Personal stories of growth at Eckerd College
Harry K. Singletary, Jr. '68
My Rear View Mirror Reflections
This November, my graduating class will be celebrating our 40th reunion. I start counting my Florida Presbyterian College experience from June 1964, forty-four years ago. I start with my initial entry to Florida Presbyterian College as a laborer for Holcomb Pipeline. This was my summer job. Holcomb Pipeline was the contractor that was dredging fill. I rode in on a BULLDOG, an 18-wheel Mack truck, with equipment for the job. I had never heard of Florida Presbyterian College. Curtis, my high school classmate, was on the crew working at FPC.
We were awed by the campus' beauty and sereneness. We thought out loud, wondering how different it appeared from Tuskegee Institute University and Kentucky State College, where we were enrolled. We ate our brown bag lunches on the screened-in portion of the cafeteria. On that June day, the environment overruled our caution. We never gave a thought about our questionable act.
We were not approached nor questioned about our choice of dining area. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 1964. It prohibited discrimination in public places. We got a jump on the act. This was a harbinger of things to come. That moment of reverie was fleeting. I returned to Kentucky State College, never ever giving any additional thought to the improbable. Florida Presbyterian College, nor being a "first", was not in my stream of consciousness.
Prior to my appearance, there was faculty action that moved Florida Presbyterian College to reach beyond the usual and customary and offer educational opportunities to all that qualified. I was a gift, raw and "ruff." I had dropped out of school in January of 1965 and was contemplating entering the Air Force. In May of 1965, Coach Norman Jackson of Gibbs Junior College called Coach James R. Harley of Florida Presbyterian College and offered him my services. I rode to Florida Presbyterian College on the city bus, exiting at the library.
I met Coach Harley in the student union and he bought me lunch. This was the first time in my life that I had a meal with a "white person" as an equal. This was the first time I was that close to a "white man with a crew cut." This was the first time a "white man with a crew cut" was ever nice to me. I was told I needed to take the SAT. I did not have SAT scores. I did a lot of Self-talk then and still do it now. I said, "Self, what is a SAT? Self, I wonder how important it is?" I did not know how to prepare. I did nothing to prepare nor was I prepared. I had no idea what to review or study. I took the SAT for the first time in the summer of 1965 at Florida Presbyterian College testing service. I met the minimum requirements and was admitted.
In the three years prior to my admission, there was a spirited discussion about diversity. It was decided to move forward with this new experience. Then,out of nowhere, in drops Harry "Big Red" Singletary, Jr. In September 1965, there were five students of African ancestry: Earnest Jackson, Juarlyn Gaiter, Gloria Holley, Regina McLin and Harry "Big Red" Singletary, Jr. In very short order, progress in the academic arena was going to spill over into a new theater.
We, Coach James R. Harley, Harry "Big Red" Singletary, Jr., and Florida Presbyterian College, were integrating intercollegiate basketball in the south. There was not another all-white school in the south that had signed a black athlete at this time. We went from baby steps to a quantum leap at light speed without looking. There were internal and external tremors; Coach Harley and I felt most of the quakes. This was a new flash. The other secret was that Coach Harley had never seen me play a game until our first practice in September. I was a "pig in a poke."
I transferred 45 credits from Kentucky State College and was designated as a sophomore for the second time in my college career. I used my study and free time to open the recreation room in the morning and close it at night. I was like a kid in a candy store. I played every game available, I played bridge and chased. I did not let any thing interfere with my social agenda.
Florida Presbyterian College’s educational system was built on individual responsibility and self-discipline. I was undisciplined and too immature to give up my play and toys to study. I was placed on academic probation because of failing grades, and on social probation because of food, shaving cream and water fights. Summer school was mandated because of my failing grades. Coach Harley put the student union off limits, but I had an early alert system that frustrated his efforts to keep me in the books. I had numerous hiding places and willing partners in crime.
My sophomore year "running around in shorts" (the 1965-66 basketball season) was successful. In my first year debut I averaged 20 points and 16 rebounds a game – but there were whispers and a belief that I would never graduate. My attention was captured the first few days of practice for the 1966-67 basketball season. There was not a play in the offense for the team's leading scorer. Why bother, when "Big Red" will be history at the end of 1966? The 1966-67 basketball team was developed anticipating my absence.
Coach's attitude was he was not going to waste his time and energies on someone who was not interested in his own future. I got the message. Coach Harley communicated his disappointment in my failure to take advantage of this life-changing experience known as an education. He was interested in me as a student, knowing that an education would be what would serve me best and sustain me. He taught me that life is about finishing!!
December 1966, we were scheduled to play Athens College from Athens, Alabama. The game and tip-off tournament was booked the year before, before Singletary. At the time, Florida Presbyterian College did not have its own gym. We played all our home games in Gibbs Junior College Gym. It was vacant due to the merger of Gibbs JC and St. Petersburg JC. Before the game Coach Harley sat me down to impress upon me the significance of the game.
The game and our careers together transcended dunks and finger rolls. This championship game was against the fourth ranked Division-2 basketball squad in the country. We knew it would be a dogfight and we were the underdogs. The Athens' coach raised the stakes. He did not want to play; was going to withdraw his squad; and had resigned himself to accept a forfeit. He told Coach Harley, "I resent playing in a nigger gym, in a nigger neighborhood and against a nigger."
Coach Harley asked me if I understood what this all meant, not only the game, but how the coach's attitude fit in the grand experiment we had embarked upon to integrate college basketball in the south. Not only did my play have to be exemplary, I had to control my emotions. I had to set the example.
