Across The Line From Shadow To Sunlight

Poignant stories of college basketball's  integration abound on the eve of ‘March Madness’

Many of the names from Across The Line flow freely in my memory, be it as a once-voracious reader of sports journalism and history or as a binge watcher of sports — basketball, in this case — on television.

Charlie Scott, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Lou Hudson and Dave Bing, to name just a few of the players. Orlando “Tubby” Smith, George Raveling, Clarence “Big House” Gaines, John Thompson and John McLendon, to name just a few of the coaches.

Aside from Scott, who broke the color barrier at the University of North Carolina in 1968, the rest of the 19 principal men in the revised and updated Across The Line: Tales of the First Black Basketball Players in the ACC and SEC, by Barry Jacobs and published late last year, are painfully new to me. 

The University of Oregon’s Black pioneer in college basketball was Charles Patterson, who played on a 1935-36 Ducks team that won 16 straight games and 20 games overall, both school records at the time. He went through his share of vocal and physical abuse, according to UO archives, yet he graduated and later became an accountant in Portland. In 1995 he was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame. Patterson’s story was not well known to me, either, and I’m a longtime Eugene resident. 

Jacobs’ informative look at the integrating of all-white basketball teams at schools in the Deep South (the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference) in the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s is, unlike Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947, history that has lived in the shadows. 

I should know more about it. Everyone should know more about it.

Jacobs — a freelance journalist in North Carolina who has written extensively about sports and history in the Deep South — has combined thorough research and interviews with a storyteller’s grace to give this history, and the men who lived it, the sunlight it deserves. And he does a wonderful job of connecting the threads of obstacles, the isolation and fear that each man faced as teenagers — “an invisible fraternity, largely unknown to each other or to anyone beyond the squads on which they played” — away from home in a foreign environment that had been forbidden territory to their elders.

“They did not realize that they faced many of the same personal challenges,” Jacobs writes. “They did not know that many of their number shared a residual weight of bitterness and alienation spawned in those difficult days. They were unaware that several of the earliest pioneers self-destructed; that universities in supposedly tolerant communities were among the least welcoming,” and that despite it all, two of the pioneers, Wendell Hudson at the University of Alabama and Coolidge Ball at the University of Mississippi, spoke favorably about their college experience. 

There was seething racism, out in the open and impossible to ignore.

Perry Wallace, who broke the color barrier in 1966 at Vanderbilt University, recalled a 1968 game at Mississippi when he endured racial taunts and was bloodied in the first half. He was the last player to leave the locker room for the start of the second half.

“I looked out the door and I saw our team warming up, and I could hear the catcalls,” he told an interviewer years later. “You could hear the catcalls over the radio, people told me. They were hollering, ‘Where’s the nigger? Where’s the nigger? Is he scared? Did he quit?’ I stood there and looked out, and I said, ‘Who is on my side?’”     

That would be a question that Billy Jones and Pete Johnson, among others, would ask from time to time. 

Jones, in 1965, became the first Black student-athlete at the University of Maryland, and Johnson immediately followed. They seldom played, and they never had the game-time terror that Wallace experienced. Instead, the obstacles they faced on the Maryland campus were on the micro level — snubs here, snubs there.

Their coach, Herman Millikan, insisted that all his players would be treated the same, no matter what. That was fine on the surface, Jacobs writes, and par for the time, but as Jones points out: “We were not normal, and we shouldn’t have been treated as normal because it was an abnormal situation, especially for the first time.” Neither player or their parents voiced concerns to Millikan, so the coach always believed that the transition was smooth. As Jacobs writes: “Johnson said the tension of a pioneer’s role ‘was just well-hidden.’”

There was, Jacobs writes, little ground work done to ease the path of the pioneering Black players off the court. “Coaches worked to downplay differences, clinging to the assurance that they treated everyone alike. Superficially equitable, that attitude led to unanticipated troubles on the road and to routine failures to establish support systems to help Black pioneers cope with problems on campus, from antagonistic professors to hesitant roommates to an absence of dating options.”

That isolation, Jacobs notes, “grew so heavy that Johnson and Jones sought out predominantly Black schools in the cities they visited just ‘to see some Black people,’ Jones says.” At Wake Forest University, Black student-athletes at the time made a beeline when they could to Winston-Salem State University, a historically Black college near Wake Forest, for the same reason.

There are sad stories in Across The Line, notably those of Norwood Todman of Wake Forest and Henry Harris Jr. of Auburn University, stories of unwritten “quotas” that limited how many Black players could be on the court at once as well as the well-known and incredible story of the 1963 all-white Mississippi State team that broke ranks with the state’s racial orthodoxy to travel and play against the largely Black (and eventual national champion) Loyola of Chicago team in the NCAA tournament.

There are success stories, too, of men who went on to earn their degrees and succeed in professional careers, such as Collis Temple Jr., who broke the color barrier at Louisiana State University; their opening of the segregated doors has allowed a flood of others to follow. 

Jacobs quotes one of Temple’s sons in the book’s introduction on the importance of today’s young Black players’ knowing about the rocky road that was paved by these pioneers. 

“Not everybody understands the people that came before them, the price they paid,” said Collis Temple III, who played at LSU a generation after his father broke the ice. “I think they should care because these men, they changed the game in the SEC, they changed the game at their respective schools. They paved the way for every African American player that is at those schools today. I think players should understand their heritage, understand where it’s coming from, and respect it and know it.” 

Across The Line: Tales of the First Black Basketball Players in the ACC and SEC is published by Lyons Press in Essex, Connecticut. It can be purchased on Amazon. $20.

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