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In the Beginning

Long before the SEC reign of dominance, there were the HBCUs

Today, black football stars dominate both collegiate and professional football. From the South, they represent storied programs such as Alabama, LSU and Georgia. But it wasn’t always this way. Until the 1930s, a so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” prevailed, where black collegiate football players were forced by their own Northern teams to sit out games against segregated Southern teams. It would still be another 40 years before teams in the SEC would accept black players on their own teams. A safe haven from that bigotry, Historically Black Colleges and Universities gave Southern black athletes their first taste of success and would challenge white supremacy. This was another part of the Civil Rights Movement, and this is that story.



If I hadn’t been looking for the little town of Grambling, 65 miles east of Shreveport in rural Louisiana, I could have easily missed it — a little speck on the map nestled amongst fast food chains and roadside hotels that seem to say this is the kind of place to stop off I-20 for a meal or some sleep before continuing on elsewhere.

But this little place that could easily be a shooting locale of HBO’s True Detective deserves so much more than a passing glance. This is a major site from which Southern black athletes launched their assault on American football, and their success would drive an unsung conquest in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Success, but one laced with its own ironic legacy, too.

This is the site of Grambling State University, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities that once was a premiere destination for black achievement in athletics. Aside from affording black high school graduates the opportunity to get an education and a degree, HBCUs like Grambling created environments where athletes could thrive athletically, even if only for four more years.

No professional careers beckoned on the horizon for black athletes, as segregation reigned supreme in the United States.

Against that backdrop of racism, Grambling State first introduced football to the campus in 1928 — then under the name of Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute — but it wasn’t until 1940 that it became a priority. School president Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones set aside funds for football from his modest budget and Grambling started building the foundation for an empire to come. [1]

Then, in 1941, Jones hired Eddie Robinson to lead the Tigers — a man who would become synonymous with coaching excellence, even to this day.

Since college choices for black students and athletes were so limited, when Robinson went recruiting for this small, out-of-the-way college in rural Louisiana, he easily found outstanding players.

When Robinson first arrived at Grambling, the facilities were poor and the budget nonexistent, so he did everything himself: tended to his players’ ailments, mowed and lined the field for games, made sandwiches for road trips through towns where the restaurants would not serve black patrons and initially coached both offense and defense.

Grambling Fun Facts | Create infographics

And man, did he coach.

Robinson led the Tigers for an astonishing 56 years, until 1997. With him at the helm, the Tigers experienced unparalleled athletic success.

By the 1964 season, Grambling had more players on professional-team rosters than did Notre Dame. In 1967 after having lead the Tigers for 25 years, Robinson had won nearly 75 percent of his games, on pace with the likes of white college football giants like Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes.[2]

Yet while the mainstream press hailed Bryant and Hayes as titans of the sport few outside of black newspapers and select white papers took an interest in what was going on at this humble, country school, and so Robinson’s achievements went largely unnoticed.

In spite of a lack of widespread recognition, the dynasty that Robinson built — and the NFL pipeline that ultimately came with it — meant that Grambling State, for years, would stand out as the dream school for black athletes in the South.

The Southern black community knew very well what was going on at Grambling, though. In the 1950s and ‘60s, High school athletes sent handwritten letters to Robinson, begging for a chance to suit up for the Tigers and be a part of his glorious interpretation of “separate but equal.” [3]

Segregation had always been a formidable, impenetrable wall that kept equality on the other side. One couldn’t climb over it or dig under it; the wall was just always there. “We had come up with segregation all our lives,” Robinson recollected later in life, “and nobody had ever told us it was wrong. We accepted it and you just grew up with the thing.”[4]

Robinson was not interested in railing against the Jim Crow system. Instead, he wanted to prove that at his small university with its black coaches and black athletes, the sport of football could rise to new heights.

Because football rules were the same for black athletes as they were for whites, sports were the unique avenue through which blacks could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were equal, if not better than whites. To Robinson, the only way to challenge white supremacy was to disprove it, and the place in which he could do that was the football stadium.

