Alabama’s Hidden History: Breaking Barriers in Sports

By WVUA 23 Digital Reporter Kyrsten Eller

A new exhibit at the Paul W. Bryant Museum called “Breaking Barriers” celebrates important individuals, such as Wendell Hudson, the first Black athlete at The University of Alabama, Wilbur Jackson, the first African-American scholarship football plater, and John Mitchell, the first Black football player at UA.

“I think the real reason that I went to The University of Alabama is because of the people that fought, died and marched,” said Hudson. “The different things that happened to people for this opportunity and I just happened to be around at the right time.”

“As a kid, you watched them on TV,” said Mitchell. “You listened to them on the radio and any kid, whether he was black, brown, yellow, white — if he had the opportunity to come to The University of Alabama to get a good education and play football for Coach Bryant, he could not turn that opportunity down.”

Jackson and Mitchell will specifically be celebrated and honored all weekend long leading up to Alabama’s 2022 A-Day game on Saturday, April 16.

“It wasn’t about making a statement to attend The University of Alabama,” said Jackson. “It was just about trying to go to school and at that particular time, my decision was easy because Alabama was the only school that offered a scholarship.”

These men didn’t set out to make history, but their stories are still being celebrated.

There were five other men that played an important role in Alabama’s football integration, including Dr. Arthur Dunning, Dock Rone, Andrew Pernell, Jerome Tucker and Melvin Leverett.

“The driving force behind that experience was circulated through the few African-American male students here on campus in 1967,” said Dunning. “One of the assistant coaches supposedly said that he did not ever see a day when an African-American could ever play football for The University of Alabama because they did not have the academic or physical ability, so we chose to challenge that assumption.”

The players succeeded not only as athletes but also as students. They were treated equally both on and off the field.

“As a football coach on any team or any sport as a head coach, you want to treat all players the same because if you don’t, they will see that,” said Mitchell. “Coach Bryant treated all of us the same. I got no special treatment and none of the white players got any special treatment. He treated all his players the same.”

The University of Alabama was made better because of the efforts of these African American student-athletes who had the courage to “break barriers” in Tuscaloosa.

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