As college football embraces its 150th season, black athletes have been at the center of that story.
As early as 1890, black athletes have played football at predominantly white universities. However, the catalyst for true integration of college football began with the success of Michigan State’s 1965 and 1966 national championship teams, which featured 20 black players. This is the story of one of those players.
Jimmy Raye II was the quarterback of the 1966 national title team for the Spartans. Raye said his family assessed his escape from segregated Fayetteville, North Carolina, to take a chance at college football’s promised land.
For Raye, a star football and basketball player among the all-black high school leagues in the early 1960s, the main concerns involved football.
“The apprehension was about whether I’d get to play the position [quarterback] that I wanted to play or whether I’d be switched,” Raye told The Undefeated, “or that I had never played against white players.”
Raye, who went on to play defensive back in the NFL and enjoy a long coaching career, had climbed aboard Spartans coach Duffy Daugherty’s “underground railroad,” which brought in the first large influx of African American athletes from the South.
For Raye’s mom, the concerns were strictly academic.
“My mom’s main concern – as we talked to the Michigan State coaches – was about whether I was going to get an education and graduate,” said Raye, now 73 and living in the Fayetteville area. “It wasn’t about football. It was about whether I was going to get a degree.
“At the time I was being recruited, I didn’t think of it as any kind of social pioneering experience,” Raye said. “I didn’t think of it as being any first anything. I just went to play football and to get an education.”
Raye and his teammates were more trailblazers than pioneers.
Other black players had played at predominantly white institutions before this great migration. Michigan State was not even the first school in its own state to field a black athlete. But Daugherty and his assistants built a network of coaches at segregated black high schools by holding clinics specifically for coaches barred from attending white football clinics and camps.
Although the concept of separate but equal had been struck down in 1954 by the U.S. Supreme Court, a series of inappropriately named “gentleman’s agreements” held that white universities could stymie black athletes. For instance, most Southern universities did not allow black athletic participation. And, in some cases, according to those agreements, black players would be held out of games against non-integrated white teams.
But gradually, schools in the Big Ten and PAC 10 chipped away at much of the racism that kept black athletes off the playing field.
Meanwhile, in the 1960s and ’70s, several historically black college and university (HBCU) teams earned multiple black college national championships, including Grambling, North Carolina A&T, Alcorn State, Florida A&M, Prairie View, Tennessee State and Morgan State. These schools put multiple players into the NFL and eventually into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
So black football players always had those schools as a choice – and many used that as a route to the NFL. But the lure of bigger budgets and eventually playing on television meant greater exposure and more lavish facilities, making the major colleges the athletic promised land.
And the nation was changing
Daugherty had the backing of Michigan State president John Hannah, whom President Dwight Eisenhower had appointed as the country’s first chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1957.
And in February 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. was given a standing ovation after speaking on the Michigan State campus.
So, in these friendly confines, from 1959 to 1972, Daugherty recruited 44 black players from the South. The 1966 team – bolstered by the 1963 recruiting class – had 20 black players.
But perhaps the key piece who came in the 1964 recruiting class was Raye, the junior quarterback on the 1966 Spartans championship team that was immortalized after a 10-10 tie on Nov. 18 with Notre Dame. The so-called Game of the Century was watched by 33 million TV viewers, the largest sports television audience at that time.
Raye became the first black quarterback from the South to guide his team to a national championship.
Other players on the team – barred from their state’s predominantly white institutions – included Charlie Thornhill from Roanoke, Virginia; Robert Moreland from Richmond, Virginia; Ernie Pasteur from Beaufort, North Carolina; Bubba Smith and Jess Phillips from Beaumont, Texas; George Webster from Anderson, South Carolina; Jimmy Garrett from Columbia, South Carolina; Jimmy Summers from Orangeburg, South Carolina; and Eugene “Gene” Washington from La Porte, Texas.
Smith, Webster and Washington would be named All-Americans, and several of the players are in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Looking back, Raye told The Undefeated that he and his parents had little hesitation about leaving a town of 65,000 to attend a college of 45,000 students.
Besides, it was a chance to leave segregated water fountains and restrooms and other indignities of the Jim Crow South.
In his new surroundings, Raye ordered from a menu for the first time and enjoyed his first night in a hotel.
“It was difficult, and then it wasn’t,” Raye said of his decision to spurn N.C. A&T and North Carolina Central for Michigan State. “The difficulty is that nobody had ever done it from my area.”
He said that “the naysayers” cautioned that he would be a little fish in big pond or that “the competition would be too great.”
Other critics said: “You won’t be able to play quarterback; they’re going to switch you to a defensive back or running back.”
But Raye was encouraged by many of his teachers at segregated E.E. Smith High School in Fayetteville, many of whom had earned master’s degrees from Big Ten schools, after earning undergraduate degrees from HBCUs.
