Paul Quinn College is the oldest historically Black college (HBCU) in Texas. The school was founded in 1872 in Austin by an African church as a way to provide education for freed slaves. The college was relocated to Waco in 1881, serving as an academic opportunity for Black Americans when there were few options for higher education.
The post-civil rights movement decades of the 1960s and 1970s were an important period in the school's history, as enrollment increased greatly, new facilities and classrooms were constructed and student scholarship funding increased. When entrepreneur Comer S. Cottrell offered Paul Quinn College a chance to relocate to Dallas in the late 1980s, the university seized the opportunity to begin a new era and made the move north in September 1990.
In 2021, school president Michael Sorrell wanted to shine a light back on Paul Quinn following the darkness of the pandemic. His vision included making the college a place people would want to come to, and a place people would want to invest in.
One of the ways Sorrell planned to do this was with a new basketball court design. He described to local designer Ryan Parker his goal of wanting people to walk into the gym and be blown away with the court’s design, but he also wanted it to tell the school's story.
Parker says he was inspired by Sorrell's plan and passion for the project.
“I wanted to capture the history and the long lineage of how they’ve impacted the community going all the way back to the school's beginnings,” Parker says.
The court design is all black and features the Dallas skyline of the 1920s spanning across the sideline. The decade represents a time before the civil rights movement when Paul Quinn offered one of the only chances African Americans had to further their education.
“I went digging and found these pictures of the Dallas skyline in 1919, and I was inspired by them,” Parker says.
The court also has the words “we” and “me” written above and below the free throw lines. This signifies the school’s “we over me” philosophy, a family-like culture that reminds students that unity builds communities.
Parker's efforts paid off. The court is now being recognized on a national level, and was recently featured on platforms as big as ESPN’s SportsCenter. Walker says he expected the project to gain local coverage, but didn’t think it’d go as far as it did.
“But just sitting at the ribbon ceremony listening to President Sorrell talk, I realized we had a monster on our hands,” Parker says. “I thought to myself, we’ve got something really important here, beyond what I even realized.”
Parker says that, despite all this coverage, the attention to his work isn’t as important to him as the contribution he made to Paul Quinn.
“But just sitting at the ribbon ceremony listening to president Sorrell talk, I realized we had a monster on our hands ... I thought to myself, we’ve got something really important here, beyond what I even realized.” –Ryan Walker
“If things come from it, great, but I did not see it as a springboard," he says. "... I took the job because, after getting to know President Sorrell and seeing what he and the leadership team are building on campus, it was clear that it was worth my time.”
Sorrell’s vision and Parker’s artistry came together to make something noteworthy, and their joined effort has reached people all over the city, especially on campus. Senior basketball player Spencer McElway says the court is nothing short of special to him.
“It means a lot to me as a senior on this team,” McElway says. “The gym itself is a representation of the hard work and dedication Paul Quinn has in relation to its students and their experience. The court is like no other, the design is unmatched, and it shows how unique the HBCU lifestyle is at Paul Quinn."
Paul Quinn's basketball team will compete in the Red River Athletics Conference this season in a gym that will now forever hold a piece of its own history, telling the story of perseverance, dedication and the struggle that so many went through to gain freedom and education.
“I remember when I first came to Dallas from Little Rock, I was astounded by the skyscrapers, the feeling of opportunity and bright lights," McElway says. "To have that exact same setting in the gym that I get to play the sport I love is a feeling of excitement that I have never felt before.”