Written by Sarah Calise, graduate assistant
On February 19, the Jesse Owens biopic film Race opens nationwide in theaters. Owens was a courageous black track and field athlete who competed in the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany during the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. He won a record-breaking four gold medals for the United States. While black Americans considered him a hero for the community and the country, he continued to face racism from whites once he returned home. Still, Owens’ legacy remains one of many examples in which black Americans sought equality and respect through athletics. For colleges and universities, integration often occurred or gained serious consideration once black athletes joined sports teams.
In the 1960s, Middle Tennessee State University’s track and field team spearheaded the push for integration in the school’s athletic programs, followed quickly by men’s basketball. Robert Mallard was the first black athlete to compete for any MTSU sports team. He walked-on to the track team and ran under Coach Joe Black Hayes. Like many black college athletes at the time, Mallard did not have equal access to scholarships. He left school in the middle of the 1965 fall semester after being drafted into the U.S. Army.
In fall 1965, Dean Hayes became the new track coach (no relation to the previous Hayes). In a 2003 oral history interview housed within the Albert Gore Research Center’s archive, Dean Hayes stated that the campus was “still fighting the Civil War” when he arrived. Nathan Bedford Forrest served as the school’s official mascot and his Confederate image could be found throughout campus. In 1967, MTSU’s new student union–Keathley University Center–adorned a large bronze medallion featuring Forrest on horseback. In this tense atmosphere, Hayes ventured to the South from the suburbs of Chicago, and sought to bring the best athletes to his track team–no matter their skin color. He recruited Jerry Singleton to become MTSU’s first black scholarship athlete.
Singleton, fresh out of high school, also hailed from Chicago, so he encountered a great culture shock coming to a small town in Tennessee. Being new to Murfreesboro and being one of only a handful of black students at the entire school, Singleton felt isolated. Jim Crow segregation and white supremacy made traveling to other schools in the South both difficult and dangerous for teams with black athletes. White hotel and restaurant owners often barred black athletes from using their services. Thus, Coach Dean Hayes developed a map of places that welcomed the team and places that they should avoid. In his oral history interview, Hayes said he found that hotel chains that were “very public” like Howard Johnson were the most accommodating. Jerry Singleton did not let such obstacles stop him from becoming a star athlete. During his time as a Blue Raider, he set records that lasted for decades. In 1969, he set the record for the 800 meter run at 1:49.6, which made MTSU a force to be reckoned with in the NCAA. Singleton left a legacy of greatness and perseverance that mirrored the experience of other black athletes at universities throughout the country.
Today, Dean Hayes continues to coach track and field, and last year he celebrated 50 years at our school. For more information on the integration of MTSU athletics, see the exhibits at the Blue Raider Sports Hall of Fame and visit the Albert Gore Research Center.