Plus, an older neighbor and friend, Ron Chalmers, who had earned a degree at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte, North Carolina, would be enrolling in graduate school around the same time Raye would arrive.
And Raye’s parents were solidly supportive of his new venture.
“My mom and dad were very encouraging,” Raye said. “My mom had no apprehension that I could compete academically.
“My father said if you go, don’t go looking back this way; go moving forward and whatever comes with that, face it head on.
“That gave me enough encouragement,” Raye said.
But Raye felt confident in his playing ability, having competed well against the best black players in North Carolina. His high school team was beaten in the second round of the state playoffs by eventual Elizabeth City State and Los Angeles Rams alum Johnny Walton of P.W. Moore High School of Elizabeth City.
Early days of integration
In 1890, scholar-athlete George Jewett starred at halfback at Michigan, according to several sources. That makes him the first black athlete to play college football.
And in 1939, the UCLA Bruins sported four local black players, including Tom Bradley, who would become the first black mayor of Los Angeles and another, Jackie Robinson, who later would break Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Their experiences are chronicled in a 2018 book, The Black Bruins, by James W. Johnson.
William “Big Bill” Bell has sometimes been cited – such as his 1991 obituary in the Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer as the first black football player at Ohio State, playing from 1929-1931.
Bell later became head coach at historically black Claflin, Howard, Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T, then serving as athletic director at N.C. A&T and Fayetteville State.
Other researchers cite Ohio-born Fred Patterson as Ohio State’s first black player, 1891-1893.
Still Bell, who was born in Polk County, Georgia, was among the early players from the deep South to play at a predominantly white university.
But he was not as early as Gideon Smith, who played at Michigan State (then known as Michigan Agricultural College) from 1913-1915, according to author and Michigan State alum Tom Shanahan and others.
Smith, from Hampton, Virginia, first played at Ferris Industrial School (now Ferris State) in Big Rapids, Michigan, having arrived through an educational arrangement between Ferris and then Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University).
But the real path to modern-day college football integration was emboldened by the 1965 and 1966 Michigan State football teams, loaded with players from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas.
Michigan State opened the door
Raye said his first contact with Michigan State had been Spartan assistant Cal Stoll, who presented him with the MVP trophy at the East-West Shrine All-Star game and began recruiting him immediately.
Raye’s odyssey included his first airplane flight in a trip to Michigan State’s East Lansing campus and, during the summer, a 36-hour train ride back to Michigan.
He remembers that black people could not enter the food car until the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line above Maryland. Raye laughed when discussing how his mother had prepared him for the trip with a “shoebox full of food.”
“I had eaten that up by the time I got to Wilson, North Carolina, which was only about 80 miles,” Raye said. “… I was a kid; I was hungry. I had a shoebox full of fried chicken. I couldn’t resist the smell. … And the bologna sandwiches.”
Raye said he was “in bad shape” by the time he got to Michigan.
Much of Raye’s story and that of his teammates have been chronicled in Shanahan’s 2014 book, Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the Integration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans.
Jesse Jackson told Shanahan that seeing black athletes in the Game of the Century was important to the cause of civil rights.
“The athletes redefined race in many ways,” Jackson says in the book. “On the ball field, the playing field is even. When the rules are objective and public, and the referees are fair, we can win.”
Unlike their counterparts in the South, Raye and his teammates were not burdened by responsibilities to integrate lunch counters – as Jackson and his N.C. A&T teammates did in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960.
The black Spartans were mainly about the business of football. Raye said that black students, mostly male, numbered 150-200, and they socialized very little with the general student body.
“You stayed in your lane, and they stayed in their lane,” Raye said. “The fact that you were there as an athlete, they probably knew that. Most of the blacks on campus were males, and they were athletes.
“The black fraternities and the black sororities are where most [black] kids did their socializing,” said Raye, who pledged the Omega Psi Phi fraternity in 1965.
“As it turns out, it was during the height of civil rights movement,” Raye said. “We weren’t involved in the civil rights movement. Dr. King spoke on campus, and we heard him. But we didn’t talk about race. We just matriculated and played football.”
And they had great success.
Shanahan says history has not given fair recognition to the role of Daugherty and his players. Shanahan also asserts that Michigan State should erect a statue of Bubba Smith on campus. Smith died in 2011 at the age of 66.
Smith had a legendary career as a fearsome defensive lineman, mainly with the Baltimore Colts, and later became an actor famous for the Police Academy movies.
Raye says in the book that Smith did more than any other college athlete to bring about social change – including dating women of his choice and joining a Jewish fraternity.
It was during the week of Smith’s funeral that Maya Washington, Gene Washington’s youngest daughter, was inspired to begin work on her 2018 documentary film Through the Banks of the Red Cedar.
The title of the film is a play on the Michigan State fight song.
“On the banks of the red cedar there’s a school that’s known to all.
Its specialty is winning, and those Spartans play good ball.”
