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Wilson brothers played key role in breaking down basketball’s color barrier

By Larry Weigel

Although there were a few major college’s like Columbia University who permitted an African American to play college basketball back in the 1930’s- and UCLA allowing Jackie Robinson to compete in basketball in the Pacific Coast conference in 1941, it wasn’t until the late 1940’s that the disguised informal agreement among college coaches, athletic directors and university presidents- not to recruit black athletes was broken.

This is a story about how the Wilson brothers of Anderson Indiana played a prominent role to help integrate the world of college basketball, what transpired to bring this change about and the effect it had on their lives.

Johnny Wilson was born in Anderson Indiana in 1927 and his brother Gene in 1931.  The Wilson family also included two older brothers Glenn and Ray, an older sister Mary Francis and Hershel the youngest.  Their father died in 1941 when Johnny was 13 and Gene age 10.  “After daddy died, I talked to mamma about quitting school and getting a job, but she said no way,” said Johnny during a recent interview in Topeka during July.

The Wilson brothers were in Topeka because Gene -who was the first African American scholarship basketball player to attend Kansas State in 1950, was being inducted into the inaugural class of the Shawnee County Baseball Hall of Fame in recognition of his outstanding umpiring service to the youth of Topeka over a fifty year period.

Kansas State had a recruiting pipeline to Anderson, Indiana through Dobbie Lambert who played for Kansas State’s head coach Jack Gardner at Modesto Junior College, California in the mid 1940’s.  Dobbie later became the basketball coach at Anderson Indiana High School.  Lambert already sent three white Anderson High stars to Kansas State including: Bob Rousy, Dick Peck and Danny Schuyler.  But the recruitment of Gene Wilson the first African American basketball player to play in the Big 7 conference would not be that easy.

Before we learn about Genes’ recruiting experience with Kansas State, I will tell what his brother John experienced during 1946.  John was known as “Jumpin Johnny Wilson.”  Dick Burdette published a book in 2008 about his life entitled, “Jump Johnny Jump”.  “I was the only high school player in Indiana dunking the basketball and the teams we played would stand back and watch me warm up,” said six footer John with a big smile on his face.

Johnny grew up in Anderson with Carl Erskine the hall of fame pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and teammate of Jackie Robinson.  Erskine published a book in 2005 entitled “What I Learned from Jackie Robinson.”  Erskine wrote, “It was Johnny Wilson who taught me how to be color blind, and it was Jackie who taught me to be better, not bitter whenever adversity struck.”  “Johnny prepared me for Jackie and Jackie prepared me for my son Jimmy.”  Jimmy Erskine, born in 1960, has Down syndrome.

“Erskine and I played basketball together since grade school and we went everywhere together except the YMCA because I couldn’t go to Y,” said John. “But movies were a different thing.  When we’d go to the movies I couldn’t sit in certain sections of the theater, but Erskine and our other friends came and sat where I had to sit.”  “Carl and I have been close friends for 75 years,” John said.

John helped Anderson High win the Indiana State Basketball tournament in 1946 during his senior year and received the prestigious “Mr. Basketball” award which was awarded annually to the best high school basketball player in the state. John wanted to play for Indiana but he was not accepted or recruited.

“Indiana’s coach Branch McCracken spoke at our high school banquet and was asked if he was recruiting Wilson,” said John.  “McCracken replied, ‘I don’t think he could make the team,’”, said John still sounding disappointed after all these years.
“Indiana didn’t have a single player that I hadn’t dusted during the three years I played high school ball,” John said.  “I would have played in the Big Ten if they had done what Kansas State did for Gene.”

“But the next year an African American kid named Billy Garrett from Shelbyville was named “Mr. Basketball”  after his team won the state championship, and this time a guy named Nate Kauffman from Shelbyville took Garrett to Bloomington to meet with McCracken.” said John.  “Kauffman was joined by three other African Americans from Indianapolis and they told McCracken, ‘Billy is coming to Indiana and will play basketball.’”

“Then they went to the university president and the president went along with It.” said John.  “That happened in the fall of 1947, and Garrett was the first African American to play basketball in the Big Ten conference.”

John’s second choice didn’t work out well either. “I wanted to go to Indiana State but they would not let me stay on campus during my recruiting visit,” John said. “So, I said no, but if I had waited three or four more weeks, I would have gone to Indiana State because Johnny Wooden was named head coach and he would not have stood for it.”
John enrolled at Anderson College-a church school in 1946.  “I was the 2nd leading scorer in nation in NAIA basketball and our coach scheduled a game with Texas Wesleyan, a Baptist school.  When the Texas Wesleyan president saw my picture, he cancelled the game and they didn’t come to Anderson to play,” said John.  “We won the right to go to the NAIA tournament in Kansas City in 1947, but they wouldn’t let us come because of me,” said John.

