The History of Black College Football

FAMU football coach Jake Gaither talking to one of his players -Tallahassee-December 1953 (State Library and Archives of Florida)

Reflecting on his time as a member of the Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) football team, journalist Eric “Ric” Roberts underscores the significance of Black college football as the 20th century was entering its second quarter. For Black football fans, the center of their gridiron universe was not found in primarily white institutions (PWIs) like Harvard and Yale—institutions that initially supported the spread and popularization of football. Rather, the only football that mattered to them was played between teams at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

In Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jack Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football, Derrick White argues that by examining the history of football at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) and their coach, Alonzo “Jack” Gaither, one is able to trace the development of Black college football and the emergence of its Golden Age. Central to White’s argument is the critical distinction between football programs at HBCUs and PWIs. Football at HBCU’s was fostered by what White coins as “sporting congregations” or “a network of athletes, administrators, coaches, sportswriters and fans” that formed vital relationships between HBCUs and Black communities. These relationships increasingly destabilized as the civil rights and Black power movements emerged.

Chronologically organized, White’s narrative begins in the late 19th century as football developed at both HBCUs and PWIs. The first football game was played in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. Then, the game resembled soccer more than the modern football. As the game developed, it quickly became associated with white males at elite colleges as their expression of “industry and manhood.”Consequently, Black men were mostly excluded from the game. However, as the century came to a close, Black men appeared on the field in small numbers—mostly schools in the East and Midwest with Amherst College’s William Jackson being the first to break the color line. The relatively few “racial pioneers” who played for elite PWIs experienced various levels of racism from coaches, fans, and players on the field and, at times, resulted in physical violence.

The violent realities of Jim Crow forced Black Americans to create parallel institutions including schools, churches, media, sororities, and fraternities among others where they would not be forced to face the many racial indignities and violence that were common occurrences during the “nadir of race relations,” the period in the United States between 1890 and 1920. These parallel institutions simultaneously shielded Black Americans from many of the humiliations of Jim Crow and promoted a cultural autonomy that asserted Black humanity in the midst of an anti-Black American system. Football at HBCUs, then, became a way for Black men to express, perhaps uncritically, notions of manhood, racial pride and uplift.  The first game between HBCUs was played on December 27, 1892 between Biddle College and Livingstone College. It was racial pioneers who formerly played at PWIs that were primarily responsible for bringing the knowledge of football to HBCUs.

Between 1892 and 1930, the development of sporting congregations at HBCUs marked a critical distinction between Black and white college football. Football programs at HBCUs were supported by a network of students, coaches, school administrators, the Black media and the community. At its inception, football was organized primarily by students, however as the game developed, coaches increasingly played important roles on teams. Concurrently, the campuses of HBCUs experienced a shift from white to Black teachers and administrators. Black coaches and administrators viewed football as a game that would not only promote racial uplift and manhood, but also develop racial leadership and supported a democratic ethos.

On the field, promoters of the game argued, everyone was equal—both Black and white—and the game could only be won through individual and collective hard work, focus and dedication. Even as World War I and the Great Depression forced many HBCUs and PWIs to close their doors and end their football programs, driven by increased enrollment and, consequently, increased funding, public HBCUs like FAMU were able emerge out of the depression with their athletic programs intact. Emblematic of the power of sporting congregations at HBCUs was the creation of the “classic,” such as FAMU’s Orange Blossom Classic (OBC). Classics, popularized and hyped by the Black media, became the most important games in Black college football and often decided who won national championships. Importantly, they also supplemented athletic budgets that received unequal distribution from Jim Crow state governments.

Following World War II, Black college football experienced what White characterizes as the Golden Age of Black college football. Returning Black veterans utilized the G.I. Bill and enrollment at HBCUs skyrocketed and expanded the participation in athletics.  FAMU, led by Gaither, became the most successful football program in the state of Florida even as the other in-state PWIs refused to play an HBCU like FAMU. Even as Gaither clamored year after year for the opportunity to play white schools, these schools (and state officials) could not bear the possibility that a Black school would beat them and destroy their closely held myths about white superiority.  Gaither, aided by segregation and the sporting congregation that formed out of it, had an advantage with practically a monopoly on Black athletes who, in Florida, were products of segregated high schools, many who had former FAMU players as coaches. As White asserts, HBCU football programs, particularly in the South, temporarily benefited from segregation.

Paradoxically, the promise and future of Black college football depended on segregation. The sporting congregations that propelled the football programs at FAMU, Grambling State, Tennessee State and others began to crack as the civil rights movement emerged during the mid-1950s and 1960s. White argues that integrationist in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights organizations failed to account for the importance of Black institutions relying on faulty logic that Black institutions were inherently inferior. Brown v. Board, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Tallahassee Movement in Florida sped up Jim Crow’s demise. Initially, Florida state officials resisted integration in schools by increasing funding in Black school districts and HBCUs. Years after the passing of Brown, however, state officials were forced to integrate high schools. Coupled with undeniably talented Black players in the professional ranks (many from HBCUs), football programs in the South slowly began fielding Black players. With years of being underfunded by Jim Crow governments, HBCUs could not compete with the material and financial advantages of PWIs which appealed to Black athletes. Gaither and other Black coaches at HBCUs viewed integration as an opportunity to play PWIs and finally prove Black college teams were just as good. As the Golden Age waned, FAMU finally got their opportunity to play against in-state PWI Miami University and won in convincing fashion. Many more PWIs, however, waited until they recruited more Black players and the talent scales tipped in their favor before agreeing to play HBCUs.

More than anything Blood, Sweat, & Tears is an important exploration of the radical possibilities of Black institutions for the cultural autonomy and self-determination of Black people. By centering Black college football as opposed to the racial pioneers who broke the color lines at PWIs, White intervenes in college football’s history. Sports journalist and historians can no longer exclude Black college football’s achievements and contributions from the broader history of the sport. White’s epilogue would have benefited from a more thorough discussion of the legacy and impact of the Golden Age of Black college football on today’s game. Football at HBCUs was never just about what happened on the field but about caring for and developing the whole person. This is in stark contrast to the guiding ethos of a NCAA that continues to rob players of their labor even as their profits grow year after year. Moreover, Black college football rejected the premise, held by many PWIs, that Black athletes could not perform in leadership positions on the field like quarterback, a pervasive myth that still haunts MVP-caliber Black quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson. Derrick White’s Blood, Sweat, & Tears is an important, accessible and welcome history for readers of all levels who are interested in the history of black sports and college football.

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Joshua Crutchfield

Joshua Crutchfield is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s the co-founder of #BlkTwitterstorians, a Twitter chat that connects Black historians and discusses Black history. You can follow him on Twitter at @Crutch4.