A two-day conference honoring the Prairie View Interscholastic League brought together people who recounted their lives during legalized segregation and their transition into integration.
The League is an organization that governed extra-curricular activities for Texas’ African American high school students during that time period.
The conference, “Thursday Night Lights,” kicked off Thursday with opening remarks by several coordinators of the event, including Gregory Vincent, UT’s vice president for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. Vincent said he is proud to be a part of the league’s legacy.
“We often talk about segregation and talk about the pathology of it, and all that’s true, but what’s amazing about our people, we make a way out of no way,” Vincent said. “And somehow when we’re given these scraps, we turn it into a tapestry of gold, and that is exactly what the [league] is about.”
The league was formed in the ’20s as the Texas Interscholastic League of Colored Schools and at its height encompassed 500 schools who had students participate in the league’s state championship events such as football, baseball, track and field, music and extemporaneous speaking.
Keynote speaker William Rhoden, columnist for The New York Times, spoke Thursday about the prominent national figures who came out of the league, such as Barbara Jordan, a former politician and UT professor, and athletes including wide-receiver Charley Taylor and defensive tackle Joe Greene.
“What was so interesting is I started really digging into the [the league], you realize that all around the country when you talk about black folks, whether you’re in Louisiana, whether it’s in Alabama, here, Chicago, you got these tremendous black athletics associations that flourished and turned out all these great people, that you would have no idea,” Rhoden said.
Frank Guridy, history associate professor and director of the University’s John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, which hosted the event, said this was the first conference on this topic to be held, and said he hopes it will be an annual event depending on resources. Guridy said the point of the conference was to view and analyze the history of segregation in the state.
“What can we take from that period is how can we learn about community formation,” Guridy said. “What lessons from that period can we take to the present, other than the fact than we don’t want to remember it. The spirit of the conference was more about how they made do, how did they create communities, how did they create futures in a period when people struggled. I think those are valuable lessons that we can take from that period.”
One session from the conference focused directly on the league’s legacy at L.C. Anderson High School, the only predominantly African-American high school in Austin during that time period. The session composed of a panel of distinguished alumni from the high school who participated in sports and other school organizations. They talked about their experiences during high school, and the challenges they faced.
“Being in a segregated environment was a positive experience,” said Diane Lang, a graduate from the original L.C. Anderson high school. “We knew about the other schools and we knew we weren’t being treated right, and we used that energy to try and make the best grades we could.”