On Sunday, May 11, 2014, Charles Brown passed away in Antioch, California at the age of 83. Warmly remembered by El Pasoans and Miner fans, Brown, along with his nephew Cecil Brown, became the first African-American athletes at Texas Western College (now UTEP) during the fall of 1956. As members of the school’s basketball team, the Browns were also the first African American athletes to play for a major historically white college in a former Confederate state.
Originally from Atlanta, Texas (in the eastern part of the state), Brown served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War in the early 1950s. While in the military, he often played on military basketball teams. After leaving the Air Force, Brown joined Cecil at Amarillo Junior College where his reputation as an “outstanding first-year player” attracted the notice of Texas Western College basketball coach, George McCarty. According to sports historian and UTEP professor Charles H. Martin, “Although he never personally saw them play, McCarty eventually offered scholarships to the two Browns.” McCarty did not intend to make a social statement; instead, he was solely interested in how the Browns’ skills on the basketball court would help the team.
From fall 1956 until his graduation in 1959, Charles Brown was the star player of the Miners basketball team. While at Texas Western College, Brown (known as the “Amarillo Whiz”) helped the Miners achieve three consecutive winning seasons by averaging twenty-one points per game. In addition to the team’s success, he attained several individual honors: the 1956-1957 Border Conference’s Most Valuable Player Award, a new career scoring record, and all-conference honors during his subsequent seasons at Texas Western.
Known on campus as “a fine gentleman and athlete,” Brown, nevertheless, faced difficulties as a student and college athlete due to racial prejudice and legalized segregation. For example, road trips to away games had to be meticulously planned to make sure there were food and hotel accommodations for the Browns. And although Texas Western College had been integrated in 1955 after Thelma White’s lawsuit against the school, the dormitories were still segregated, so the Browns had to rent an off-campus apartment (though Coach McCarty made sure the team ate all their meals together and had a dorm room quietly available for the Browns to use on game days). The Browns also faced racial taunts from opposing teams’ fans as well as segregated facilities in El Paso, such as the Plaza Theater and the El Paso Independent School District, which wouldn’t allow Charles to complete the student-teaching requirement for his joint elementary-secondary teaching certificate by teaching in the public secondary schools (he was allowed to fulfill his requirement by teaching freshman physical education at Texas Western instead). Despite these challenges and the intense pressure he experienced as the team’s most talented and visible player, Brown recalled that most El Pasoans and his fellow students were accepting of him. Coach McCarty referred to Brown as “the most popular athlete here in any sport” in 1958. Well-known former college and professional basketball player Nolan Richardson, himself a star basketball played for Texas Western College, idolized Brown and often went to games to see him play.
After graduating in 1959 with a degree in physical education, Charles Brown coached and taught at Jefferson High School in El Paso for two years. Subsequently, he moved to San Francisco, California where there was less discrimination and more opportunities for him to advance in his teaching career. Brown later earned a master’s degree in education from San Francisco State University and a two-year computer degree from the University of California-Berkeley. He had a long career as a teacher and administrator with the San Francisco public school district.
For his impressive sports achievements and dignity on and off the basketball court, Charles Brown was inducted into the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2008 he was inducted into the UTEP Athletic Hall of Fame.
The UTEP Special Collections department currently has an exhibit about Charles Brown on the second floor of the library.
[Sources: Charles H. Martin, Benching Jim Crow: the Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980; “Charles Brown was Pioneer in College Sports,” El Paso Times, May 14, 2014; “Charles ‘Charlie’ Brown, First Black Athlete at UTEP, Dies at 83,” El Paso Times, May 12, 2014]
Abbie Weiser is the processing archivist at the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of the UTEP Library. She earned a BA in history from George Washington University, a MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin, and a MA in history from UTEP. She is certified by the Academy of Certified Archivists.