Bill Garrett and the Integration of Big Ten Basketball, Part II

Check out Part I to learn about Bill Garrett’s time on the Shelbyville High School basketball team, the “gentleman’s agreement,” and Garrett’s entry in Big Ten basketball.

Bill Garrett celebrates with his teammates after scoring IU's game-winning basket against Wisconsin in January 1950. Image credit: Bloomington Daily Herald, January 9, 1950, 1
Bill Garrett celebrates with his teammates after scoring IU’s game-winning basket against Wisconsin in January 1950. Image credit: Bloomington Daily Herald, January 9, 1950, 1

In an oral history interview in June 1970, Bill Garrett reflected on his early experiences at IU and on the school’s varsity basketball team. Garrett noted that “it was somewhat of an adjustment as far as the team players were concerned” and that it made things “rough at the start.” Despite encountering discrimination from some of the squad’s older players and while on the road for away games, Garrett quickly made a name for himself on IU’s team. In a February 1949 article, the Bloomington Daily Herald commended Garrett on his talent, and noted the positive impact that he and other young players were having on the team. By the end of the season, Garrett had tallied 220 points, the highest total on the squad that season. This success continued into his junior and senior years, with newspapers commenting on his speed and play-making ability. In a January 5, 1950 article, the Wisconsin State Journal reported:

Indiana’s attack is built around William Garrett, a lithe Negro who stands only 6-2 1/2 but plays offensive center. He is quick as a cat and has a devastating one-handed shot.

The following month, the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading African-American newspaper, referred to him as “the most spectacular member on the team coached by Branch McCracken.”

Image credit: Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame
Image credit: Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame

During Garrett’s time on the varsity basketball squad, the team’s record improved greatly. According to the Indiana Basketball Men’s Database, in the 1947-1948 season, the year before Garrett joined the team, IU won only eight games and lost twelve. The following season, Garrett’s first with the varsity squad, they improved to fourteen wins, and by his senior year (1950-1951), they went 19-3 and were ranked seventh in the nation.

Much of the team’s success during this period stemmed from Garrett’s talent on the court. On March 6, 1951, the Jasper Daily Herald reported that Garrett had broken IU’s four-year career scoring record with a total of 792 points in only three seasons of play. His 193 Big Ten points during the 1950-1951 season also broke the old record set in the 1946-1947 season.

Image credit: Indiana University News Room
Image credit: Indiana University News Room

On February 24, 1951, the Indianapolis Recorder announced that Sporting News, a well-respected sports publication in the country, named Garrett to its All-American team. The Recorder quoted sportswriter Cy Kritzer in its February 24, 1951 issue regarding the selection. Kritzer remarked:

“Above all, he [Garrett] was a playmaker. The game has none better than the Hoosier star on the fast break.”

Just a few weeks later, the United Press named Garrett a second-team All-American. The All-American team was selected by a poll of the nation’s leading sportswriters and radio broadcasters. Garrett’s teammates also voted him Most Valuable Player of the season.

While at IU, Garrett was the only African American to play on a Big Ten varsity basketball team. On March 11, 1950, the Indianapolis Recorder published an article entitled “Bill Garrett Needs Company” in which it reported that Garrett was disappointed about being the only black basketball player in the conference. The article noted that in addition to Indiana University, DePauw, Earlham, and Anderson College all had African American students on their teams that season, and it encouraged Big Ten schools to follow their lead. However, by the following year, as Garrett’s final college basketball season was coming to an end, some feared that the Big Ten might revert to an all-white status again.

In their book Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball, Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody note that African Americans John Codwell at the University of Michigan and Rickey Ayala at Michigan State were playing freshman basketball during Garrett’s senior year. At this time, freshman could not play on varsity teams except for the 1951-1952 season, which included an exception because the Korean War made it difficult to field a team.

Image credit: Indiana Daily Student, January 25, 1951
Image credit: Indiana Daily Student, January 25, 1951

Although no African American players joined him at the varsity level before he graduated, Garrett’s example on and off the court helped create opportunities for others in the future. On March 6, 1951, with his college career winding down, the Indiana Daily Student ran an article on Garrett, noting the school body’s pride in him and how much he would be missed the next year. According to the paper, Garrett was “one fine model for a young athlete to pattern himself after.” At a time when segregation was still practiced in many areas of the state, and black athletes were still scarce in certain sports, this was saying a lot. It was a testament to both his talent and character, and again called into question why blacks should not be permitted to play Big Ten basketball.

