Times Past

Track star Floyd Jeeter blazed a trail on race

Special to The TribuneFebruary 8, 2014 

Floyd Jeter, left, limbering up for the Edinburgh Highland Games, New Meadowbrook, Scotland in 1953.


"I was the first Negro to receive a track and field scholarship to USC.”

Floyd Jeter has lived in San Luis Obispo since 1982. His family migrated from Shreveport, LA to East Los Angeles at the beginning of the Second World War. Jeter grew up in Boyle Heights. With the encouragement of Roosevelt High School track coach Peter Clentzos, a 1928 SLO High grad, and later a champion pole vaulter at USC, Jeter became a highly rated high jumper.

To improve his academic eligibility for USC, Jeter went to East Los Angeles City College where he took 19 units while working full time. The ELA College Track Hall of Fame notes that he was “The ‘Huskies’ first two-time state champion, in 1953 and 1954. His mark of 6 feet 9 inches ranked second nationally. He represented the United States on a Goodwill Tour that included stops in England, Germany, Ireland and Scotland.”

Clentzos, the high school coach, insisted that USC grant Floyd a scholarship in field and track. But USC’s Coach Jess Mortensen was hard on him from the beginning.

“Mortensen was really arrogant. He clearly didn’t want a black athlete at his school. So he questioned my work ethic. We were scheduled to go to Brazil for the Pan American Games, but the coach took me off the team,” Jeter said.

Jeter persisted and was included in the squad that was to go to the Triangular Track and Field meet in Dallas, Texas where USC was to compete against Southern Methodist and Texas Christian in April, 1955.

A Texas official told Mortenson, “You can’t bring that Negro athlete!” But Mortensen replied, “I bring my whole team or I bring no team,” and hung up the phone.

USC owned half of the world’s records in track and field. Texas called back, “We sold 40,000 seats and can’t refund the money, so bring him with you. But he can’t stay in the hotel with the other athletes. He’ll have to stay at the Negro Y.”

“‘Okay,” said Mortensen, “but we will all eat together because we pray first.” USC was a Methodist school.

“There had never been an NCAA sanctioned event in Texas with a Negro player competing against white players,” Jeter said. “We flew into the old Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. There was a lot of tension on the plane. When we landed, we went to the hospitality room. White players got cuff links and the coaches got tie clasps. But I was told, ‘We’re so honored to have you!’ Then I was given a tie clasp too. Pompom girls gave each athlete a peck on the check. I leaned back with a silent ‘No!’ We didn’t want to create an incident.

“There was a yellow bus waiting to take the other players to the white hotel. A black newspaper in Dallas hired a limousine to take me to the YMCA. The whole black neighborhood seemed to come out to see me!

“The team ate at the white hotel. After eating, about half the team wanted to take a cab to stay at the black YMCA, but the cab driver said, ‘No, I’d lose my license forever.’ But the team skinny-dipped in the pool and played ping pong at the black Y.

“It was nice weather in Dallas. We all sat in the back of an electric trolley, but the driver yelled, ‘You white guys got to move on up. Sign says blacks in back.’ But whenever the bus was crowded, the sign was moved back.”

Jeter couldn’t sit down and was refused a lemonade in a Dallas department store. “At a movie theater in Dallas, a quiet lady said, ‘Your friend has to sit upstairs.’ We got our tickets and all moved upstairs. ‘We're not going to pay attention to your silly rules. That’s ‘b.s.’!’”

To be continued.

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Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association. Liz Krieger is a retired SLO City/County children's librarian.

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