PHOTO: Wonders Hall opened in 1963 as John Hannah’s example of a progressive campus before the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts were signed.
Visit my website homepage, TomShanahan.Report
By TOM SHANAHAN
Gene Washington escaped the segregated South 60 years ago, boarding Michigan State’s Underground Railroad from La Porte, Texas. His life-altering journey as a freshman football recruit for preseason practice was prior to September classes.
The time frame, coincidentally, matched 250,000 Americans traveling to the nation’s capital for the “March on Washington.” On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic speech, “I Have a Dream,” From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he asked people to judge not by skin color but “by the content of their character.”
Upon Washington’s arrival from the Jim Crow Houston area to the East Lansing campus, he was assigned Room 207 in a newly opened dormitory, Wonders Hall.
Gary Dilley, a white freshman swimming recruit, arrived on campus shortly thereafter from Huntington, Indiana, a town as white as his sport. Dilley was assigned to Room 207, Wonders Hall.
“Gene wasn’t in the room when I got there, and I didn’t know anything about him,” Dilley recalled. “But I saw these shoes that must have been size 12, 13 or 14. I’m thinking, ‘How big is this guy?’”
Soon enough, he met the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Washington.
PHOTO (Michigan State): Gene Washington of segregated La Porte, Texas, was a two-time All-American receiver, College Football Hall of Famer and NCAA hurdles champion.
“Gene walked into the room later, and it was strange,” Dilley said. “He was from an all-Black school, and I was from an all-white school. But it was no big deal. We introduced ourselves, and we’ve been great friends since then.”
Michigan State dormitory life expanded their worlds. Their Black-white roommate moment pre-dated the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights acts signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Michigan State desegregated its dorms in 1954.
“It was my first integration housing experience,” Washington said about the 1963-64 school year. “We lived together, studied together and supported each other in our sports. But at the same time, it was a little difficult for me because it was 1963, and my family was still back home in Texas dealing with segregation.”
Washington’s time at Michigan State overlapped white supremacists continuing to violently resist MLK’s non-violent Civil Rights movement. On September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, Ku Klux Klansmen responded to King’s speech. The 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed with dynamite, killing four young girls attending Sunday school and injuring another 20.
Such crimes, and voting rights, were never far from Washington’s mind even as the door to a better life had opened for him in East Lansing.
Michigan State has a long athletics history as an integration trailblazer, particularly under College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty. He assembled the first fully integrated rosters at a time the South was segregated other schools followed an unwritten quota limiting Black players to a half-dozen or so.
But the random dormitory pairing of Washington and Dilley – as well as other Black and white students — symbolized president John Hannah’s leadership.
PHOTO (Michigan State): Gary Dilley of Huntington, Indiana, was an Olympic swimming silver medalist in Tokyo. He also swept the NCAA 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke titles in back-to-back years and was a 12-time All-American pick.
Washington and Dilley are both 78. This may be a good time, if not overdue, to place a plaque outside an otherwise non-descript dorm room that housed the Washington-Dilley friendship – and, oh, yes, their nascent athletic nobility.
GENE WASHINGTON AND GARY DILLEY MET AS THE FIRST RESIDENTS OF ROOM 207 WHEN WONDERS HALL OPENED IN 1963. THEY WERE RANDOMLY ASSIGNED, ONE BLACK FROM THE SEGREGATED SOUTH, ONE WHITE FROM INDIANA. THEIR LIFELONG FRIENDSHIP SPANNED ATHLETIC FAME AND THE NATION’S CIVIL RIGHTS PROGRESS.
WASHINGTON WAS ON HIS WAY TO THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME. HE WAS A TWO-TIME ALL-AMERICAN RECEIVER ON THE 1965 AND 1966 NATIONAL TITLE TEAMS AS WELL AS A TRACK AND FIELD NCAA HURDLES CHAMPION. HE PLAYED SEVEN SEASONS IN THE NFL.
DILLEY WAS ON HIS WAY TO A SILVER MEDAL AT THE 1964 TOKYO OLYMPICS IN THE 200-METER BACKSTROKE. HE SWEPT NCAA 100-METER AND 200-METER BACKSTROKE TITLES IN 1965 AND 1966 AND WAS A 12-TIME ALL-AMERICA.
Although Washington and Dilley stand out for their athletic success at the highest levels, other Michigan State football recruits also were paired with white students.
Clinton Jones, 78, a College Football Hall of Famer and track All-America from Cleveland, Ohio, roomed on Wonders’ fourth floor with red-haired Miles Jones of in-state Jackson. Miles wasn’t an athlete, but he and Clinton struck up a lifelong friendship while sharing their surname and birthday, May 24, 1945.
Charlie Thornhill, an All-Big Ten linebacker from segregated Roanoke, Virginia, also roomed with a white student on Wonders’ first floor. Thornhill died in 2006, but he had said he never trusted white people until he attended Michigan State.
