Air Force veteran Charles Brown, first black athlete at UTEP, dies at 83

EL PASO, Texas — A little piece of history — an elegant and important piece of history — left this world Sunday.

Charles Brown, the first African-American athlete at the University of Texas at El Paso and the first African-American athlete in a major sport in the old Confederate Southern states, passed away Sunday in Antioch, Calif.

Brown was 83.

In so many cases, history is relegated to old yellowed newspaper clippings and scattered sepia-toned photographs and some faded memories.

But Brown, who came to Texas Western (now UTEP) in 1956, lives on in this city and in the history of college athletics in vivid color, in a sort of high definition from another time. His jersey hangs in the rafters of the Don Haskins Center and his quiet, dignified, enormously gifted athletic deeds float through the divide of history.

But his courage and his landmark step through segregation overshadow everything.

The El Paso public school system integrated in 1955. Brown, who grew up in the small East Texas town of Atlanta and then spent four years in the Air Force and one year at Amarillo Junior College, enrolled at UTEP in September 1956.

He and his nephew Cecil Brown were UTEP's first African-American scholarship athletes. Cecil, who never really played, passed away in the 1980s.

To put things in perspective, the first African-American athlete in the old Southwest Conference, a league that comprised all the major universities in Texas, was Jerry LeVias, an SMU football player, in 1966 — a full 10 years after Brown entered Texas Western. The first African-American athlete in the Southeastern Conference was Nat Northington, a football player at the University of Kentucky, in 1967.

UTEP historian Charles Martin, author of "Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports," said, "Charles Brown was a historic figure in the integration of Division 1 college sports in the south. He and his nephew Cecil came here and were the first African-American scholarship athletes at UTEP. Charles was not exactly Jackie Robinson for the integration of college sports — but he was very close to it."

On Feb. 5, 1957, the Associated Press picked up a story about Brown in the Arizona Daily Star: "This historic action is a starting point for breaking the color line ban in athletics throughout Texas and the south."

Nolan Richardson, who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in August, grew up in El Paso and watched Brown play.

"He was my big idol," Richardson said. "During those days there weren't any black players we could go see on that level. So I went to see him every chance I got. And he could play."

Brown, you see, was hardly just a statistic. He was a star.

Though he was just 6-foot-1, Brown finished his three seasons with the Miners with 1,170 points and 578 rebounds. He averaged 17.5 points and 8.6 rebounds a game. He was inducted into the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999 and the UTEP Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.

Brown graduated from Texas Western in three years with a degree in physical education. He got a master's degree in education from San Francisco State University and also added a two-year computer degree from the University of California-Berkeley. He taught school for five years in San Francisco and then worked for more than 25 years with the San Francisco public school district, working on special projects, educating teachers to use computers in the classroom and working with a team of administrators to accredit school systems in California.

"My brother was a wonderful man," said Edgar Brown. "He was always such a friendly person and such a family man. He didn't have any children of his own but he was always so close to all his nieces and nephews. He was an example to all of us — growing up in the south, going into the Air Force, going to college, graduating from college, We all just looked up to him.

"He loved jazz ... always went to the jazz festivals and blues festivals," Edgar Brown said. "He loved the 49ers. He was a season ticket holder for many, many years and we went to the Super Bowl when they played it at Stanford. He enjoyed life and he was a good man."

And he was a very special athlete ... and a very special athletic figure in Southern sports.

"I never needed an armed guard to escort me to and from class," Brown told the El Paso Times years ago. "Nobody in El Paso was concerned about me enrolling at UTEP. Nobody hassled me in or out of the classroom. I had some minor incidents at school, some minor incidents on the road. But that was it."

Brown, who always exuded a quiet dignity, did not have it easy all the time, though.

"There was pressure," he told the Times. "It was a lot of pressure. The pressure became greater every year. It should have been the opposite. But it wasn't. A lot of it was just trying so hard to excel, wanting to do well. But there were so many people watching. When you have that, you have so many critics."

He endured racial epithets and threats on the road. But he just played basketball.

Basketball coach and later athletic director George McCarty recruited Brown to El Paso.

"I don't mind telling you that Brown is the most popular athlete here in any sport," McCarty told the Times in 1958.

And Fred Enke, University of Arizona coach, was quoted in the Arizona Daily Star at that same time: "Darned if those El Paso fans don't protect that Brown. Why you can't even come close to touching him or they'll shout their lungs off."

Charles Brown was a special athlete, a special man who did something special in a difficult time in this country.

The newspaper clippings might fade to yellow, the sepia-toned photographs might get lost and memories may fade. But Charles Brown will remain in vivid color.


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