Historic CIAA championship returns

Salem promotes 150-year tradition of college football at its best
CHAMPS l-r: CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams (with a big smile), Winston-Salem State Chancellor Elwood Robinson, WSSU Athletics Director Tonia Walker and Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea pose with Winston-Salem State Rams after their win over the Bowie State Bulldogs. The game, played November 2016, was the first year Salem hosted the conference that was previously held for years in Durham, NC.

by Jacqie McWilliams, CIAA Commissioner

The year 2019 has been a big one a century-and-a-half in the making for college football. The sport is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary marking the very first intercollegiate contest between Rutgers and New Jersey.

The CIAA, which currently holds its annual football championship game in Salem, is a part of that legacy of college football.

And a more important one than many people know or realize. As Commissioner of the CIAA, I always welcome a chance to share that context with people.

Johnson C Smith Golden Bulls (1936).

This Division II conference, made up primarily of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), has been around for 107 of those 150 years giving a chance to student-athletes who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to compete in the classroom or in life.

HBCU Gameday founder Steven J. Gaither is a student of HBCU sports history and acknowledges that the CIAA’s impact in football particularly and on the history of African-Americans in sport is often overlooked.

“The founding of the CIAA was revolutionary, actually, right up there with the Negro Leagues,” Gaither said. “The fact that it has survived segregation, the raiding of athletic talent by larger majority institutions and the defection of many of its bigger schools is a testament to its longevity and staying power in providing opportunities for student-athletes for over a century.”

To understand the importance of the CIAA beyond being an athletic conference, you must understand the condition of African-Americans in general and HBCUs in specific at the turn of the 20th century.

Our conference was originally established in 1912 as The Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association (the name was changed in 1950). The president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, was fiercely anti-Black. Jim Crow was the law of the day in the South, where most HBCUs are located, and its separate-but-equal doctrine was enforced in every aspect of life, including in higher education. By this time, the thirst for knowledge led to dozens of schools to educate the children and grandchildren of enslaved people who were legally forbidden to read and write.

HBCUs began playing football in 1892 when students from Biddle (now known as Johnson C. Smith University in the CIAA) went up the road to Salisbury to face Livingstone College on a cold winter day ( the game ,now called the “Commemorative Classic” continues to be played by the two conference rivals to this day).

Players and coaches of the 1947 Saint Augustine University (SAU) football team.

Administrators from prominent HBCUs on the East Coast met up on the campus of Hampton Institute (located in the same city to which the first slaves from Africa arrived in the U.S. exactly 400 years ago this year) to attempt to regulate athletics in 1912. The initial members were Lincoln (PA) University, Virginia Union, Shaw and Howard, along with Hampton. Eventually other state schools like North Carolina A&T, Virginia State and Morgan State came along as rivalries were grown and maintained, drawing in top Black athletes from across the country as opportunities were still limited at non-HBCU institutions, even outside the South.

CIAA football came of age after World War II, as the Lincoln-Howard rivalry was seen as the Black college equivalent to Harvard vs. Yale of the Ivy League. Their annual rivalry was more than just a football game, it was a huge social event filled with dances and balls as well as a chance to network and reconnect. It eventually laid the groundwork for games like the Bayou Classic, the Florida Classic and more.

On the field, CIAA players like Lincoln’s Whirlwind Johnson, who went on to teach Arthur Ashe how to play tennis, and his teammate Jazz Byrd electrified crowds. These were big-time stars in Black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American, but to this day are largely unknown because the mainstream media ignored Black colleges and their athletes.

Year-after-year top talent found its way to the CIAA because there was nowhere else it could go. These young men played for education and pride, but professional football wasn’t even a dream.

“During this era African-Americans were literally Black-balled from the NFL, meaning once their eligibility was up, there was no more football,” Gaither said. “Whatever ill feelings they must have had about it, many of these former student-athletes from the 1920s, 30s and 40s went on to become productive citizens, including educators and coaches, laying the groundwork for the next generation and creating a legacy upon which all student-athletes benefit from to this day. “

Eventually, the NFL opened its doors to Black athletes, and when it did, student-athletes from the CIAA found their way into the big time. Morgan State’s four Pro Football Hall of Fame players all competed in the CIAA, as did other Hall of Famers like North Carolina A&T’s Elvin Bethea, Maryland State’s Art Shell and several others. In recent years the conference has continued to produce NFL talent such as Virginia State’s Trenton Cannon, a 2017 NFL Draft pick of the New York Jets.

More than a century after its founding, the CIAA remains an important part of college football’s story. Virginia Union’s Hovey Field, opened in 1907, remains the second oldest continually used football stadium in the country outside of Harvard Stadium. Our history spans all across the East Coast, as many of the institutions that now play in the Division I Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) also have roots in the CIAA.

Sherman Lea, Sr. (1973) in uniform with CIAA Championship team Virginia Union Panthers.

Many star athletes, including the NFL’s Russell Wilson and NBA no. 1 overall draft pick Zion Williamson, are the descendants of athletes who have competed with those four letters across their chests. Former CIAA football players contribute to community and society everywhere these days whether they make it to the NFL or not. Look no further than Roanoke’s own mayor, Sherman P. Lea, Sr., a member of the 1973 CIAA Championship team at Virginia Union and inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame earlier this year.

The CIAA will crown a champion on Saturday, Nov. 16 at Salem Stadium. It will be a chance to see not only CIAA history, but Black History and college football history made once again by this historic and forward-moving conference.

See you there!