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The Legacy of Irvine Shanks

The passing of Irvine Shanks reminds us of a time when the black athlete was often called upon to advance the cause of social harmony in America.

Kentucky’s infamous Day Law, which since 1904 had forbidden the education of black and white students under the same roof, was amended in 1950 to allow integration at the college level. But if integration at these institutions was now legal, it was not mandatory.

In our state, college basketball players are their school’s most visible representatives in the community. But in the 1950s, even at schools that admitted African-Americans as students, many white college coaches and administrators continued to insist that there were no black basketball players sufficiently skilled to deserve a place on their varsity teams. Happily, however, a few quickly adopted a color-blind policy.

Recent research has revealed that Bellarmine College was the first to blaze this trail. African-American Ted Wade played for coach Norb Raque’s Knights in 1950-51. Two years later, coach Ed Weber’s lineup featured African-American Freeman Franklin. At Berea College, Irvine Shanks earned a place on coach C.H. Wyatt’s squad when he tried out in 1953. Every college in Kentucky would eventually follow the lead of these two schools.

Ted Wade, Freeman Franklin, and Irvine Shanks were the first to demonstrate, in the very public arena of college basketball, what black and white people could accomplish if they were free to work together. Although insults are inevitably aimed at individuals who place themselves at the cutting edge of progress, these men bore whatever indignities they suffered with courage and equanimity. Their example helped convince Kentuckians that integration, if given a fair chance, would work. If we now enjoy a climate less tainted by bigotry and hate than that of half a century ago, we owe a debt of gratitude to these pioneer athletes.

March 2004