Bill Mahomes, the first black student to graduate from Texas A&M after four year in the Corps, has been appointed to the University Board of Regents. Mahomes time at A&M was far from easy and for many years he felt somewhat alienated from the school. Mahomes persevered through a tough first year earning the respect of his fellow “fish”. He now returns to the campus as a regent, something he never dreamed would happen as a young man.
It may have been naïve, but Mahomes showed up on the A&M campus in 1965 thinking he’d have no problems. The university was in the middle of transforming from a small-town agricultural college to a major research institute. It was known for its rigid conservatism, but it didn’t have a reputation for civil rights strife.
Mahomes had seen reports from across the south of universities resisting integration. But there had hardly been a peep out of A&M when three black students enrolled in summer classes in 1963. A&M’s military culture simply didn’t tolerate protests – for or against integration.
That much was clear to Mahomes when he arrived. Early in his studies, a group of stern-faced upperclassmen pulled him into a dorm room and demanded to know which civil rights group he represented.
“Who sent you here?” one student asked.
Confused, Mahomes answered: “My parents.”
The older cadets paused, and then one laughed.
“If the civil rights folks were going to plant someone here at A&M, they sure wouldn’t have picked [Mahomes],” the cadet said.
The Corps helped, too. It was an organization where students’ differences are often ignored or concealed. Freshman cadets wore their uniforms to class and had their heads shaved. They even lost their first names – becoming known as “fish” instead.
Members were tough on each other, but were also expected to bond. Freshmen went to class together, marched together and ate two meals a day together. If one of them got in trouble, the whole group got in trouble. His classmates defended him from other students. And upperclassmen would berate freshmen if they harassed their fellow “fish.”
That close proximity forced classmates to get to know him, and eventually respect him. They saw him struggle to catch up in school and watched as he put up with extra attention. By the end of his freshman year, he began to see signs that he belonged.
The most important moment came at an end-of-year party. One night, about 30 or 40 of the freshman cadets left campus for a celebratory dinner. Mahomes came along. But as they walked into the restaurant, the wait staff told the group that they wouldn’t serve Mahomes.
No one made a scene or gave a speech about equal rights. Instead, they all just stood up and left. As they walked out, one of the classmates joked to Mahomes, “We can’t take you anywhere.”
“That was the day I really gained respect for my class, and really felt that we were making progress,” Mahomes said.