Garrett graduated from IU with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education in June 1951. In the season immediately following his graduation, at least seven black basketball players made Big Ten teams. On November 17, 1951, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Ernie Hall had become the first African American basketball player at Purdue, and that Bob Jewell, who played at Crispus Attucks, made the University of Michigan’s team. In January 1952, the Recorder noted that in addition to Jewell, Michigan had two other African American players that season: Don Eaddy and Jonn Codwell. The paper traced this progress back to Bill Garrett, stating:

Following the path opened by Bill Garrett at Indiana University, sepia cagers are now making Big 10 and other leading teams in increasing numbers.

Likewise, the Capitol Times of Madison, Wisconsin also credited Garrett, noting that he was “the Jackie Robinson of the cage court” and that he had “blazed the way for others of his race in the college game this season.” Other African American players during the 1951-1952 year included Rickey Ayala at Michigan State, Walt Moore at Illinois, and Deacon Davis at Iowa. Notre Dame also challenged the color barrier at the school during this period, with African Americans Joe Bertrand and Entee Shine joining the Irish squad.

Though racial prejudice in sports did not end, black players continued to find success on Big Ten and other Midwest basketball teams.

On May 5, 1951, Bill Garrett was drafted by the Boston Celtics to play in the NBA. Though the league was still in its infancy, it was already attracting some of the best players from around the country. Again Garrett’s selection was a testament to his talent on the court. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, Garrett “found himself the only Negro among 86 stars who were drafted” to play professional basketball that year. However, Garrett would never get his opportunity to join the team. On August 25, 1951, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that he had been drafted into the U.S. Army. The Korean War (1950-1953) was already in full swing by this time, and Garrett was ordered to report for induction into the Army by September 7.

Image credit: Indianapolis Recorder, September 26, 1953, 14
Image credit: Indianapolis Recorder, September 26, 1953, 14

It is unclear when the Celtics released Garrett. According to a March 29, 1952 article in the Indianapolis Recorder, Garrett took his regular Army furlough with the Harlem Globetrotters in April of that year. One year later, on September 26, 1953, the Recorder reported that he was discharged from the Army and signed a contract to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. According to Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody, NBA teams limited the number of African American players on their rosters during this period and the Celtics already had two others.
Garrett played with the Globetrotters until 1955, when he decided to leave the team. According to his wife, Betty Garrett Inskeep, “he wasn’t happy playing for them. He was a very easygoing person, but he was competitive when you’re supposed to be competitive, so what the Globetrotters did did not suit him at all.”

Two years later, on July 13, 1957, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Garrett had been hired to succeed Ray Crowe as head basketball coach at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. Garrett had his work cut out for him. Crowe had led the all-black high school to the state basketball title in 1955 and 1956.

Garrett coaches Crispus Attucks to the 1959 Indiana high school state championship. Image credit: Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections, 1959
Garrett coaches Crispus Attucks to the 1959 Indiana high school basketball state championship. Image credit: Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections, 1959

In his first year on the job, Garrett helped the team win its sixth straight sectional crown. Just one year later, he coached Attucks to the state championship, again bringing glory to the school. The Indiana Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association named Garrett Coach of the Year soon after the tournament.

Garrett coached Attucks for ten years before assuming the position of athletic director at the school in 1968. In 1974, he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Sadly, Garrett died of a heart attack just a few months later, on August 7, 1974, at the age of 45. He was assistant dean for student services at IUPUI at the time of his death.

Though his name is not as widely recognized as Jackie Robinson’s or other pioneers in race relations, Garrett’s influence and contributions in helping to diminish racial discrimination in both high school and college basketball in the mid-1900s should not be forgotten.

Be sure to follow IHB’s Facebook page for information on the upcoming dedication of a new state historical marker to commemorate Garrett and the integration of Big Ten basketball later this year.

Bill Garrett and the Integration of Big Ten Basketball, Part 1

Bill Garrett shoots a lay-up in a game against the University of Illinois on February 27, 1950. Courtesy of Indiana University Archives

In 1947, Jackie Robinson made history when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson set the precedent, and in the years following, many African American players would follow his lead to join big league teams. In 1948, just one year after Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, Indiana witnessed its own trailblazer in sports, as Shelbyville’s Bill Garrett broke the ironically named “gentleman’s agreement” that had barred African Americans from playing Big Ten college basketball (the Big Ten became the Big Nine in 1946 when the University of Chicago withdrew its membership. In 1949, Michigan State College – now Michigan State University – joined the conference, and it again assumed the name the Big Ten).

