Transcript of Bill Garett and the Integration of IU Basketball
Jump to Show Notes
Written by Lindsey Beckley from the research of Casey Pfeiffer, Rachel Graham Cody, and Tom Graham
Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss
[Talking Hoosier History theme music]
Lindsey Beckley: Hello and welcome to Talking Hoosier History, brought to you by the Indiana Historical Bureau. For over a century, we’ve been marking Hoosier history. Now, it’s time to start Talking Hoosier History. I’m Lindsey Beckley and I’ll be your host.
So, it’s no secret that Indiana’s a basketball state. Basketball came to Indiana less than two years after it was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts. And since then, it’s become to most popular sport in the state by far. Every fall, Hoosier hysteria sweeps the state during the high school and college tournament season and we have 12 of the 15 largest gymnasiums in the nation. With all this attention on Indiana basketball, it’s surprising how few people know about Bill Garrett and the integration of the Big 10 Basketball conference. In this episode, I’ll be looking at this often overlooked milestone of Indiana basketball history.
Before we get started, I wanted to give a little disclaimer. We’ll be quoting some excerpts from 1940s and 50s newspapers. Some of the language about race in these excerpts, while widely used in the country at that time, would not be acceptable today. Just know that we do not condone, nor would we typically use this language. In the interest of preserving the historical authenticity of these sources, we have left them unchanged and uncensored.
For me, the hardest thing about telling any story in history is knowing where, and, more importantly, when to begin. For example, how do you talk about the rise of Hitler in World War II without first talking about World War I and reparations? Or the fall of the roman empire without talking about the rise of Christianity? And how do you tell a story about integration without starting with the story of segregation? And where does that story even begin? Does it begin with the African Slave trade? The Civil War and reconstruction? Or maybe the first great migration. While all of these would be reasonable starting points, I’d be here all day talking about that if that’s where I started. Since this story unfolds in the late 1940s and early 50s, I think I’ll start in 1944, right at the height of American involvement in World War II.
Beckley: During his state of the Union Address in 1944, FDR said:
[Recording of FDR]: But I do not think any of us Americans can be content with mere survival. Sacrifices that we and our allies are making impose upon all of us a sacred obligation to see to it that out of this war, we and our children will gain something better than mere survival.
Beckley: Something better than mere survival. For millions of African Americans who fought for democracy and freedom during World War II, only to return home to face discrimination and segregation, that “something better” which they were striving for was simply equality. During this time in American, segregation was an every present aspect of everyday life. Restaurants, movie theatres, busses and housing…everything was segregated.
A civil rights law had been passed in 1885 declaring that all persons were “entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of all places of accommodation and amusement.” This law was widely ignored and segregation and discrimination continued.
For instance, let’s go to Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. IU was considered a respected institution of higher learning as well as a cultural center. Even here, African American students faced segregation. In a 1940 report on the conditions of these students revealed that they were prohibited from living in University dorms, made to dine in a separate cafeteria, and were denied the use of most of the facilities of the Union Building, and that was a gathering place for many of the white students at the time.
As far as sports go, the track, football, and some of the other teams were already integrated in the 1940s. But not all squads accepted the players on merit alone. The sports that banned African Americans were those that included a lot of exposed skin or physical contact. Swimming, wrestling, and basketball were included in these. For these sports, there existed a so called “gentleman’s agreement” among the coaches of the Big Ten conference barring all black athletes. During the 1940s, more and more talented African American players were being passed up solely based on their race. The 1946 Indiana Mr. Basketball winner, Johnny Wilson, went to Anderson University, instead of any of the basketball powerhouse schools in the state. Other African American students turned to out of state schools for the collegiate careers. The fact that these top ranked players weren’t being recruited to the top ranked schools was not missed by fans of the Hoosier state.
One open letter, published in the Hammond Times, said:
Voice actor reading a clip from the Hammond Times: If the biggest, braggingest athletic conference in the middle of the greatest country in the world can use Negros like Buddy Young, Ike Owen, Dallas Ward, Duke Slater, George Talyafaro and the like to draw $200,000 crowds for football, and Negros like Jesse Owens and Eddie Towen to win Olympic crowns, why can’t it use them in basketball?
Beckley: Another newspaper article asked:
Voice actor reading newspaper clip: What in Hades is wrong 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!
Beckley: The pressure to break this so-called “gentleman’s agreement” was mounting. Two years earlier, African American Richard Culverson played varsity at the University of Iowa. But coaches largely regarded this as an exception, rather than the rule, since he was a substitute rather and a starter, and wartime conditions made it more difficult to field a team. This time, there needed to be someone who would re-write the rules.
Beckley: Into this picture enters Bill Garrett of Shelbyville High School. William L. Garrett was born in 1929 and grew up in Shelbyville, Indiana. Garrett learned the fundamentals of the game playing on the outdoor court behind the Booker T. Washington Elementary school and later honed his abilities in the Paul Cross gymnasium. By 19*46, he was one of the star players on Shelbyville’s varsity basketball team. After an appearance at Greencastle High School, Garrett was described as one of the smoothest performers and best shots to ever appear on the court over the years. During his senior year at Shelbyville, Garrett led the Golden Bears to the IHSAA state basketball title. Let’s listen in on the semi-final game.
