vice president of Atlantic Records.

Additionally, Saturday there is an all-day music festival at Auditorium Shores and the local NAACP chapter will be hosting a parade.

“It needs to be more of a cultural event, and it has been because you have other music and things going on,” Linder said. “One of the goals is to help people do other things then just go to the mall. We have people going different places now, seeing other parts of the city.”

For almost 40 years, all of the competitors at the Texas Relays were white males. Blacks could not compete in the events until 1962 and were first invited only if they attended all-black schools.

“I think the city, from a leadership standpoint, is committed to making sure there is proper support,” Linder said.


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