And 300 miles away from this speck on the map, in the capital of Baton Rouge a similar empire had already begun to take shape, and arguably, set the tone for what Grambling could accomplish.

In 1936, Arnett “Ace” Mumford had become the head coach of Southern University. Over the following decades he helped shape the Jaguars into a powerhouse football program, the pinnacle of black excellence that Robinson was trying to replicate at Grambling. Mumford was the original undisputed king of black football in the South, until Southern met its fiercest rival in Robinson’s Grambling.

Mumford coached the Jaguars to five Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) titles, which were then colloquially referred to as “black national championships.”

Ignored as usual by the mainstream world, this was a major feat to his community.

For three seasons from 1948-1950, the Mumford-led Jaguars went undefeated, including against Grambling, winning a combined 32 games, with two additional ties. In his total 26-year coaching career with Southern, Mumford’s teams won or shared 11 SWAC titles, including two in his final three seasons.

Did You Know? Coach Arnett "Ace" Mumford Fun Facts | Create infographics

Unlike Grambling, Southern was much more accessible to potential athletes because of its location in the capital city of Louisiana, an important factor in recruiting in the days before commercial air travel and reliable cars.

Because of Jim Crow laws, Grambling, Southern and the other HBCUs only had to compete amongst themselves for the top black athletes in the South. The only thing that limited their abilities to cultivate the fertile hotbeds of talent in the region was how far they were willing to drive to scout athletes in neighboring states.

And in Louisiana especially, there was more than enough talent to field teams full of homegrown heroes for both Grambling and Southern, and to push the rivalry between the Tigers and Jaguars to new heights.

But after remarkable college careers, the NFL’s color barrier at that time meant that many black college stars would be excluded from the privilege of shaping professional football. The efforts of the Tiger and Jaguar athletes in college were the essential first steps that paved the way for future generations of athletes to be considered equal.

In the mean time, Robinson and Mumford faced an incredibly difficult challenge: to prepare their players to counter white supremacy. These coaches had to groom their players not just to be good, but to be extraordinary, to be so dynamic that white coaches and general managers dared not overlook them.

At first, the athletes from HBCUs were met with much resistance, par for the course with America’s acceptance of separation of the races. Once the NFL color barrier was broken in 1946, however, Grambling would have much success sending offensive and defensive specialists on to the NFL. And as those players started making game-changing plays, professional teams were eager to fill their rosters with black bodies.

But things were still much harder for black quarterbacks.

Those lucky enough to get drafted saw themselves get converted to wide receivers or defensive backs, as there was a longstanding notion that black athletes lacked sufficient intelligence to be leaders. For more than two decades, this belief stood unchallenged.

By the summer of 1964, Grambling’s Robinson was harboring a secret plan, an ambitious hope: to send the first black quarterback on to the pros, one so good that teams would actually let him run the show.

At first, Robinson’s mission was quiet. But as the push for civil rights built up steam and grew louder and more adamant, so too did Robinson’s push to coach up a black quarterback that could star in the NFL.

The head coach had in mind the perfect candidate to blaze the trail for black quarterbacks. A kid from Monroe, Louisiana with all the skills — and better yet, the intangibles — necessary to go above and beyond expectation. James Harris was that candidate.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Harris was a highly sought after prospect, with everyone from black colleges like Alcorn A&M, to integrated schools from the North and West like Arizona State, Indiana and Michigan State, and even formerly segregated schools like Houston, wanting him on their teams.[5]

While he had many options for playing college ball, he only had one if he wanted to stay a quarterback. If he went to a white college, he would have to give up his aspirations of being a quarterback, but would have more exposure to NFL scouts as a wide receiver or defensive back. If he went to a black school, he could remain a signal caller, but his NFL stock would likely take a hit.[6] Such were the choices black quarterbacks had to make in Harris’ day.

“Most of my teachers and people I knew had played for coach Robinson or went to school at Grambling,” Harris remembered years later. “He was a well-respected man in the community.

“I had some interest in going to school up north because at that time they had one college game a week on TV. When you’re talking about being the first guy from your area to be on TV, I had that thought for a second. But in the end it was tough to say ‘no’ to coach Robinson.”

