Dillard made Vanderbilt history

Dec. 29, 2010

Commodore History Corner Archive

This interview between Bill Traughber and Godfrey Dillard is exclusive to Commodore History Corner and vucommodores.com.

It has been well documented that former Vanderbilt basketball player Perry Wallace was the first black in the Southeastern Conference. But what is not well known is the fact that shortly after signing Wallace to his scholarship papers in May 1966, Coach Roy Skinner signed a second black player for the Commodores.

Godfrey Dillard was signed to a Vanderbilt grant-in-aid one week after the announcement that Nashville's Wallace had the chance to make SEC basketball history. Dillard, a Detroit native, would also have that historic opportunity.

"You have to go back in time," Dillard said recently from his Detroit office. "You are talking about the 1960s. You are talking about the civil rights period. You've got to realize that when Perry and I came to Vanderbilt there were only about eight black students on the whole campus.

"Vanderbilt was a very conservative, southern university resisting the change that was occurring in America. Whether you look at Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X or the riots on the Vietnam War, all those things were going on at the time. And I think Vanderbilt was an institution where some intellectual or academic people who wanted to make Vanderbilt progressive, were mired in the past conservatism of the South."

Dillard, 62, was a six-foot, 175-pound guard from Visitation High School in Detroit. He was All-State in football and basketball where he averaged 24 points per game and shot 60 percent from the floor. Dillard also played baseball and hockey. Over 30 universities sought his basketball talents including Michigan State and Syracuse.

Skinner had been questioned as to why he recruited Dillard after signing Wallace. It was believed by some that a second black player was needed to lessen the pressure for Wallace to integrate the conference. Skinner answered those critics by saying; "he [Dillard] is a talented, personable man who earned his scholarship on his credentials as an outstanding high school student-athlete."

"I went to a predominantly white catholic school," Dillard said. "I had grown up with white kids and played ball with white students. I was colorblind. I was not hung up on race, black, white or anything. I was very politically oriented in high school. I was the first black student representative in my freshman year. I was the first black class president at my school. And in my senior year, I was the first black class student council president.

"I was very much caught up in what was going on at the time with the civil rights movement. My father died when I was four years old. My mother and grandmother, along with four other siblings, raised me. I didn't really have a male image at that time. I was a very independent thinker and my impression was to do something for my race. I saw it as an honor for my race to go down into the South and help integrate the SEC. Of course, I was naïve because coming from the North I had no idea of the racism and the southern conservatism that I was going to encounter."

Dillard and Wallace became roommates and close friends. Wallace was an All-American high school player from Nashville's Pearl High School. Both were aware of the historic nature being the first black basketball players in the SEC. But each player had opposite personalities and ambitions that would cause Dillard to face more difficulties.

"When I arrived at Vanderbilt, I felt that I was almost persona non grata from day one," said Dillard. "I think what Perry did was magnificent. He was from Nashville and had the southern experience. He had the support group, the council from the community and his family. Perry had everything for him to have the right personality to do what he did. I did not. I was politically active, aggressive with no intimidation as far as white people were concerned. I intimidated white people. We were two totally different personalities. All the attention turned to Perry. It was almost like I wasn't there."

Dillard said his new Commodore teammates treated him and Wallace with respect and were accepted like any other player. Most of the Vanderbilt players had not played basketball with or against blacks. While Dillard had played with whites, Wallace had not. Dillard said that Pat Toomay, who played on the freshman team and later became a football star for the Super Bowl Dallas Cowboys, handled the situation the best.

"As a player and person Godfrey was intelligent, confident, high-spirited--even brash at times--all of which I loved," Toomay said for this story. "Combine those qualities with Perry's quiet, but explosive athleticism, add the skills of other players like Dan Due and Art Welhoelter and you had an exciting freshman team with enormous potential. That first year we all lived together in Vanderbilt Hall. I hung with Perry and Godfrey because I liked them a lot. Music was a big connector.

"Perry was into jazz, which I didn't know a lot. And I generally loved their spirits. After my freshman year I slid over to football fulltime. I was appalled and embarrassed for those who sought to undermine them. The university's effort to obliterate racial barriers was laudable. What was perhaps partially lost was the sad fact that the "pioneers" of this effort were really just a couple of kids."

Toomay was born in California and the son of an Air Force officer that lived in different parts of the country. The family lived in Hawaii and upstate New York, but Toomay spent most of his high school in the Washington, D.C. area in Virginia. He signed a Vanderbilt football scholarship with the understanding that he would also play basketball. Toomay was raised where "all ethnicities mixed comfortably living and working together in the same neighborhoods." He was used to playing with and against blacks.

"We didn't party or socialize with those guys," said Dillard. "The only time you saw other blacks on the Vanderbilt campus was in a janitorial or sanitation orientation. We did not really socialize with these guys. They didn't call us names, but the isolation was there. Perry and I were black and at least we knew what was going on. Therefore our friendship blossomed, but the players were not bad or anything. Going to a social environment with a black in Nashville at that time was not accepted."

Dillard also believe part of the problem for his non-acceptance in the Vanderbilt basketball program was his style of play.

