Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980


Chronicling the uneven rise and slow decline of segregation in American college athletics, Charles H. Martin shows how southern colleges imposed their policies of racial exclusion on surprisingly compliant northern teams and explains the social forces that eventually forced these southern schools to accept integrated competition. Martin emphasizes not just the racism prevalent in football and basketball in the South, but the effects of this discrimination for colleges and universities all over the country. ...

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Chronicling the uneven rise and slow decline of segregation in American college athletics, Charles H. Martin shows how southern colleges imposed their policies of racial exclusion on surprisingly compliant northern teams and explains the social forces that eventually forced these southern schools to accept integrated competition. Martin emphasizes not just the racism prevalent in football and basketball in the South, but the effects of this discrimination for colleges and universities all over the country. Southern teams such as the University of Alabama, University of Mississippi, and the University of North Carolina were obsessed with national recognition, but their Jim Crow policies prevented them for many years from playing against racially mixed teams from other parts of the country.
Devoting special attention to the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and teams in Texas, Martin explores the changing social attitudes and culture of competition that turned the tide and allowed for the recruitment of black players and hiring of black coaches. He takes a close look at the case of Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso), the first major white university in an ex-Confederate state to recruit African American athletes extensively. Martin skillfully weaves existing arguments and documentation on the integration of college sports with wide-ranging, original research, including previously unpublished papers and correspondence of college administrators and athletic directors uncovered in university archives.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An impressive achievement, one of the most useful titles recently published on the history of race and sport."—The Journal of American History

"[Martin] provides moving descriptions of individual athletes who braved open hostility and threats of violence and of the coaches who insisted that the teams be integrated.  And he is masterful in weaving all this material into the broader social history of the South.  The result is an impressive, profound piece of scholarship.  Essential."—Choice

"Should be a standard text in sport history classes for many years."—Southwestern Historical Quarterly
"Martin has written this valuable history — the first of its kind — documenting the process of integrating the playing fields of Southern universities and colleges.  It's an important book."—El Paso Times



"A well written historical analysis of the development of sport institutions at all-white colleges and universities in the South. . . . Thought provoking, and accessible."—The Journal of African American History

"Given the perennial pertinence of racial issues in the United States, the attachment to intercollegiate athletics in the South, and the presence of African-American athletes, this subject begs for attention. Charles H. Martin is well-versed in college sports and academic archives, and the scope and depth of his research is astounding."—William J. Baker, author of Jesse Owens: An American Life

"Historians, sports scholars, and students will refer to Benching Jim Crow for many years to come as the standard source on the integration of intercollegiate sport."—Mark S. Dyreson, author of Making the American Team: Sport, Culture, and the Olympic Experience and Crafting Patriotism: America at the Olympic Games

"Benching Jim Crow is a powerful indictment of a racist system, much of which has been dismantled by law, social pressure, and the belated recognition by southern coaches and athletic directors that recruiting white athletes exclusively would doom their universities to teams that might aspire to mediocrity on their most optimistic days."—Bill Littlefield, Only a Game

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252077500
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 8/2/2010
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 737,637
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Martin

Charles H. Martin is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Strange Athletic Career of Jim Crow xiii

1 White Supremacy and American College Sports: The Rise of the Gentleman's Agreement, 1890-1929 1

2 "Fair Play" versus White Supremacy: The Gentleman's Agreement under Attack, 1929-45 27

3 "Massive Resistance" and the Fall of the Color Line, 1945-65 55

4 Cracks in the Solid South: Texas Western College Abandons Jim Crow 90

5 Hold That (Mason-Dixon) Line: The Atlantic Coast Conference and Football 120

6 "Two at Home and Three on the Road": The Atlantic Coast Conference and Basketball 150

7 The Eyes of Texas Are (Not) upon You: The Southwest Conference and Football 180

8 From Exclusion to Prominence: The Southeastern Conference and Basketball 215

9 The "Final Citadel of Segregation": The Southeastern Conference and Football 255

Conclusion: The Accomplishments and Limitations of Athletic Integration 293

Notes 305

Sources 355

Index 359

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First Chapter

Benching Jim Crow

The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890–1980


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07750-0


The Strange Athletic Career of Jim Crow The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line. —W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903

Think of what a rich recruiting field the South would offer if its own schools started seeking out good Negro athletes, instead of losing them by default to the rest of the country. —Louisville Courier-Journal, March 1963

In the first week of April 1989, Wade Houston left Louisville, Kentucky, and traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he formally accepted the position of head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee (UT). Such coaching changes are a regular feature of the collegiate athletic scene, but Houston's hiring was anything but routine. In fact, it represented a historic racial milestone for the university, the Southeastern Conference, and the American South. In assuming his new job Houston became not only the first African American head coach at Tennessee but also the first black coach in any major sport during the fifty-five-year history of the SEC, the Deep South's premier athletic conference. This unprecedented development seemingly confirmed the continuing racial revolution in higher education in the South, once the country's most rigidly segregated region. It further suggested that racial concerns were now rapidly disappearing in the modern world of southern college sports. Subsequent events, however, soon disrupted this progressive narrative of unimpeded racial progress and briefly highlighted the continued presence of racial discrimination in the region.