Bill Garrett was born in 1929, at a time when segregation and racial discrimination were rampant in Indiana. The Indianapolis Times had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s influence in state politics the year before, and just one year later the state would experience the horrific lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion. In their thoroughly researched book Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball, authors Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody note that Shelbyville avoided much of the racial violence that other Indiana communities experienced at this time, but that segregation was nevertheless commonplace. Garrett, like other African Americans there, attended the segregated Booker T. Washington Elementary School, and when he entered Shelbyville High School in the 1940s, he was one of only a few black students in his class.

Garrett and a portion of his junior class, 1946. Image source: Shelbyville High School 1946 Yearbook
Garrett and a portion of his junior class, 1946. Image source: Shelbyville High School 1946 Yearbook

Despite this, Garrett became widely recognized for his skills on the basketball court, and by his senior year in high school (1946-1947), he was one of the star players on Shelbyville’s varsity basketball team. Newspapers across the state praised him for his play. On January 9, 1947, one day after Garrett helped lead the Shelbyville Golden Bears to a decisive 59-40 victory over Greencastle, the Greencastle Daily Banner recognized him as “one of the smoothest performers and best shots” to appear on the Greencastle court over the years. He was quick, clever, and had a “natural talent” for the game. Many regarded him as the second Johnny Wilson. Wilson, also African American, had graduated the year before from Anderson High School, where he led the team to the state basketball title and was named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball.” The Indianapolis Recorder noted the similarities between the two in a March 22, 1947 article, stating that the resemblance in their play was “uncanny.”

The mark of greatness, however, in Garrett as in Wilson, is the ability to sweep through the opposition and turn a stalemated contest into a rout. It is that extra speed and split-second timing which stamps an all-state player as distinguished from a good player. It is cool floor-generalship and flawless ball-handling – and Garrett has them all.

When the 1947 Indiana high school basketball tournament kicked off in late February that year, 781 teams competed for a shot at the title. Despite the odds, Garrett, along with starters Emerson Johnson, Marshall Murray, Hank Hemingway, and Bill Breck, helped lead Shelbyville to the school’s first basketball championship. On March 22, Shelbyville defeated the East Chicago Washington Senators 54-46 and advanced to the title game where they beat undefeated Terre Haute Garfield 68-58.

Garrett Cuts Down Net
Logansport Press, March 25, 1947, p. 6

At a time when segregation was prevalent in the state, Shelbyville’s team featured three African American starters: Murray, Johnson, and Garrett, each of whom had captured the hearts of Shelbyville fans.

Garrett had set a new individual state tournament scoring record during the competition. His 91 points in the final four games broke the 85-point record set by Johnny Wilson the year before. And like Wilson, he too was named “Mr. Basketball” for the season.

After the 1947 title game, many wondered where Garrett would continue his basketball career. Despite the fact that he, Wilson, and other African American players were leading their teams to high school titles and were considered some of the best players in the state, the “gentleman’s agreement” barred them from playing college basketball on Big Ten varsity teams into the late 1940s. Reports out of Indiana University at this time note that there was “no written rule in the Big Ten regarding participation in athletics. The unwritten rule subscribed to by all schools precludes colored boys from participating in basketball, swimming, and wrestling.”

In the years following, many would question the inconsistency of this rule, as blacks participated in football and other Big Ten sports during this period. Some speculated that the reason for the discrepancy was that basketball was played in more intimate settings with briefer uniforms, thus increasing the chance of contact between white players’ and black players’ skin.

Referred to as the” gentleman’s agreement,” the “unwritten rule,” or the “lily-white rule,” the color line in basketball came under increasing attack throughout the 1940s as more and more talented black players were being overlooked solely because of their race. In 1944, African American Richard (Dick) Culbertson played varsity at the University of Iowa, but coaches largely regarded his participation as an exception rather than the rule. Culbertson was a substitute rather than a starter, and wartime conditions had made it more difficult to field a team, leading to slightly relaxed rules.