"I wanted to push the ball up the court," Dillard said. "I wanted to fast break, rebound and get Perry out running. This was before a time clock and Vanderbilt liked to slow the ball down, shoot off the pick. It was a game, in my opinion, to have the white athlete be able to participate. It wasn't geared to the type of style Perry and I wanted to play, which was to use our speed, be physical, get the ball down the court and score lay-ups. They didn't want that. They wanted me to be a point guard going around setting picks for everybody and for me not to shoot. If I dribbled between my legs I got benched."

Though the freshman scoring records could not be located, scanning the newspaper clippings from that year revealed that Wallace was the dominant player in scoring and rebounding. Dillard would score in the double digits often.

Dillard said that in one game in Memorial Gymnasium he recorded 30 points with about 10 minutes to play in the game. At that time the gym scoring record was 42 points and Dillard believes he was taken out of the game so he couldn't break the mark. The trip to Starkville, Mississippi to take on Mississippi State was the game that is remembered for its hostility.

"That game was at Mississippi State and was unbelievable," Dillard said. "Their gymnasium was like a hangar. I will never forget it. We landed on a dirt runway at the airport. The students were demonstrating at the airport. By the time we got on the bus, the students were banging on the bus. They had roped off the Holiday Inn. When we came in they had a rope going around so I guess could say we are not sitting with whites. The hotel restaurant was roped off also. Our locker room in the gym was filthy. They had not cleaned the locker room. Of course, the freshman game was before the varsity game and the place was packed.

"They had the state troopers out there surrounding the floor. They had the cowbells out there. They were calling us all types of names. The gym was so small that when it was packed the crowd was right on top of you. When I went to take the ball out near the student section they were throwing stuff at me. So finally I had to stop throwing the ball in bounds. Of course, Perry and I were very upset during that game. If I remember correctly Perry and I scored in double figures. We had a very good game. For an 18-year-old kid like myself coming from the North it was unbelievable."

Mississippi State had won the SEC championship for the 1960-61 varsity season with an 11-3 record. Vanderbilt and Kentucky placed second at 10-4. The Mississippi State Legislature put pressure on MSU not to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament.

The idea of black basketball players from other colleges in the country competing with MSU players was not acceptable. Therefore Mississippi State declined to enter the tournament. Vanderbilt and Kentucky played a one-game playoff to determine the SEC representative. Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt in Knoxville and competed in the tournament. It was difficult for Dillard to play in some southern towns.

"That was the difference between Perry and myself," Dillard said. "I was very demonstrative on the floor. I didn't take any crap from anybody. If players bumped me, I'd bumped them back. And we had a couple of physical encounters. It was obvious that I had an aggressive nature. I defended myself. And I almost had a couple of fights during that game. My personality was not the kind of personality that Vanderbilt wanted.

"The aggressive nature was not wanted. They wanted the less aggressive and more reasonable. When you look at Perry and I you saw that difference. Perry was much more reserved. Not only was I much more aggressive on the floor in everything I did, I didn't take any crap from coaches either. I've been told you don't mix politics with sports. Athletes don't do that. I guess I was before my time. I was an athlete that not only politically active, but I was also concerned about improving the quality of life in America."

Homer Garr was one of Skinner's assistant coaches and the freshman coach for the 1966-67 season. Dillard and Wallace were starters along with Due, Alex Beavers and Welhoelter.

Dillard was active in helping to found the black society on the Vanderbilt campus and pledged a fraternity at Fisk University in Nashville. He said he was the first black to become a Greek at Vanderbilt and represented the several black Vanderbilt students. Dillard started the first black newspaper and encouraged Chancellor Alexander Heard to hire black faculty, professors and increasing the black enrollment.

At that time Vanderbilt's basketball teams were very successful and nationally ranked. The 1964-65 team, led by Clyde Lee, were SEC champions (24-4) and lost to Michigan in the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. The 1965-66 squad was 22-4 and placed second in the conference standings. In this era, only the conference winner could advance to the national tournament. The 1966-67 team was 21-5 and tied for second place.

During a team workout in late October 1967, Dillard hurt his knee, which caused him to miss his entire sophomore season. He would not join Wallace in history as one of the first black basketball players in the SEC for the varsity.

"I was having a fantastic preseason," said Dillard. "I had to have been the sixth man or about ready to start as a sophomore. I was physically more dominating than most of those guys. Unfortunately as fate had it, I got injured and then that allowed Vanderbilt to wipe me from the history book. The team photo was to be taken the next day without me. When I was hurt during my sophomore year I became very politically active. I started the Afro-American Society, the newspaper, and I became the spokesperson for the seven or eight Africa-Americans that were there.

"One time Skinner told me to cut out the political stuff. I was young, naïve and I ignored him. I was more interested in doing what was right. I wasn't interested in somebody telling me to not do what I think is right. Those were my values. I had given what they called an inflammatory speech to the faculty department. I think I hit on the podium once or twice and I guess they thought I was a radical. You had the Black Panthers going on at that time and every black that raised his voice or did anything seemed to be an extremist or radical. They had characterized me as that."