Houston's personal journey epitomized the sweeping social transformation of the South since the mid-1960s. A Tennessee native, Houston had grown up in the industrial town of Alcoa some fifteen miles south of Knoxville and had rooted for the Volunteer athletic teams during his youth. The young basketball star graduated from Alcoa's all-black Hall High School in May 1962, at a time when no student from the school had ever attended the nearby University of Tennessee. In fact, the university had accepted its first three black undergraduates just one year earlier, and all of its athletic teams remained exclusively white. Ignored by UT coaches, Houston subsequently left the state to accept a basketball scholarship from the University of Louisville (UL), where he and two other recruits became that school's first African American basketball players.

In the spring of 1989, some twenty-seven years later, social conditions in Tennessee appeared to have changed dramatically. During Houston's absence from the state, the University of Tennessee had become a more diverse institution, and its athletic teams now included numerous African American players. Moreover, African American students, staff, and faculty constituted a noticeable though not large presence on campus. Houston's hiring rekindled excitement among Volunteer basketball fans and attracted positive comments across the wider community. The Nashville Banner even suggested in a somewhat apologetic headline that "Houston's UT welcome is 27 years late." Within a week, though, charges of continuing racism shattered this harmony. On April 5 a local newspaper reported that the prestigious Cherokee Country Club had refused to accept Houston as a member, even though the university subsidized several memberships at the facility for its senior athletic staff. Forced to confront an unpleasant reality that they had previously ignored, embarrassed school officials canceled all of their memberships at the Cherokee Country Club and transferred them to another local club that did not practice racial discrimination.

The brief tempest over Houston's country club membership aptly captured the contradictions that marked southern college sports near the end of the twentieth century. From the 1890s into the 1960s southern universities, especially those that were located in the Deep South and belonged to the Southeastern Conference, had consistently maintained a policy of racial exclusion in the classroom. When the federal government finally forced these institutions to desegregate in the early 1960s, this historic breakthrough created the possibility that their intercollegiate athletic teams might voluntarily seek out black players. Influenced by continuing white hostility toward desegregation, most coaches did not immediately pursue this option. Eventually, though, between 1966 and 1973, SEC members gradually dropped their internal color lines and integrated their athletic teams. During the 1970s and 1980s these universities hired a small but expanding number of black assistant coaches. Now, in 1989, Tennessee and Wade Houston had shattered the glass ceiling that had blocked African Americans from advancing to head coaching positions. Yet in the midst of this celebration of color blindness in southern sports, the controversy over the Cherokee Country Club's restrictive membership policy temporarily derailed this triumphalist narrative of uninterrupted racial progress and demonstrated that racial discrimination, though greatly diminished, still remained an unresolved issue in the South, even within the supposedly enlightened world of higher education.

Since the early twentieth century college athletics had mattered enormously to southern white males, whether they were enrolled students, alumni, or sports fans who had never set foot inside a college classroom. University administrators eventually realized that their school teams constituted the best-known public symbols of their institutions and had become, in the words of one historian, "the ultimate public relations weapon." Football especially came to inspire such fanatical passion across Dixie that it constituted what Andrei S. Markovits termed a "hegemonic team sport," one that unites masses of citizens from a region or nation in a collective emotional embrace of triumph or defeat. This southern obsession with team sports dated from the late nineteenth century, when southerners first embraced competitive athletics. Football, an Americanized version of rugby, initially developed at male prep schools and men's colleges in the northeastern United States and then spread rapidly across the South in the 1890s through a process of cultural diffusion. Despite some initial opposition from administrators and faculty, as well as religious leaders, virtually every major southern university had established an official football team by 1900. Some of these institutions excluded women from enrollment, and at the others male students greatly outnumber their female classmates. In such a robust masculine environment young white men welcomed such a manly new sport with great enthusiasm and soon established competitive rivalries with neighboring institutions.

By the end of the first decade of the new century southern universities had started to look beyond their region in search of enhanced competition and national recognition. Through intersectional contests against the more prestigious northern teams like Harvard, Yale, and Michigan, they sought not only to display their athletic skills but also to claim cultural recognition from their more esteemed counterparts in higher education. Southern teams consciously carried a deep sense of sectional pride and much more with them when they crossed the Mason-Dixon line to challenge Yankee teams. Intersectional games provided them with the opportunity to erase the stigma of an allegedly backward and defeated region by demonstrating the good health, robust manliness, technical skills, and cultural modernity of southern men. Most of these contests proved uneventful, but in a few cases heated confrontations over the color line did erupt. At the time there were only a tiny number of African American students at predominantly white northern universities. In fact, some northern colleges did not have even one black student enrolled. If African American males were present at a university, though, they sought to join their school's athletic teams just like their white counterparts. Thus, whenever a southern college scheduled a game against a northern opponent, there existed the possibility of a conflict over racial policy.

