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Breaking barriers: a part of Miami sports history

Gallagher's going for two

By Brian Gallagher
On February 27, 2012

In sports, the idea of breaking barriers is synonymous with success. When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile mark, he proved that one would not die from exhaustion after that kind of physical effort. Babe Didrickson showed how capable women were in sports, excelling at everything from golf to track and field. She has been called the, "9th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century" by the Associated Press. But one of the toughest barriers to break in sports is the color barrier.

Those who broke down the barriers of race in sports, such as Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton in the NBA and Kenny Washington in the NFL are often celebrated, especially during Black History Month. But the question of "who broke the color barrier at Miami University?" would leave all but the most ardent Miami historians stumped.

The answer is Don Barnette '56, who came to Miami in 1952 from nearby Middletown, Ohio and became the first African-American athlete to wear the Red and White as a member of the men's basketball team. He played on Miami's 1954-55 Mid-American Conference (MAC) championship team and was named to the all-MAC team while earning an all-American honorable mention during the 1955-56 season, his final year.

In a school with a long history of basketball prowess, it may be easy to take Mr. Barnette's success for granted. But at the time of his arrival in Oxford, many schools still would not admit African-American athletes, let alone allow them to play sports.

The Texas Western College basketball team, depicted in the movie Glory Road, gained fame for being the first team to win a national championship with five African-American starters in 1966. And Adolph Rupp, the head coach at the University of Kentucky, which lost to Texas Western in the championship, did not even recruit an African-American player until 1969 when he signed Tom Payne, fourteen years after our own Barnette had graduated.

I might be remiss if I wrote about sports but failed to mention Jeremy Lin, who happens to be the hottest topic in the sporting world right now.

Lin has recently become a household name because of his play and because of the New York media, but also because of his race. As an Asian-American, he was not expected to succeed in basketball, and many scouts passed him by simply because they had no one of his race to compare him to.

Two ESPN employees even resorted to racial slurs to describe "Linsanity" and have since been fired.

But while this was certainly reprehensible, it is only a small part of what Barnette and other African-American athletes had to endure back when integration was a swear word in many communities.

Civil Rights struggles are often just topics in a history class, but Barnette dealt with them first-hand. Many times, he was not allowed to stay with the team during away games or he was forced to sit on the bench during a game lest he incite a riot at a visiting campus by playing. But he overcame these cultural hurdles while competing through taunts, jeers and other forms of racism that could have felled lesser men.

Barnette went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters for four years where he was known as the "Dribbling Wizard," and was elected to the Miami athletic Hall of Fame in 2002.

He also paved the way for RedHawk greats such as Ron Harper, Wayne Embry and Head Coach Charlie Coles. And his contributions as a pioneer at Miami should not be so easily forgotten.

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