A Return To Abilene After Nearly 40 Years -- Racism Marred Spu Track Team's Past Visits There
It's May, 1952, and you're headed to compete in the national track and field meet in Texas. Which is great.
Unless you're black.
"We pulled into this little restaurant, and there was a cowboy with his hat on, his chaps on, his spurs and his boots, sitting at this small, round table eating a steak," said Ken Foreman, who was the 29-year-old coach of Seattle Pacific University's track team that year. "When we walked in, he said, `I'll be a SOB,' and he picked his table up, dumped it over - the steak and everything on the floor - and got up and walked out.
"And we realized that we were seeing something that none of us had ever experienced before."
At least something that Foreman and the three white runners among his four-man contingent of national qualifiers had never experienced.
Overt, public racism. And legally sanctioned segregation.
Nationals were in Abilene, Texas, that year and the next two years until the NAIA pulled the meet from the city because of the racial discrimination. Foreman, now the 70-year-old SPU coach, hasn't been back to Abilene since 1954.
He returns with eight athletes for the NCAA Division II national meet this week. But don't expect him to get misty-eyed over it.
The encounter with the cowboy was just the first stop in Texas on the way to Abilene that first year.
"We got into Lubbock," Foreman said, "and Benny Moring (the one black on the team) said, `Drive around town a little bit. Let's find where the black people are living. I want to go into a barber shop and talk to somebody.' "
They found one. "He went in and came out and said, `Things are going to get worse.' "
By the time they had been in Abilene one night, the five had been ordered to leave a movie theater because it was for whites only. They refused and ended up with the balcony section to themselves.
The treatment of black athletes in Abilene was a hot topic among coaches and administrators, especially those from the traditionally black colleges from the South, until the NAIA finally moved the championships to San Diego after 1954.
Despite the first year's experience there, Foreman returned with SPU qualifiers in '53 and '54.
"I guess I was naive enough to think it wouldn't happen a second time," he said. "I believe that was the first time they had held the NAIA meet there, and they had given assurance that all athletes would be welcome. But, obviously, that wasn't the case."
He has no apprehension about returning almost 40 years since his last trip.
"Actually, we've been to San Angelo, Texas, (for nationals) the last two years, and there was no sign of racial prejudice at all," Foreman said.
But just eight years ago, while attending Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, for part of one semester, SPU senior Karin Grelsson saw red-hot, redneck embers of white racism still glowing.
"It's incredible. It's still there," the Swedish native said. "It's real bad. I remember the first day we (she and friend) got there and we get into the cafeteria and went to sit on the left side, and someone said, `No, no, no, no, no, that's the black side.' "
Another time, as the team bus drove through a neighboring town on the way to a track meet, a coach told the black athletes, "OK, guys, down on the floor." The town was notorious for Ku Klux Klan activity.
"That was incredible," she said. "I thought that was something you saw in a movie. That was a shock."
And, she said, "It's still there. I have some friends who live down there. It's still there."
Said Foreman: "I think there's still pockets like that where people live there their whole life, and that's the way they live. Just redneck so-and-so's. But we certainly had no sense of racial prejudice in both cases at San Angelo."
Still, some memories remain vivid.
Like the time Moring was warming up for his 880-yard final the day of the 1953 national meet and a white Abilene policeman stepped onto the track and grabbed him by the arm.
"And - this is a quote - he said, `Boy, what are you doing here? You come here to steal chicken?' " Foreman said. "And Benny came running back around the track and he was just beside himself with laughter."
The laughing didn't last long.
"We decided we were going to pull an absolute wild piece of strategy in the meet that night. He was going to kick from 600 meters, which is insane," Foreman said.
But it worked.
"He took off and got 10 meters ahead, and they let him go, all the way around the turn, and then they tried to close on him," Foreman said. "And he won his first national championship."
The first of two straight.
"And part of it was inspired by the way that cop had treated him," Foreman said, "and basically the way we'd been treated there."
4 SPU athletes added -- Four more SPU athletes with provisional qualifying marks have been awarded berths in the NCAA Division II Championships later this week in Abilene, Texas.
Jenny Vale (Sr., Edmonds-Woodway) was drawn into the 400-meter hurdles and Jon Swanson (Jr., Portland-Sunset) made it in the 1,500 meters. The women's 1,600-meter relay of Vale, Jennifer Casto (Fr., Mukilteo-Mariner), Shavonne Colebrooke (Fr., Bahamas) and Heidi Hamlin (Jr., Lakeview, Ore.) also qualified.
With seven women and one man, Seattle Pacific is sending its second-largest contingent to nationals. Karin Grelsson (Sr., Torshalla, Sweden), Jennifer Norman (Sr., Seattle-Roosevelt), Eden Judd (Sr., Salem, Ore.) and Hamlin had made automatic qualifying standards earlier in the season.
Grelsson is the defending champion in the heptathlon and triple jump. She was last year's runner-up in the long jump. Judd is entered in the heptathlon and javelin, Norman the heptathlon and Hamlin the 800 meters.
The SPU women were fourth in the nation last season.
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