The University of Iowa has a long and noteworthy history of providing athletic opportunities for African-Americans, particularly during times when such opportunities were uncommon elsewhere. As part of Black History Month, I think it’s important to take a look at some of these pioneers for African-Americans in Hawkeye sports and recognize their accomplishments.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports - The First Three
The first three African-American athletes I’ve been able to identify from the University of Iowa were Frank Holbrook, Archie Alexander, and Duke Slater.
Frank Holbrook, who I discussed indepth in a previous post, was Iowa’s first black athlete, lettering for the Hawkeye football team in 1895 and 1896 and the Hawkeye track team in 1896 and 1897. Holbrook endured some of the worst treatment due to the color of his skin in Iowa sports history during an 1896 game against Missouri, yet he played with courage and determination. Kinney Holbrook, as he was called, set the foundation for African-American athletes in the state of Iowa.
Archie Alexander, a black tackle for the Hawkeyes from 1909-1911, was next. Alexander faced the same discrimination from the Missouri Tigers that Holbrook did; he was benched for Iowa’s 1910 contest at Missouri rather than incite the Missouri fans into another situation similar to what Holbrook faced. Nevertheless, Alexander was a powerful player who received the nickname “Alexander the Great” for his excellent play. He later earned an engineering degree and had a successful career in private business and politics, being named the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands by President Eisenhower in 1954.
The third known African-American athlete at the University of Iowa was one I have covered repeatedly here on this site – Duke Slater. Slater played at Iowa from 1918-1921; as a sophomore in 1919, he was named a second-team All-American, becoming the first black All-American in Iowa history. Slater went on to have a long career in the NFL and in the legal field. He remained a longtime fan of his alma mater and became the school’s chief recruiter in the black community. Many of the athletes to follow did so because they either heard of Slater’s exploits at Iowa or were personally recruited by him to Iowa City.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1920s
Slater’s accomplishments at the University of Iowa drew other black athletes to the school, looking to duplicate Slater’s success. Ledrue Galloway and Arlington Daniels in 1924, Harold Bradley Sr. in 1926, and Wendell Benjamin in 1929-1930 all came to Iowa in search of an opportunity to play. All four were African-American linemen who drew inevitable comparisons to Duke Slater, and while none of them came close to matching his achievements, all of them made a memorable impact.
Harold Bradley Sr. didn’t actually earn a letter for the football team, but he went on to be just the second black lineman in NFL history – after Slater – in 1928. Bradley’s son, Harold Bradley Jr., would follow in his dad’s footsteps, joining the Hawkeye football team and earning letters in 1949 and 1950.
Ledrue Galloway earned a letter at tackle for the 1924 Hawkeye football team, but he was hospitalized with tuberculosis before the following season. He is probably best remembered in Iowa football history for a game in which he didn’t even play. Galloway sent a telegram from his hospital bed to the 1925 Hawkeyes before a game against an outstanding Illinois team, led by Red Grange. He wrote, “There will be twelve Iowa men on the field to beat Illinois. I am with you.” The Hawkeyes pulled off the improbable upset, 12-10, but Galloway died of his illness less than a year later.
Football wasn’t the only sport where African-American Hawkeyes made an impact. Charles Brookins was a hurdler who won an NCAA championship and set a world record in the 220-yard low hurdles at the 1923 NCAA Track and Field Championships. He served as the captain of Iowa’s track team and participated in the 1924 Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles. Brookins initially finished second in the finals of that event, which would have been good for a silver medal, but he was disqualified for running out of his lane.
Now…was Charles Brookins an African-American? That’s something of an unanswered question. He was very fair-skinned, and most mainstream newspapers did not report him as being a black athlete. However, some people close to him believed he was of African-American descent, and a few black newspapers claimed him as one of their own.
