From the Archives: The influence of race in the founding of Interscholastic Sports: Alamogordo and Beyond


The influence of race in the founding of Interscholastic Sports:

Interscholastic Sports programs rather in the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico or in the large cities such as Manhattan have had a history of controversy; with loud and outspoken proponents and equally loud critics. Some argue that without organized high school level interscholastic sports such as track and field and basketball; racial and economic integration, the development of women’s sports programs or Title IX and other social changes never would have happened.

Olympic Medalist Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Peter NormanPhoto byPublic Domain

Some argue that interscholastic sports were the progressive team building bond which built community pride, opened hearts and minds nationwide to the concepts of equal opportunities for all beginning with the sports, the schools and the military then onward to other government institutions, businesses and eventually society at large. Others argue High School interscholastic sports teams and competitions are expensive and possibly should not be part of the educational system. This argument is part of the thesis in the book “Lessons of the Locker Room - Exploring the Myth of School Spirits” and also the thesis of a series of articles that have been published such as The Atlantic’s; When did Competitive Sports Take over American Childhood. 

Interscholastic Sports at the High School level via organized physical education programs did not begin in the US until around 1903 but had roots dating to the 1880s. Organized sports began with economically challenged or lower-class children competing under non-parental adult supervision, while their upper- class counterparts participated in non- competitive activities like dancing and music lessons, often in their homes.

Children’s tournaments, especially athletic ones, came first to economically challenged children, most often immigrants living in large urban areas or the larger US cities.

Massachusetts was the first state to make schooling compulsory in 1852. It was not until 1917 that the final state of the union at the time, Mississippi, passed a similar law. While on the east coast the focus was on social progress, education, and organized school sports programs; the wild west was playing catch up.

New cities like Alamogordo, New Mexico founded 1898 were creating new opportunities for youth.New Mexico, even while a territory, took a progressive view to public education and made public education compulsory in urban areas in 1891. It became compulsory everywhere by the time New Mexico became a state in 1912.

With the institution of mandatory schooling in New Mexico, children and families experienced a profound shift in the structure of their daily lives, especially in the social organization of their time. This change in social view resulted in thinking about how to challenge a child and occupy his day especially in urban areas.The answer lay partly in competitive sports leagues, which started to evolve to hold the interest of children.

Urban reformers were particularly preoccupied with poor low skilled economically and socially challenged immigrants who, because of overcrowding in tenements or inner cities, were often on the streets. Initial organization efforts focused on the establishment of city parks and playgrounds. Powerful, organized playground movements developed in New York City and Boston.

But because adults did not trust boys, especially immigrant boys, to play unsupervised without significant issues, attention soon shifted to organized sports. Sports were important in teaching immigrants and those economically challenged and from rural areas; the “American values of cooperation, hard work, and respect for authority.”

According to historian Robert Halpern, “progressive reformers thought athletic activities could prepare children especially boys for the new industrial society that was emerging, which would require them to be physical laborers.”

There was a distinct business interest in organized youth sports early on, to ensure a robust and healthy workforce for an economy changing from, rural based to urban based, in the decades to follow.

Physical education reformers in the high schools followed the colleges in taking over sports programs with the catchphrase “Athletics are educational.” Their reform was tied to the overall reform in American education and overall reform in American society during the Progressive Era.

By 1916, the United States was starting to educate its children for more years than most other countries, even while admitting a surge of immigrants. The ruling elite feared that all this schooling would make Anglo-Saxon boys soft and weak, in contrast to their brawny, newly immigrated peers.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. warned that cities were being overrun with “stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth.” Sports, the thinking went, would both protect boys’ masculinity and distract them from vices like gambling and prostitution. “Muscular Christianity,” fashionable during the Victorian era, prescribed sports as a sort of moral vaccine against the tumult of rapid economic growth. “In life, as in a football game,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in an essay on “The American Boy” in 1900, “the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk but hit the line hard!”

Race and Interscholastic Sports Alamogordo founding to 1950s…

Alamogordo, (Alamogordo means "fat cottonwood), New Mexico, founded in 1898 embraced education and the idea of interscholastic sports with an open mind for one selected group.In 1898 Alamogordo was split into two cities: Alamogordo a primarily Caucasian enclave and Chihuahua a primarily Mexican/Latin American enclave.

The two were merged in 1912 and became the incorporated city of Alamogordo, New Mexico.Alamogordo was founded as a company town to support the building of the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad, a part of the transcontinental railway. Education was a priority and the city founders, Charles Eddy and brother, John Arthur Eddy.

The brothers were both strong willed, and constantly battled over the decisions that had to be made. Ultimately, they agreed that interscholastic sports and a strong educational foundation as part of the progressive educational movement of the time would fuel the business interest they were developing.

The influence of the military had a historical impact on the politics around athletics and other public- school programs since the 1940’s. During the 40’s thru the early 70’s Alamogordo and region had one of the highest concentrations of space and rocket engineers, scientists, and high-tech leaders in the nation for a city its size.