But in 1948, Wooden’s Indiana State team integrated the NAIA tournament in Kansas City. “Wooden had an African American kid named Walker and was told he could not come, but Wooden said we won the right to come and Walker’s going to play.” said John.

John expressed admiration for Wooden’s stance on race because as John said, “Wooden played high school basketball at Martinsville Indiana back in the 20’s and they were probably one of the most racist cities in the state but it didn’t have an effect on Wooden.” .  “Wooden’s a tremendous person and a powerful individual.”

John played basketball at Anderson College for three years and then left to play baseball in the Negro leagues.  “I played against guys like Joe Black, Elston Howard, Junior Gilliam, and Gene Baker just to name a few who later went up to the big leagues,” said John.

During the winter of 1949, while his brother Gene was still in high school, John joined the Harlem Globetrotters and played with Marcus Haines the dribbler and Goose Tatum the showman,  “Meadowlark Lemon tried out in North Carolina in 1952 and worked out with us in Vienna Austria when he was in the service in 1953 before joining the team,” said John.

The Globetrotters had a football skit toward the end of each game where the ball was snapped back to Marcus Haynes and he would drop kick the basketball in the basket from half court.  “One day I told Marcus in practice, I can out kick you because I was a place kicker in college.” said John.

“My mom saw me play for the first time in Marion Indiana, and they centered the ball back to me and I dropped kicked it in the basket on the first try from half court,” said John.

The next night the Trotters played in Cleveland and their owner-manager Abe Saperstein was at the game sitting with professional football’s great place kicker Lou Groza of the Cleveland Browns.  John said, “Abe told Groza, Wilson’s going to steal your job because he kicked one in last night from half court,”  “I dropped kicked it in and now did it two nights in a row,” said John. “But, I missed the kick the next night in Sandusky Ohio after getting a big write up in the paper before the game,”
“Abe would give me an extra $100 for kicking it in,” John said.  “I made more money kicking it in than what he paid me for my salary.”  According to John Saperstein was not known for his fairness.  “I didn’t know this before I quit playing but later Goose Tatum and Marcus Haines asked Saperstein for more money but were told, the white players we played against like the Washington Generals needed more money than black players.” John said.

“I played four seasons with the Trotters but made up my mind if I ever got married I’d quit.  I got married and quit and my marriage only lasted 13 years but if I’d have to do it again, I’d do it the same way.  The temptations out there on the road were unbelievable.” John said.
“Let’s say you are playing in Baltimore, and a friend would call and say so and so is at the game and she’s wearing a red dress and she’s there waiting for you- that’s how it was,” said John.

While Jumpin Johnny was off traveling around the world with the Globetrotters during 1950, his brother Gene was back in Anderson that summer as the Big 7 conference officials debated whether he would be allowed to play basketball for Kansas State.  “The coaches had to approve first, then the athletic directors and finally the university presidents,” said Gene. “Kansas State’s president Milton Eisenhower took the lead and I’m grateful to him to make it happen,” Gene said. 

“The approval finally came in August but if it wasn’t for Milton Eisenhower, the Big 7 would not have integrated for another few years. “said Gene.  “Eisenhower was determined it was going to happen and he suffered a little because of it,” Gene said.  “They called him a socialist, a communist and looking back now it was crazy back then because he came from Abilene and his brother was the president.”

The Anderson High four of Rousey, Peck, Schyler and Wilson were ready to make the 18 hour trip to Manhattan to enroll for the fall semester of 1950.  “Dick Peck’s father was an insurance agent and provided the pre-world war II Chevy for us to head west on old highway 40,” said Gene.  “Our mothers packed us all sack lunches because that’s what we did in those days.”

“We stopped only for gasoline and Dick Peck was the only one who got out of the car.” Said Gene.  “I wondered about that a little bit, but it really didn’t dawn on me why until Dick explained there’s no place to stop in Missouri- period- to make sure you won’t be harassed.”  The harassment in Missouri didn’t show its ugly head until Gene became a member of the varsity team a year later.

“Tex Winter was my freshmen coach and introduced his Triangle offense and we got to run it,” said Gene.  “We had seven all staters on that freshmen team and even beat the varsity once.”  The varsity team was runner-up NCAA champs in 1951 and Gene hadn’t forgotten how his freshmen bunch was able to win during four quarters of play earlier in the season. “Gardner made us play another quarter and they beat us, but in four quarters we won,” Gene said.

