In 1923, Brice Taylor became one of the first-ever Black scholarship athletes at the University of Southern California. Taylor accepted a football scholarship, and began working with coach “Gloomy” Gus Henderson, first as a running back, then as an offensive guard. Taylor was also a member of the school’s track team that broke the world record in the 1-mile relay in 1925.
The University of Washington also admitted its first Black football player in 1923. Hamilton Greene played as a halfback, and became the first African American letterman at UW. It was during his first season that the UW Huskies went to the Rose Bowl, which, by the way, ended in a tie with Navy.
Taylor and Greene weren’t the first Black players on college teams.
Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, some colleges did admit African Americans to their playing rosters. For example, Frederick Patterson in the late 1880s became the first Black member of the Ohio State University football team. He would go on to become a noted entrepreneur and the first African American car manufacturer, with his Patterson-Greenfield model.
And in fact, the 1916 Rose Bowl was technically “integrated,” given Brown University’s one Black player as the team faced off against ultimate winners Washington State College.
The pall of segregation had settled in across college sports by the 1930s. And historians note that it’s hard to pinpoint one single dramatic event in the integration of college sports afterward. It was really a process that proceeded by a series of slow starts as coaches at various schools became less cautious in the face of the Civil Rights movement, not to mention the talent they found among African American players.
Up until the 1960s, no college in a Southern state would admit Black athletes of any kind. But by the mid-‘60s, more schools began allowing their color barriers to be broken. Ricky Lanier became the first Black scholarship football player at the University of North Carolina in 1967, a year after basketball player Charles Scott became the first UNC Black scholarship athlete ever.
Those Black UNC scholar-athletes in the 1960s also had to address issues of pervasive racism. Small victories included the time they got together to speak to basketball coach Dean Smith and football coach Bill Dooley about the way the playing of “Dixie” before games made them feel. UNC removed the Confederate-era song shortly thereafter.
For some schools, integration of the student-athlete body came later. The University of Virginia allowed its first Black football players onto the field in 1970.
But this was still an era in which integrated teams were routinely required or persuaded to keep their Black players off the field when competing against segregated ones. Any school that believed in equality was often faced with the tough moral choice of benching some of its best players or being unable to allow any of its team to compete.
Getting on the right side of history
In 1970, the University of Alabama faced off in a home game against the integrated team from USC. The California team, with its Black players, beat the Crimson Tide so soundly that coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant decided it was time to move along with the times. The next day, he approached the school’s board of trustees, requesting that he be able to recruit African American players.
Alabama’s first Black scholarship football players were John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson, who began playing for the team in 1971. Under Bryant’s leadership, Mitchell soon went on to become Alabama’s first Black assistant coach, before launching a National Football League coaching career.
Jackson later joined the San Francisco 49ers, and became National Football Conference Rookie of the Year in 1974. Traded to the Washington Redskins (now the Washington Commanders) in 1980, he was a member of the team when it beat the Miami Dolphins to win the Superbowl in 1983.
In April 2022, the University of Alabama honored both Mitchell and Jackson with the unveiling of a plaque on the outside of Bryant-Denny stadium in Tuscaloosa. Paul W. Bryant, Jr., Bear Bryant’s son, was in attendance.
Today’s African American college scholarship players are more numerous than those earlier trailblazers. Now, about 18 percent of all male college athletes nationwide are Black. But across NCAA Southeastern Conference Football teams, more than 60 percent of players are Black.
Making their needs heard
And although these young athletes still face numerous hurdles in front of them, the Black Lives Matter movement has helped fuel their growing effectiveness in making their needs heard.
They have initiated boycotts in hopes of gaining substantive progress on issues of health, safety, fair compensation, and racial justice.
This new generation’s advocacy has forced legacy institutions of higher learning to confront deeply ingrained racist practices. An August 11, 2020 Washington Post piece by African American studies professor and sports podcaster Amira Rose Davis referenced the fact that the “house of cards” built by racism in college sports is poised to come crashing down thanks to massive social change and the ramifications of the global pandemic. We have to hope that any new system takes a look at the past to form a better future.