UA football game crowds integrated 50 years ago

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — It was the love of football, not aspirations to be trailblazers, that led three black men from Tuscaloosa to take seats near midfield in George Hutcheson Denny Stadium at the University of Alabama on Sept. 19, 1964, to watch the Tide defeat Georgia.

"I wanted to see the game and see (Joe) Namath play," Archie Wade said.

Wade, Joffre Whisenton and Nathaniel Howard, with tickets provide by university administrators, helped integrate the stands as spectators a little more than a year removed from the successful desegregation of the campus in June 1963 by Vivian Malone and James Hood.

Whisenton, who was the first black student to graduate with a doctorate from UA, got tickets from David Matthews, a future UA president who was a faculty member at time working with President Frank Rose, and John Blackburn, the dean of men in 1964.

"To tell you the truth, we didn't think about integrating the stands," Whisenton said.

Whisenton was active with groups in Tuscaloosa trying to improve interracial relations.

"We had lots of brave people back then trying to improve race relations with activities and forums," Whisenton said.

While Whisenton was active in efforts to bring the races together in Tuscaloosa, he said his time at Alabama was never about breaking barriers. Whisenton's matriculation at UA was uneventful, he said.

"My objective was to get a graduate degree, not to integrate the university," said Whisenton, who lives in Atlanta and works as an educational consultant.

As a minor-league baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Wade, who was working at Stillman College with Whisenton in 1964, played on an integrated team.

Wade encountered reminders from time to time of the racial tensions as he traveled with the team. A restaurant in Florida refused to serve him, prompting the manager to take the team elsewhere. But otherwise he said he had a pleasant time in his minor league career.

On the road, Wade watched many of Tuscaloosa's struggles to integrate play out in newspaper articles or on TV.

"I was not active in terms of the movement and marches. I was more on the quiet side," Wade said.

The men walked into the stadium on Sept. 19, 1964, without any thoughts about its significance.

"We just all loved the Crimson Tide and wanted to go to the football game," Whisenton said.

Football was enthralling as ever in Tuscaloosa. Legendary football coach Paul W. "Bear" Bryant — whose name wouldn't join Denny's on the stadium until 1975 — was working on his second national championship at Alabama with a squad led by Joe Namath.

"You were always discussing sports ..." Whisenton said.

Whisenton, who was working at Stillman as the basketball coach and baseball coach while pursuing his doctorate in education at UA, asked his friends if they wanted to go to the game as they stood in the Stillman gym.

"There wasn't much discussion on our part. I just said, 'Yes,' " Wade said.

Wade, who would eventually become the Capstone's first black faculty member, was an assistant coach and physical education instructor at Stillman, where he had graduated in 1962.

The men had been to Alabama games before but sat in segregated seating. Blacks paid a couple of dollars to sit on wooden bleachers squeezed into the north end zone, Wade said. It was open seating, Whisenton said. The best seats went to the early arrivals.

"You had a pretty good view of the game," Whisenton said.

But the bleachers only offered a view of about 85 percent of the field, Wade said.

But accompanying the desire to see the Tide was apprehension, Wade said. It was anticipation. It was the acute awareness of being the only blacks in a stadium on a campus historically off limits to blacks as students and fans.

Unlike Whisenton, Wade wasn't a student. He had grown up in a Tuscaloosa where black and white children might play together but attended segregated schools.

"I kind of felt like (Vivian Malone) could go to the game and no one else," Wade said. "She was OK because she was a student."

Before integration of the campus, Whisenton said the police would stop black drivers from traveling across the university's campus.

"You could clean everything but you couldn't go to school there," Whisenton said, noting the university's black custodial workers.

Wade expected derogatory comments from some of the white fans. It was a likelihood he was prepared to deal with. The anticipation was part of Wade's matter-of-fact process of preparation for facing challenges.

"I can handle it, expecting it," he said.

But the plan also inspired anxiety in Wade's wife.

"She was a little fearful," Wade said.

Wade assured his wife he would be fine. He expected heckles but no violence.

"I wanted to go but I had the feeling that something might happen," Wade said.

On the Saturday in 1964, the three sat near the band in the stands at midfield.

"We were OK the first half," Wade said.

Sitting near the band in the packed stands, the three were difficult to single out, Wade speculated.

"When the band took the field, that's when things got out of hand," Wade said. "I hate to say this. We were sitting ducks."

As the Million Dollar Band performed at half time, the men were isolated in the stands.

"That's when things started flying by. Mostly, it was ice in cups," Wade said.

Empty cups crimped to hold their ice became projectiles directed at the men from the seats above.

"We were sitting there about 10 minutes," Whisenton said. "I could feel that pint whiskey bottle pass my ear."

Whisenton didn't turn around to see where the bottle came from. He watched the liquor bottle strike a woman seated below them.

The men, who did not have security escorts to the game, decided to leave rather than be subjected to the barrage. The men left before things could get worse.

"In the black community it was called survival," Whisenton said of the decision.

The men approached security about being escorted out, but the guard declined to help, Wade said.

As they walked out, more objects rained down.

"It could have been a lot worse, and I did think it would have been a lot worse if we stayed," Wade said.

Wade said the three left while everyone else was in the stadium watching the second half.

Wade reflected on what the men had done the next morning.

"I was just thankful to God nothing had happened to us," he said.

Wade, who joined UA's department of education in 1970 and remained on faculty until 2000, didn't dwell on his time in stands in 1964.

"It just happened, I guess," he said. "Once it was over, never gave it much thought."

But the retired faculty member who lives in west Tuscaloosa has come to think on it more as the men have recounted their experience for the curious in the past 50 years. A brief anecdote was included in the introductions for Wade during last year's "Through the Doors" celebration of the 50th anniversary of UA's successful integration last year. The event honored Wade and Whisenton as the first black faculty member and first doctoral student.

Watching as the Tide played on a recent Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium before an integrated fan base reminds Wade of the afternoon sitting in the stands for the first time. It puts the two quarters of football half a century ago in a different perspective.

"It means more to me as times goes by," Wade said.


Information from: The Tuscaloosa News,

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