Maya Washington learned during conversations about Smith that her dad, Gene Washington, had been referred to Michigan State by Smith’s father, Willie Ray Smith Sr., a very successful coach and athletic director at segregated Charlton-Pollard High School in Beaumont, Texas.
Smith would compete against Washington on the gridiron, as their teams were in an all-black league. Gene Washington could not attend the white high school in his hometown of La Porte, so he was bused 30 minutes to Baytown, where he attended segregated George Washington Carver High.
Gene Washington, a national-caliber hurdler, played at Michigan State on a track scholarship, because at the time he came in, the team was out of football scholarships. He excelled in both sports for the Spartans.
Black quarterbacks are filling the void on the field
Washington told The Undefeated that when Michigan State assistant coach Danny Boisture came to Texas to visit with Washington’s mom, dad and two sisters: “It was the first time a white person had visited our home. We weren’t sure why he was coming; we didn’t know much about that recruitment stuff.”
Boisture explained that Michigan State was part of the Big Ten and played Michigan and Ohio State and that they also played Notre Dame.
“He goes on and on about the state of Michigan,” Washington said, “but we had no clue where the state of Michigan was.”
As the coach continued his pitch, Washington said, “My dad finally asked: ‘Say, sir, is this free?’ ”
“And my mom asked: ‘How will he get up there?’ ”
A week later, Washington was flown – his first airplane trip – to East Lansing, where, he said, “I’d never seen so many white people in one place.”
(After his college days, Washington would excel with the Minnesota Vikings, where he also became a successful businessman.)
Washington remembered Daugherty as a caring person who wanted his athletes to excel on and off the playing field.
“He was a great guy, a very warm guy,” Washington said. “… He didn’t like that whole segregation thing. In his mind, it wasn’t fair. And there were a whole lot of young people like me and Bubba who were kind of caught in the middle of all that.
“And we were treated so badly in Texas, just because of being black,” Washington continued. “Duffy didn’t think that was right, and so he did all he could. If there was any athlete who could play football and was a good student, he wanted them to come to Michigan State.
“The No. 1 thing that he wanted to do was to make sure that we got our studies, that we went to class and got our degrees.”
The pioneering Big Ten
After the success of the iconic Michigan State teams, other programs slowly began to bring in more black athletes, and with Raye having served as a role model, Big Ten schools began suiting up black quarterbacks in numbers unseen before.
During the 1970s, Tony Dungy played the position at Minnesota (’73-’76), Charlie Baggett at Michigan State (’73-’75), Dennis Franklin at Michigan (’71-’74) and Cornelius Green at Ohio State (’73-’76), just to name a few.
Michigan native Dungy wrote in the foreword of Raye of Light that he was a Spartans fan intent on playing in East Lansing until Stoll, who had recruited Raye, became head coach at Minnesota. Stoll lured Dungy away with the prospect of creating a new legacy.
The Golden Gophers’ legacy was already being written, with Bobby Bell from Shelby, North Carolina, earning two-time All-America honors with the Gophers (1961-62) and Carl Eller from Winston-Salem, North Carolina (1961-63).
It was also where Pennsylvania-born Sandy Stevens II (1959-61) became the first black quarterback to lead a major college to a national football championship.
Dungy would add to that legacy. He wrote that by his junior year in 1975, he was one of seven black quarterbacks in the Big Ten. One of those was Baggett, Raye’s former next-door neighbor from Fayetteville, who transferred from the University of North Carolina after the school proposed to switch him to wide receiver after he had played quarterback as a freshman.
Dungy wrote in the forward to Raye of Light that he believes the success of modern-day black quarterbacks “stems back to the Big Ten in the early ’60s and the influence those players had on the rest of the country.”
Raye, who coached in the NFL for 37 years, was a longtime mentor to many who would come after him, including Dungy.
In 2014, Raye was named senior adviser to Troy Vincent, the NFL executive vice president for football operations. His son, Jimmy Raye III, is senior personnel executive for the Detroit Lions.
Shanahan writes that a conversation with Raye III, when they both worked for the San Diego Chargers, sparked the discussion about a book on Jimmy Raye.
Meanwhile, Maya Washington works with universities and other organizations to build symposiums around the screenings of her film to spread the story about the integration of college football.
She also discussing a television deal or a streaming option.
Thus far, she says, the film, which predictably has been embraced by older audiences, also has been well received by young people.
“Pretty much all of the young people who see the film are so moved and sort of awestruck because they did not know this history,” Washington said. “They’ve always grown up in a United States that was integrated. They’ve always grown up in a time where professional athletes make million-dollar salaries.
“So, they did not have the information to fully appreciate what my dad and his teammates at Michigan State or his teammates at the Minnesota Vikings or the Broncos contributed to what athletes have today.
“They had no understanding,” she said, “that football was a white sport prior to 1965, when my dad’s team gained national prominence.”