On the other hand, there was no question about Ed Gordon‘s heritage. Gordon was a star long jumper for Iowa from 1929-1931. He won three consecutive NCAA championships in the event, becoming the first athlete to win NCAA championships in an event three straight years. Gordon then went on to capture the gold medal in long jumping in the 1932 Olympic Games after placing seventh in the world at the Olympics four years prior. Ed Gordon was quite possibly the most dominant track and field athlete in Iowa history – a remarkable accomplishment indeed for an African-American in that era.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1930s
In 1932, the Hawkeye football team had two African-American letterwinners – end Voris Dickerson and back Wilbur “Windy” Wallace. The most infamous moment of that 1-7 season came when the Hawkeyes agreed to bench Dickerson and Wallace for a road game in DC against George Washington University. Washington DC, a distinctly southern city culturally at that time, was not receptive to the idea of two African-American players on the Hawkeye squad, so Iowa left them on the sidelines.
As skilled as Windy Wallace was, a mere two years later another black halfback would captivate the Hawkeye fanbase in a way no African-American player had since Duke Slater. Iowa’s Big Ten opener in 1934 was a breakout game for Oze E. “Ozzie” Simmons. Simmons racked up over 300 all-purpose yards in the Hawkeyes’ 20-7 victory over Northwestern, and a new star was introduced to the college football galaxy.
Ozzie Simmons was a two-time All-American for the Hawkeyes in 1934 and 1935. His most lasting contribution to Hawkeye football can be seen every time Iowa takes the field against Minnesota. A controversy over rough treatment he received at the hands of the Gophers in 1934 led to a dispute that was only tamed through the creation of the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy.
One of the most overlooked of Iowa’s African-American pioneers was Ozzie’s brother, Don Simmons. Although he was constantly in the shadow of his little brother, Don Simmons earned three letters with the Hawkeye football team from 1934-1936 as an end. Don also served as his brother’s biggest fan and spokesman, helping to shield the talented but often shy Ozzie from the intense spotlight of athletic stardom.
Because Ozzie Simmons was the most talented player on the 1936 Hawkeye team, it was somewhat surprising that he wasn’t named the team’s captain, which would have made him the first black captain of a Big Ten football team. Instead, that honor fell one year later to Homer Harris, an African-American end who was elected captain of the 1937 Hawkeye football team. After a stint in the Army, Harris later became a respected dermatologist in Seattle.
The 1939 Ironmen was the most celebrated team in Iowa football history. The Ironmen were bolstered by two African-American standouts – tackle Jim Walker and end Fred Smith. Smith was a reserve end for the 1939 Hawkeyes as a senior. Walker, on the other hand, was one of 13 members of that Iowa team that played all sixty minutes in a single game that season. Jim Walker played a complete game against Indiana early in the year and was counted on to be a major factor on the Hawkeye line until he suffered a severe knee injury the following game that kept him out for most of the rest of the season.
Walker came to Iowa from South Bend, Indiana. His hometown college, Notre Dame, refused to consider recruiting Walker because he was an African-American, so he went to Iowa City, where he became a legitimate star. Jim Walker played three seasons for Iowa from 1939-1941 and helped the Hawkeyes to an upset over the Irish in 1940.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1940s
African-Americans made headlines in several major sports for the Hawkeyes in the 1940s. Lee Farmer set several school records for the Hawkeye track team in 1942 and was named the team’s captain in 1943 before being called away to serve in the military during World War II. Dick Culberson became the first African-American to play Big Ten basketball during the 1944-45 season; he was a reserve for an Iowa team that went on to win the Big Ten title that season.
Culberson’s legacy in Big Ten basketball has been repeatedly and constantly downplayed, dismissed, and disregarded by misguided Indiana basketball fans, who spread the falsehood that Bill Garrett, a black Hoosier All-American from 1947-1951, was the first African-American player in the Big Ten. In particular, Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody, authors of Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball, continued to credit Garrett with integrating major college basketball and breaking the Big Ten’s color line against African-American players even after being made aware of Culberson’s presence on the 1945 Hawkeye team. Their promotion of Garrett as the “Jackie Robinson of college basketball” spawned numerous articles incorrectly hailing him as the first black basketball player in Big Ten history. In their overzealous attempt to promote Bill Garrett’s accomplishments, the Grahams displayed an irresponsible, dismissive attitude toward Dick Culberson’s achievements, and their misleading statements serve to dishonor everything that both Culberson and Garrett did to advance the rights of African-Americans in Big Ten basketball.
