Prentice Gautt and the Narrative Construction of the Safe Black Athlete

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:40 AM
Salon 10 (Palmer House Hilton)
Andrew McGregor, Texas A&M–Texarkana
Prentice Gautt became the first black football player at the University of Oklahoma in 1956. He joined the Sooners' varsity team a year later, when the team owned a forty-game unbeaten streak and had captured back-to-back national championships amidst the fight to end state segregation laws. Concerned about public appearances, Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson and the black community had to work in covert ways to avoid white backlash. This paper explores the recruitment, reception, and memory of Prentice Gautt at the University of Oklahoma and as the first black player at a major Southern football school. His place on the team had to be mediated to maintain the loyalty of the school’s predominately white fans. I argue that the press coverage consistently depicted Gautt as “Oklahoma’s Jackie Robinson” and heralded him as shy, quiet, and scholarly. These reports often appeared alongside stories about the Little Rock Nine and the contentious fight to desegregate schools across America. While the white press worked to make him appear “safe,” the black press reacted enthusiastically to Gautt’s success on the Oklahoma team. Ebony magazine celebrated his achievements, and positioned him as a role model for black children. The memory of Prentice Gautt continues to adhere to this narrative. His blackness is tempered and he is described as being “of the right disposition” rather than bold, brave, or tough. He is stripped of personality or outside interests. The university celebrates him as a quiet, studious student-athlete, neglecting to acknowledge that he focused on his studies because there was little else he could do in Norman. Greek houses, social organizations, and many local businesses remained segregated. Such a legacy presents an idealized version of the black athlete that adheres to white behavioral norms and operates as a tool to police the behaviors of contemporary black athletes.