Once A Jayhawk, Always A Jayhawk: Ernest "Ernie" Shelby

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Nineteen fifty-seven was a year marked with many milestones in American history and pop culture. Elvis purchased Graceland and the Space Race was set into motion. At the same time that all of these innovative and exciting things were taking place there was an even bigger movement sweeping the nation and impacting the lives of people to this day, the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr., was not the only person calling for social change. Here in Lawrence, Kansas, there were men and women fighting for equality and one of those men was Ernest Shelby.

A Los Angeles native, Shelby came to Kansas in 1957 as a transfer student. A year later, he became one of collegiate track and field’s brightest stars. 

“I was very fortunate and had scholarship offers from every major university in the country,” said Shelby. “The main reason I became interested in the University of Kansas was because I planned to major in art and English. They had the No. 1 art and English departments in the country and their track team was ranked No. 2.”

Shelby was a star long before he arrived in Lawrence and had already made a name for himself on the track & field circuit by competing not only nationally but internationally. By 1956 Shelby had catapulted to stardom and qualified for the 1956 Olympic Trials. The night before the event Shelby was struck in the ribs by a discus and failed to qualify for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

“I got sixth place in the Olympic Trials, which was very difficult for me to handle,” said Shelby. “Of course, it all worked out in the end. One of the things about life is that no matter how terrible things are when they occur, if you live long enough you will see the good in it.”

That minor setback served as a platform for Shelby to jump his way into the track & field record books and, in the meantime, use his stardom as a means of standing up for African-Americans students and student-athletes nationwide.

In 1957, Lawrence, Kansas, like many others areas of the United States at that time, was segregated. African-Americans were not welcome in movie theatres, restaurants, barbershops and many other public establishments; that was until one day when a group of KU’s most prominent student-athletes went and voiced their discontent with then-Chancellor Franklin Murphy. The four: Wilt Chamberlain (men’s basketball), Homer Floyd  (football), Charlie Tidwell  (track & field) and Shelby threatened to leave the university if things did not change in Lawrence and African-Americans weren’t welcomed into public establishments and treated with the same respect that their Caucasian counterparts were.

Rumor has it that after that meeting, Chancellor Murphy went to are businesses in Lawrence and threatened to ban KU students from frequenting them, therefore prompting the City of Lawrence to desegregate all public establishments. This was just one of many victories in the push toward equality for people of all races. In 1958, Shelby, Chamberlain and Floyd were able to claim another victory.

In that year, the University of Kansas was home to several of the greatest athletes of our time in Chamberlain, Floyd, and Shelby. It was that same year, 1958, that for the first time in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history the captain of every major sport was African-American.

“Coach (Bill) Easton was so wonderful, he called me into his office my senior year and told me that there was only one vote separating me and Cliff Cushman to be captain of the team,” Shelby explained. “Although I had won, it would have been politically correct for him to pick Cliff since he was Caucasian. Easton decided to award me with the one-point victory, which allowed me to become the first black captain of the KU track & field national championship team.”

Even with all of the things that Shelby and his peers were able to accomplish in Lawrence, not everyone felt that all people should be treated equally. There were several occasions when Shelby and his African-American teammates were faced with adversity, for instance, when they traveled to other venues to compete across the United States at that time.

“In summer of 1958 KU (track & field) was ranked No. 1 in the country,” said Shelby. “When we arrived in Texas, for the Texas Relays, Coach Easton was informed that myself and Charlie Tidwell were not allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of the team because we were black. Coach walked out of the meeting, back to the bus and called for a vote on whether we wanted to stay (to compete). I will remember the words he said until the day I die: ‘You can stay as a team divided or leave as a team united,'” Shelby said.

The team voted unanimously to leave as a ‘team united’ and as a result the  Texas Relays officials changed their minds and allowed African-American student-athletes to be housed in the same hotel as their Caucasian teammates for the first time in the history of Austin, Texas.

The camaraderie and support that Shelby received from his teammates is something that he cherishes and appreciates greatly. From the time he first set foot on Mount Oread in 1957 to when he walked through the Campanile in 1959 as the first African-American captain of the 1959 National Champion Kansas men’s track & field team, Shelby has loved every minute he was able to compete with ‘Kansas’ across his chest.

“Although I was traveling and was fully aware of the slavery in the history of America and the segregation going on in the South, I was still proud to be an American and to wear ‘USA’ across my breast,” Shelby said. “It was very much the same at KU. KU had a very small campus in the 50’s and it was all centralized on Mount Oread. I remember this feeling of camaraderie and a sense of belonging to the Jayhawk family. Believe me, we were very proud to be a part of the University of Kansas.”

Once A Jayhawk, Always A Jayhawk