ABOVE: Attendees at Turkey Day Classic Historical Marker Unveiling Celebration
University of Houston campus receives Turkey Day Classic Official Texas Historical Marker to honor the 20-year tradition of the Jack Yates Lions vs. Phillis Wheatley Wildcats football games
The Turkey Day Classic is arguably one of the most iconic and memorable events in Houston’s rich history. The Houston high school football rivalry between Jack Yates High School and Phillis Wheatley High School is one that deserves to be memorialized forever.
For two decades, the Turkey Day Classic football game between Yates High School and Wheatley High School was the social, cultural, and entertainment event of the year for the entire Black community of Houston. A sea of fans—as many as 30,000 strong—would come out to witness the game each Thanksgiving from 1946 to 1966, though the rivalry dates back to 1927 when Yates and Wheatley first played each other on the football field. The game took place at Jeppesen Stadium which was renamed Robertson Stadium in 1980 before being demolished in 2012, to make way for what is now the TDECU football stadium on the University of Houston (UH) campus since 2014. The competition was widely considered one of the most significant high school football rivalries in Texas history.
Now, thanks to a diligent committee of community volunteers, led by Dr. Elwyn Lee, the game will forever be remembered for its historical impact, and its significance to Black Houston.
Recognizing the impact that the two high school’s annual tradition had on the Third Ward and Fifth Ward communities respectively, the Harris County Commission recently unveiled an Official Texas Historical Marker for the Turkey Day Classic on the UH central campus. The site that was selected for the marker’s location is near the corner of Cullen and Cougar Place.
On September 22nd, UH hosted various members of the Yates and Wheatley alumni, including former football players, drill team, band members, cheerleaders, along with local leaders and dignitaries, for an invitation-only ceremony and luncheon.
Dr. Lee expressed his reasons for wanting to spearhead such an important effort.
“Since 2016, UH has had an initiative called the Third Ward Initiative (TWI) which, as part of its mission, celebrates and preserves the history and culture of the greater Third Ward area,” said Dr. Elwyn Lee, UH Vice President for Neighborhood and Strategic Initiatives. “As Executive Leader of the TWI, I provided the President of UH with Thurman Robins’ book on the Turkey Day Classic so that she would understand how deeply the Black community felt about the Yates/Wheatley high school rivalry that took place where TDECU stadium now sits. Once she was on board, I collaborated with Debra Blacklock-Sloan of the Harris County Historical Commission who guided me through the process and collaborated with me preparing the text of the marker which had to be approved by the Texas State Historical Commission. This marker is the first and ONLY official historical marker on the UH campus.”
The Turkey Day Classic truly transcended the gridiron to become a community spectacle that has been cherished for generations. In the words of Dr. Thurman W. Robins, Jack Yates c/o 1958 and author of Requiem for a Classic, “the Turkey Day Classic, that evolved into a Turkey Day week, was more than a game; it had parades, floats, ‘dressed-to-kill’ fans, fancy automobiles, and dances before and after the game. Like the actual game, the halftime presentations were fiercely competitive, comprised of flashy exhibitions of musical and dancing talent and imaginative creativity; one year the Yates homecoming queen and her attendants entered the stadium in a helicopter that landed on the field to the delight of crowd.”
At the Turkey Day Classic Official Texas Historical Marker celebratory luncheon, that was held after the unveiling ceremony, a brief history of Jack Yates High School and Phillis Wheatley High School were shared and a panel discussion of former alumni from both schools helped everyone in attendance hear about the event from their vantage.
During halftime of the UH vs. Sam Houston State football game at TDECU Stadium, Ms. Minnie Roy (Ms. Wheatley 1949) and Rev. Donald Dickson, Jack Yates High School running back (1955-1957) joined Dr. Lee on the football field to be recognized. A video was also played to share the history and significance of the Turkey Day Classic to all in attendance.
The Turkey Day Classic Official Texas Historical Marker and Luncheon committee consisted of:
- Debra Blacklock-Sloan, Texas & Harris County Historical Commission and Harris County Historical Commission Marker Dedication Chair
- Carl Davis, Jack Yates High School c/o 1972 and member of Jack Yates National Alumni Association (JYNAA)
- Carolyn Moore Wright, Phillis Wheatley High School c/o 1980 and President of the Wheatley Alumni Association
- Tonja Jones, Executive Director of UH Protocol & Special Events
- Sara Donatto, Office of Governmental Affairs & Community Relations
- Karl Hearne, Executive Assistant to the VP for Neighborhood Initiatives/Staff Council President
According to Dr. Lee, many of the attendees at the unveiling ceremony left asking when they would do something else again and figure out how to make use of the wonderful camaraderie that was engendered by the event.
“The daughter of former Wheatley football coach Frank Walker was so moved by it all that she announced she would be starting a foundation using her own money to provide scholarships for deserving students,” said Dr. Lee. “I think, perhaps, a fundraising event that occurs every couple of years might be the next future steps, or work on some kind of digital museum that would preserve the history or both. Tune in.”
Dr. Lee states that he hopes that thousands of members of the UH community and residents around the city will learn about this significant history, thanks to the historical marker being placed on UH’s campus.
“I hope the marker will inspire many of them to develop a deeper interest in the Turkey Day Classic, as set forth in Dr. Thurman Robins’ book, Requiem for a Classic, but the communities that made the game so much more than a game…in the same sense that the Super Bowl is more than just a game. I hope the marker will stimulate an interest in the other great events that once took place on that hallowed ground, such as the TSU relays, and an interest in Black high school football history as set forth in the Thursday Night Lights book by Michael Hurd. Finally, I hope this marker will become one of the many cultural assets, along with the many other historical markers in the area that will give visitors reasons to tour Third Ward as it becomes an even more exciting destination area for residents from all over Houston and visitors from out of state.”
Because of the intense emotional memories of the Turkey Day Classic, the land underneath TDECU Stadium will always be considered by many to be “hallowed ground” and a place where the entire community came together to witness and celebrate the spectacular athletic competition and the marvelous displays of halftime creative talent. The participants and the site of their performances should never be forgotten. The dedication of the marker ensures they will not.