The stories of Black athletes integrating professional sports are legendary. Names like Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson and Lee Elder are known throughout the cosmos as pioneers for justice and equality.
Little, however, was known about the integration of college basketball until ESPN’s groundbreaking documentary, “Black Magic,” chronicled the lives of former players and coaches that worked to desegregate the collegiate athletic conferences.
Televised commercial free, March 16 and 17, “Black Magic,” drew a 1.3 household rating, watched by an average of 1.2 million households, making it the ESPN’s most-watched documentary ever. The film documents the injustices faced by Black college athletes during the civil rights movement as told through the lives of basketball players and coaches from that period.
Perry Wallace, the first Black basketball player to play in the Southeastern Conference, remembered vividly his days in Tennessee as a Vanderbilt Commodore. Some days, says Wallace, were pleasant. Others, he admits, were frightening.
“When you played in the stadiums of the Mississippi and Alabama schools, you encountered a hostile crowd of thousands screaming racial epithets: nigger, coon, all the old-fashioned stuff. I received hate letters. My life was threatened,” says Wallace, who played from 1967-1970.
The Southeastern Conference was established in 1932, when the 13 members of the Southern Conference left to form their own conference. Ten teams make up the SEC including: the University of Alabama, Auburn University, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University and University of Tennessee.
Wallace relived his experiences on “Black Magic,” which was co-produced by NBA hall of famer and Winston-Salem State University basketball player Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Dan Klores.
The two-part documentary celebrates the contributions of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities that primed America’s best Black athletes before integration. Secret competitions such as the infamous match between Duke University and North Carolina College shown in the film were held frequently between Black and White players.
The Duke game was played on a cold Sunday morning in 1944, when most of Durham’s residents were at church. Duke players drove the back roads to the Black part of town to a gym cleared of spectators. The only thing waiting for the Duke players was Coach John McLendon’s N.C. College Eagles. McLendon’s team won the game 88-44.
“After we watched ‘Black Magic,’ I used it as a motivational factor for my guys,” says Bobby Collins, head coach for WSSU’s men’s basketball team. “This was an important story. You laughed. You cried. You really felt the passion of what they guys had to endure. They had to love the game.”
Players such as WSSU’s Monroe, Norfolk State University’s Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland, and West Virginia State University’s Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first Black player, proved that their ability to play the game was equal and in some cases better than their White counterparts.
From the 1920s until the 1950s, few Black players were allowed in major college programs, especially in the South. During this period HBCU athletic programs reigned supreme.
“HBCUs played a major role in integrating the NCAA, and we continue to make strides. Coppin State [advanced to the NCAA tournament] and Hampton beat Iowa State in 2000,” Collins says.
Certainly, the quality of Black players at HBCUs caught the attention of larger White schools, which rethought their segregation policies and started recruiting players, paving the way for players like Wallace.
A native of Tennessee, Wallace came of age during a time when resistance to Jim Crow segregation was becoming increasingly popular. Community members, whom Wallace refers to as “race men and women,” persuaded him to help advance the cause of racial equality and justice.
“I hadn’t specifically wanted to be a pioneer,” says Wallace. “I was getting a lot of encouragement from coaches like Benjamin Jobe from Southern University and [Harold Hunter (the first Black player to sign an NBA contract] advised me to break the color line.”
Wallace graduated from Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering and was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. Following a brief stint in the NBA, Wallace decided to enroll in law school, earning his degree in 1975 from Columbia University, where he was awarded the Charles Evans Hughes Fellowship. He later worked as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Today Wallace is a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. He says his experience at Vanderbilt sparked his interest in the law.
“After the Vanderbilt experience, I was thinking about justice and equality, how there wasn’t enough of it and how I needed to do something to help,” says Wallace, whose talents may actually have been meant for the court — of law that is.
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