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The Golden Age of Black College Football Lost to Integration

The glory days of HBCU football are unlikely to return, but calls for economic fairness for black athletes—and black institutions—continue

AP Images/Ringer illustration

On the morning of October 6, 1979, University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger told his players that their game against Florida A&M was their opponents’ “Super Bowl.” Miami was unranked but still expected to beat FAMU, a historically black college and university (HBCU) in Tallahassee. For the Rattlers, an opportunity to play a high-profile, in-state team like the Hurricanes was a massive undertaking. Major college football had been fully integrated for nearly a decade (it wasn’t until 1972 that every football team in the Southeastern Conference fielded a black player). But the leading programs of the day avoided HBCU teams—Tennessee didn’t play Tennessee State, LSU didn’t play Grambling State or Southern University, and FAMU lived in the shadow of Florida, Florida State, and the Hurricanes. It was a competitive strategy developed during segregation and built on fear: Major colleges didn’t want to risk losing to HBCUs.

FAMU was a pillar of the golden age of black college football: Between 1945 and 1969, the Rattlers went 204-36-4 and won eight black college national championships (including six in the 1950s) and 20 conference championships. In 1979, the Rattlers, the defending Division I-AA champions and winners of back-to-back black college national championships, were arguably the most dominant HBCU program in the country. At the time of their matchup against Miami, FAMU epitomized black football excellence, but the program’s influence would fade at the end of the 20th century. Miami, meanwhile, would go on to become one of the country’s dominant teams, winning four national championships between 1983 and 1991. The Hurricanes, like so many other high-profile programs, began recruiting the talent that sustained successful black college programs throughout the 20th century.

FAMU won a tight contest, 16-13. Celebrating Rattlers fans paraded onto the field after Miami’s kicker sailed a 20-yard chip shot wide of the left upright. According to a Sports Illustrated account of the game, players launched head coach Rudy Hubbard onto their shoulders “riding in a sea of orange helmets and raised black fists.” The Rattlers’ lauded band, the Marching 100, beat their drums in the background. It was the soundtrack of triumph. Fans celebrated inside of the stadium for an hour after the victory. One Miami player told the Tallahassee Democrat that FAMU had “a good defense, good athletes, but they’re not real sophisticated.”

University of Kentucky professor Derrick White recounts memories of the game in Blood, Sweat & Tears, his history of black college football. The book forcefully retells the story of black colleges while unpacking the effects of integration on black sporting communities.

Many Americans believed HBCUs to be of lesser educational quality, so athletic achievement was a way to show the value of black life. HBCUs, White says in an interview, had fewer material resources. “But that was offset with the human resources. Staff believed that the students could learn. The question is, how does one prove that? Football became a really good measurement. They were producing high numbers of professional athletes, and that was a proxy for their quality.”

Football helped to develop a bountiful idea of about black identity within these communities. It became the athletic representation of black culture, and success on the gridiron held the possibility of equality, on and off the field.

At their inception, HBCUs were the bedrock for black citizens to create their own political, professional, and educational halls as a means of survival. White missionaries and religious leaders helped create the first black schools in the northern states before the passing of the Morrill Act in 1862, a law which established land-grant colleges and aided in the creation of black colleges across the South. The law was expanded in 1890 to provide federal funding for HBCUs in the South, though their financial growth was capped when the law adopted segregationist language of the time. These institutions allowed black citizens to counteract the harshest waves of American racism, especially after segregationist efforts spread like an epidemic across the South during the period of Redemption, and after the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Historian Rayford Logan, in The Betrayal of the Negro, described the period between Reconstruction and the first World War as the “nadir of American race relations.” Given the country’s resistance to integration, black colleges created similar cultural conditions on their campuses as their white counterparts, including in their athletic departments. It was invention borne out of necessity—black citizens were denied access to the nation’s white schools.

In his 1991 book, In Their Own Interests, historian Earl Lewis wrote “Afro-Americans discovered that even though they could not always secure the range of improvements desired, they could begin to frame their own reality. In their efforts, they modified the political language so that segregation became congregation.” Black colleges have created more black doctors, judges, and lawyers than any other institution in America, and capture our greatest sounds and develop our sharpest minds. This was especially true of intercollegiate athletics. The sporting congregations borne from black colleges—the students, coaches, black press, and reformers—showed what was achievable through autonomy. Football became a conduit between HBCUs and black communities and a critical source of black pride in the 20th century.

“I try to put games into prominence among our people,” John Hope, who coached at Morehouse College, wrote to his wife, in a letter documented by Hope’s biographer, Leroy Davis. “Sports teach them how to contest without losing self-respect. It is a means of acquiring bravery and gentility.”

Despite the inherent inequalities brought about by segregation, black colleges and their football programs thrived in the middle part of the 20th century. Morgan State won four titles in seven years from 1943 to 1949, losing only eight games in that span. Coach Ace Mumford led Southern to three titles and a 32-0-2 record from 1948 to 1950. Under Jake Gaither, Florida A&M lost four times in 58 games from 1957 to 1962 and produced several AFL and NFL pros. Toward the end of the century, black colleges featured future NFL stars like Jackson State’s Walter Payton, Mississippi Valley State’s Jerry Rice, and Alcorn State’s Steve McNair, who finished third in Heisman voting in 1994. Doug Williams, a Grambling alum, became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl in 1988 with Washington.