In 1968, America was facing more racial situations when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered that April and Robert Kennedy killed two months later.

Dillard worked hard to recover from his knee injury and planned on being a major contributor to the varsity as a junior. He had seen Wallace make progress as a sophomore leading the team in rebounds with a 10.4 average per game. When time came to select the varsity members, Dillard did not make the cut. The word was that Dillard was not the same player as he was before his injury.

"That was the company line," said Dillard. "At that time we had what they called the B-Team. Let's say the core team was 13 guys. You have a B-Team and those are the guys that sometimes sit in the stands during the entire practice. At some point you may not even do anything that day. But at some point you might play against the second team. On some days you might play the freshman team.

"All the top coaches would have already left the gym when you were on the floor. They don't have the B-Team anymore. Here I was the second or third leading scorer on the freshman team. I had a tremendous preseason as a sophomore basically going to be the sixth man or starting. I had come back from my knee injury and they had indicated that I was ready to roll. We would go out to practice on the first team meeting where we had a little shoot around. I came back to the second practice on the second day and placed on the B-Team.

"I never once during that entire period practice with the main squad. This is during my junior year in November 1968. I was on the B-Team the entire preseason. And I never had an opportunity to play. I never really practiced and they just claimed that I was physically unable to play. That was the reason I quit. I made up my mind that I wasn't going to let these people abuse me."

Dillard left Vanderbilt during the first semester of his junior year after not making the varsity team. He transferred to Eastern Michigan where he played basketball for one season. At Eastern Michigan (1969-70), Dillard played in 18 games, scored 101 points (40-of-73) for a 5.6 ppg. average. Dillard was 21-of-26 from the free throw line (.808) while collecting 34 rebounds and 17 assists.

"I was a very proud young man," said Dillard. "I had been successful all my life. I left Vanderbilt without a father to council me in any way, shape or form. I lost the fire. I had quit the Eastern Michigan team and decided to go to law school. I lost the desire to play after that experience. I was very bitter. I think Vanderbilt decided to wipe me off the history book. That was fine. I was more than just an athlete."

Skinner did sign two black basketball players to integrate the SEC. This was something he tried to achieve since becoming Vanderbilt's permanent head coach in 1961-62. But, no black players wanted to play in the South due to the racism they knew they would face. Some SEC coaches would not entertain the thought of signing a black player in any sport. These were the times and Skinner wanted to break the color barrier.

"You have to understand that Roy Skinner was involved in the southern culture himself," said Dillard. "He had never really dealt with a black athlete himself. He didn't really understand. He certainly didn't understand a progressive black like me. He had never seen anything like me. I'm sure I was threatening to him. Since he had Perry as well it was easy for him to shift to Perry. I'm not even mentioned. I'm not even there. They wanted to get all of the positive press for Vanderbilt historically and in the SEC without mentioning me. I was a negative."

Dillard received his BA from Eastern Michigan in Philosophy and entered the law school at the University of Michigan. After receiving his law degree (1973), Dillard would earn a masters degree in International Affairs from George Washington University (1980) and a Certificate of Foreign Law from Columbia University. He is also a law professor at the Wayne State University Law School.

Dillard has led a distinguished career as an attorney. He worked for the Foreign Service during the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations and was lead attorney in the University of Michigan affirmative action case that was heard in the United States Supreme Court. Dillard has a license to practice law in Michigan, Georgia and Washington, D.C. He specializes in Civil Rights and International Law.

"I don't have any bitterness," Dillard said. "My athletic career was short. I've overcome bitterness. I've been mentioned in some places as being one of the first black's there. What it did was to toughen me for life. I had been a young naïve man not fully understanding the issues in America. It was a wake-up call for me; it was the emphasis to be a lawyer.

"It has caused me to go on and do civil rights and international law. It has given me confidence. I have always said to myself the worse thing has already happened to me, there is not much anybody else can do to me. I might as well go on and be what I want to be. It was a blessing in disguise. The best decision I made in my life was to leave Vanderbilt. It was a bad match."

Dillard said he has been back to Vanderbilt three times since he was a student. He was invited back on campus and acknowledged to the 20th anniversary of the Greek organization and attended a ceremony held on the Vanderbilt campus in 2007 when the Walter R. Murray Building was dedicated.

Murray was a Vanderbilt graduate (1970) who became the university's first black trustee. He died in 1998 at age 50. Dillard was also present when the university officially retired Wallace's jersey number in Memorial Gymnasium in 2004.

"I know in my mind and heart I contributed to the integration of the SEC," said Dillard. "Even though I don't get any praise for it. I know I helped make it possible as far as what we see now in terms of black athletes being able to play in the Deep South in significant numbers. So I share that with Perry and I'm happy about it.

"When I came back to Vanderbilt I was amazed at the change. The diversity that I saw not just with African-Americans, but the broad range of ethnicity was great. I was very pleased with what I saw. It is a much better America now, and I just played a little small part in it as an athlete then I played a much bigger part in it as a lawyer. I'm very proud of what I was able to accomplish in that affirmative action case before the U.S. Supreme Court. If anything, that is my legacy."

If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.



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