Bob Apisa, college football’s first Samoan All-American player in 1965 and 1966, arrived from Honolulu in 1964 experiencing his own culture shock. He roomed on the third floor with John Raymond, a white student from in-state Rogers City. Raymond’s hometown at the northeastern reaches of the state’s Lower Peninsula was Siberia compared to Hawaii.
“Duffy wanted our lives integrated beyond football,” Apisa said of players sharing rooms with non-athletes.
But in the early 1960s, such roommate pairings weren’t routinely practiced or accepted at other campuses. As late as 1981 at Princeton University, Michelle Obama, nee Robinson, was shunned for her skin color.
In “Becoming Michelle Obama,” the former First Lady’s 2017 memoir, she wrote the mother of her white roommate pressured the university to move her daughter to another room. The scene also was depicted in the 2022 TV series “The First Lady,” a Showtime film about Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford.
Michigan State graduate Ernest Green, who turns 82 next month, of Little Rock, Arkansas, believes MSU’s progressive dorm policies can be traced to 1957, the year of “The Little Rock Nine” and the same year President Dwight Eisenhower appointed John Hannah as the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Listen to Episode 15 of The End Game with guests Ernest Green and Larry Osterink
PHOTO: President Dwight Eisenhower sent U.S. Army troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the desegregation of Central High School. Ernest Green was among the Little Rock Nine soldiers escorted to classes.
Green, a high school senior in the 1957-58 school year, was among the nine Black students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High. When white supremacists initially blocked their enrollment, Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to escort the students to their classes.
Upon Green’s high school graduation – attended by MLK – he was granted a Michigan State scholarship anonymously funded. Green didn’t learn until after Hannah’s death in 1991 Hannah was his benefactor.
Green added his transition from the Jim Crow South was eased by Hannah selecting an in-state white engineering student, Larry Osterink of East Grand Rapids, as his roommate in West Shaw Hall. Hannah, who also was from Grand Rapids, was long time friends with Osterink’s father, who own a Grand Rapids construction company.
Green considers Hannah pairing him with Osterink as Hannah’s “first big test” for progressive dorm policies.
“No question about it,” Green said. “John Hannah was always an activist.”
PHOTO (Michigan State): A statue of President John Hannah outside the campus Hannah Administration Building.
Osterink, 83, who earned post-graduate degrees at Stanford and was on the cutting edge of laser research, says Hannah made the request when Larry was on campus for summer orientation. The first day he and Green met at West Shaw Hall and national network TV crew visited to interview Green and Osterink.
“I don’t remember the interview, but it went national,” Osterink said, “and I started getting hate mail and threatening phone calls from people in the South.”
But Osterink, not wanting to distract from Green’s time on campus, didn’t tell anyone about the hate mail, not even his own family.
Osterink added the late Herb Adderley, a Black All-American player from Philadelphia who went on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Art Johnson, a Black player from Flint who played in the Canadian Football League, were among the African American players living in the dorm watched out for Green.
“They considered Ernie a hero,” Osterink said. “They had great respect for him.”
Michigan State’s Black players in the 1950s were primarily from the Midwest. Daugherty’s Underground Railroad wasn’t born until the 1960s when southern Black high school coaches and others in the South opposed to segregation contacted. Michigan State had gained a reputation with its Black stars, including All-American players, starring on TV in the 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowls.
Daugherty’s first Underground Railroad passenger was Clifton Roaf of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1959. The principal and football coach at Merrill High, Pine Bluff’s Black school, came across MSU education professor Raymond Hatch when Hatch was in town conducting research on the school system. They asked Hatch to contact Daugherty about Roaf.
A knee injury cut short Roaf’s career, but he graduated returned to Pine Bluff as a dentist for the under-served residents. His MSU bride, Andree Layton Roaf, was the first Black woman named to the Arkansas State Supreme Court.
Two daughters, Phoebe and Mary, earned PH.Ds, and their son, Willie, is in the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Clifton, who said he was “indebted to the people of Michigan State,” introduced his son at his Pro Football Hall enshrinement.
By 1963, Washington was among the most prominent of the 44 Underground Railroad passengers between 1959 and 1972, Daugherty’s final season. Washington was one of four College Football Hall of Famers in the 1963 class along with Bubba Smith, Beaumont, Texas; George Webster, Anderson, S.C.; and Clinton Jones, Cleveland, Ohio.
PHOTO (Michigan State): Spartans coach Duffy Daugherty in 1966 with George Webster (90) and Clinton Jones (26). They were the nation’s first pair of Black team captains without a white player sharing the leadership role.
The transition for Black southerners was more challenging than for Black northerners, explained Jones, who grew up on Cleveland’s East Side amid racially mixed neighborhoods with immigrants. He also attended a white Catholic high school, Cathedral Latin.
The East Side included University Circle, an area that exposed Jones to the city’s museums, the Cleveland Clinic, a leading medical research and teaching hospital, and Case Western Reserve University.
