This Black History Month, I applaud Sam Heys a white man.
I became familiar with Sam Heys work when I read the book Big Bets, Decisions and Leaders that shaped Southern Company, about the founding and early days of The Southern Company, owners of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia Power. Later, I would become familiar with Sam when he decided to write the story of Henry Harris’s integration of deep south collegiate athletics and I became one of his resources as he researched deeply into Henry’s life and his time at Auburn University. Henry was the first black athlete in the deep southern states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, to sign a scholarship, and to play college sports when he signed with Auburn University in 1968.
I knew Henry Harris. Hung out with him, laughed with him, played cards with him, drank beer and played pickup basketball with him. Henry was my friend. He, and James Owens the first black scholarship football player at Auburn, were my big brothers. We lived in the athletic dormitory and helped to shepherd in southern college sports integration. Henry and I were two years apart. Reading Sam’s book about incidents and people I knew took me back, some who were courageous and others who hid behind traditions, court orders, the N word, and confederate flags.
As a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and The Columbus Enquirer, Sam asked and answered the two questions Henry, and most of the early pioneers, faced, “Do I want to have to worry about being physically or mentally harassed, or harmed or did I want to go to college and enjoy my college career?”
Sam asked these questions of Perry Wallace, the first black athlete in the SEC at Vanderbilt; Wendell Hudson, the first black athlete at The University of Alabama; and Nate Northington, at Kentucky; whose black roommate, Greg Page was killed in football practice.
I have often had to remind people that we were teenagers, leaving home for the first time. We were on the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. It was less than a half dozen years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Laws had changed but people hadn’t. It was a tense time. Neither of us had any previous experience in our families with higher education. We were good at our sport and good enough citizens for the formerly all white universities, to take a chance on.
Henry Harris, from Boligee, Alabama, had opportunities for a basketball scholarship at Villanova, who wanted him badly. The University of Alabama wanted him to be their “first.” Many other recruiters found the tiny town of Boligee and came calling. In today’s language, Henry was a five-star recruit. But, like many of the pioneers, he didn’t want to venture far from home and family. He represented a community, a group of people who wanted and needed integration in college sports to shine a bright light on past injustices and needed advancement in society. They wanted to make a difference.
I bought the book in September. Sam was featured as a part of the Auburn 50th Commemoration of sports integration, a wonderful celebration during Black Alumni weekend with nearly 500 attendees. He brought his recently released book, Remember Henry Harris: Lost Icon of a Revolution, A Story of Hope and Self Sacrifice in America. He familiarized many there with the story of Henry’s journey through Auburn.
Sam writes, after the freedom rides, the bus boycotts, the sit-ins and the marches ended, Harris decided to make his life matter by going to Auburn University – the first African American on athletic scholarship at Auburn and, more importantly, the first black athlete at any SEC school in the Deep South. He was the seemingly quintessential candidate for integration, but nothing could have prepared him for the next four years. Fourteen years after Brown v. Board, he still had not sat in a classroom with a white person.
Knowing much of the story, I brought the book home and let it sit. Did I want to go back into what I consider to be dark days? It has always been difficult emotionally for me. I waited.
As we neared Black History Month, I picked the book up off my desk and let Sam take me back to those days once again. I read it in record time. I read it late at night and between 5 and 7 am, while my wife slept and the phone would not ring, knowing I would not be able to control the tears.
The book starts with depression, and an apparent suicide in 1974, when Henry was 24 and 2 years removed from his time at Auburn. As Sam reads an article from a newswire printer describing Henry’s suicide, he says the details were vague and the reporting was missing all the “whys.” Sam fills in the facts, answers the questions and traces Henry’s extraordinary odyssey, a passage that helped revolutionize the South and America.
A stranger in a strange land at Auburn, Henry learned early on the defense mechanisms needed as an integration pioneer. He learned, like all of us, to keep things bottled up inside. Keep your true feelings to yourself. Don’t let others know how you really feel so that you won’t be labeled an agitator, an ingrate.
Henry said all the right things, “What convinced me was the atmosphere at Auburn. Coach Lynn along with the other coaches and players were pleasant people to talk with and they made you feel like you were wanted.”
When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he responded, “As a basketball player who cares for other people.”
But an unhealthy restlessness boiled below the surface at the unfairness of it all. He played out of position. He played on a bum knee shot up with drugs to get through a game. He had to defer to others when he was the best player on the team. He had practically no social life. He never graduated.
There is a thin line between success, and happiness and “making it through.” For many of us, and in particular for Henry and James Owens, my big brothers, it would have been great to have the total college experience, but that was not the case. No effort was made by Auburn or any social organization to assimilate Henry into university life. For the most part of his four years he never had a roommate. Henry and James decided they just needed to make it through.
When he left the Auburn basketball court for the last time, he received a respectful 90 second ovation from the Auburn fans. He received a similar ovation at Kentucky where he had scored 43 points as a freshman. A Kentucky athlete who played against Henry said, “He was ahead of his day. He was a true gentleman.”
Sam says he was a hero. A hero supposedly suffers for those who follow him. Henry Harris was a hero. He gave himself to a cause bigger than himself. He played hard, he played hurt, and he kept his mouth shut. He knew what he had to do and he did it. He stayed – when all the stereotypes said he wouldn’t and common sense said he shouldn’t.
He made things better and possible for those coming behind him.
This Black History Month Sam Heys has given Henry Harris his justice. He has made others aware of Henry’s journey and his legacy. Henry deserves that and much, much more. Thank you Sam!