CHANGEMAKERS: Wichita State students rally for diversity on 1967 cheerleading team

Published: Feb. 4, 2021 at 9:45 PM CST
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Racial tension was high on the campus of Wichita State University in the 1960s.

“It was a time, the start of different movements such as the Black Power movement and that type of thing,” recalls Marvin McCurtis.

The former WSU student says Black students felt invisible.

“We didn’t feel that we were relevant or that we were part of the way we wanted to be,” said McCurtis.

It all came to a head in 1967 - over cheerleading. Joan Huff Minor said she always wanted to be a cheerleader. She tried out her first year at the university. but didn’t make the team. So, she tried out again the next year.

“It was just the times and that evening it was in the gymnasium or a big place, and I remember it was packed. There were Black students, white students and in fact it was absolutely packed,” recalls Minor. “It was like dead silence, imagine all these people and dead silence.”

But like the previous year, she didn’t make the team.

“The Black students filed out, my heart was broken,” Minor remembers.

That decision prompted the Black students and athletes to protest.

“They said look, we’re your stars. We’re not running track. We’re not playing basketball. We’re not playing football. Nothing,” said Minor.

She said she wasn’t aware of the movement that her tryout had started, but Dr. James Rhatigan, who was dean of students at the time, was.

“The first real leadership on our campus were athletes. The first issue that I can remember of a group nature was this one, the selection of a cheerleader,” said Rhatigan.

He said the protest led the pep council to hold an emergency meeting where they voted to add four girls to the team. Joan was one of them.

“I woke up one morning, and daddy said, ‘You’re on the front page of the newspaper. You’re in the newspaper.’ There was this big picture of me. ‘Negro is added as cheerleader,’ I remember it,” said Minor.

So, does McCurtis.

“That’s what we were looking for, that’s what we wanted. We wanted to add a little color to the cheerleading squad. That worked out.”

Minor says she had a great experience on the team, but it didn’t come without challenges.

“There were some threats. I think when you’re young, you feel invincible,” she said.

That was more than 50 years ago. Today, Joan is a jazz singer in Paris, but she said she still feels honored she helped improve race relations at Wichita State.

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