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University honors first Black collegiate football players with Unity Plaza

University honors first Black collegiate football players with Unity Plaza

University honors first Black collegiate football players with Unity Plaza
November 17
10:22 2022

The university unveiled Unity Plaza on Saturday, which honors the legacies of Abner Haynes and Leon King, the first black players to integrate major college football at a four-year university in Texas.

The plaza was installed next to the Athletic Center and the Lovelace and McNatt Families Practice Facility.

“This is a good opportunity to reflect upon the history of UNT, which is also the history of the city of Denton, and just celebrate a couple of great role models that came through this university,” Denton Mayor Gerard Hudspeth said.

The unveiling took place prior to the Homecoming football game where multiple people spoke about the accomplishments of Haynes and King.

The plaza itself includes two gateways with both men’s names, under which bust statues and plaques detailing their accomplishments are featured. Between the two gateways is a plaque that describes the meaning of the plaza, along with the names of both the plaza’s designer and the busts’ creator.

This project has actually been in the works for years, said Jared Mosley, the associate vice president and chief operating officer of UNT Athletics.

“When Wren was hired in 2016, we began discussions around the most appropriate way to honor Abner and Leon and ensure this very important part of UNT and football history within the state of Texas could be recognized for years to come,” Mosley said.

Eventually, the current design of the plaza was decided upon, with the designer being Brandon Lacy, the senior project manager and design manager at the university.

Lacy had submitted over 10 Unity Plaza designs before the current one was selected, with many of the designs varying from one another.

Despite the Unity Plaza looking complete, it is only about 98 percent done, Lacy said. There are still little details that need to be added, such as lighting and finalized plaques.

“We’ve had a lot of great moments here — great seasons, tremendous student-athletes and championships,” said Wren Baker, the vice president and director of UNT Athletics. “But the impact that Abner and Leon left her is probably the greatest legacy that anybody’s ever left here. They paved the way for opportunities for so many student-athletes after them here at UNT, but also across the state of Texas.”

Haynes and King both joined the North Texas freshman team in 1956. They and their teammates faced a lot of backlash for the integration, but they showed their unity despite the retaliation. A pivotal moment for the team was their second game of the season that year against Navarro Junior College in Corsicana.

“[Haynes and I] were not readily accepted when we first got [to UNT],” King said. “We were members of the team, but we were two Blacks on a predominantly white football team. But I think after the incident in Corsicana, it sort of brought the team closer together.”

While eating out before the game, Haynes and King were asked to eat in the kitchen. However, the team stood by them and said they would not eat at the restaurant if Haynes and King were not allowed to eat with the rest of the team.

And when the team arrived at the game, they were met with a hostile crowd who yelled racial epithets and death threats at them. But this encouraged the team to play harder, winning against Navarro 39-21.

Right after the game, the other players huddled together to protect Haynes and King on the way back to their bus.

“We became one big unit,” King said.

The two of them moved on to the varsity team as sophomores in 1957. Haynes would eventually lead the university to appear in the 1959 Sun Bowl, where they went up against the New Mexico State Aggies.

Shortly after, in 1960, Haynes was drafted by the American Football League’s Dallas Texans, now known as the Kansas City Chiefs, where he would go on to play for eight seasons. He was named the AFL MVP in 1960, was a four-time AFL All-Star and was inducted into the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame in 1991. His No. 28 jersey was also retired to honor him and his achievements.

Haynes is also a member of the North Texas Athletics Hall of Fame, the UNT All-Century Team and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.

King suffered an injury in his junior year, causing him to leave the university to support his family. Eventually, after some encouragement from his wife, he returned and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees before earning a doctorate from Nova University.

“I had a job, I was making some pretty good money, things were going well and I decided I wasn’t going back,” King said. “[My wife] said, ‘Well, you started it — you are going to finish it. You are going back.’ Then I went back, got my degree and came home. For everything I did after that, even before that, she was behind me 100 percent.”

King would go on to serve for four decades as a teacher, coach, assistant principal and principal of multiple schools in Dallas ISD, according to his entry in the African American Education Archives and History Program.

The Mean Green is still accepting donations for the Unity Plaza project here.

Featured Image: Abner Haynes and Dr. Leon King are being honored with the current construction of the Unity Plaza on Oct. 31, 2022.
Photo by Andrew Hermes

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