New Directions

Faded Memories

The glory days are long gone, but the legacy of HBCU football lives on

Though integration of college sports teams was a landmark step in the direction of progress it came at a steep price, and it wasn’t those who benefited the most who paid for it.

At the end of the '70s, a major racial shift had occurred in the SEC. From the 1890s until 1966, not a single black player suited up and competed at the varsity level for an SEC team. By 1980, however, nearly one-third of all-conference lettermen were black, including many of the NCAA’s brightest stars.[28]

The proliferation of black bodies in the SEC signaled the final defeat of the old school Jim Crow in Southern sports, where white supremacy and athletic prowess went hand in hand.

At the same time, however, a handful of blacks didn’t mean that tolerance was on the horizon; rather, it just proved that the SEC valued winning and profits more than it valued outwardly maintaining racial exclusion.

A new era of dominance was emerging for the major schools, just as the sun was beginning to set on the glory days of HBCU football.

Initially, the HBCU coaches didn’t notice much of a difference in their ability to recruit players once desegregation was in effect. But once the SEC recruiters started to roll into poor, urban and rural communities with gifts of cash, cars, clothes and other perks, it became impossible for the black colleges to keep up.

And things only got worse for the HBCUs. As racial inclusion made the SEC – and major Division I NCAA football as a whole – stronger, the increased competition for black talent in the South coupled with an inability to compete on the recruiting trails made HBCU football weaker.

Finances for SEC vs. SWAC schools | Create infographics

Where Grambling and Southern once had the cream of the crop from which to choose, they found themselves having to compete for what was left after all the blue-chip prospects signed up to play their college ball under the bright lights of colossal stadiums in nationally televised games, decked out in brand-new jerseys and cleats.

For Harris, desegregation was bittersweet.

“There are a lot of good things that happened in the country; a lot of people were able to go on and be successful,” Harris said. “You could go on now and get a good education and prosper.

“But I regret what happened to black colleges and how our resources were diluted. That’s a regret.”

It was perhaps foreseeable that one day it would come to this for the HBCUs. It had even been the goal that Coach Robinson had strategized to bring about. Yet it meant that one day, black college football would just be a footnote in history, having paved the way for black athletes to be considered equal and to have a chance to compete at the highest level.

And since black college football was already so far removed from mainstream college sports, its demise went largely unnoticed in the sports world.

Of course, history remembers the brave pioneers who embraced the opportunity to integrate college football. History has forgotten, however, that before those pioneers could have a shot, other athletes had to prove that a shot was deserved in the first place.

The popular narrative of how integration dismantled the oppressive order in America ignores the reality that "color-blind" integration hadn’t actually taken place, and that desegregation had many negative consequences for black-owned and black-run organizations. For example, the integration of Major League Baseball meant the end of the Negro Leagues. To integrate, by definition, means to combine two parts to make one whole. But that’s not what really happened when the United States struck down legalized segregation.

Instead of meeting in the middle and integrating thoroughly, some few exceptional blacks got pulled into white society, and the institutions black societies had created for themselves were automatically considered inferior and fell to the wayside.

This was the pattern for black-owned businesses, black hospitals and cohesive self-reliant black communities, and this systematic weakening eventually engulfed black institutions of higher education and black athletics. Ironically, integration decimated black communities and deprived them of their leaders and heroes.

Throughout the 1980s, the SEC schools continued to build powerhouse programs thanks to the skills of black athletes, while the HBCUs struggled to stay relevant. As the ‘90s and 2000s approached, the HBCUs found themselves all but out of the competition for any of the standout athletes in their home states, a reality that drastically differed from the one that brought black college football to life.

Black college football came onto the scene unceremoniously. In the backwoods and rural communities of the American South, a passion for the sport took hold and gave young black Americans a space to be giants in a world that consistently told them they weren’t even people.

The football empires they built left the scene not with a bang, but a whimper.

