Razorback fans have noted with displeasure that a fair number of the state’s best high school football players are going off to play college football at Auburn University in Alabama. Most of these players are black. Fans of a certain age — that is, old — can put this development in painful perspective. They remember when all the best black players left the state.
That was when Southern football was segregated, when blacks and whites didn’t play on the same team, or even against each other, high school or college. Arkansas’s black players didn’t go to Auburn in those days, of course. Football was as lily-white in Alabama as it was in Arkansas, if not whiter. Instead, they headed north, to lands of opportunity.
Wikipedia can be wrong, or at least misleading. It says of Jim Pace, “Although he was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Pace was raised in Grand Rapids, Mich. In high school, Pace was a football and track star from 1950-54. In track he ran a time of 9.6 seconds in the 100-yard-dash at Dunbar High School.”
Pace may have spent some time in Grand Rapids, but the Dunbar High School where he starred in football and track was the one in Little Rock, an all-black school in an era when the schools were segregated by race. A time of 9.6 for a high schooler in 1957 would have been phenomenal, no matter where it was run. We can safely assume that no white Arkansas high-school sprinters were matching it.
Wikipedia got right the high points of Pace’s football career at the University of Michigan, where he enrolled after graduating from Dunbar. He played there in 1955 through 1957 (freshmen were ineligible then). In 1957, he became Michigan’s first black All-American. He was awarded the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as the Most Valuable Player in the Big Ten Conference. In the 1957 Michigan-Ohio State game, Pace rushed for 164 yards, a record to that time for a Michigan runner against Ohio State. On the track, he won the Big Ten’s 60-yard-indoor-dash title.
Nineteen fifty-seven was a big year in Pace’s hometown too, though not a happy one. After a federal court ordered that black pupils be admitted to the all-white Central High School, Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to prevent integration. President Dwight D. Eisenhower trumped Faubus by sending in the U.S. Army to enforce the court order. Integration was accomplished, but federal troops stayed in Little Rock the whole school year, to make sure it stuck. Nerves were on edge, even as Pace was invited back to Little Rock for a parade and banquet in his honor.
It was a furtive sort of parade, avoiding Main Street, where the big stores and most of the people were, for a brief spin through black neighborhoods. Two daily newspapers and three TV stations operated in Little Rock then, but a reporter and a photographer from the now-deceased Arkansas Gazette provided the only mainstream media coverage of Jim Pace’s big day. The reporter was Jim Bailey, who still writes a sports column, now for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The parade and a banquet for Pace were held Dec. 30, 1957. In an article published the next day, Bailey preserved words spoken by Pace during an interview with a radio disc jockey: “First, I want to thank the wonderful people who turned out to welcome me home. It’s a wonderful experience I’ll never forget. I want you to know I’m the same Jim Pace who graduated from Dunbar and went out to make people proud of me.”
Bailey wrote that a number of major football schools were interested in Pace after he had a great season against other black high school players in 1953. “Coincidentally, that was the year J.C. Caroline, an unheralded soph from South Carolina, rewrote some of Red Grange’s rushing records at Illinois, and touched off a Big Ten talent hunt for Southern Negro players.”
The article did not directly address the question of why a Little Rock football player had gone off to Michigan to be an All-American. It was a different time. As Bailey says, everybody in Arkansas already knew the answer.
Bailey had several conversations with Pace over the years. Asked if Pace would have liked to go to Arkansas, Bailey said, “He would have liked to have had equal opportunity.”
Because of injuries, Pace never had much of a pro football career. After giving it up, he worked as an administrative assistant in the old American Football League, an actor in TV commercials, and a school administrator in Los Angeles, according to Wikipedia. He died at 47, in Culver City, Calif. He’s been inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Pace and Bobby Mitchell were close friends, though they’d played for opposing teams since junior high school. Mitchell says they’d hoped to play for the same team in college, but it didn’t work out, Pace going to Michigan and Mitchell to Illinois, so that they were again in the same conference, but on different sides. Then they hoped to play for the same pro team, but Pace was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and Mitchell by the Cleveland Browns. Near the end of Pace’s career, after he’d suffered a serious knee injury, Mitchell arranged a tryout for him with the Redskins, but it didn’t work out. Mitchell remembers Pace struggling to get down the field the way he once had. “He was running and crying at the same time. All those years of wanting to play together, and when we finally got a chance, he was hurt.”
Mitchell, 75, grew up in Hot Springs and played for Langston High, for whom he scored 26 touchdowns in one football season.
“I would have loved to have been a Razorback,” he says, but at that time, there was no chance. He and Pace and Sidney Williams of Little Rock all went off to the Big Ten in 1954.
Asked what the difference was between Arkansas and Illinois, Mitchell laughs. “To be honest with you, not a hell of a lot.” That’s comparing the two states in general. More specifically, he found life in Illinois definitely inferior to life in his hometown.