African-Americans received numerous opportunities to contribute to Iowa football that weren’t available elsewhere. This is not to suggest, however, that these men didn’t frequently face discrimination…occasionally even from fellow Hawkeyes. One of these trailblazers left the football team after a nasty incident instigated by a Hawkeye coach. Joseph Howard lettered for the 1943 Hawkeyes and returned to the squad in 1944. That year, the Hawkeyes squared off against Indiana, who featured a black running back. One of Coach Slip Madigan’s assistant coaches called out to the Iowa defense to stop the Hoosier back, using a racial epithet. Howard asked the assistant coach to apologize for using the offensive slur, but the coach refused, so Howard quit the team. Joseph Howard went on to become a prominent judge in Baltimore.
Still, the Hawkeye football program was powered by pioneering African-American players throughout the late-1940s. These men included Obern Simons in 1945, Sherman Howard in 1946, and John Estes in 1947. But the two best-known African-American Hawkeye football stars of this era were Emlen Tunnell and Earl Banks. Tunnell went on to have a marvelous career in pro football, integrating the New York Giants and becoming the first African-American inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Banks, on the other hand, had a long and distinguished coaching career at multiple historically black colleges.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1950s, Football
Five African-Americans played for the 1950 Hawkeye football team, and these five made college football history. Bernard Bennett, Harold Bradley Jr., Don Commack, Delmar Corbin, and Don Riley were members of the 1950 Iowa squad that ended their season with a road game against the Miami Hurricanes. Bennett, Bradley, Commack, Corbin, and Riley – collectively known as the “Orange Bowl Five” – were the first black athletes to play a football game in the old Orange Bowl stadium. Although the Hawks fell in a hard-fought contest, 14-6, the Orange Bowl Five opened a door for African-Americans in the deep south.
More history was made by the Steubenville Trio – Cal Jones, Eddie Vincent, and Frank Gilliam – who played at Iowa from 1953-1956. In particular, Jones went down as one of the pioneering African-American linemen in college football history. He was the first African-American featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, and he was the first black lineman to win the coveted Outland Trophy. Cal Jones was so admired by his teammates that they elected him team captain in 1955, a rare achievement for an African-American in that era.
Forest Evashevski, Iowa’s head coach from 1952-1960, utilized African-American athletes extensively to help mold Hawkeye football into a legitimate national powerhouse. The number of black athletes who contributed to Evy’s success at Iowa are almost too numerable to mention, but a few standouts include Bob Jeter, Willie Fleming, John Burroughs, and Wilburn Hollis. Jeter and Fleming went down as two of the greatest running backs in the history of Hawkeye football. Burroughs, a lineman on both of Iowa’s Rose Bowl championship teams in 1956 and 1958, later became a respected U.S. ambassador and diplomat. And Hollis, Iowa’s outstanding starting quarterback on the Big Ten champion 1960 Hawkeye football team, was one of the first African-American starting quarterbacks in college football.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1950s, Other Sports
African-Americans made their mark in other Hawkeye sports during the 1950s as well. Ted Wheeler broke stereotypes as a Hawkeye cross-country star in the 1950s. While many black runners were limited to sprinting, Wheeler proved that African-American athletes could also excel at distance running. He was the first African-American to earn All-American honors in cross-country running in 1951 and later became the first black distance runner to compete at the Olympic Games, competing in the metric-mile at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Charles “Deacon” Jones followed in Wheeler’s footsteps and raised the bar still higher for African-Americans in the sport of cross-country running. Jones won Iowa’s first and only individual cross-country national championship as a sophomore in 1955. That victory made him the first African-American in history to win the NCAA cross-country title. Jones also won an individual NCAA track championship in the two-mile event in 1957, and like Wheeler, he competed in the 1956 Olympics. Running the 3,000-meter steeplechase, Jones competed in the Olympics not only in 1956 but again four years later at the 1960 Olympic Games.
