Sam Dunlap

In Division-I college football today, 46% of athletes are Black. However, that has not always been the case. In 1915, Western Michigan University (then Western State Normal School) welcomed its first Black athlete on campus, Sam Dunlap. 

In his 23 career games at WMU, the ‘Black Ghost,’ as some called Dunlap, accumulated 30 rushing touchdowns and set a single-season record of 19 rushing touchdowns in 1916 which was not broken until 2014. 

Dunlap constantly encountered racism ever since high school when his team played against Lansing High School. Dunlap was not only targeted by the opposition, but had a player hit him in the face during the game, a Benton Harbor newspaper covering the game recounted. This was a common practice for many white players at the time.

“They were seen by other white men as someone who did not belong on the field with them,” Said Dr. John Smith, a historian at Georgia Tech University. “Even if a Black man was allowed to step on the field in the early 1900s that does not mean the white men saw him as an equal, in fact many white players saw him as a threat, a threat to the racial status quo, a threat to white power and a threat to the color line,”

Smith added, “These Black football pioneers lived a lonely existence. On campus they were often one of only a handful of Black students, so that might be very difficult for them to navigate the color line and deal with Jim Crow (laws).”

Dunlap, a Benton Harbor native, was said to be one of the best football players in the country coming out of high school by Robert Grant, who wrote about Dunlap in a Kalamazoo Gazette article in 1960, yet he did not get much attention from colleges because of his race. 

After Dunlap was denied by the University of Michigan for his skin color, then-WMU President Dwight Waldo encouraged him to attend WMU and stood by him throughout his career. 

“He stuck up for him, there was some concern by some of the other staff members that according to the contemporary racist views that he would be chasing co-eds but Waldo shut that down and said ‘no that won’t be happening here,’” Massie said.

Upon arriving at WMU, Dunlap found an all-too-common problem for Black athletes that played sports with majority white athletes. 

“Traveling on the road even through northern states was difficult,” Smith said. “Often these Black pioneers were forced to stay with Black families rather than at a hotel which may not have served Black citizens. “This is sort of a reminder of the perpetration of second class citizenship, that being on the football team did not award these pioneers any privileges off the field.”

Dunlap played in every game except for one in his career, which was a matchup against Culver Military Academy in 1915. The president of Culver called Waldo and told him Culver would not play in the game if Dunlap played. Waldo gave Dunlap a choice, he chose not to play, and WMU went on to demolish Culver 69-0.

To highlight his college career, Dunlap played against Notre Dame in 1919 and impressed famed college football coach Knute Rockne with his athletic abilities. Rockne called him “an All-American caliber player” and one of the finest athletes he had ever seen. In 1973, Dunlap was inducted in the Western Michigan Athletics Hall of Fame.

Dunlap spent his last years in Kalamazoo far from where people thought he would be, as he tried to join the coaching staff for the Broncos but ended up as a janitor for the university for the remainder of his life until 1961. 

“He returned to WMU as a janitor, this is someone with a college degree ending up as a janitor. Kind of a sad ending to his story to end up as a janitor after his athletic ability,” Massie said.

Breaking color barriers is a double-edged sword. On one side, the barrier is broken and there is more equality in the sport and in the world, but it also begs the question of should one group of people lose their culture to fit into everyone else, as Dr. Gary Marquardt, Associate Director of the Institute for Intercultural and Anthropological Studies, explains. 

“When we talk about breaking the barriers we have to acknowledge that breaking the barriers means breaking into the white dominated leagues, as opposed to strengthening what you already developed inside your own community,” Marquardt said.

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