During an era defined by segregation and unequal rights, eight African American student-athletes came to MTSU not fully aware of the lasting impact they would have on the university, athletics and each other.
They got a sense of their trailblazing impact when they returned to campus Thursday, Feb. 6, to see proud family, friends and a host of supporters welcoming them to a special ceremony, hosted by MTSU Athletics in the Student Union Ballroom, to honor them as “True Blue Pioneers.”
Former Blue Raiders Jerry Singleton, Art Polk, Lonnell Poole, Terry Scott, J.W. Harper, Ray Bonner, Ed Miller and Mary “Beanie” Secrest were among those recognized in a panel discussion moderated by MTSU’s Ed Arning. (Polk chimed in from Africa via Skype.)
Out of all the honorees, Singleton, a track star, was the first African American to receive an athletic scholarship to the university in the fall of 1965.
“My parents were unable to send me to college,” said Singleton. “I had a great desire to go college, knowing that’s the key to opening doors. (Track coach) Dean Hayes presented me with an opportunity for which I’m forever grateful.”
Hayes attended the event with his wife, Jan, other former coaches and players and MT Athletics administrators and staff as well as MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee.
“When I came, integration wasn’t on my mind, because I was already a part of it where I came from,” said Hayes, who began his legend-making coaching career in the Chicago area and has been at MTSU for more than a half-century. “We were focused on winning.”
Singleton’s addition laid the foundation for black male athletes at MTSU. He was joined by his former teammate Poole on the track team the following year. Around the same time, other MTSU sports added African American athletes, too.
Scott and Polk would play basketball, while Harper, Bonner and Miller became the football program’s first black players. All the athletes praised the coaches and their families for welcoming them and fostering an atmosphere that helped to calm the social tensions that boiled over in other parts of the South and the nation.
“Life was good to me here. I had a great opportunity to play and get a degree,” said Bonner, a member of the famed “Mod Squad” defensive backfield under coach Charles “Bubber” Murphy. “I actually have two degrees from MTSU. God put us here for a reason.”
The Franklin County, Tennessee, native has served as an assistant coach on Hayes’ staff the past several years.
Polk, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, was in Africa and joined in via videoconference to answer questions and share lots of laughs and memories with his former classmates.
“I saw the university go through major transitions,” said Polk. “I am very proud of the university’s willingness to change, adjust and now have such a diverse student body.”
Secrest, the lone woman on the panel, played multiple sports while on the Blue Raider campus — basketball, volleyball and intramural track — from 1971 to 1974 and reflected on the challenges female athletes faced as a result of the limited resources at the time.
Unlike the male athletes, scholarships weren’t offered in women’s athletics during this period in collegiate sports. Secrest explained that her love for the game and the competition kept her going, especially during basketball season.
“I appreciate the ladies that stepped forward to coach us,” said Secrest. “Women’s athletics was totally different. It was nothing at all like men’s sports. There were no scholarships. You played because you were an athlete.”
Despite facing social challenges, including not being able to enter segregated restaurants while traveling with the team, lack of scholarships and other factors, she spoke of the valuable lessons learned and the doors that opened because of MTSU.
“I have progressed in corporate America like I never would have believed,” said Secrest. “It has shown me what perseverance and determination will do for you. The harder it is, the better it is for you.”
To view more events scheduled for MTSU’s Black History Month celebration, visit www.mtsu.edu/aahm/docs/bhm-calendar.pdf.
— Carl Coates Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org)