Nov 21, 2013

Whitley Writes: Historic Moment For Morgan State Highlights Orlando’s HBCU History

When players came to Orlando’s bowls last year, they got watches and a $420 shopping spree at Best Buy. In 1966, they got a tangerine.

It wasn’t just a piece of fruit to Morgan State’s players. That was because when West Chester’s players arrived in Orlando, they got the same thing.

They also attended the same party. They ate the same meals. They dressed at the same stadium.

And contrary to the fears of many, the city did not crumble after blacks and whites played on the same field.

“That was huge,” Charlie Miller said.

He was the basketball coach at Wymore Tech, and he knew all about segretation in Orlando. His teams would go on the road and have to stay in people’s homes because motels didn’t allow blacks.

Most of the Orlando Sentinel’s subscribers never read about games that black schools played. The paper would insert a special pink sheet what ran the scores once a week. It was distributed only in black neighborhoods.

Miller wasn’t a member of the Elk’s Lodge, which sponsored the old Tangerine Bowl. But he worked for Florida Citrus Sports after retiring from the school system. This year he received the organization’s highest honor, the Howard Palmer Award.

Miller arrived in Orlando in 1954, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education. That didn’t go over too well in the South, especially when it came to sports.

The games took on a defiant symbolism. If black and whites were equal on a playing field – even for three hours – it would promote the notion they could be equal everywhere else. Judge Hugh Locke of Birmingham led a campaign to prevent that from happening in Alabama.

“Allowing Negroes to play baseball here,” he said, “will wind up with Negroes marrying whites.”

Bowls were loathe to invite Northern teams that had blacks on their rosters. The Tangerine Bowl was only 13 years old when the Elks invited the University of Buffalo in 1958.

The Bulls turned the Elks down because they would not have been allowed to bring the black players on their roster. That wasn’t the Elks’ rule. The Orlando High School Athletic Association held the lease at the Tangerine Bowl. It had rules prohibiting blacks and whites from playing together.

The rule changed by the mid-1960s, but would the attitude?

Morgan State fans weren’t sure. Their program began a 19-game winning streak in 1965. With players like future NFL Hall-of-Famer Willie Lanier, the Bears could compete with anyone if given a chance. The Elks decided to give them one.

Most bowls were run by businessmen, who were more pragmatic than the hardcore segregationists. The Elks invited Morgan State to play West Chester, a small-college power from Pennsylvania.

Since the school was located in Baltimore, most Morgan State followers had only read about the civil rights struggles in the South. They weren’t sure what to expect when the arrived in Orlando. But they got off the plane and were greeted by Mayor Bob Carr and a host of civic leaders.

“The Baltimoreans were lodged at the plush Cherry Plaza Hotel overlooking Lake Ivanhoe in the heart of the small mid-Florida town. Their accomodations, including meals prepared to order, were of the finest quality, and nothing was done by the sponsoring Elks for the all-white West Chester State team that was not done for Morgan.”

That was the report in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper on Dec. 13, 1966. The only thing that went wrong was a robbery during the final pregame practice. The locker room was left unattended and thieves stole about $200 from every wallet and pair of pants they could rifle through.

The next day, 7,138 fans showed up at the Tangerine Bowl. Fans were curious, and so were the Bears. They’d never played an all-white team. They hoped the game would be played cleanly, but they were prepared for something less.

“The game was a clean, hard-fought battle in which neither the Morgan team nor that from West Chester State College was guilty of unsportsmanly play,” the Afro-American reported.

The Bears won 14-6, and Lanier was named MVP. West Chester coach Bob Mitten met his counterpart, Earl Banks at midfield and shook hands.

“At the end, members of both contingents met at mid-field, shook hands, slapped backs and embraced,” the Afro-American said. “Then all left to go home, each wishing each other well.”

What we take for granted now was something to write about then. Teams will show up to the Russell Athletic and Capital One bowls next month. They’ll be escorted to plush hotels and be showered with every perk the NCAA will allow.

As fun as it will be, the experience can’t match what happened in 1966.

We turn one last time to the Afro-American newspaper. An editorial said the game proved that when “clear-thinking people of both races make up their mind to live together – athletically, intellectually and socially – normalcy will prevail.”

The Tangerine Bowl didn’t just give players some fruit. It gave Orlando a lasting taste of equality.

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