Featured Photo Courtesy of Beanie Secrest
Story by Zoe Naylor
If Middle Tennessee State University had a biggest fans club, Mary Secrest would be its founding member — and lifetime president.
She decided to go to college to get out of her parents’ house in 1970. By 1974, she had graduated as the first Black female basketball player of the school, having recruited three other Black women to join her team.
Beanie Secrest — nicknamed such because of her love for beans as a dinner staple — is from Franklin, Tennessee. She was one of 10 Black students to integrate Franklin High School on Hillsboro Road, “the white school” in her hometown, after segregation was made illegal.
During high school, the white people with whom she played basketball would drop the ball after it touched her and the other Black players’ hands, so as not to catch their “blackness” — like it was a disease they might contract through physical contact. They warmed up on opposite sides of the gymnasium before playing for the same team.
“You didn’t know to take it personal,” she said of the everyday racism she encountered. Of her fellow Black players and herself, Beanie said, “We didn’t care. We were just tryin’ to play ball.”
Growing up, Beanie entered stores through the back entrance, as her grandmother had instructed her. She flattened herself against the sides of buildings so white people could pass her on the sidewalk. At 13, she learned to avert her eyes when saying “yes ma’am” to her white boss, who called her Mary Louise. That name was not hers. It had a scratchy seam and fit one size too small.
“It was too proper,” she said.
By the time she graduated high school, Beanie was itching to get out of the house, and her MTSU acceptance letter was her golden ticket. Secrest registered to study health, physical education and recreation, leaving her family home, where she lived with her two older siblings, parents and grandmother.
“I didn’t know anything about going to college. My high school didn’t talk to Black kids about going to college…so I took a chance.”
Once she started at “Middle,” as Beanie calls MTSU fondly, she encountered more adversity — this time in the form of sexism.
“There’s no comparison” between the men’s and women’s athletic programs at the time, she said. There was no recruitment for women to play basketball. Tryouts did not exist. The coaches were students themselves, given a small stipend to coach the team while pursuing their master’s degrees.
Female players were not considered athletes. Women’s basketball was not a funded sport until Title IX started: a year after Beanie’s graduation. Until then, women’s basketball was considered an intramural activity — unworthy of funding or legitimate acknowledgment from the university. Players provided their own transportation to away games, received no scholarships or sponsorships and had one jersey with a detachable top for when they needed to change colors.
Beanie did not mind a bit. She was unaffected by the tenor of the times. She kept her head up and followed her passion of basketball.
When the team traveled to a different school for a game, it was illegal for Black and white people to be in a car together. When the team stopped for meals during their drive, Beanie waited out of sight on the floor of the vehicle while her white teammates went inside and ordered food to go. Then they brought it outside so everyone could eat together.
This was standard operating procedure for the girls. It was never a discussion, and there was never any rebellion against the prejudiced status quo of the time, because that didn’t matter. The camaraderie of the team was what mattered. The girls were going to eat together, and that was that.
“We weren’t Black or white. We were just whatever our name was…we were just like sisters.”
Beanie’s fondest memories of college all center around circumstances that would be considered oppressive by today’s standards. This includes her financial status, which fit the “broke college student” stereotype that is still common today.
MTSU in 1970 was called a “suitcase college” because many students went home for the weekends — that is, students whose parents gave them more than $20 a month for food and laundry.
“My mom and dad couldn’t afford to send me money on weekends,” said Secrest.
When Beanie could not hitch a ride home with a friend, she stayed on campus and hosted family-style dinners in her dormitory’s shared kitchen. Her friends pooled their money together to buy dinner supplies from Mr. Cook’s Market, now Slick Pig on Main Street.
The solidarity and companionship between teammates and friends are what made her time at MTSU invaluable. “We were like a family,” she said. “We had each other.”
Beanie didn’t have a good college experience despite her circumstances. The circumstances were simply one aspect of her time at Middle. She let any inkling of negativity roll off her like water off a duck’s back. Whatever her situation in life, she took it and used it to make a name for herself, sometimes literally.
The full story behind Beanie’s nickname is a prime example of this skill. She was called Beanie not just because she loved beans. At the dinner table growing up, when she would ask her big brother for a piece of chicken, he would smother it in hot sauce, cough on it and offer it to her with a smirk.
Beanie would refuse the ruined entrée and ask for beans instead. She ended up eating a whole lot of them over the years and reclaimed the nickname that followed.
The nickname is now a fundamental part of Beanie. Fifteen years ago, some of her former teammates gave her a pair of MTSU-blue high-top Chuck Taylors, with “BEANIE 22” embroidered down the heel in white lettering. Beanie showed them off like they were brand new.
(During our interview, I made the mistake of calling them “shoes.” She swiftly corrected me. “Those are Chucks, honey,” she said proudly. “You said shoes.”)
When she held up the Chucks, the scene felt like elementary school show-and-tell: Beanie showing off her prized possession, bubbling with excitement that would put an eight-year-old to shame. The gift perfectly symbolized her love for her alma mater.
At 71 years old, the woman is fiery and brimming with positivity. She prides herself on her strong will and her ability to benefit from diversity.
“I have a very positive attitude. I don’t care who it is, I walk up to you as if I’ve known you forever.”
According to Beanie, life is too short to be bothered by others’ biases or shortcomings. She says- if someone has an issue with your gender or the color of your skin, “Don’t let it bother you. That’s on them.”
Now, 50 years after graduating from MTSU, Beanie still attends school events as often as possible. It is not an easy feat, since she lives in Powder Springs, Georgia — almost four hours away from campus — but she has missed only three Homecoming games over the years. She says yes to every interview about her time at MTSU, and she gives the school a gleaming review each time.
“Till the day I die, it’s Middle Tennessee State University,” she says.
The next MTSU event Beanie will attend is the 50th anniversary of Title IX on March 4, where she will be honored as a historic member of the women’s basketball team history.
She plans to sport her electric blue Chucks as she walks on the court, because if there is one thing to know about Beanie Secrest, it is her love for True Blue.
Zoe Naylor is a feature reporter for MTSU Sidelines.
To contact News Editor Kailee Shores and Assistant News Editor Alyssa Williams, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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