The Missouri experience happened during Gene’s sophomore year.  “We were playing a road game in Columbia and they put us up at the Abraham Lincoln hotel.” said Gene.  “They put us on the second floor and set up a dining and conference room but I couldn’t go down to the lobby to even get a magazine.  The team got to go out and do things but I was ok as long as I didn’t come down.”

“I didn’t go anywhere outside the hotel in Missouri because I knew they were a sympathizer to the South,” said Gene.  “During the game the fans called me names and Missouri’s coach Sparky Stallcup joined in.”

The treatment improved when Kansas State played a road game at Oklahoma the same year.  “I commend Oklahoma because the word must have gotten out about the treatment at Missouri.  I was treated very respectful.  We beat them and I had a good game.  After the game the male fans came down to the dressing room and wanted to talk to me and I signed autographs and it was the difference between night and day at Oklahoma compared to Missouri,” Gene said.

“The only drawback was going to the movie,” said Gene.  “Rousey, Peck, Schyler and I went up to get out tickets and they said I’d have to go around in the back and go up to the balcony. So naturally the other guys said we’ll go with him but they told them they could not go up there. Needless to say, we didn’t go to the movie.”

Kansas State led the way in the Big 7 conference by awarding a football scholarship to Harold Robinson and a baseball scholarship to Earl Woods (Tiger’s dad).  They joined Gene to become the first three African American scholarship athletes to play varsity sports at Kansas State.

When Robinson left Kansas State, Veryl Switzer, one of Kansas State’s greatest African American football stars, took Robinson’s role and became close friends with Gene and Woods.  “Earl named us the three musketeers because we were always together after an incident that occurred while we were students,” said Gene.

“Robinson was dating a white girl who was the daughter of a professor.  Not much was said but there was that undercurrent.  Robinson and the girl wanted to get married so they ran off together to New Jersey, and that’s when things got pretty dicey,” said Gene.

Switzer, Woods and Gene were riding in a car together when they were stopped on the streets of Manhattan by some white guys.  “They wanted to know if one of us was Harold Robinson.  So they looked in the car and saw that Harold was not with us and then told us to go on,” said Gene.  “After that experience, we hung pretty tight and went everywhere together.”

A memorable road trip during the 1952 season brought a smile to Gene’s face when he told how Bob Rousey and his other teammates encouraged him to drink from a white only drinking fountain in a Houston, Tx train station.  “Rousey was a little devil and jokester even back in high school,” said Gene.  “Rousey kept encouraging me to do it and when I did finally take a drink, our assistant coach Dobbie Lambert who was now with Gardner raced over and hauled us out of the station and took us to our private rail car.”  “Dobbie was always looking after me so I wouldn’t get into trouble.” said Gene

The team stayed in a Houston hotel and Gene stayed in a private home.  “The Houston fans were very nice and didn’t mistreat me at all,” said Gene.

Gene played his sophomore year for Jack Gardner and then left for the Korean War and returned to Kansas State for the 1955 and 1956 seasons and played for new head coach Tex Winter.

Gene was also a member of the track team. “We could go to the KU and Drake relays but not the Texas relays because of me,” said Gene.  “Our coach Ward Haylett wouldn’t let anyone go to the Texas relays from Kansas State.”

One of Gene’s biggest disappointments was getting injured his senior year.  “I broke my thumb in a freak accident (a hairline fracture) and doctor LaFene put a soft wrap on it,” said Gene.  “Then three weeks later after he heard I was shooting the ball in practice, he put on a hard cast above my wrist to cover my fingers and thumb.  It was terrible.  If I had known then what I know today, I would never have let the doctor put on that cast because it killed the whole season and I could have been playing again within five weeks,” said Gene with a disgusted look on his face even after all these years.

Following graduation Gene stayed in Manhattan and worked a few years before moving to Topeka in 1959 to accept a position with the Boys Industrial School for delinquent boys.  He moved up in the ranks through the years as a youth service worker, director of youth services, assistant superintendent and then superintendent in charge of the facility.  “I became superintendent because of a University of Kansas graduate Lawrence Penny,” said Gene.  “He was superintendent before me and we had a great relationship.” 

“In fact I had a great relationships with other University of Kansas graduates who helped me get the position because all the rivalry and any animosity was gone from my playing days,” said Gene.  “I also played amateur basketball with some of the KU guys.”

