For over seventy years, black student athletes at Cornell have overcome adversity — on the field and in the classroom — to excel in their sports. Almost 60 black Cornellians have been named first-team All-Ivy in nine sports. A few have been drafted into the NFL and NBA. During Black History Month, their stories and struggles are often overlooked in favor of national figures or political leaders. The Sun, however, today presents a few of these forgotten figures as a reminder that the struggle for equality was played out not only on a national level but also on a personal level, inch-by-inch and play-by-play, as these athletes broke barriers and demanded respect.
One of these early athletes, and Red’s first black football player, was Jerome “Brud” Holland ’39. From the beginning, he proved himself a team leader and playmaker, leading the team to win after win. Cornell football was in its glory days, drawing 14,000 fans to Schoellkopf Field on Sept. 30, 1938. On this day, playing against Colgate, Holland’s exploits were recorded by the Sun:
“Holland came through with his specialty on three occasions-tackling the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.”
Holland was equally adept at offense, of which the sports writer wrote:
“Picking up from where he left off last year … Brud Holland drew first blood with his famous end-round play. With Cornell on its own 43-yard line, Holland tucked the ball under his arm and streaked across the Crescent side of the field 57 yards to go over standing up. Halfway on his jaunt, the fleet Brud turned without breaking his stride to stiff-arm two of the Raiders who were in hot pursuit.”
Holland had been named All-American in 1937, one of only five blacks across the country to be given the honor in the first half of the century. He would go on to a successful career in education, becoming the president of Hampton Institute in Virginia. He would also serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, and receive the National Football Foundation’s Distinguished American Award, their highest honor.
A few years later, Paul Robeson, Jr. ’46, son of the famous actor, would become another athlete who would meet great success after his sports career. In 1945 he became only the second black person to make the first-team all Heptagonal games. The next year, he won the Intercollegiate Associate of Amateur Atheletes of America (IC4A) indoor high jump championship. After graduation, he had a colorful career as an author, journalist, lecturer and Russian translator.
In the fifties, two black Cornellians would medal in the Olympic games. Meredith Gourdine ’52 took home the silver in the long jump with a leap of 24-7 — in the 1952 games. Previously, he had brought Cornell IC4A wins in both long jump and the 220-yard dash. After Cornell, he earned a Ph.D. in engineering physics from California Institute of Technology. He was a pioneer in the field of electrogasdynamics, inventing practical processes for removing smoke from buildings and fog from airport runways.
Irvin “Bo” Roberson ’58 earned a gold medal in the 1960 games, also setting the world record that same year with a leap of 25-9. Often times Roberson has been cited as the greatest athlete in Cornell history, excelling at football, basketball and track. Famed sports commentator Dick Schaap ’55 believed that Bo was “the best natural athlete ever in the Ivy league. He could do anything,” as quoted by Schaap’s son.
Being the only person ever to have an Ivy league degree, an Olympic medal, a doctorate (in psychology) and an NFL career, it often seemed like Roberson could do anything. His senior year, fighting a recurrent leg injury and a team in slump, Roberson managed to keep striving for victory. In a Nov. 16, 1956 game against Brown, Roberson “refused to go down without a fight,” according to the next Monday’s Sun.
“Bo Roberson came through with a spirited performance and led Cornell to a second touchdown. With the ball on [their own] 38, Robinson took a screen pass from soph Tom Skypeck, subbing for Boland at quarter, and streaked 33 yards before he was brown down on the Dartmouth 29-yard line.” The next play, Roberson got the ball to the 2-yard line and allowed the Big Red to score. In another game, against Colgate, Roberson set the school kick-return record with a 100-yard run.
During his six-year professional career, Roberson would play for the San Diego Chargers, the Oakland Raiders, the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins. After his sports career, Roberson, always described as articulate and as an intellectually commanding figure, returned to school and earned his doctorate, at the age of 58. He then maintained a private practice, far from the public eye, and avoided the media, and almost everyone, the rest of his life.
Activism and Athleticism
The 1960’s brought with them another period of racial unrest, as students protested segregation and racism around the country, sometimes violently. At Cornell, a hundred armed black students marched and captured Williard Straight Hall to protest what they perceived as the school’s racist policies and passivity towards improving the Cornell minority experience. Against this backdrop of unrest, Red’s Steve Machooka ’61 became the first black cross-country runner to gain first-team status honors at the Heptagonal games. Numerous other Cornell black students would win awards that decade, including Gregg Morris ’77. He was the first black person to be named first-team All-Ivy. A year later, he would be the first black Ivy-league student to be drafted into the NBA, picked by the Baltimore Bullets in the 16th round.
Ben Bluitt became Cornell’s head basketball coach in the early 70’s, one of only 10 black head college coaches in America at the time, two others of whom were in the Ivy League. In 1972, Holland became the first black athlete to receive the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award, given to honor one who excelled athletically while at school and had shown continued commitment to collegiate athletics and fitness. Only six years later, Holland’s son, Joe Holland ’78, became the first black to rush for over 1000 yards in an Ivy season and only the second player ever to do so. He would later be inducted into the All-American Academic Hall of Fame.
In 1984, Derrick Harmon ’84 was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the 9th round. In 1981, he was named the Ivy League’s first black football Rookie of the Year. Harmon’s stellar performances had continued while at Cornell, and before graduating with a degree in engineering physics, he had rushed for 3,074 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Rhonda Anderson ’83 was the first black woman to be selected first-team All-Ivy for basketball. By the time she graduated, she broke 19 school scoring and rebounding records, including a career scoring record of 1,105 points. In 1989, she was inducted into the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame. After graduation, she began a successful career in marketing.
The number of black athletes that have left their mark on Cornell is great, and their legacy far greater. Black inductees into the first team All-Ivy nnumber six for men’s basketball, one for women’s basketball, one for men’s cross country, 11 for football, six for soccer, 21 for men’s track and field, eight for women’s track and field, one for volleyball and two for wrestling.
More information about black athletes of the Ivy League can be found at ivyleaguesports.com, which has generously helped with much of this article’s information. For a more complete bibliography of sources used, e-mail the author at MPM36@CORNELL.EDU.
Archived article by Michael Morisy