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Exhibit features African American high schools

The university’s Community Engagement Center in east Austin houses a collection of papers, photos and memorabilia of the Prairie View Interscholastic League, which began in 1920 and served as the governing body for Texas’ African American high schools until 1970 when the University Interscholastic League assumed the role.

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Preserving one’s history can take work, but the advantages of doing so can reap many benefits. This is the sentiment that Edward Roby, former athletic director for Austin Independent School District, likes to convey when he discusses the historical exhibit housed at the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement‘s (DDCE) Community Engagement Center in east Austin.

The exhibit is a collection of papers, photos and memorabilia of the Prairie View Interscholastic League (PVIL). The PVIL, which began in 1920, served as the governing body for Texas’ African American high schools until 1970 when the University Interscholastic League (UIL) assumed the role. At its peak, the PVIL represented 500 schools.

Former PVIL high schools, athletic participants and coaches donated the exhibit items. “In a lot of past cases when a school closed down trophies and other items got discarded,” Roby said.

Prairie View Interscholastic League Coaches Association (PVILCA) President Robert Brown and board members started asking people statewide for their personal keepsakes. “We have stuff from all over the state,” Roby said. “This belongs to the state.”

The PVILCA members are glad that Dr. Gregory Vincent, the university’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, was receptive to housing the exhibit. Prairie View AandM University did not have the resources at the time.

“We thought it was important to preserve the PVIL memorabilia as a way to pay tribute to the great athletes who participated in PVIL and to honor the African American schools, many of which have closed,” Vincent said.

Viewing the exhibit is like a time capsule into the PVIL’s past. There are framed sweaters, team photographs and newspaper articles covering several walls. Highlights of the exhibit include old records highlighting the winning and losing coaches, and one wall that features the names of 80 lifetime members.

The PVILCA board tries to award at least 40 lifetime memberships each year. The youngest living participant is 57.

Two highly anticipated 2010 inductees are Otis Taylor of the Kansas City Chiefs and Charles Edward Greene — or “Mean Joe” — of the Pittsburgh Steelers. A lifetime membership only requires that an individual be a high school graduate and a former PVIL athlete or coach.

Another way that the group is sharing PVIL history is by showcasing part of the display at Lincoln High School in Dallas.

Edward Roby, Choquette Peterson and Jack Bellinger at the BFSA


[From left to right]: Edward Roby, former athletic director of Austin Independent School District; Choquette Peterson, DDCE’s Thematic Initiatives and Community Engagement executive director and Black Faculty and Staff Association (BFSA) vice president; and Jack Bellinger, retired coach and lifetime member of PVILCA at the BFSA’s annual Black History Month program.

“Our kids need to know about the PVIL,” Roby said. “What we had was very good. Circumstances led us to have that, but since we got into UIL we have participated well. We strive to be better than we were.”

Brown agrees the positive reaction the exhibit has garnered makes transporting the materials to Dallas worth it. At Lincoln, still a predominantly African American school, students are learning “they had good role models from the past so they can build upon it in the future,” Brown noted. “One student said, ‘Oh my goodness, they didn’t have face masks then.'”

Some viewers are also surprised to see their relatives staring back at them. The school custodian said, “There’s my daddy. That’s my daddy right there. He’s on the football team.”

According to Brown there are about 13 African American schools still open that date back to the PVIL. He would like to use these schools to cultivate interest in the PVIL. As a result of the exhibit’s success at Lincoln, it will rotate between three high schools in Dallas and Houston during Black History Month in 2011.

Although exhibit organizers have only positive feelings about the collection, it still claims significance from a turbulent historical period. Brown acknowledged that visitors will find a lot of memorabilia dating from 1961-65, the height of segregation. To some of Austin’s community members this portrayal of separation may be a far cry from the progressive city they know today. For instance, when Roby played football as a center at Anderson High School in the 1950s, his team never played Austin High School.

“We had two teams, Austin High School and Anderson High School, both state championship caliber teams who couldn’t play each other because of segregation,” Roby said. “A lot of the Austin High players went on to play at The University of Texas at Austin, and we went onto Texas Southern University and Prairie View.”

The exhibit is housed on the second floor of the Marvin C. Griffin building at 1009 E. 11th St., and is open to the public Monday through Friday during regular business hours. The PVILCA is still accepting donated memorabilia and names of former participants. Potential donors may e-mail Robert Brown at pvilcal940@yahoo.com for more information.