“My brothers from the South had none of that experience,” Jones said. “I lived in two worlds – one white, one Black. At Michigan State, I wasn’t trying to be a conduit, but it happened in a natural way. I was comfortable with everybody and anybody.
“You say things in your group you don’t say otherwise. In the dining room I would sit with the brothers and they’d use the N-word. I’d sit with the white students and they (his Black teammates) would joke I was a ‘Tome’ (Uncle Tom). You tend to socialize with your groups, and we didn’t always socialize together. But Duffy exposed us to cultural things as a team. We wore berets and blazers. We had a lot of natural leaders, and we talked.”
As for Washington and Dilley, college life soon settled into typical routines – with one exception.
“I was like an answering machine for Gene,” Dilley said. “There was a constant barrage of phone calls from girls wanting to talk to Gene. He was studying at his desk, and he’d shake his head — no, no. I couldn’t buy a date, and Gene was getting calls all day.”
Dilley appreciated having access to football tickets as an athlete but for a 1964 game on November 7 against No. 10-ranked Purdue, Dilley took to the Spartan Stadium turf – at halftime. He was honored for his Olympic silver medal on a day Jones scored two touchdowns to lead unranked Michigan State to a 21-7 upset of College Football Hall of Famer Bob Griese’s Boilermakers.
The Purdue game was shortly after Dilley returned from the Tokyo Olympics that were staged in October, forcing him to miss the fall quarter. He and Washington thus went separate ways as roommates but when Dilley later joined the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, he pushed for Washington’s admission.
“He would have been our first Black member,” Dilley said, “but it didn’t interest Gene.”
As the school year sports calendar flipped to swimming, Washington attended Dilley’s meets.
“Gene was familiar with the names on our team, and he’d ask questions about what happened in the meet,” Dilley said. “It was a mutual admiration society.”
There was another backstory to Washington and Dilley as roommates, and it provides a window into the evolving world of college sports – for better or worse.
Dilley arrived as a freshman with Eddie Glick, his high school teammate whose career also earned All-American honors at Michigan State. Dilley and Glick arranged to room together, but Washington was “tripled” with them.
Wonders Hall features suites with two bedrooms connected by a bathroom. Two students were assigned per room, but because of overcrowding for the fall quarter, Dilley, Glick and Washington were among the few students across campus “tripled.” There was a bunk bed for two and a pullout coach for the third.
In today’s college sports world of coddled athletes, imagine informing an elite recruit he or she has been “tripled” with strangers.
“It was a different time,” Dilley said with a chuckle.
PHOTO (Michigan State): Eddie Glick also shared a Wonders Hall suite with Gene Washington and Gary Dilley. Glick and Dilley were teammates at Huntington High in Indiana, who attended MSU together.
However, the overcrowding lasted only one quarter when a student in the suite’s other bedroom left. Glick moved next door while Washington and Dilley remained roommates.
“That’s just the way it worked out,” Dilley said.
As Washington and Dilley finished their college experience, they, naturally, moved on in different directions.
Washington was Minnesota Vikings first-round draft pick who played seven NFL seasons. He earned his Master’s Degree from Michigan State during his pro playing days and later worked for Minneapolis-based corporations.
Dilley earned his dental degree from the University of Indiana. He taught at the University of North Carolina dental school and later opened a practice in nearby Cary, N.C., a Raleigh suburb. He worked there until his retirement.
Michigan State’s dorms provided a stark contrast with a trend started at another school winning 1960s national football titles, Alabama.
Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, whose teams remained all-white until 1971, wanted his players separated from the student body. In 1963, Alabama opened Paul W. Bryant Hall at a cost of $1 million ($9.9 million in 2023 dollars). A Sports Illustrated article in 1965 dubbed the dorm “The Bear Bryant Hilton,” comparing the foyer to the lobby of Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel.
College athletic excesses have often started in the Southeastern Conference, and the NCAA eventually ruled against all-athlete dorms.
Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times sportswriter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990, wrote of Bryant’s dorm in his 1993 autobiography: “In Alabama, the “legendary” Bear Bryant was the first to separate the football team from the rest of the student body. He had a separate dormitory, separate dining facilities, almost a separate university. They were at the University of Alabama but not of it. They were mercenaries, Hessians. I liked Bear Bryant. He was basically an engaging man who knew exactly what he was doing and I don’t think he was entirely proud of it.”
The rest of the country, with the MLK’s movement spurring President Johnson to push the U.S. Congress to presenting him the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts to sign, eventually caught up with the leadership of John Hannah and Duffy Daugherty.
Tom Shanahan is an author, award-winning writer and historian focused on college football integration. He is the author of “Raye of Light” and an upcoming second book, “The Right Thing to Do.” His story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and segregation was awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. Visit his website, TomShanahan.Report.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055.
Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read a summary.
Click here for my NIL partners.
Click here to purchase Raye of Light.
RAYE OF LIGHT
Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans
Foreword by Tony Dungy