Civil Liberties

One Way That Institutionalized Racism Finally Died, Division I Football Edition


As a graduate of the State University at Buffalo and a college sports fan, I've followed the Bulls football fortunes this season with special interest. Founded in 1846 as a private college, Buffalo has one of the older—and pathetic—gridiron traditions in the U.S. This season they managed to take the title in the Mid-American Conference by beating an undefeated Ball State squad (tough luck, Letterman and Jim "Garfield" Davis) and winning a bid to the lowly International Bowl in Toronto (suffice it to say, any bowl game played in The Great White North is decidedly second- or third-rate).

But Buffalo's strong season shone a light on a story from half a century ago that highlights the innumerable ways that overwhelming, insitutionalized, and all-too-accepted racism came to an end in America. In 1958, Buffalo was invited to the Tangerine Bowl, held in Orlando, Florida.

Fifty years ago the Bulls had one of their finest seasons: 8-1 and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show to receive the Lambert Cup, the trophy given to the best small program in the East. A few days later Buffalo was invited to play in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando. Once they learned of the conditions, the team and university chancellor Clifford Furnas declined the invitation.

"The issue was discrimination," the Courier Express, a Buffalo newspaper, wrote at the time. "Two of Buffalo's players are Negroes. Willie Evans, a left halfback, led the Bulls in rushing yardage…. Mike Wilson is a reserve end." The stadium leaseholder back then, the Orlando High School Athletic Association, stipulated "there be no intermingling of the races in athletic contests in the stadium."

"They are two of our finest young men…. The possibility of discrimination against any member of the team prevents our appearance at the game," said Furnas, a 1920 track Olympian and scientist who served in the Eisenhower administration.

More here.

Another story about the incident fills in locker-room details:

The players were left to decide whether to play without…the only two African-Americans on the team.

It was quickly evident which way the players were leaning. The vote was taken before ballots could even be distributed.

"It was, 'Shall we leave the Italians home? Oh my God, really?' There was a lot of anger," former offensive tackle Jack Dempsey said. "We just threw the ballots on the floor and left. It was, 'Let's get out of here and go get a beer."'

More here.

Racism (and certainly segregation) died a death of a thousand cuts. It certainly took too long and the worst form of collectivism lingers on in various ways. But it's worth recalling various stopping points where individuals and institutions chose not to go along with such an invidious and insidious force in American history.

Reason's Matt Welch wrote a fantastic essay about how free agency helped erode racial animus in sports. Read all about how the experiences of basketball great Oscar Robertson, baseball bonus baby Dick Allen, and former Olivetti Girl Joe Namath speak to all that.