During an era defined by segregation and unequal rights, eight African American student-athletes came to MTSU not fully aware of the lasting impact they would have on the university, athletics and each other.
They got a sense of their trailblazing impact recently when they returned to campus Thursday, Feb. 6, as proud family, friends and a host of supporters attended a special ceremony hosted by MTSU Athletics in the Student Union Ballroom to honor them as "True Blue Pioneers."
Former Raiders Jerry Singleton, Art Polk (via Skype), Lonnell Poole, Terry Scott, J.W. Harper, Ray Bonner, Ed Miller and Mary “Beanie” Secrest were among those recognized in a panel discussion moderated by MTSU’s Ed Arning.
Out of all the honorees, Singleton, a track star, was the first African American to receive an athletic scholarship to the university in the fall of 1965.
"My parents were unable to send me to college," said Singleton. “I had a great desire to go college, knowing that's the key to opening doors. (Track coach) Dean Hayes presented me with an opportunity for which I'm forever grateful."
Hayes was joined at the event by his wife, Jan, other former coaches and players, MT Athletics administrators and staff as well as MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee.
“When I came, integration wasn’t on my mind, because I was already a part of it where I came from,” said Hayes, who began his legendary coaching career in the Chicago area and has been at MTSU for more than a half century. “We were focused on winning.”
Singleton's addition laid the foundation for future black male athletes at MTSU. He would be joined by his former teammate Poole on the track team the following year. Around the same time, other sports added African American athletes as well.
Scott and Polk would play basketball while Harper, Bonner and Miller became the program’s first black football athletes. All of the athletes praised the coaches and their families for welcoming them and fostering an atmosphere that tamped down that social tensions boiled over in other parts of the South and country.
“Life was good to me here. I had a great opportunity to play and get a degree,” said Bonner, a member of the famed “Mod Squad” defensive backfield under coach Charles “Bubber” Murphy.
“I actually have two degrees from MTSU. God put us here for a reason.”
The Franklin County, Tennessee, native has served as an assistant coach on Hayes’ staff the past several years.
Polk, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, was in Africa and tuned in via videoconference to answer questions and share lots of laughs and memories with his former classmates.
“I saw the university go through major transitions,” said Polk. “I am very proud of the university’s willingness to change, adjust and now have such a diverse student body.”
Secrest, the lone woman on the panel, played multiple sports while on the Blue Raider campus — basketball, volleyball and intramural track — from 1971-1974, and reflected on the challenges female athletes faced as a result of very limited resources at the time.
Unlike for the male athletes, scholarships were not being offered within women’s athletics during this period in collegiate sports. Secrest mentioned how the love for the game and the competition is what kept her going, especially during basketball season.
"I appreciate the ladies that stepped forward to coach us," said Secrest. “Women athletics was totally different. It was nothing at all like men’s sports. There were no scholarships. You played because you were an athlete.”
Despite facing social challenges such as not being able to enter white restaurants while traveling with the team, lack of scholarships and other factors, she spoke of the valuable lessons learned and doors that opened because of MTSU.
“I have progressed in corporate America like I never would have believed,” said Secrest. “It has shown me what perseverance and determination will do for you. The harder it is, the better it is for you.”
To view the upcoming events scheduled for MTSU's Black History Month celebration, visit https://www.mtsu.edu/aahm/docs/bhm-calendar.pdf.