The Dunbar Panthers

The Dunbar Panthers first thundered on Temple’s gridiron in 1925, thanks to the effort of coach and principal Cornelius Carl Sampson (1898-1984), seated center. On the team was a young Curtis Elliott (1907-1985), who would later succeed Sampson as Dunbar teacher and Panther coach. Elliott is seated second from the left on the front row.

Cornelius Carl Sampson (1898-1985), newly hired as principal of the Temple Negro High School, had a bold request from Temple’s all-white school board in 1924.

He proposed renaming the school for Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), celebrated novelist and poet who was one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation.

The name change was auspicious: Dunbar was regarded as an accomplished master of language and literature who could see his own race objectively with humor and empathy. His international reputation was hard-earned despite roadblocks of prejudice and racism.

Sampson also requested that the school form a football team and other athletic programs.

“Athletics should be encouraged because they are very indispensible to physical fitness, and, by this means, we hope to develop a more robust manhood,” Sampson said.

He also suggested the name: Panthers.

“Panther” was an interesting choice for a school mascot — sleek, black and powerful. Many cultures regarded this skillful predator of breathtaking beauty as a spirit animal.

Sampson’s proposals were supported by Superintendent Leslie Clay Procter (1886-1975), also a coach of the all-white Temple High Wildcats. The school board at that time tended to rubber-stamp whatever Procter endorsed.

Procter’s only request: Since he was a graduate of Texas Christian University, he suggested that Dunbar adopt his alma mater’s school colors of purple and white.

Thus, Dunbar High School and its Panthers were born under the blessed glow of Thursday night lights.

Michael Hurd, who has chronicled the history of African-American high school football in Texas, will keynote the 2019 spring lecture at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Bell County Museum, 201 N. Main, Belton. Hurd’s book, “Thursday Night Lights” (University of Texas Press, 2017), documents segregation-era football and shines a light on racial inequity in Texas.

The Dunbar Panthers, its coaches and remarkable players figure prominently in his research.

Hurd’s book carefully proves how, for players and coaches such as Sampson and his Dunbar Panthers, football became a potent source of pride and ambition in the black community, helping black students succeed both athletically and educationally in a racist society.

Hurd’s talk is jointly sponsored by the museum and the Salado Museum and College Park and Salado Institute for the Humanities.

Hurd attended Houston’s segregated schools during the 1960s. Like his peers at Temple Dunbar, his team had to play its games on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Hurd attended and vividly remembers the games. White teams used the stadiums on Fridays.

As a former football player says in the book, “Friday Night Lights? That’s white folks.”

To add insult, black teams frequently were not allowed to use stadium lockers and restrooms; so, they suited up behind bleachers or behind makeshift screens.

After a successful career in sports journalism, Hurd moved on to be the director of Prairie View A&M University’s Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture.

“Emotionally, I have been writing this book since adolescence,” Hurd wrote in the introduction.

Hurd’s history covers 50 years (1920-1970) of high school football history, including championship seasons and legendary rivalries. Some championship games drew standing-room-only crowds of up to 40,000, making it the largest prep sports event in postwar America.

Besides the players and coaches, “Thursday Night Lights” is also a tribute to visionary administrators such as Sampson, who struggled to provide the best for their students.

Temple organized its first “colored” school in 1885, less than four years after the city began, in a small, wood-frame building at South Eighth and East Avenue E that housed all grades under one roof. As the town grew, including its African-American population, the buildings expanded. That’s where Sampson, a Temple native, began as a schoolboy.

The high school was created as a separate entity in 1902. However, no graduates finished the curriculum because most students dropped out to work. The Temple Daily Telegram in 1914 condescendingly explained, “The colored people do so enjoy helping the farmers of old Bell County that they have greatly interfered with school work here.”

Sampson graduated as valedictorian of the Negro school’s first graduating class in 1915. He worked for a while and attended the all-black Baptist school, Bishop College in Marshall, until the U.S. entered World War I. He enlisted in the Army, eventually earning the rank of sergeant. He returned to Bishop after the war, graduating in 1920. He began his teaching career in Paris, where he established math and science programs at a time when African-Americans were considered incapable of learning such advanced subjects.

Hired by Temple schools as principal, Sampson returned home with ambitious plans for improving the school’s academics, especially science and math. In his first semester in September 1924, enrollment was 207, a decrease of 100 students from the previous year. The black-owned newspaper, the Dallas Express, reported, “This decrease is being regarded as temporary due to children being employed in picking cotton.”

By October 1925, Sampson was able to field the first Panther team.

Thanks to deft fundraising from white and black residents, the team was outfitted with uniforms for about $300. “There is no special fund for this feature of work therefore we are compelled to call for help in this effort from our friends,” Sampson reported to the Dallas Express.

On his first team was junior Curtis Elliott (1907-1985), who would later succeed Sampson as Dunbar teacher and Panther coach.

Both Elliott and Sampson succeeded, despite tight athletic budgets, substandard equipment and poor facilities. Dunbar students used second-hand books from the white schools and used or second-rate equipment.

Nevertheless, Sampson would serve as a mentor to Elliott and hundreds of young men during his time at Dunbar. Elliott would go on to coach the Panthers at the remarkable December 1939 Chocolate Bowl Classic at Houston’s Buffalo Stadium. The Texas champion Dunbar bested the Louisiana champ, Bogalusa.

In return, Elliott would go on to be mentor to “Mean Joe” Greene of Temple, defensive tackle who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1969 to 1981.