Harris bought what Robinson was selling him back in 1965, about what kind of quarterback he could be not only in college but also in the NFL.

“He had been recruiting me, but the real selling point was when he went to New York to interview with Howard Cosell, and Cosell asked him, ‘You produced so many pro players. Why can’t you produce a QB?’

“So coach took that as a challenge, and he came down to Monroe and told me what Cosell said.” Harris accepted the challenge, and followed Robinson down to Grambling.

For Harris, Grambling offered a promise and a wish: a promise that he would make his parents proud by graduating with a degree, and the wish that his college career on the field would enable him an opportunity at the next level.

Despite his optimism and belief in Robinson’s vision, Harris wasn’t living in a fantasy: having grown up in Monroe’s segregated streets, he knew the realities of how ugly and far reaching America’s racism could be.

“That’s the other reason you had doubt [in the NFL accepting a black quarterback]. Growing up in a segregated environment, that was all you knew,” Harris said. “We would see the white little league teams. There was a line that separated the communities, and we would see them walking to play ball and they had all kinds of uniforms and things like that.

“I believed in [Coach Robinson’s] confidence. The other part was America. Did you believe in America and the times changing?”

So with a cautiously optimistic outlook, Harris set out to make history.

While Robinson was grooming Harris to ascend the NFL throne as a quarterback, he was working equally hard sending other players up the NFL pipeline, too.

Harris played alongside legends like wide receiver Charlie Joiner, who went on to star for the San Diego Chargers, defensive end Billy Newsome, whose career included stints with the Baltimore Colts and New Orleans Saints, and running back Essex Johnson, who spent most of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals.

“We were in a conference where we didn’t get a lot of publicity, we didn’t get a lot of ink,” Harris remembers. “So we had to create our own ink. People used to say we talked a lot of trash [to opponents], but its not trash if you can back it up — its marketing.”

“And the thing about the SWAC in that time was that you always had to back it up because someone was gonna challenge you and call you out.”

Former Grambling State offensive coordinator Doug Porter recalls one such incident against Tennessee State in 1967. Before the game, their head coach, “Big John” Merritt said, “It won’t happen tonight!” meaning Grambling State’s Tigers wouldn’t defeat his own team. But Harris had other ideas.

He saw an adjustment to be made in the offense, so he told Porter and Robinson that they should move wide receiver Robert Atkins into the tight end position. Matched up against a safety who was more of a tackler than a coverage guy, Harris found Atkins easily and Atkins trotted into the end zone for a touchdown.

After the game, Merritt came across the field and shook hands with the coaches, and Harris said to him, “Well coach, it did happen tonight!”

That year, Harris and Grambling State would go 9-1 and win the SWAC Championship. Safe to say, the G-men more than backed up their words.

Countless standouts Robinson coached were never afforded an opportunity to play professionally in the era of white-dominated pro sports. But by the end of his career, Robinson had sent more than 200 athletes on to the NFL.

“It [playing in the SWAC] was great competition. It was great competition and you knew all the teams were stacked and all of them had playmakers,” Harris said. “A lot of players were going as late-round picks, but we had so many guys that just weren’t given a chance.

“Back then, you would go to [NFL] camp and they [the coaches] would make quick evaluations, and you weren’t around long enough to prove your worth.”

In those days, the HBCU football players that were given a shot in the pros knew that staying on a roster meant they had to leave no doubt that they were better than the competition. Any little misstep could be used against them as proof of inferiority to their white counterparts.

But many of these athletes were just too good for NFL teams to pass up.

Cut off from the rest of the collegiate world, HBCUs thrived athletically, and scraped along well enough financially, during segregation. Black coaches carried the kind of dignity and pride within their communities that was not given by the mainstream Southern society. Though exposure was greatly limited, the black coaches knew as long as they produced come game day, their jobs were safe.

But change was on the horizon in America, and though progress would be great for society as a whole, the breakthrough would be come at a steep cost for the organizations that would have to pay the price for it.

Chapters

In the Beginning

Changes

Consequences

New Directions