The TV sports himbos and local sports radio jocks who want to turn college football into a giant casino calliope. They lead you to believe that when it comes to collegiate sports, winning is everything. I disagree. It’s hardly the point at all, in fact. I offer this little known story about Detroit football, racial brotherhood and what it means to be grow into a man.
I heard the story about 20 years ago at the wake of my father-in-law Larry Kuzniar, a lifelong Detroiter who played football at Wayne State University in the early ’50s.
The year was 1952 and the football team from Wayne University — as the school was known then — took a train to St. Louis to play Washington University.
It is important to say that Wayne’s Tartars, being from Detroit, were an integrated football team with five of the 40 men being black.
It is also important to say that St. Louis was then part of the Jim Crow South, with separate but equal being the rule — if not the reality — of law. That meant separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites, separate seating on the buses, separate schools, separate football teams. And separate hotels.
Team a surprise
When the Detroit team arrived in St. Louis by train, they were taken to their hotel by bus. But the hotelier was surprised by the presence of the black men, according to Elbert Richmond, a running back for the Tartars and a black man who told this story at my father-in-law’s wake.
“They didn’t allow black people in the hotels then,” Richmond told me last week from his apartment overlooking the Detroit River. “I guess the coaches made a deal. We could stay in the hotel, but the black players would have to go up in the freight elevator so nobody could see us. The white players, they were allowed to go in through the lobby.”
According to Richmond, now 78, the team went back to the bus to discuss the situation.
“We had no choice really but to sleep at the hotel,” Richmond said. “We talked about it, and Larry and a couple of other white players stood and said: ‘If one of us has to take the elevator, we all take the elevator.’ I remember that like yesterday.”
Richmond was no stranger to Jim Crow. Raised in Lynch, Ky., he sold boiled peanuts outside a local coal mine as a pre-teen. “At quitting time, the miners would come out and go to the little restaurant near the mine,” Richmond recalled. “The white men would go in one side of the restaurant, the black men in the other. I didn’t think much about it, being a young kid. And then I moved to Detroit when I was 15. I didn’t remember that restaurant until we got to that hotel in St. Louis.
“I’ll never forget the gesture the white members made that day.”
This was two years before the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. This was three years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala. This was five years before nine black students in Little Rock were stopped by the Arkansas National Guard from entering all-white Central High School. This was 13 years before the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama — considered the emotional peak of the Civil Rights movement — when police used dogs and tear gas on peaceful demonstrators. Detroit, too, was a seething cauldron of racial animus that boiled over in 1967.
‘It made us all better people’
But this was 1952 when a busload of young men were made to take stock of themselves. They did not choose to ride the freight elevator because it was politically correct, they said. They rode in the elevator because they were friends.
“It was disgusting,” recalled Gary Baillargeon, 79, a white man and a backfield mate of Richmond who now lives near Bay City. “I mean in Detroit, discrimination was rampant, but to force a man to ride in a freight elevator like he was garbage? We weren’t introduced to that aspect of life in the North. I’m proud that as men we stuck together.”
The men from Detroit awoke on Oct. 4, 1952, in a hotel the name of which they no longer remember. They played well against Washington University but lost 13-12, missing two extra points.
Even so, the men from Detroit headed home by train that evening knowing they had won something much more than a football game.
“I went through life as a white kid who shared his athletic experience with black kids,” said Roger Parmentier, 78, who captained the ’53 Tartars football team. “I think about that day in St. Louis. I understood a little better what it was like for those black kids. It made me a better person. I think it made us all better people.”
The men from ’52 have not been in contact for many years. Some have passed away.
The men of 1952 went on to teach boys to do addition. They taught them the meaning of sportsmanship. Perhaps most importantly, they taught them the meaning of manhood.
Perhaps we might follow their example.