The result of this concentration of people helped create a large high school talent pool which aided in athletic and academic success of Alamogordo High School ranking it the 3rd best in the nation during the 1950’s and 60s and one of the highest paying ones recruiting teachers from as far away as New York and many from Colorado, Texas and the mid-west.In 1900, a two-story brick school was built which had six classrooms. This was named the East Building. An additional two-story brick building was then added in 1910, having eight classrooms. It became the Central Building. Alamogordo High School, a two-story brick building with 13 classrooms and a multi-use auditorium was constructed in 1910 and launched an organized athletic program around 1912.

Dudley School was built in 1914 and had four classrooms. Dudley School was set up as part of a segregation plan at the time and specialized in children that did not speak English being educated in a separate school facility. Hispanics could not go north of 10th Street or into the plaza at the time.
The city of Alamogordo, New Mexico with its proximity to Texas was a racially divided city. Alamogordo High School began an organized sports program in 1912 for Caucasian boys offering PE, Track & Field, Basketball and Football.At the time of the meeting of the Educational Association of Albuquerque in November 1915, the New Mexico High School Athletic Association was formed, and the 1916 meet was held under the joint auspices of this association and the University of New Mexico. Alamogordo was represented at that 1916 meet.

Alamogordo High School won its first state medals in 1916/17 School Year, and they were in Track and Field via the High Jump and the Triple Jump.The first Alamogordo High State Medalist and state winner in any athletics was in the High Jump Category. The medalist was named Wohlenberg who scored at 5 ft 7.75 in the first state meet win for the Tigers.

Also, in 1916/17 Alamogordo High School won the Triple Jump with an athlete named Saulsberry winning the state at 40 feet 5 inches. These two state interscholastic medal wins were the first state medal wins in statewide competition for Alamogordo High School.

The 1920’s has been called the Golden Age of American Sports. It also has been called the Age of the Spectator. The United States had a strong economy for most of that decade with extensive growth on the west coast with the formation of New Mexico and new cities and school systems. Organized sports were at a pinnacle many workers had more leisure time. New and bigger stadiums and gymnasiums were built, interest and pride in local High School and College Teams became America’s pastime.

Sports were racially segregated in the US in the 1920s, as was almost every aspect of life.The experience of African Americans in the creation of interscholastic sports was varied by state and by city or school system, depending on the section of the country. In the Deep South, black high schools suffered from rigid segregation and a white establishment that kept the black schools impoverished. Those schools lacked athletic facilities, and the development of high school athletics in the black schools in such states as Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia lagged far behind white schools in the South and their black counterparts in other parts of the country. The western states and northern states were quicker to react to the needs of African American Athletes and to ultimately integrate than the southern states. Interscholastic sports helped break down the barriers and lead the fight to integration. African American school athletic teams in Football, Basketball and Track & Field when they could afford it would compete with other African American schools but could not compete with their primarily Caucasian counterparts until after integration.

Athletics under Coach Rolla Buck ended segregation in Alamogordo…

The mid 1940s to 1951 brought about significant change to Alamogordo High School and its athletics program that would affect it for decades into the future. Coach Rolla Buck entered the scene as a no-nonsense coach that looked at athletic ability and “was not interested in the racial tensions or other distractions” of the time. Buck would be seen historically as a member of the progressive educational movement and an advocate for integrated interscholastic sports. Rolla Buck was an active member of the Alamogordo community where he served 32 years in the Lions Club, he was also a Mason where he achieved the status of Master at the Tularosa Lodge. He was also an active Shriner with Ballut Abyad Temple. Post coaching, he served for 6 years as the Alamogordo City Manager and later as Chief Clerk of the New Mexico State Corporation Commission.New Mexico sports historians have noted his tenure for his impact on Alamogordo High School Athletics and the culmination of success around the classes of 1949, 1950 and 1951.

Each became a year of historical note and excellence in performance within the Alamogordo High School athletic programs. Alamogordo High School 1949 to 1951 would be recognized as the most successful years, up to that point in its history of athletic excellence since formation in 1916. Beginning with the 1940's, a more progressive tone took hold and Alamogordo High School broke barriers first in transitioning Mexican students from the Dudley School.Coach Rolla Buck will be long remembered not only for a record of winning teams; but for how he managed to overturn the long-standing discriminatory tradition of not allowing those with Spanish surnames to play competitive athletics, as well. In prior decades since the founding of the school system in 1916; those with Spanish surnames and those that predominantly spoke Spanish, were not invited nor allowed to come out for football or any interscholastic sport at Alamogordo High School. Coach Rolla Buck had “no use for and wouldn’t tolerate discrimination”, he actively recruited players regardless of ethnicity but had, “skills, heart or potential to play with excellence” on his teams.

In 1944, Leo J Aubel, graduated as the first Mexican Valedictorian and lettered Mexican Athlete at Alamogordo High School.