When he was not working, he started umpiring during the summers at Shawnee Lake where he developed a lifetime friendship with Don Kruger of Silver Lake.  Kruger had a reputation for working the umpires during the game. His first encounter with Kruger happened while he was umpiring at first base.  “Someone told me, listen you’ve got Don Kruger tonight and he will intimidate you,” said Gene.  “There was a call at first base that Don didn’t like, and here he came but I was ready.”

“He walked toward me and I started walking away toward the outfield fence”, said Gene.  “I named the spot and said, Don don’t you follow me.”  “Don said, “I just want to talk to you.”  “I told him again, Don, don’t you follow me or your aren’t going to be around in this game.”  “He stopped, and didn’t yell and went to the dugout,” Gene said.  “After that we became better and better friends.”

Don’s wife Betty ran the concession stand at the ballpark and Gene’s friendship carried over to the rest of the Kruger family.  “I would stay at the ball park after every game with Betty, her daughter and her niece until she could put all the money in a bank bag, and then I’d follow her in the car most of the way before I turned off toward my home which was only about five or six miles from Silver Lake.,” Gene said.

Eventually Gene was invited to the Kruger home and became part of the family. “That Betty, bless her soul, could sure cook”, said Gene.  “She fixed the best jambalaya I’ve ever had in my life.”  “I was adopted by Silver Lake and umpired many games there even after Don quit coaching,” said Gene.  “Don would sit in the stands and you never heard a peep out of him.”

“Before Don died, he had instructed the family that no one was to come up and speak for him but me,” said Gene. “It was a real honor and I did it, and there were many other coaches in the audience.”

Gene said he wanted to tell me one more thing about the Krugers.  “When Lonnie was being recruited by both KU and K-State, Don wanted him to attend KU,” said Gene.  “But Betty wanted him to go to K-State.”  “I teamed up with Betty and when Betty said this is it, Don left it alone,” Gene said with a big laugh.

After leaving the Globetrotters, John got his Master’s degree and taught history and coached basketball.  He continued coaching until 2011.  He was the first African American coach in the state of Indiana to become a head coach while coaching at integrated Wood High School in Indianapolis. 

John always wanted the head coaching job at his alma mater Anderson High school, but when he applied a board member asked, “do you think you could coach white players?”  “I was very upset,” said John. “I pointed to each of the members of the committee and said if you realized that there is zero difference between coaching white or black kids you wouldn’t have asked an asinine question like that.”  “They tabbed me as being too militant and didn’t hire me even though I had finished the season coaching a junior college team with a 32-3 record,” John said.

“But, I had the greatest experience coaching as a volunteer assistant to my son John Jr. at Lock Haven State University in Pennsylvania during my last eight years of coaching.” 

I finally said how did you both put up with all the discrimination through the years, and they both answered in unison, “Mamma.”  “With all five boys we never had a fight,” said Gene.  “She could sure pack a wallop with that strap,” said John.  Their 5’ 1”, mother cleaned houses and walked to her work but told the boys never to leave the yard.  “If we did anything wrong, she knew by the time she got home, said Gene.  “We finally learned that the neighbors would tell her what we were doing while she was gone, and we suffered the consequences.”

The interview could have continued another two hours because there were so many other stories to tell but we ran out of time because Gene was scheduled for an interview at the WIBW- TV station in Topeka prior to his induction dinner scheduled for later that evening.

Since both like fishing, I suggested they plan a trip to Manhattan in the fall to see if our mutual friend Dick Towers, former K-State star athlete who ran track with Gene at K-State would be willing to host the Wilson brothers for a day of fishing at one of his stocked ponds near Manhattan.  They both agreed that the fishing trip would be the caveat that would draw them back to the Little Apple.

Milton Eisenhower would be smiling to know that in spite of the divisive segregation tactics of the late 1940’s, African Americans like Gene and John have prevailed in spite of all the obstacles they had to face to get where they are today. 

Gene and his first wife Rita have three children but divorced when the children were grown.  Jon and Jeff live in Topeka while their daughter Jeannette lives in Goodlettsville, TN, a suburb of Nashville. Gene married a high school classmate Mae and they’ve been married for the past seven years.  John has two daughters Gena and Sherri along with son John Jr.  The Wilson brothers are reunited again since they now live only a few blocks apart in Anderson.

Racial issues still exist in America, but we’ve come a long way thanks to the courage of athletes like Gene and John who were willing to take on segregation to pave the way for so many other African Americans who followed in their footsteps.  I am especially proud that Kansas State was the leader in the Big 7 conference to make it happen.

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