Today, both Grambling State and Southern are shells of their former selves, having been reduced to novelties in the college sports world. The football programs that once announced themselves with booming voices have been reduced to a faint whisper.

The gridirons are patchy and muddy, with visible divots and cleat holes. They do not tout field conditions befitting a Division I football program. But, they bear the names of the legends that built these once-great temples of black achievement: Ace Mumford Stadium and Eddie Robinson Stadium.

When you walk the grounds, a feeling of vanished greatness swirls in the Southern breeze. It’s not as apparent as it once was, but it’s still there, a constant reminder that back in the day, this was the place to be.

Meanwhile, at LSU, things couldn’t be more different.

State-of-the-art facilities, a colossal stadium and manicured turf are staples in Tiger country, as only the best of the best is acceptable in these parts.

LSU and Southern are separated only by a few minutes’ drive, yet they seem worlds apart.

But then, they always have been.

SEC Recruiting Budgets | Create infographics

Back during the “separate but equal” days, LSU and Southern were certainly separated, but by no means were they ever equal. Where LSU could always depend on funding from both the state and boosters, Southern had to beg for funding from white politicians, something many of the HBCUs frequently had to do.

LSU always had more than enough, while Southern had to make do with less. Today, that’s still the case, and not just for Southern, but for the HBCUs as a whole.

These disparities have kept the HBCUs in the doldrums, particularly Grambling, which made headlines in 2013 when its football team boycotted the season due to unacceptable travel and facilities conditions, which were brought about by budget cuts that slashed funding for the football program.

Under Gov. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana has been slashing state support for higher education, with funding for Grambling down 56 percent since 2008. Grambling has had to defer maintenance of classroom buildings, dormitories, the library and the football stadium.

Grambling initially tried to keep the athletic department’s budget out of the cuts, but this was ultimately deemed unfair. It shrank from roughly $7.1 million in 2012-13 to about $6.7 million for 2013-14. In total Grambling gets about $13.8 million in state aid, meaning athletics uses nearly half of what is allotted to the entire university.[29]

Grambling Budget Cuts | Create infographics

And that meager amount was not nearly enough to keep football operations up to standard.

Visible patches of mold and mildew grew on the ceiling, floor and walls of the football facilities. The floor material lifted and buckled in places, creating safety hazards in the weight room. Beyond just the poor conditions of the work-out facilities, field conditions were equally run down, with high grass posing another safety hazard, and insufficient hydration options during summer practices, carried out in extreme heat and humidity.

But perhaps the most annoying problem was that the football team had to travel by bus to away games in destinations like Indianapolis and Kansas City, Missouri, 17 and 14 hours away from Louisiana.

The week-long boycott made national news, and thrust Grambling into the spotlight, though not for achievements on the gridiron.

As college football has grown into the enormous, commercialized beast that it is today, the athletes whose talents drive ticket sales and TV revenues have become marquee attractions. The schools that have money to throw around profit on the recruiting trails and again on Game Day, while the Have Nots look on from the sidelines, wondering what they can do to level the playing field.

In many ways, that ship sailed years ago for the HBCUs.

With little hope of landing big-name prospects, they have to do the best they can with the shallow talent pool in which they now swim.

HBCU Players Drafted vs. SEC Players Drafted  | Create infographics

Because the desegregation of the SEC did ultimately allow for black athletes in the South to compete at the highest level with the best of amenities at their disposal, it’s easy to think that the ends — racial equality on the football field — justified the means — dropping color barriers to win football games, not to promote social progress.

But did they really? Who really won when it came to integrating SEC football, and what did we lose as the SEC rose to power and the HBCUs fell from it?

James Webster, one of the first black athletes at North Carolina and later an assistant coach at a Division-I school, commented on the changing times of the 1970s: “Sports may have opened doors, but it didn’t open minds.”[30]

This rang true in the actual classroom experience at formerly segregated schools, and in the professional careers of athletes who saw their positions change, or lived with the burden that any day could be their last on the roster. Such was the case for Harris, even after he was given the starting quarterback job in the NFL.

