Angelo State University’s Center for Human Performance will be re-named in honor of Benjamin Kelly, a former student-athlete who broke the color barrier at then San Angelo College and became the first black to play for a previously segregated college football team in Texas.
The honor was approved last Friday (Feb. 28) at the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents winter meeting in Lubbock on the recommendation of ASU President Brian J. May.

Kelly enrolled at San Angelo College (SAC) in the fall of 1953, eight months before the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark Brown vs. Board of Education, which overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine originally ruled constitutional by the 1896 Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson.

When Kelley stepped on the football field at San Angelo’s Bobcat Stadium against Phoenix College on Sept. 19, 1953, he stepped into civil rights and football history as likely the first black to play for a previously all white college football team south of the Mason-Dixon line.

“Though we are honoring Ben Kelly in 2014,” May said, “he long ago honored this institution by the dignity with which he integrated San Angelo College, the talent he displayed on the football field and the collegiality he demonstrated to his classmates.   It is fitting that we place his name upon the Center for Human Performance as a building that is used both for academics and for recreation.”

“There are many great stories and accomplishments by former students of San Angelo College and Angelo State University,” May continued, “but none is greater than that of Ben Kelly.  He is truly the Jackie Robinson of Texas collegiate football, though his story is certainly not as well known.”

That obscurity is gradually changing, though, with his induction earlier this year into both the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame and the Angelo State University Athletics Hall of Honor.  Graduating from San Angelo’s Blackshear High School in 1950, Kelly enrolled at the University of Illinois and played on the freshman team for the Big Ten school.  He then enlisted in the Army for two years before returning to San Angelo.

Still desiring to play football and continue his education, Kelly approached athletic director and head football coach Max Bumgardner along with line coach and future athletic director Phil George about the prospect of playing for SAC.  Although the coaches lacked the authority to permit him to play, they encouraged him to visit SAC President Rex F. Johnston about enrolling in the institution.

After listening to Kelly’s request, Johnston sent him to the registrar to enroll.  Kelly was joined on the SAC campus that fall by two other Blackshear High School graduates, Annie Laura Owens and Mary Frances Simpson, who went on to become SAC’s first black graduate and one of the first black women admitted to the University of Texas Law School.

“While Ben Kelley’s courage should never be overlooked,” May said, “neither should the vision of President Johnston and his coaches in seeing a wrong and taking no small step for the time to correct it.”

In a 2006 interview, George, who was present when Kelly first inquired about playing for the Rams, said, “What Ben did for this school in relationship to integration could not have been written nearly as well, even if it had been a movie script, because this was a human, walking it on a daily basis without any structure as far as a formula to go by.  In other words, there’s not enough talent in the film-writing area to tell this story as well as Ben lived it.”

In all, Benjamin Kelly suited out for 19 games in a Rams uniform before leaving San Angelo in 1954 for the National Football League.  In many, if not all, of his SAC contests, Kelly entered the game as a target of dirty play, racial epithets and abusive fans.  Though he traveled with the team, he often was forced to eat in the kitchens of segregated restaurants or to find his own accommodations on overnight trips.

Despite the hardships of 1950s Jim Crow segregation, Kelly persevered and earned not only the love of his teammates, but also the respect of his opponents, winning All-Pioneer Conference honors in both years of his SAC career.  After his first year at SAC, his San Angelo classmates named him class favorite.

The Center for Human Performance was originally known as the Physical Education Building when it was opened in 1972.  The then 81,000-square-foot facility included a gymnasium that was home to Rams and Rambelles athletic teams until the opening of the Junell Center/Stephens Arena in 2002 when the facility was re-named the Center for Human Performance.  The facility was expanded in 2011 to include additional student recreational facilities.

A formal dedication ceremony will be set later this semester.