On March 25, 1947, after watching Bill Garrett, Emerson Johnson, and Marshall Murray help Shelbyville win the state championship, John Whitaker of the Hammond Times wrote an open letter to the commissioner of the Big Ten in which he asked why the “unwritten agreement” existed:

If the biggest, braggingest athletic conference in the middle of the greatest country in the world can use Negroes like Buddy Young, Ike Owen, Dallas Ward, Duke Slater, George Taliaferro and the like to draw $200,000 crowds for football . . . and Negroes like Jesse Owen[s] and Eddie Tolan to win Olympic crowns . . . why can’t it use them in basketball.

In June 1947, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that despite Garrett’s hopes to play Big Ten basketball at IU or Purdue, the “gentleman’s agreement” might force him to continue his career in California. The news disappointed many who had hoped to see Garrett stay in state, and prompted Recorder writer Charles S. Preston to call out the state and the Big Ten conference in hopes of bringing an end to the ban:

Indianapolis Recorder, June 7, 1947, p. 11
Indianapolis Recorder, June 7, 1947, p. 11

What in Hades is the matter with the Hoosier state, when we are going to let one of our best basketball players of all time get away from us, and go out to California to play! And all because of a ridiculous ‘unwritten law’ that doesn’t begin to make sense!

Though some denied that such an agreement barring blacks from Big Ten basketball existed, the continued absence of African Americans on these teams indicated otherwise.

Fearful that Garrett would be bypassed by Big Ten teams like others before him, black leaders in Indianapolis banded together in order to persuade IU to give him an opportunity to make the school’s team. Faburn DeFrantz, Executive Director of the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis, spearheaded the effort, and in the months following the 1947 state high school tournament, he and other black leaders drove down to Bloomington to meet with IU President Herman B Wells on Garrett’s behalf.

Faburn DeFrantz Image source: Indianapolis Monthly http://www.indianapolismonthly.com/the-tipoff/iu-honors-barrier-breaker-garrett-at-game/
Faburn DeFrantz, image courtesy of Indianapolis Monthly.

President Wells was eager to end racial discrimination and segregation at IU, and had already been doing so quietly in other parts of the campus at this time. After meeting with DeFrantz and the others, Wells asked IU basketball coach Branch McCracken to give Garrett a chance to make the team, noting that he would handle any potential backlash from other Big Ten coaches.

In DeFrantz’s unpublished autobiography, excerpts of which were obtained by Graham and Cody during their research, DeFrantz acknowledges Wells’ role in helping to break down racial barriers at IU:

In Indiana University’s President Herman B Wells democracy found an ally. No overhaul of policy such as that accomplished at Indiana University could have been possible without the cooperation he gave.

In an October 4, 1947 article, the Indianapolis Recorder praised DeFrantz and others for their efforts to get Garrett to IU and recognized them as “key figures in the victory for democracy.” In January 1949, during Garrett’s first season on the varsity team, the Recorder named DeFrantz to its 1948 Race Relations Honor Roll, noting his unremitting campaign to help end racial discrimination in sports. Two years later, Garrett would also be named to this Honor Roll.

Herman B Wells, 1947 Image source: Indiana Daily Student http://www.idsnews.com/article/2014/07/the-wells-effect-how-herman-b-wells-shaped-iu
Herman B Wells, 1947, image courtesy of Indiana Daily Student.

Garrett was admitted to IU in the fall of 1947 and played one year on the freshman basketball squad. He made his regular-season varsity debut in December 1948 as IU beat DePauw 61-48. In doing so, he became the first African American player on an IU varsity basketball team. More importantly, the Recorder recognized on December 11, 1948, that “Garrett’s entry into the Big Nine ranks may prove to be the beginning of the end for an anti-Negro ‘gentleman’s agreement’. . .”

Integration in basketball, both at the high school and eventually the college level went a long way in improving race relations in the state, as fans cheered their teams to victory regardless of the color of their players’ skin. On February 18, 1950, the Recorder reported on the influence that sports had on blurring the color line, stating:

Race prejudice, too, has generally been given the bum’s rush by the fans who lose sight of everything but the fortunes of OUR TEAM. The performances of such athletes as Bill Garrett, Johnny Wilson, and a host of others have probably done as much as anything else to kill the Ku Klux Klan spirit in Indiana. A quick field goal by a Negro player will do more to “convert” the ordinary Hoosier than all the Race Relations Days in a century.

Garrett helped “convert” thousands in Shelbyville and across the state during his high school years and he would work to do the same while playing at IU.

Check out Part II coming later this week to learn about Garrett’s achievements while on IU’s squad, his impact on other African-American players, and his career after graduating.