The year was 1911. The industrial revolution was going strong in the industrial capital of the world. South of the Mason-Dixon line, Jim Crow laws were etched in stone. Pittsburgh was situated just above the North-South boundary. There were no official “James Crow” laws in place but the unacceptable law of racial exclusion was imprinted on the hearts of some from all points, north, south, east and west in America.
In regards to the University of Pittsburgh, Hubbard Hollensworth and Harry Ray Wooten were the first student athletes enrolled at Pitt in 1911. However it would take until 1945, 34 years for any genuine notice to be given to them or any other African American athlete to attend the University.
In 1944 Jimmy Joe Robinson, who eventually became Rev. Jimmy Joe Robinson was an outstanding running back from the small town of Connellsville, Pa. In 1945 he was awarded the first full football scholarship given to a Black athlete to attend and play at Pitt.
Reverend Robinson reflects: “I was recruited by Clark Shaughnessy who came in to coach Pitt from Stanford. I was attending Connellsville High School. I was the first ‘recruited’ Black football player to play at the University of Pittsburgh. I can’t recall the impact that the first Black athletes admitted to Pitt might have had. I was 17 years old from a small town and I had no idea about any Black role models or heroes that might have attended the University of Pittsburgh before I did. I was from a small town. I had no idea about racism at Pitt or anywhere else. One incident stands out in my mind. I went out to dinner one day with a group of young White players that had been recruited.
We went into a restaurant in Oakland. We sat down at our tables to order our meal. The waitress kept zipping by us. One of the young men inquired as to what was going on?
The waitress responded, ‘My manager says that we can’t serve him,’ and pointed to me. This was in Oakland. So the group of players that I was with took the tables and turned them upside down and walked out angry. I was so naïve I continued to sit there wondering what was going on because I was taught as a youngster to know my place. There were formal Jim Crow laws in the South but there were unwritten laws in the North. Up to that point I had not experienced racism because I played football in high school with a lot of White players that had also made the Pitt squad.
The team and the University were not the real problem it was Oakland. When we played other teams they were not teams from the South. Mostly all of the teams that we played were northern teams, Big Ten teams, etc. I was called a lot of names but it was nothing like what Jackie Robinson had to face when he integrated Major League Baseball two years  after I received my football scholarship. Rev. Robinson also felt that his contribution has had a minimal impact the athletes of the present.
What we endured and sacrificed for the most part has never been taught to the youth of today because most Black parents nowadays don’t really teach their kids about the struggles of the past.”
As far as race being a factor in determining his grades Rev. Robinson had this to say; “As far as my grades being affected by my race, I really have no evidence of that.” Reverend Robinson went on to “congratulate Pitt and the African American Alumni Council [for hosting] The Forefront of a Century of Change celebration which will be held May 10 at the Petersen Events Center celebrating this historical event.” He also said that he would “participate and function in any role that the University asked of him.”
Linda Wharton-Boyd, current president of the Pitt African American Alumni Council spoke with me from her office in the nation’s capital and said that “while traveling the country she had a vision to reconnect African American alumni to the University. Over the past few years I have been attempting to re-connect the University of Pittsburgh to its national African American alumni base. The sports alumnus represents just one of the segments that should be reconnected. The ultimate goal is to connect to, health care professionals and legal professionals as well.” She has also spearheaded a fundraising effort to raise five million dollars toward that effort of which close to 3 million dollars of that sum has been realized to date.
“This is a monumental event for the University of Pittsburgh, embracing both the past and the future,” said University of Pittsburgh Athletic Director Steve Pedersen. “We are excited and honored to be welcoming back many Panther greats to this celebration.“
The unprecedented event will commemorate the achievements of African-American student-athletes the past 100 years at the University of Pittsburgh. The celebration will be hosted by famed sportscaster Bob Costas.
Costas, winner of 21 Emmy Awards, is one of the most recognized and accomplished figures in sports broadcasting. Costas—with NBC Sports since 1979—has covered nearly every major sport, but is most identified with the Olympics and baseball.
Herb Douglas, president emeritus of the International Amateur Athletic Association, Inc. and a member of the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees, is serving as dinner chair.
“The contribution of African-American student-athletes has been significant in the history of the University of Pittsburgh. This event is an evening to celebrate where we are and where we have come the last 100 years,” said Douglas. “There is, however, always room for improvement and we have to engage ourselves and strive for continued excellence from all our athletes” (from the University of Pittsburgh press release).
(For event and ticket information call the University of Pittsburgh at 412-624-2939.)
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-583-6741.)