“I rave about Hot Springs,” he says. “I tell people ‘Everybody lived the same.’ I don’t even remember riding on the back of the bus. Maybe I did. But Hot Springs was different from most of Arkansas. People came there from all over the country for the baths.” And brought their cosmopolitan views with them. “But I knew that 20 miles from Hot Springs I’d be hurt.”
Mitchell was an All-Big Ten halfback for the University of Illinois. Like Pace, he ran track too, and once held the world record in the low hurdles. He planned on keeping his amateur status and competing in the 1960 Olympics, but the professional football teams began offering money, and “That was hard to turn down.” Too hard, in fact.
He signed with the Browns, where he played in the same backfield with Jim Brown. Pretty good backfield. In 1962, he joined the Washington Redskins, and was the first black to play for the Redskins. “Most teams had at least one black player by then. After me, we had three or four [black] guys pretty quickly.” Converted from running back to receiver, he led the NFL with 72 catches that year, catches that were good for 1,384 yards and 11 touchdowns. That was indicative of the rest of his career. The Pro Football Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 1983, says that he was noted for “spectacular long-distance scoring plays.” He caught 521 passes and scored 91 touchdowns, eight of them on kick returns. He was all-NFL three times.
He’s a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame too. He has no more relatives in the state, being the last survivor of a family of five boys and three girls.
After his playing career ended, he worked as an executive in the Redskins front office for 30 years, retiring in 2003. He still follows football closely, and was just back from the Super Bowl when the Arkansas Times talked to him.
We asked if he’d hobnobbed with another famous son of Hot Springs, Bill Clinton. “Some of my friends I grew up with became very close with him when he was governor,” Mitchell said. “When he was president, some of them came up and stayed with me. I’ve been to lunches at the White House that he was supposed to attend, but something always came up that kept him away. I must have been in the White House a dozen times while he was president. But I’ve never met him.”
A buddy of Mitchell’s once asked Clinton if he knew Bobby Mitchell, and according to the buddy, Clinton exclaimed “He’s from my hometown,” and rattled on at length about Mitchell. The buddy later called and said he didn’t know that Clinton and Mitchell were such good friends. “The guy said that the way Clinton was talking, you’d think he and I were together every day.” Clinton is the only president since Eisenhower that he hasn’t met, Mitchell said. “I was in the White House with Reagan three times. And I’m not a Republican.” Then he caught himself. “I haven’t met Obama yet. I guess I will.”
Like Jim Pace, Sidney B. Williams Jr. was a Dunbar graduate. Time Warner Cable says that Williams, “a native of racially-charged Little Rock, Arkansas, played his own small part in defeating Southern segregationist ideology during the 1950s by beoming the first African-American starting quarterback in the modern Big Ten conference.”
At Dunbar, Williams excelled at football, basketball and track. When he graduated, he reportedly had athletic scholarship offers from more than 15 colleges. He chose Wisconsin. It was, he says, a great change.
“I’d never participated against anyone except African American athletes until I went to Wisconsin. Or socialized with anyone except African Americans. And there were no Jim Crow laws. That was big.”
He was installed at quarterback near the end of the 1956 season, his sophomore season, while the Badgers were losing. In 1957 and ’58, he led the team to a combined record of 13-4-1, primarily a runner in an option offense. He also played safety.
Again from Time Warner: “Three days before the Badgers routed Marquette 60-6 on Sept. 28, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower had been forced to deploy 1,000 troops to Williams’ hometown of Little Rock to enforce the desegregation of Central High School. In the midst of the turmoil, UW’s quarterback sent an encouraging letter to the Little Rock Nine … “
Williams had only a brief pro career, but he remembers one incident sharply. He was with the New York Giants, who were in Dallas to play an exhibition game against the Baltimore Colts. Both teams were staying at the same hotel — at least, the white players were. Black players were put up somewhere else. The night before the game, there was a dinner or banquet for both teams in the hotel. Baltimore’s black players took the position that since they couldn’t stay in the hotel, they’d boycott the banquet. The Giants’ black players started with the same intention, but their head coach, Jim Lee Howell, called a meeting and told the black players they wouldn’t be paid for the game unless they attended the banquet.
“The Colts’ players stuck to their position, but we gave in and went,” Williams says. “I still wish we hadn’t.”
Originally from Lonoke, Howell is a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Williams is not. Ray Tucker, executive director of the Hall, said that as far as he knew, the Hall’s nominating committee had never nominated Williams. Williams says he’s never been contacted by the Hall. He is a member of the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.
A strong student, Williams got a chemical engineering degree from Wisconsin, then a few years later, earned a law degree from George Washington University. He had a long career as an intellectual-property lawyer. He’s now semi-retired and living in Kalamazoo, Mich.