By David R. Altman
Atlanta author Sam Heys’ latest book is a compelling tale of one of college basketball’s forgotten tragedies.
Remembering Henry Harris is the story of the first black athlete awarded a scholarship by a Southeastern Conference (SEC) university.
Heys takes us through the remarkable story of Harris’ life, from growing up dirt poor in rural Boligee, Alabama to the exhilarating yet difficult times which surrounded his decision to attend Auburn.
All of this transpired under the backdrop of the South’s struggle with the civil rights of African Americans in the sixties.
Heys moves us seamlessly from Harris’ story, merging those of other black athletes and how their journey paralleled the major stories of the time, including the Birmingham church bombings, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1963, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the integration of major state colleges and the rise in student activism on many university campuses.
The story of Henry Harris is not one you will easily forget. As a senior in rural Greene County, Alabama, Harris averaged 34.5 points a game and seventeen rebounds. The recruiting war was not only between Auburn and Alabama, but included other major schools, including Iowa, Villanova and the University of Houston. Ultimately, it was the closeness he felt to the Auburn assistant coaches that resulted in him signing with the Tigers.
There is a simmering tension beneath the chapters of this extraordinary book, one that binds the reader not only to the athletes but to the daily dilemmas they face, from being heckled and called the n-word in nearly every southern stadium or coliseum in which they played to worrying about their physical safety. Henry Harris got the scholarship, but what he didn’t bargain for was the relentless racism he faced at every turn.
Heys writes: “A year into the experiment [Harris] knew what was at stake. The South needed him. America needed him, especially at Auburn, deep in the Heart of Dixie, where some children had grown up and never heard a positive word about a black American, a family tradition shoved down through the ages. Harris was taking all that on, changing one mind at a time with his composure and competitiveness, possibly transforming a family for generations forward.”
In the midst of his legacy, just two years after captaining the Auburn basketball team, Harris took his own life by jumping from a dorm window on the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee campus. He had been working as a junior varsity basketball coach and intramural supervisor. No one saw it coming. Harris was only 24.
For Heys, the death was deeply personal.
“I can tell you where I was the night I read about Henry Harris’ death,” Heys told the Braselton News. “Boy, it hit me like a blow to the stomach. It was so terribly sad. I had seen him play and I felt the connection. It was so over-powering and quite an awakening.”
“What we had prior to these major Southern universities being integrated, the athletic programs had become part of the resistance to integration,” said Heys, a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal/Constitution. “The thinking among the schools was ‘we’re going to hold on to athletics, while the federal government has made us integrate the universities, amidst great violence sometimes, they can’t make us integrate sports’.”
Heys added that schools like the University of Alabama took great pride in how its football team of ‘skinny white boys’ (a phrase that once appeared in a story by Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford) could beat other teams with African American athletes.
“It was driven out of the universities’ need to relate to the fan base and state legislatures,” said Heys. “While many people took the high road and accepted these changes, much like the City of Atlanta did in the sixties, others would never accept it.”
Heys’ book goes into detail about the difficult journeys of many of the first black athletes to play in the SEC, including basketball players Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard of Vanderbilt University in 1966, and Greg Page and Nate Northington at the University of Kentucky, the first black football players to play in the SEC (although they did so without being awarded scholarships).
It would be more than four years after Auburn signed Henry Harris before the University of Georgia’s football team was integrated, when Horace King, Chuck Kinnebrew, Larry West, Clarence Pope and Richard Appleby played for the team. That was in 1971, when Vince Dooley was in his eighth season.
This is Heys’ third book of non-fiction, and it’s the one that has been in his heart for more than four decades.
In Remembering Henry Harris, the Atlanta author provides a history lesson in which the players are front and center—but it was the changing landscape of America that floats seamlessly beyond the pages of this book.
We know the sufferings that the Selma marchers endured, but in this book we are exposed for the first time to the sort of institutional (and individual) racism experienced by every black athlete who, (not by choice) forged their way into our region’s consciousness. Their sacrifice shaped not only the way in which people viewed sports but the way in which people viewed black Americans. Henry Harris helped to make that change possible.
Heys’ ability to weave-in the broken and violent social fabric that shaped the civil rights sacrifices of the sixties makes this book much more than a compelling profile of Henry Harris and the pioneering black athletes in the SEC.
Remembering Henry Harris will become an unforgettable reminder that everything important comes with a cost and those that sacrifice the most are often those whose names are the first to be forgotten.