“It meant a lot to me, and to all the players who had been denied an opportunity to play,” Harris said, looking back on Robinson’s plan for him. “Going through it I realized that so many great guys were just denied an opportunity. I felt good that I was able to do that, for all the guys who couldn’t.”

“On the other side, it was a challenge going through it. By the time you got to that point, going through the fact you might get cut every day, going through hate mail, going through the fact that people don’t want you to play, in some ways, some of the excitement that may have been there wasn’t quite there.”

It was a far cry from the love and adoration that black quarterbacks and athletes feel today, but modern athletes could never know the joys of playing unencumbered by race were it not for the efforts of Harris and the other Southern black athletes who dared to defy bigotry in sports.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities played a pivotal role in shaping and defining sports history, even if that role is unheralded and largely unknown to the average sports fan. It’s a legacy of many layers: dominance, power, and achievement, but also exclusion, isolation and fading memories.

But what hasn’t faded is the pride that courses through the veins of trailblazers like James “Shack” Harris and innovators like Coaches Doug Porter and Robert Bennett who had the privilege of helping to define HBCU football.

Unlike their fellow civil rights leaders whose push to prove black equality has been well documented throughout history, the heroes of black college football made their claim out of the national limelight. They didn’t protest or picket; they just fielded incredible teams and dominated the landscapes in which they were allowed to compete .

In doing so, black college football players dealt a blow to the cult of white southern manhood synonymous with Dixie, forcing racially prejudiced fans to cheer their local black athletes, even if that cheer stuck in their throats.

Its hidden history shows that HBCU athletics shaped the college football landscape that we know today. First, black athletes at black schools had to prove they were better than white football players just to be given a chance, and then the ones given a chance had to prove on integrated teams that they were better still, and therefore deserving of it.

It’s a history of a chain of challenges that black athletes met and surpassed until their efforts had buried segregation in football forever. Sadly, the public has largely forgotten the heroic pioneers of HBCU football. We’ve forgotten what it took to bring racial equality to sports, and who paid the price for it. Yet we would not enjoy football, as we know it today, if it weren’t for the achievements of HBCU athletes and the way they changed the game.

An everlasting legacy, this student body left.



[1] Freedman, Samuel G. "Draw Water Where You Can." In Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, 18. Reprint Edition (August 12, 2014) ed. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

[2] Freedman, Samuel G. "Spared For Something." In Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, 60-61. Reprint Edition (August 12, 2014) ed. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

[3] Freedman, Breaking the Line, 14

[4] Freedman, Breaking the Line, 14

[5] Freedman, Breaking the Line, 67

[6] Freedman, Breaking the Line, 67

[7] Martin, Charles H. "Introduction: The Strange Athletic Career of Jim Crow." In Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, Intro XVI. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

[8] Martin, Charles H. "White Supremacy and American College Sports: The Rise of the Gentleman’s Agreement." In Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, 18. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

[9] Martin, Charles H. "Introduction: The Strange Athletic Career of Jim Crow." In Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, 29. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

[10] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 29

[11] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 29

[12] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 32

[13] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 32

[14] Martin, Charles H. "Conclusion: The Accomplishments and Limitations of Athletic Integration." In Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, 298. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

[15] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 298

[16] Martin, Charles H. "The Final Citadel of Segregation." In Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, 255. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

[17] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 255

[18] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 256

[19] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 258

[20] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 258

[21] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 279

[22] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 280

[23] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 280-281

[24] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 290

[25] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 282

[26] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 282

[27] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 287

[28] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 257

[29] "The Grambling Football Boycott." New York Times. October 25, 2013. Accessed March 1, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/26/opinion/the-grambling-football-boycott.html?_r=0.

[30] Martin, Benching Jim Crow, 301

Chapters

Home (Jim Crow)

Turning of the Tides

Consequences of Change

New Directions