- Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas by Michael Hurd
Texans' legendary passion for high school football has been widely chronicled in film, literature, and television. Yet there has been one glaring omission in this coverage—the neglected story of black high school football during the Jim Crow era. In Thursday Night Lights author Michael Hurd makes a long overdue contribution to expanding the well-known [End Page 235] narrative of "Friday night lights" by focusing on black football teams, whose gridiron clashes were relegated to other days of the week, most commonly Thursdays. As one black Texan told Hurd, "Friday night lights? That's white folks" (5).
To coordinate both athletic and academic competition among black high schools, African American educators founded in 1920 the Texas Interscholastic League of Colored Schools, later known as the Prairie View Interscholastic League (PVIL). Researching the history of PVIL football proved quite a challenge for Hurd, a former sportswriter who serves as the director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University. When the PVIL was fully absorbed by the University Interscholastic League (UIL) in 1970, most of its official records and files were simply discarded. As a result, Hurd was forced to rely extensively on oral history interviews with former coaches, players, and community members.
Hurd documents how black high schools and their athletic teams functioned as vital cultural institutions with African American communities. "The PVIL created pride and ambition," he writes, "and its games revived spirits battered by the day-to-day burdens of racism" (41). The colorful pageantry of high school games, including enthusiastic cheerleaders and strutting marching bands, complemented the athletic exploits of "local heroes" (50) on the field. Intense local rivalries generated even greater public excitement among black Texans. For example, the classic Thanksgiving Day showdown between Houston Yates and Houston Wheatley High Schools, which became "black Houston's Super Bowl, the social event of the season" (141) from 1947 to 1966, drew a record-setting crowd of 40,000 fans in 1961.
Although the white press mostly ignored black high school football, the quality of PVIL competition equaled that of white schools. Nonetheless, successful coaches like Joe Washington Sr. at Port Arthur Lincoln and Andrew "Pat" Patterson at Yates remained unknown to the larger white sporting public. Until the early 1960s, the most talented black players also labored in obscurity. At that time, however, gifted ex-PVIL athletes like Mel Farr, Bubba Smith, and Gene Washington attained national recognition, but only by leaving the state and playing for major universities in the Midwest and on the West Coast. According to Hurd, a few whites did attend black high school games, especially in smaller towns, but even PVIL state championship teams were denied any public recognition for their achievements from white community leaders.
Hurd devotes his final chapter to the integration of Texas public high schools, including the admission of many black high schools into the UIL in 1967 and the final demise of the PVIL in 1970. From his perspective, athletic integration was a bittersweet process. It brought expanded resources and opportunities for some, but its specific policies also sadly [End Page 236] resulted in the downgrading or loss of jobs for many black coaches and teachers and the destruction of community institutions. Although uneven in places and sometimes weighted with excessive detail, Thursday Night Lights clearly succeeds in reviving the memory of black high school football in Texas and in honoring its legacy.