Story by Megan Tracy / Contributing Writer
Photo courtesy of Middle Tennessee State University
On Thursday afternoon, Middle Tennessee State University honored eight former Raider athletes with a public forum discussion panel before being honored during that night’s basketball game. Jerry Singleton, Art Polk, Lonnell Poole, Terry Scott, J.W. Harper, Raymond “Ray” Bonner, Ed Miller and Mary “Beanie” Seacrest were honored for their contributions as the first African American students to be integrated into MTSU athletics in the 60’s and 70’s.
Singleton, a Chicago native, was recognized for being MTSU’s first ever black scholarship in any sport.
Polk, who “attended” via a Skype call from Ghana, was one of the first two scholarship basketball players.
Poole, who started playing in 1966, was the second African American scholarship athlete in men’s track and was a state championship hurdler from Chicago.
Harper, of Shelbyville, was one of the earliest African American football players in 1968.
Panelist Scott from Cleveland, TN was recognized for being the third African American scholarship athlete in men’s basketball in 1966.
Lifelong duo Bonner and Miller were the first two African American scholarship athletes in football 1969, and Seacrest was the first black athlete in women’s athletics in the pre-scholarship era and participated in basketball, volleyball and track.
During the two-hour open forum, the athletes shared personal stories and fond memories of their athletic and academic careers at MTSU.
“My only interest was basketball games and periodically going to class,” joked Poole.
The panel continuously gave substantial praise to the university and their coaches. These pioneer athletes couldn’t be more positive about Coach Dean Hayes- one of the first MTSU coaches to recruit African American athletes.
“I was a black kid in Chicago, never had an opportunity to go to college. Wanting to go to college, knowing that it opened doors…Dean Hayes presented me with an opportunity for which I’m forever grateful, and the rest is history,” said Poole.
“They say ‘Wanna be like Mike‘ but I wanted to be like Coach Hayes,” he added.
Hayes, who was in attendance, said he wasn’t trying to do anything groundbreaking- he just wanted the best team. “I came from Chicago; integration had already begun, and I didn’t really think much about it…I wanted to get someone who could get a lot of points…All we thought about was trying to win and doing the best we could.”
Seacrest, the only woman on the panel, painted a different picture of athletics at MTSU during the time. According to Seacrest, women’s sports were different. She recalled not having a formal coach despite the men receiving scholarships and recruitments. Due to the lack of attention to women’s athletics and the lack of safety for African American players, Seacrest often had to deal with unsafe conditions to play. The teams relied on taking student vehicles on long trips into areas that weren’t safe for black women at the time.
“When I played ball, it was okay. But when it was time to get back in the car, I had to sit low,” she said. Seacrest also recalled having to hide in the car while her teammates dined out. “I had to lay down on the floor. I couldn’t go into a restaurant. Did it bother me? No! Why should it bother me? I knew they would bring me food out of there, and believe me, we skedaddled right out of there.”
Seacrest refused to be deterred. “Once we put on the uniform it didn’t matter who you were…It didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to play ball. No matter where we traveled or what we had to go through,” she said.
Polk spoke on the adjustment to integration in the Middle Tennessee area at the time. “I came from a situation in Chicago. Integration wasn’t on my mind. I just wanted to win basketball games and get a university education.”
“To talk about the capacity to change, I think I was the first one to live on campus. People adjusted to me, and I adjusted to them. I think about a week in we were all comfortable.” Polk went on to mention how MTSU adapted over time to changing racial relations by changing the school mascot from Nathan Bedford Forrest to the Blue Raiders.
Bonner spoke on his own success but also emphasized the importance of recognizing the other talented athletes from his area who were not awarded the same opportunities as himself. “In Franklin County High School at that time, there were so many great athletes…and Ed and I were the first blacks to get those scholarships, and that meant a lot to us. We just wanted to pave the way for anyone that came behind us.”
The discussion further included laughs, banter, fond memories and the strong sense of community amongst MTSU alumni.
President Sidney A. McPhee said, “Their hard work and personal courage made history — not only for athletics, but our entire university.”
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