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Oklahoma Memories

Death of Prentice Gautt

2012-03-17

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"Well, they kept it, as I said, very quiet, and it was kind of like I was given a, given a chance to see what I could actually do on that football team."

That is the voice of Dr. Prentice Gautt, who in 1958 became the first black athlete to start on the University of Oklahoma football team.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Two years after the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision that led to school being integrated, many schools, including those in Oklahoma City, were still segregated. But that year, 1956, things would begin to change, largely because of one senior at Douglass High School in Oklahoma City. At Douglass High School, he played drums in the school band, but the football coach realized that with his size, he should be playing football. Eventually Prentice Gautt joined the football team, and in 1956, his senior year, became the first black to play in the Oklahoma All-Star game.

A stellar student, Gautt wanted to attend the University of Oklahoma. A group of doctors put together a scholarship for him, but in the meantime...

"One of Bud's assistants had watched me play in the All-Star game, and after the game was over said that Bud wanted me to come to the University of Oklahoma, and that he would be talking to some people to make this happen. Well, they kept it, as I said, very quiet, and it was kind of like I was given a, given a chance to see what I could actually do on that football team."

Being a black player on an all-white football team in the late 1950s wasn't easy. Gautt found that Bud Wilkinson was more than a football coach.

"I found that Bud had a lot of confidence in me, and one of the things that I also found out that he was a good psychotherapist. I was in his office every Wednesday, on the couch, telling him about the things that happened and the things that I didn't feel like I would be able to take and all of the problems, and after I'd finished talking that, I would get off the couch and go to practice. I did that for the first, about a year and a half; that's how I think I got through the ordeal with University of Oklahoma."

Following a game in Tulsa, the team was taken to a restaurant for dinner, but Gautt was told they didn't serve blacks there, so he left.

"A couple of the guys saw me going out, and they said 'Where are you going?' and I said 'Well, I can't eat here.. They said 'Well, if you can't eat, none of us will eat' and the whole team got up, marched out and got on the bus, and we rode to just the outskirts of Tulsa and found a restaurant that would serve us. But anyway, I felt like I had made it at that point to have that whole team get up and move with me to a place to eat."

Gautt became a two-time All-Big Eight player and the 1959 Orange Bowl MVP. In his senior year, he was named to the academic All-American team.He played football professionally in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns for one year and the St. Louis Cardinals for six years. After the NFL, Gautt coached football at Missouri while earning his Ph.D. in psychology. He then began a career in athletics administration, first as an assistant commissioner for the Big Eight Conference and then as a special assistant to the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference. Prentice Gautt died on March 17, 2005.

You can learn more about the accomplishments of African Americans from Oklahoma by visiting the Oklahoma History Center, just east of the state capitol on NE 23rd Street in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.