(Leo J Aubel Factoid)Aubel was born and raised in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where he was the valedictorian of his high school class. Later a graduate of the University of Nebraska, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and New York Law School, his education was sometimes interrupted by his Naval service on the USS Allegheny and the USS Mellette. He was admitted to the New York Bar in 1956, after which he worked in-house at IBM, and was subsequently admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1963 and remained in private practice until his retirement in 2013, most recently with Wallenstein, Wagner, Hattis, Strampel & Aubel. He notably was also one of the founding members of the Mexican American Lawyers Association.

1949 became the pivotal year for the interscholastic sports programs and education for Alamogordo High School Athletics under the direction of Coach Rolla Buck and school superintendent Barney Cato. They were faced with a decision that would have a far-reaching impact on the development of the city of Alamogordo and on future successes of the Alamogordo High School Athletics and academics programs.

They did something no other predominantly white high school had done before in New Mexico; it accepted its first black student, Bobby Joe Fritz. Fritz wanted to play football but the Delaware School for Negro Children, also known as Corinth, did not offer sports. African American children of the time were denied athletic opportunities; as Alamogordo High was not integrated to African American children at the time.

The Alamogordo School Board initially gave Fritz permission to play football at the high school, but he had to continue his regular classes at the Delaware School. Concurrent to this situation the school system and the city of Alamogordo was already getting pressure from the U.S. Military to tackle the issue of integration.

President Harry S. Truman's executive order 9981 was signed on July 26, 1948 and forbade discrimination by school systems servicing the US military. Pressure was felt by elected officials of the time for Alamogordo Public Schools to end school segregation. Holloman Air Force Base officials strongly requested Alamogordo members stationed at HAFB would have access to integrated schools.

Per Margaret “Markie” Rutz; (a rare women’s high school tennis champion of the time) from the infamous the class of 1950; “my dad was on the school board and they quietly moved all the black students into the high school. By the second year of integration all the black students were in the traditional school system and the two room Delaware School was closed. 

I Just Want to Play Football: According to an article by Nicole Maxwell, Alamogordo Daily News July 29, 2019; An Executive Order and a teen who just wanted to play football is how APS integrated schools. “There were dividing lines across the small community: Hispanics could not go north of 10th Street or into the plaza. At the time it was the Plaza Bar and the Plaza Café. African Americans could go in the back door of the plaza which was then a storeroom. But the Apache could walk in the front door of the bar or the cafe at any time and have a seat."According to The Southern School News, Oct 1,1954 

“Integration of Negro students into previously all-white schools had been a continuing process in New Mexico from 1948 to the mid-1950s. Problems were not too great; the state's Negro population, about 9,000 amounts to only 1.2 per cent of the entire state population. The communities requiring segregation all are located on New Mexico's East Side, the so-called little Texas, where population centers’ have sprung up from New Mexico's booming oil and livestock industries.”The article continued, “Alamogordo, a southern New Mexico community of some 8,500 persons, abolished segregation several years ago for the twin reasons of sociological advancement and economic necessity. Supt. Barney Caton expressed his opposition to the principal of segregation, and school board members also agreed that the African American population was not sufficient to warrant maintenance of separate facilities. The transfer was made without incident of closing the Delaware School for Negros and integrating those students in Alamogordo High School and other related schools.”

Bobby Joe Fritz just wanted to play sports; he became a pioneer that helped break racial barriers. He also played baseball, basketball and ran track. The Football team won State in 1950. Bobby Joe Fritz played for 3 years and won state rankings in track and field competitions, he along with others brought victory in Track and Field to Alamogordo that had not seen a win at the state level since 1941 with multiple District and State athletic wins in the 1950 and 1951 seasons.

Alamogordo was a decade ahead of most of Texas and Southern schools in its integration efforts of Blacks and two decades ahead for Mexican integration.

Bobby Joe Fritz would continue decades later to support his Tiger alumni.Much has been written about Mr. Fritz to include a detailed account of his journey and the infamous class of 1950 via a book produced by the Tularosa Basin Historical Society and authored by June Harwell titled: It Was The Right Thing To Do.

Alamogordo High School won the State Boys Track Championship, Football Championship and 2nd Place in the State in Basketball due to diversity, under Coach Buck.

This title was not won again until 1985, under the direction of Coach Bob Sepulveda. Coach Sepulveda won 19 District titles and 4 state titles in a row, 1992, 93, 94 and 95; with the most diverse athletic teams in Alamogordo history.

Coach Sepulveda himself broke barriers as one of the first Hispanic educators in the High School, the first Hispanic Head Coach of Football in New Mexico as the Alamogordo Head Football Coach in 1971 and served for 35 years as Alamogordo Head Track and Field Coach.

Coach Rolla Buck and Coach Bob Sepulveda are recognized as the winningest Coaches in Alamogordo history and their record of success is attributed to recruiting a diverse cross section of kids regardless of race or economic backgrounds but with a mission of excellence being mentored to success.

Excerpt Coach Sepulveda the Early Years by Chris Edwards & Rene Sepulveda…

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