Recording of news footage of the game: The state of Indiana, long the nation’s hotbed of basketball, stages its 36th annual basketball state tournament. The 22nd day of March, 1947 finds cage fans arriving from all sections of the state at the Butler Univeristy campus in Indianapolis.
Recording of news footage of the game: After some close guarding, Johnson bounces to Garrett, who shoots and makes good on a beautiful jump spin shot! It’s 38 to 30, Shelbyville.
Recording of news footage of the game: Garret tallies his last basket to make it 54 points for Shelbyville. He was fouled on the shot, and the Bears elect to take possession out of bounds. Garrett has scored 25 points to lead both teams in scoring.
Recording of news footage of the game: The gun fires! It’s all over! Shelbyville will meet Terre Haute Garfield in the state finals tonight! Shelbyville’s Cinderella team went on to win the state championship by a 68 to 58 victory over Garfield Terre Haute. Now for some highlight scenes….[fade out]
Beckley: For his ability on the court, he was selected as Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. For his demeanor on and off the court, he was a co-recipient of the Paul Cross award. This was a local honor “awarded, in short, to that player who is at once a student, an athlete, and a gentleman.
After Shelbyville’s victory in the state championship, many wondered if, and where, Garrett would continue his basketball career. Would he have to leave the state to play? When one newspaperman asked where he was planning to go, he said, “I may go to UCLA or southern California, that’s what it looks like.” Would he have to settle for a smaller, less notable basketball school like Johnny Wilson had had to do the previous year? Or would he just hang up his Converse for good? It’s safe to say that the fans of Indiana basketball would not have been very happy with any of those outcomes. One reporter expressed the thoughts coursing through many Hoosiers minds.
Voice actor reading from newspaper: After all the medals and trophies are stored away, what then? Was is all moon glow? Was all the celebrating merely a moment of brotherhood in an eternity of intolerance?
Beckley; To keep this from happening, and to blaze a path for other black players, Indianapolis African American leaders banded together in order to persuade IU to give Garrett an opportunity to make the schools team. Spearheading this effort was Faburn Defrantz, executive director of the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis. He, along with other notable African Americans from Indy, drove down to Bloomington in the spring or summer of 1947 to meet with IU president Herman B. wells on behalf of Garrett, who at this point was actually already in Tennessee gearing up to play for the historically black Tennessee A & I University.
In Defrantz’s mind, Garrett was a great role model, whose demeanor and basketball prowess would make him the perfect African American hardwood pioneer. Wells was eager to end racial discrimination and segregation at the school, but wanted to do so quietly so as to prevent backlash. Wells met with Defrantz, who laid out the many merits of Garrett. He also dropped subtle hints towards the possibility of legal action if changes weren’t made. After this meeting, Wells asked IU basketball coach Branch McCracken, a legend unto himself, to give Garrett a chance to make the team. Shortly thereafter, Garrett was called back from Tennessee and started classes at IU that fall.
This transition was not without its issues. Some of the teams’ veterans were slow to warm up to Shelby Bill, as he was called. During preseason practices, there were some small instances of discrimination. A wide open pass to Garrett not taken, an extra hard elbow thrown here and there. But McCracken decided to allow his players to iron these problems out as they came. This was something Garrett would express appreciation for later in an interview with the Indiana University Center for the Study of History and Memory in 1970.
Recording of Interview with Garrett: Yea, I think this was his approach to it, and I think, looking back on it, I though at the time that he probably should have come to my defense, and straighten out maybe a player or two at times but he didn’t choose to do it. I didn’t understand it at the time, but later, I could see the wisdom in the way he reacted to different situations because of the fact that, uh, things did work out pretty good.
Beckley: In December of 1948, Garrett made his regular season varsity debut and so became the first African American player on an IU varsity basketball squad. And, more importantly, as one article reported:
Voice actor reading newspaper clip: Garrett’s entry into the Big 9’s ranks, may prove to be the begging of the end for an anti-negro gentleman’s agreement.
Beckley: Garrett quickly made a name for himself in IUs team. By the end of the season, Garrett had tallied 220 points, the highest total on the roster that season. Perhaps more important than that, though, his team had rallied around him in support throughout the season. Later in life, Garrett downplayed the discrimination he faced while playing at IU, saying in that same interview with the University:
Recording of Interview with Garrett: Well, we didn’t actually suffer and discrimination. Of course, having a Negro player presented problems, I imagine for the coaches as far as dining room facilities. Many times, it would be necessary for us to get a private room to eat in, rather than, say, eat in the dining room in various cities that we might go into like Columbus, Ohio, at that time. They probably had a policy that didn’t make it possible to go into a restaurant that we would normally go to. And then, also at St. Louis, especially at the time, we would eat in the rooms instead of, say, in the dining room.
[Interviewer]: When you say we, are you talking about the entire team?