Intersectional contests in the early 1900s developed at a time when a new, harsher system of white supremacy had tightened its grip on the South. The widespread political disfranchisement of African American voters, the prevalence of lynchings and other forms of racial violence, and the increasing adoption of state laws and municipal ordinances separating black and white residents in public accommodations marked the "nadir" of African American rights in the postemancipation era. Segregation, and the color line that delineated its boundaries, restricted public spaces by reserving certain zones only for whites and excluding African Americans. Railroads, streetcars, public schools, restaurants, and movie theaters were just some of the public sites helping construct what Grace Elizabeth Hale has termed "the culture of segregation." Athletic arenas offered additional racialized spaces where a new emphasis on "whiteness" could be performed for white spectators, free from any participation by African Americans. During the latter half of the nineteenth century limited athletic competition between black and white southerners had been tolerated, primarily in boxing, but this practice disappeared by the start of the new century, as whites tightened the color line. The Richmond Times summed up the new status quo in January 1900 when it pronounced, "God Almighty drew the color line, and it cannot be obliterated. The negro must stay on his side of the line, and the white man must stay on his side." White southerners automatically applied these new, more rigid racial values to the world of college athletics. However, their beliefs clashed with the egalitarian ethos of the amateur code of competition developed by New England schools. When playing northern colleges white southerners insisted that the color line must always be drawn, regardless of a specific game's geographical location. To them, athletic contests should be understood primarily as a social activity. If a southern team were to compete on the football field or on the basketball court against an African American, such an encounter would represent "social equality," thereby violating the protected white space that segregation had created and upsetting the "natural" racial hierarchy of the region. Moreover, the white players involved would have dishonored themselves and the South by their association, brief though it might have been, with a member of an inferior race. The Richmond Times-Dispatch captured this ideology in a spirited 1923 editorial that appeared after Washington and Lee College of Virginia had refused to take the field for a football game in Pennsylvania, because the home team included one black player: "Social equality has not been extended the negro here.... There would not be the slightest difference in playing football with him and in sitting down with him at a formal dinner or meeting him for a game of golf on the country club links. College sports are purely social. And social distinctions necessarily are arbitrary."

At the same time, the social and cultural values accompanying the development of football in the northeastern United States formulated an egalitarian athletic creed. This ideology assumed equal access to a level playing field, required "fair play" from all participants, and insisted that character, not raw talent or social status, would ultimately prevail in athletic contests. Such values were not always honored in practice, of course, as gamesmanship often trumped sportsmanship in the heat of competition. Moreover, racial discrimination in sports existed not just in the South but all over the nation. In the early 1900s some northern colleges did not permit African Americans to enroll, others refused to allow them to participate in athletics, and a mixture of these schools would not permit their teams to play against African Americans. In 1903 and again in 1904, for example, Wabash College of Indiana had several football games canceled by its opponents because the Wabash squad included one African American each year. The most persistent case of northern bias came from the Big Ten Conference. Although league members had long permitted African Americans to participate in football, these same schools totally excluded black players from varsity basketball until 1944 and did not make serious efforts to recruit black high school stars until the early 1950s. Nonetheless, the ideology of college sports insisted, at least in theory if not always in practice, that what truly mattered in athletic competition was individual character and merit, not outside social considerations. The New York Times reaffirmed this idealized view of athletic competition in 1959, when the newspaper called for eliminating the color line in athletics at southern schools: "Sport ... puts no artificial barriers as race or religion in the way of performance. What counts and what matters is what the given individual can do."

The conflict between the southern white policy of racial exclusion and the American athletic creed of equality on the playing fields shaped both intersectional competition and internal policy at southern universities for the first seven decades of the twentieth century. The ebb and flow of this protracted struggle to control racial policy for southern and American college athletics can be divided into four somewhat distinct chronological stages. In the first era, lasting roughly from 1890 through the early 1930s, white southerners were able to dictate national policy concerning intersectional games. As southern teams commenced intersectional competition in the early 1900s, they often lacked specific information about their northern opponents and experienced a few unexpected confrontations over black participation. In order to avoid any racial surprises on game day, these schools developed the so-called gentleman's agreement. According to this informal but widely understood policy, nonsouthern colleges would automatically bench any black player on their roster when playing a southern team, regardless of the game's location, in deference to the southerners' sensitivity concerning interracial contact. Since southern schools did not possess the athletic or cultural clout within higher education to impose this policy unilaterally, the practice of racial exclusion required northern complicity for its implementation. Until the 1940s many northern universities were quite willing to make this concession in order to gain the "gate receipts and glory" that they received from high-profile intersectional games. Such a concession to expediency also exposed the marginal status of African American students on northern campuses.

In the second period of the athletic color line's history, which lasted from the early 1930s through about 1950, northern schools increasingly challenged the use of the gentleman's agreement for games staged in the North. Beginning in 1936 a few southern teams opportunistically abandoned racial exclusion for football contests held outside the South, in order to seek a higher national ranking, receive a generous paycheck, or audition for a coveted invitation to the Rose Bowl. After the end of World War II the gentleman's agreement increasingly came under ideological attack as a denial of the basic democratic values for which the recent war had been fought. By the early 1950s liberal students and administrators, sometimes led by World War II veterans, had won the fight for "democracy on the playing fields" in the North.


Excerpted from Benching Jim Crow by CHARLES H. MARTIN Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois . Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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