Q&A with Tracey Owens Patton

A panel discussion of 8 of the former Black 14 was held in the A&S Auditorium during a week of the 50th commemoration of the events that took place at the University of Wyoming. From left to right; the late Earl Lee’s son – Brian, Ted Williams, Ron Hill, UW professor Tracey Owens Patton, Lionel Grimes, Guillermo Hysaw, Tony McGee, Tony Gibson, and John Griffin. (Photo by Kyle Spradley, courtesy of the University of Wyoming)

Tracey Owens Patton is a professor of communication in the Department of Communication and Journalism and adjunct professor in African American & Diaspora Studies in the School of Culture, Gender, and Social Justice at The University of Wyoming. Patton has played an instrumental role in bringing a voice to the Black 14.

Q: Please tell us how you became aware of the Black 14 and your connection to their story.

A: In 2009, no African American & Diaspora Studies (AADS) faculty member at the University of Wyoming heard of the Black 14. I stumbled upon a statue in the basement of the UW Union that had one armed raised in a fist that in part said, “Black 14.” (NOTE: AADS with the collaboration of the Rhetoric & Social Justice class had the statue moved to its present location on the main floor in the Union in 2014.) I had no idea why there would be a statue referencing the Black 14. A quick Google, search when I was back in my office, illuminated who the Black 14 were, but I wondered what happened to them, why they were not part of UW curricular history in any significant way, and why when I asked native Wyomites at UW they too had no clue.

I slowly engaged members of the Black 14 and was privileged enough to learn about their experience at UW and the effects after their wrongful dismissal. In October 2009, at the 40th anniversary of the Black 14 event, AADS welcomed the largest gathering of the Black 14 since the racist incident took place, at an event held in the Yellowstone Ballroom in the Union. Media from around the Mountain West came, and people filled the ballroom so much that the audience spilled over into a second ballroom and the 50-minute event stretched on for 1.5 hours. After the reunion in 2009, the African American & Diaspora Studies Program took on the task for 10 years of educating UW and the state about the Black 14 being an important part of history and living history in the “Equality State.”

A panel discussion of 8 of the former Black 14 was held in the A&S Auditorium during a week of the 50th commemoration of the events that took place at the University of Wyoming. Tracey Owens Patton, professor and the Department Chair of African American & Diaspora Studies, speaks. (Photo by Kyle Spradley, courtesy of the University of Wyoming)

Q: What have been the results of your work relating to the Black 14?

A: The group responsible for traversing five decades of erased history was the African American & Diaspora Studies Program (AADS), and later UW student groups and community members. The UW Administrators became involved much later after academic and community members laid the groundwork. This effort was led by Dr. Patton (Director of AADS 2009-2017) and the African American & Diaspora Studies Program faculty. AADS brought the Black 14 from invisibility to visibility, by engaging with the Black 14 and educating the UW community and state of Wyoming as it relates to this erased past. AADS actively worked with the Black 14 from 2009–2019, thus guiding a path for the historic apology in 2019 to be made.

Q: What aspects of the Black 14 history are most significant to you?

A: All of the Black 14 history is significant to me. I am a researcher who engages, in part, in public memory and erased and hidden memories. I wonder how the players’ lives would have been different if they had simply been allowed to be student-athletes and complete their scholarships. I wonder how many of them would have gone on to play in the NFL; their entire lives were changed by the actions of the coach and the university. I also wonder what would have become of the UW football team, in terms of their national powerhouse status at that time, if the student athletes had been able to discuss with Coach Eaton how they might show solidarity with the BSA (Black Student Alliance) by wearing black armbands during the game. But, before the 14 football players could say anything, Coach Eaton took the group into the stands of the Fieldhouse and told them they were all off the team. Eaton based this action on their violation of two of his unwritten “rules” which were supported by the then UW administration, but in reality never existed.

Q: How would you describe the legacy of the Black 14?

A: Vital for equality in sports around the nation. These student-athletes did not plan to become part of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in 1969; they just wanted to earn a university education and participate in the sport they loved. Were it not for these players, there would have been no path carved for athletes like the football players at Mizzou (University of Missouri, Columbia) to protest racism on their campus in 2015, which five years later Sports Illustrated, in 2020, said was an act that “changed college sports forever.” I’d argue that these college football players stood on the shoulders of the Black 14 legacy.

Q: What impact are the Black 14 having today with their service and philanthropy?

A: In 2020, not to be defined and confined to one moment in their lives in 1969, the Black 14 began their Mind, Body, & Soul Initiative with partnership with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The UW Rhetoric and Social Justice class, the UW Student Affairs Office, and the Laramie Cathedral Home were engaged with The Mind, Body, & Soul Initiative in 2021–2022. The Mind, Body, & Soul Initiative centers issues of hunger and homelessness where in 2021 they delivered 760,000 lbs. of food to 19 different sites across the country. In continuing this altruism, in 2022–2025, they will deliver 1.4 million lbs. of food throughout the United States.

Q: What else do you think society should learn from the Black 14?

A: An event from the past is living history and has a ripple effect in communities today. What happened to the student athletes who comprised the “Black 14,” is just one example. Because of the ripple effects historical events have, engaging in and trying to correct a past wrong is difficult and vulnerable work that largely involves active listening, dialogue, and difficult institutional reflection. Social justice work of this magnitude is not solved in a day, but takes a community to face the harm—even if those who committed the harm are no longer with the university. The Black 14 were brave enough back in 2009 to speak with and reengage with UW faculty and students who wanted to correct for mistakes from the past. It is sad that it took 50 years for the University of Wyoming to make an apology, but even sadder that the racist action happened in the first place. There was a large AADS, local community, and university community effort that helped in re-educating the University of Wyoming and the State about the Black 14.

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