Coach Harley knew the game would be physical and that I was in for a beating. They beat me "like I stole something." I shot a slew of free throws that night. I could not retaliate. The immediate issue was, we could not win if my rebounding and scoring was not in the line-up. The bigger issue was our grand experiment. We beat them by nine and there was a short melee with nine seconds left in the game.
Their play was so dirty. I was hit in the "jewelry store" more than once; I was constantly elbowed in my ribs; I was fouled on my drives; I was pulled and held by my shorts and shirt; they stepped on my feet to prevent me from jumping; they implied that my mother and father were not married when I was born, and they whispered the magic word into my ear often. The bright side, the upside of the night, was Byles and Armstrong. Not only were Byles and Armstrong players, they were gentlemen, who earned my respect. They withdrew to a corner of the gym and did not participate in the melee. They apologized to me for the entire situation. They said that the remarks did not express their worldview.
In 1985, I went by Athens College with my family on a journey up I-65. I just wanted to see it. I thought for a moment that I should underscore my visit by using the steps of the gym as a honey pot, but Christian virtue, the memory of Byles and Armstrong, and common sense ruled it out. I did not want to take "anything" out in Alabama that could prolong my stay. I ran prisons and always wanted to be in control of the keys. I am glad I thought better.
This was one of the many signature moments in my life in the sixties. The major event was my three years at Florida Presbyterian College. This was a defining period and was key in shaping my life. I graduated from high school in 1963, and that summer there was the March on Washington. In November 1963 John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I started my college career in the caldron of the civil rights movement, the Viet Nam war and the anti-war movement.
In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed. Malcolm X was killed in 1965. In 1965 the Voters Rights Act was passed. I was drafted into the armed services in November 1965, but received a deferment. June 1967, we were discussing the seven day war. Martin Luther King was killed in April 1968. Robert Kennedy was killed in June 1968. For three years I received hate mail and death threats for playing basketball at Florida Presbyterian College. I experienced hate speech on campus, from the stands and on the court. Teams dropped us from their schedules and there was biased officiating. There are many more things that happened to me from 1960 to 1969, but this is a sampling. I graduated -"Thank you, Lordy" - in June 1968.
Many people attend college and get degrees; "I got an education."
I was drafted again into the armed services in June 1968 and received another deferment. I tried out for three professional basketball teams and finally ended up in Illinois. I felt I had to leave the south to received fairness and justice. I left and found out that I preferred the south and returned. There is "down south and up south."
In 1985 I attended a training workshop in St. Petersburg on hostage negotiation and intervention. I was accompanied by Richard, a co-worker and subordinate. He grew up in West Florida and never had a close relation with a black man before Singletary. We shared a room and talked about issues that surrounded our responsibilities. I told him about Coach Harley and he accompanied me when I went to visit him. We had a good visit and I introduced Richard to family in St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs. On our trip back to Tallahassee, Richard asked me if he could ask me a question. Richard said to me, "You never told me that Coach Harley was white, Why not?" I responded that "I did not know he was white, he was Coach." He said, "You never talk in color." This was a profound observation!!!
James R. Harley was my college basketball coach and is my very best friend. We lived the middle sixties together, and these last forty-four years. He has earned my respect and affection. I love him, view him as a father and myself as one of his sons. Outside of my parents, no other individual has had as much influence in my life; has done more for me and has supported me in all my endeavors. He has always had confidence in me. He has had the longest enduring relationship with me outside of my immediate family.
Coach Harley taught me many things, but there are three I want to highlight: 1) the team's welfare is above any one individual; 2) that you must always finish what you started; and 3) friendship is a life time commitment and endeavor. I am the man I am today because Coach Harley was an influence in my early years and has stayed involved. My relationship with Coach erased the specter of race. I cannot hate because of James R. Harley even though I have many times been given reasons and grounds. Hating would diminish what we have shared. He is a keeper.
I have had the honor to be a featured speaker at his retirement recognitions from coaching and from teaching at the college. He has always been there when I was hurting and I was warm all over when I saw him at my wife's memorial. That is my Coach. He still treats me as if I have basketball eligibility remaining. Through basketball he taught me life was a team game; through watching him use each player's talent strategically I learned how to do the same with staff; the theory of finishing what one starts has served me well and is a mantra for me; and I am an encourager and help people reach their full potential. He was a good teacher, but a better example. He truly walked the talk. I will always treasure the handwritten P.S. he stuck at the bottom of the form letter he gave to all graduating seniors. It reads:
P.S. I look forward to your graduation date with mixed emotions. We will miss you in basketball but extremely proud of your academic accomplishment as well.
Each time I see the southern schools on television and visit campuses, I am encouraged. I would like to think that we had a part in this change. Coach Harley embodied the vision and values of Florida Presbyterian College. He made a sufficient difference in the lives of the student-athletes he touched. We were educated to go out and make a difference. Florida Presbyterian College and Coach Harley did their job, my hope and prayer is that we have done ours too!!!
It does not matter how many are against, it only takes one or two to take an interest. People of goodwill will always extend a helping hand and will expend energy to shape a life. Let us provide and create more opportunity. As we stand at the corner of possibility, what could happen; probability, the chance that something will happen, is speeding to the intersection; we may shortly experience a harmonic convergence, the simultaneous approach toward a common view; and a harmonic conversion a simultaneous transformation in our body politics, let us grab this energy and commit to go forth to serve and make a difference. We were not placed on this orb to stay; we were placed here to "make a difference." Coach Harley and Florida Presbyterian College for me breathe life into the best-known America phrase, the greatest words of our country, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal." We must continue to roll up our collective sleeves and labor to effect change and frame the future for our children, grand children and great grandchildren.