Despite its success, black college football existed mostly outside the attention of white institutions and audiences. The press rarely, if ever, pushed the teams into the mainstream of athletic coverage. Football was a sport of order, of manliness, especially among the elite colleges across the Northeast—an “American spectacle,” as the author Michael Oriard once claimed—but never an entry point for black Americans to achieve equality.

Eric Roberts, a sportswriter for the Atlanta Daily World, explained the significance of black college football’s rise in an interview with Columbia University’s Black Journalists Oral History Project in 1971. He said he gasped during the days when 20,000 people would flood a Howard vs. Lincoln football game. What he saw went beyond football. “Our heaven and our glory was … not at Harvard, but at Howard and Lincoln and it [moved] south where Morehouse and Atlanta University and Clark and Morris Brown and Tuskegee and Alabama State and finally Florida A&M and other schools west of the Mississippi … all joined the passion [of the] black world.”

The athletic glory of black colleges faded in the latter decades of the 20th century, a by-product of federally mandated integration following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Numerous programs crumbled under the weight of desegregation, unable, according to White’s history of the sport, to keep up as its talent pool was diminished, recruited by more prominent programs with vastly superior resources. HBCUs lost their influence almost overnight. It is difficult to know whether those glory days are gone forever.

Most black institutions rely on federal dollars for more than half of their annual revenue. A 2019 American Council on Education brief from authors at the United Negro College Fund showed that a heavy reliance on federal, state, and local resources makes these schools susceptible to economic downturns and state divestments in education, or radical policy shifts. This week in the House of Representatives, lawmakers have to vote on $255 million in mandatory spending for HBCUs—a failure to pass the bill could send many into financial ruin.

Jemele Hill recently posited in The Atlantic that elite black athletes should attend HBCUs because “black athletes overall have never had as much power and influence as they do now,” which “gives them leverage, if only they could be moved to use it.” Andre Perry asked in The Hechinger Report, “What if black athletes across sports and different levels exercised their power collectively?” It’s true, as Perry says, that “black athletes have the economic leverage and the moral high ground to disrupt inequality.” They are the most prominent and most exploited members of the NCAA’s collegiate athletic complex. But it’s a puzzling proposition to offer mass migration back to these institutions as a cementing of some future athletic glory or promise of economic prosperity. Whatever crisis black colleges currently face cannot be fixed by athletics alone. Students at these institutions are immersed in the history of black people in this country. It took the entirety of the black congregation to build these schools, to give them identity through athletics, and mold them into educational powerhouses.

What is being proposed is ahistorical, and doesn’t achieve the goals of the founders of these institutions. The golden age of black college football suggests the most dynamic black athletes flocked to HBCUs and were led by the game’s best black coaches. The founders who built these colleges were driven by a mission to pursue black freedom, which cannot be accomplished if financial equity doesn’t exist between labor and employer. Such an argument belies the true reality of what is in front of us. How can we place such a burden on the shoulders of black teenagers who operate in a system designed to keep them broke and indentured?

“The question you have to ask is how can these players use their individual talent to reframe the power relationships in college sports as currently defined,” White says.

The idea does not upend the institutional disease that keeps black players’ pockets empty, nor does it dismantle the faulty system of NCAA amateurism. Until that happens, any mass movement of black athletes to black schools under the guise of reasserting black power merely preserves the status quo. Prosperity is not promised to follow. Exploitation by black hands instead of white ones would not dramatically shift the paradigm of college athletics or bring much-needed state and federal dollars to black colleges.

“Even if everybody showed up at Grambling, the state of Louisiana isn’t going to give Grambling more money because they all of a sudden have all the football talent. You’re looking at ancillary monies developed through sports: television, apparel sales, retail, boosters, etc. That still doesn’t change the fundamental fact that Grambling gets less money than LSU from the state,” White says. “Every black superstar or blue-chipper returning to HBCUs won’t fix any of that.”

“You’re spending so much time fighting for those little bit of dollars it ignores the fact that all these southern states, in particular, have already created these key inequities that will never be fixed without reparations, for lack of a better term,” White continues.

Black college football formed a part of the sound and soul of the black experience in the 20th century. Race and racism will always be a part of our national identity. Rather than flee that reality, black colleges embraced it and formed cultural centers and homes for citizens who were denied access to education and athletic opportunities.

A return to HBCU dominance seems unrealistic, given the current state of college athletics. What must be fixed is the national understanding about the civil rights issue of using unpaid, mostly black labor to toil for the sake of these schools, and the lie of amateurism that keeps this mechanism in place.

This change cannot be achieved by raising the social and financial capital of colleges through the same abuse of black athletes that has always existed, not when state and federal funding to black institutions remains inadequate. The black student and the black athlete must be central in this conversation. It is their future that is at stake, after all. If not, we will continue to fail the same black students, black athletes, and black schools we purportedly seek to assist, and the cycle of despair will continue, but with a new face and name.