In basketball, McKinley ”Deacon” Davis had a tremendous career for the Hawkeyes from 1952-1955. As a sophomore in 1953, he led the Hawks in scoring and was named second team All-Big Ten. However, in his final two years, some of the attention he might have otherwise received was usurped by the rise of the Fabulous Five. Five very talented players in the class just below Davis began to gain notoriety as a group, yet for the most part, Davis remained in the starting lineup. In 1955, the Hawkeyes made it all the way to the school’s first Final Four appearance, boasting four junior starters and one senior – Deacon Davis.
The following year in 1956, the Fabulous Five – all of whom were now starting as senior – made it back to the Final Four and all the way the national championship game. It is still the only appearance of an Iowa men’s basketball team in the NCAA Championship game. The Fabulous Five was anchored by a high school classmate of Davis’, Carl Cain. Cain, a first team All-American for the Hawkeyes in 1956, later had his #21 retired by the basketball program for his role on Iowa’s two Final Four teams in 1955 and 1956.
Simon Roberts broke barriers even before wrestling for the Hawkeyes from 1956-1958. Roberts defeated Ron Gray in 1953 to become the first African-American state wrestling champion in Iowa high school history. Four years later, Roberts and Gray squared off again – this time for the 147-pound NCAA championship in 1957. Gray was the favorite and undefeated on the year, but Roberts scored a takedown in the final 30 seconds of the match to become the first individual African-American champion in NCAA wrestling history.
African-Americans in Hawkeye Sports – The 1960s and Beyond
Beginning in the 1960s, seeing an African-American competing in the highest levels of college athletics became less and less of a rarity…even in the deep south. Black athletes continued to star for Hawkeye teams, and for the most part, their participation was met with little unrest. One notable exception took place in 1969, when 16 football players boycotted spring practice and were subsequently kicked off the team. The Black Boycott of 1969 stands out as a sour note in the otherwise mutually beneficial partnership that had existed for decades between African-American athletes and Hawkeye sports teams.
University of Iowa athletics continued to be a trailblazer for African-Americans in sports as attention turned from black athletes to black coaches. The legendary Eddie Robinson had spent five summers at Iowa from 1948 through 1958, learning the finer points of Iowa’s offense from Dr. Eddie Anderson and Forest Evashevski. Robinson earned his master’s degree from Iowa in 1954 and went into coaching at Grambling University, where he compiled an incredible 408 coaching victories. Although he never coached at Iowa, his association with Iowa football has always made Hawkeye fans proud.
African-Americans began to break into Iowa’s assistant coaching ranks in the 1960s. Duke Slater had served as a volunteer line coach under Ossie Solem before the 1936 season, but like many position coaches in that era, Slater’s coaching tenure at Iowa only lasted a couple of weeks. Frank Gilliam was hired by Ray Nagel as an assistant football coach in 1966, becoming the first full-time African-American assistant football coach not only at Iowa, but in the entire Big Ten. Dennis Green, a former member of that Black Boycott who played at Iowa from 1968-1970, gained attention as a rising coaching prospect while serving as Iowa’s running backs coach from 1974-1976. Green later went on to become the second African-American Division I-A head coach at Northwestern in 1981 and the third African-American NFL head coach with the Minnesota Vikings in 1992.
Ted Wheeler came back to Iowa in 1972 as an assistant track coach, and in 1978, the Hawkeyes hired him as their head track coach; Wheeler was the first black head coach at the University of Iowa. In 1983, the university handed the reins to both basketball programs to African-Americans – George Raveling was hired as the head coach of Hawkeye men’s basketball, while the women’s team would be led by C. Vivian Stringer. Although Raveling only lasted two short seasons at Iowa before leaving for the warmth of USC, Stringer ignited a golden age in Iowa women’s basketball, leading the Hawks to the Final Four in 1993.
Today, it might be easy to overlook just how important each of these trailblazing African-Americans was in his time. However, the history of Hawkeye sports would be less compelling – and far, far less successful – without their contributions. It is paramount that we remember and celebrate these trailblazers who left an unforgettable legacy at the University of Iowa.