Commentary

Breaking the college color barrier: Studies in courage

Originally Published: February 20, 2008
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

By now, many in sport celebrate the lives and courage of the first African-American pro athletes to break the color barriers, especially during Black History Month. Pretty much everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball. And more and more often, we read about Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper in the NBA, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode in the NFL and Willie O'Ree in the NHL.

Yet few have any idea about the African-American college athletes who were the pioneers. I recently wrote a book called "100 Pioneers: African-Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport," and in it, I wanted to include stories about the first African-American male and female athletes in the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and the Ivy League. When I contacted the schools in those conferences, very few could identify their first African-American female student-athlete. In several cases, they couldn't easily locate much information about the male pioneers, either. Surprisingly, many schools weren't in contact with their still-living alumni who broke those barriers. I could tell from some of the schools' responses that their pioneering African-American student-athletes had not been on their radar screens.

Unlike the professional athletes -- who were older and, perhaps, more worldly when they broke their barriers -- these college students were 17 or 18 years old when they came to our institutions of higher education to face a world of all-white athletic departments and classrooms.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Scott
AP Photo/Bob DaughertyAfter his career at the University of North Carolina, Charlie Scott signed with the Washington Capitals in March of 1970. At the right is then-Caps president Earl M. Foreman.
Most arrived on campus because a coach thought their great athletic gifts would win over the student body and faculty. Often, it was the first time the African-American student-athletes were together with whites on an equal plane. They encountered tensions and threats, faced hateful crowds and, on occasion, even teammates who did not want to be in the huddle with them. Sometimes, they played in stadiums that flew the rebel flag.

In part, the history of the civil rights movement was played out on those fields and in those campus arenas.

Generally, the conferences north of the Mason-Dixon line integrated much earlier than the SEC and ACC. William Henry Lewis was an African-American All-American football player at Harvard in 1892 while attending Harvard Law School. William Edward White played baseball on Brown's 1879 team.

Preston Eagleson played football at Indiana University in the 1890s and became the first African-American to earn an advanced degree there. Julian V. Ware and teammate Adelbert R. Matthews, both African-American, led the University of Wisconsin to its first Big Ten baseball championship in 1902. Tackle Gideon Smith helped the Michigan Agricultural College, now Michigan State, have an undefeated football season in 1913 in which it beat the University of Michigan, its archrival, for the first time by a score of 12-7.

From 1891 to 1894, George Flippin, the son of a slave, was enrolled at the University of Nebraska as its first African-American student-athlete. He played baseball, threw the shot, wrestled and played football, and later became a doctor. Sherman, Grant and Ed Harvey all attended the University of Kansas, beginning when Sherman enrolled in 1888. Sherman and Grant played baseball there; Ed played football and baseball. The three brothers, who also were sons of slaves, went on to become an attorney (Sherman), a doctor (Grant) and a civic leader (Ed).

'100 Pioneers'

Richard Lapchick's new book, "100 Pioneers: African-Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport," includes profiles of many of the student-athletes he chronicles in this column. Pre-order the paperback edition here.

But the schools below the Mason-Dixon line did not integrate easily or early. A game in Stillwater, Okla., involving Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) and Drake in 1951 must have sent a chill through any African-American athlete thinking of competing for one of those schools.

At the time, unbeaten Drake was led by the nation's top rusher, African-American running back Johnny Bright, who had enrolled at Drake even though African-Americans could not live on campus. Wilbanks Smith was an Oklahoma A&M defensive tackle and was white. Segregation was the law in Oklahoma. Smith went after Bright twice. The second time, he broke Bright's jaw with a punch captured on film by a Des Moines Register photographer. Behind at the time, A&M came back to beat Drake, which had to play the rest of the way without its star player.

The SEC, with its deep Southern roots, perhaps not surprisingly was the last major conference in America to be integrated. Some member schools not only fought to keep African-Americans off their own teams but refused to compete against other teams that included them on their rosters. In 1956, the state of Louisiana passed a law banning interracial sports competition, which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1959. In Mississippi, legislators threatened to stop funding schools that competed against integrated teams. For that reason, Mississippi State skipped the NCAA tournament in 1959, 1961 and 1962.

The Supreme Court had mandated the integration of public schools in the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education case in 1954. Five years earlier, the University of Kentucky admitted its first African-American students, but it took Kentucky another 17 years to put Nat Northington and Greg Page, two African-Americans, on its football team in 1966. They were the first African-American student-athletes in the football-dominated SEC.

It was slow going from there in the SEC, but by 1971-72, every SEC school had at least one African-American student-athlete. Collis Temple Jr. was handpicked by basketball coach Press Maravich and former Louisiana Gov. John McKeithen to integrate sports at LSU. It was another four decades before Sylvester Croom was hired as the SEC's first African-American head football coach at Mississippi State and Damon Evans was named athletic director at Georgia.

[+] EnlargeNat Northington
Kentucky/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesIn the late '60s, Nat Northington was one of the first two African-American football players at the University of Kentucky.
The big breakthrough was the now widely discussed football game in 1970 between the University of Southern California, coached by John McKay, and Alabama and its legendary coach, Bear Byrant. USC not only featured superstar fullback Sam "Bam" Cunningham, but had an all-African-American backfield, the first in Division I football. Cunningham was joined by quarterback Jimmy Jones and running back Clarence Davis. After USC whipped the Crimson Tide 42-21, full integration was only a matter of time.

The first African-American basketball player in the ACC was Maryland's Billy Jones in the 1965-66 season -- nearly a decade after Jackie Robinson had retired! (Maryland's Darryl Hill had integrated ACC football a few years earlier.) Basketball great Charlie Scott was not the first African-American athlete at the University of North Carolina, nor was he the first who played basketball there. But he was the first to receive an athletic scholarship from UNC-Chapel Hill.

No matter where the school is located or when the walls fell, though, all these college pioneers encountered various forms of racism that might have stopped less courageous men. Almost all went on to successful professional careers. They became doctors, lawyers, documentary filmmakers, elected officials, professional athletes, coaches, college professors, entrepreneurs, and high school teachers and administrators. Many served our nation in the military. A substantial number earned advanced degrees.

These trailblazers created paths of enormous opportunities for future African-American student-athletes, who now comprise 58 percent of all Division I male basketball players, 45 percent of all Division I football players and 44 percent of all Division I female basketball players.

I hope that Black History Month and discussions about pioneers at colleges and universities around the country will help our schools honor their contributions in the years ahead, and that these men and women will be brought back to campus and acknowledged for their part in their schools' histories.

Today's student-athletes need to know how their own opportunities were created.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com