[Garrett]: Well, yes, we would eat with the entire team… [fades out]
Beckley: While you can hear that he faced some discrimination, he mostly had fond memories of his time at IU. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that his team supported him. If Garrett couldn’t eat in a dining hall, they wouldn’t either. If a hotel made him use the back steps, the whole team used the back steps. These acts of sportsmanship could only have bolstered his performance on the court. By the end of his first season on the varsity squad, one newspaper proclaimed him “The most spectacular member of the team coached by Branch McCracken.”
The team’s record improved greatly with Garrett on the squad. And by his senior year, IU was ranked 7th in the nation. By the time he graduated, he had broken both the career scoring record as well as the single season scoring record, had been named to two all-American teams, was voted MVP by his own team mates, and had come in second in the big ten’s MVP poll.
Garrett’s effects on IUs basketball team are undeniable. But it’s a bit more difficult to discern his effects on the rest of campus and the surrounding area. Progress was being made on and off campus well before he arrived on the court, and continued to be made after he left. He was influential, don’t get me wrong. His abilities on the court and his personality off of it made it a lot easier for people of accept his presence. One reporter commented on the effects of African American athletes on Hoosiers:
Voice actor reading newspaper clip: Race prejudice, too, has generally been given the bums 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.
Beckley: Integration efforts had begun at IU well before Garrett’s arrival on the scene. African American students at IU formed a local branch of the NAACP in early 1945 and made the admittance of black students to state run dormitories on campus their number 1 priority. They achieved this goal in 1949 during Garrett’s first season on varsity.
Other big strides were being made during his time at IU. By 1950, segregation in University cafeterias, University housing, Bloomington movie theaters, and honorary fraternities and sororities on campus had been address by the students and staff at IU. But it’s really hard to know how much the integration of IU basketball had to do with these advances. What’s easy to see is the influence on the makeup of the Big 10 conference.
An Indianapolis newspaper noted that:
Voice actor reading from newspaper clip: Following the path opened by Bill Garrett at Indiana University, sepia cagers are now making big ten and other leading reams in increasing numbers.
Beckley: While he never played with, or against, another black player during his time in the conference, in the season after his graduation, at least 7 black basketball players made Big 10 teams. Though racial prejudices in sports did not end, black players continued to find success on Big 10 and other Midwest basketball teams. By 1958, at least 8 African American players were starters in the Hoosier Classic, played between Purdue, IU, Butler, and Notre Dame.
After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Garrett went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Later, he began coaching at Crispus Attucks high school in Indianapolis. He led the team to a state title in 1959. That year, he became the first African American to be named coach of the year in Indiana and in 1974, he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Just 3months later, he passed away on August 7, 1974.
This year, the Indiana Historical Bureau is proud to be a part of the dedication of a state historical marker commemorating the integration of IU basketball and Bill Garrett’s story.
[Talking Hoosier History theme music]
Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. I’d like to thank some people who made this podcast possible. A big thank you goes out to Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody, authors of Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of Big 10 Basketball, Casey Pfeiffer, our Historical Marker Manager, Jill Weiss, our recording engineer, and finally, Justin Clark, who works for Hoosier State Chronicles and has been acting as our newspaper announcer. Before we go, let’s hear from his one more time, reading from the Indianapolis Recorder.
Justin Clark reading from the Indianapolis Recorder: Such matter as politics, international affairs, economics, and even religion, are often taken lightly by Indiana people. But when it comes to basketball, they are in grim, deadly earnest. Prejudices are not allowed to stand in the way of a winning team.
Show Notes for Bill Garrett and the Integration of Indiana University
Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody, Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball
Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century
David J Bodenhamer and Hon. Randall T. Shepard, The History of Indiana Law
The Indianapolis Recorder, Accessed Hoosier State Chronicles
“1944, January 11 – FDR – Fireside chat #28, – State of the Union – closed captioned.” Youtube.com.
“1947 IHSAA Boys Basketball State Semifinal #2: Shelbyville 54, East Chicago Washington 46.” Youtube.com.
Integrating Basketball Marker File, Indiana Historical Bureau
Tom Graham, Rachel Graham Cody, and Bob Hammell
Not only did Tom and Rachel co-author the book which formed the foundation for much of the research for this episode, Tom and Bob were co-applicants for the State Historical Marker which will be dedicated at Indiana University in April 2017. If you are interested in this topic, we highly recommend the book Getting Open, as it goes into much more detail about many of the topics we, by necessity, had to brush past.
Casey is the Marker Program Manager at the Indiana Historical Bureau and compiled much of the research used in this episode. She was always available for me to ask my countless questions about the finer details of the story and for that I am very grateful.
Jill is the Digital Outreach Manager for the Indiana Historical Bureau. She also serves as my recording engineer, editor, and cheerleader in the recording room.
Justin is a project assistant with the Hoosier State Chronicles newspaper digitization project. In this episode, he played the part of newspaper announcer. If you’re interested in reading historical newspaper articles, visit Hoosier State Chronicles online.