Among a group of ground-breaking African American football players at Wake, a star QB

Wake Forest quarterback Freddie Summers (7) was the first black QB at a major southern school in 1967 and an All-ACC pick.
Wake Forest quarterback Freddie Summers (7) was the first black QB at a major southern school in 1967 and an All-ACC pick. Wake Forest University

They were a quiet vanguard, unheralded upon arrival and almost forgotten today. First came a receiver, two linemen, a running back. Then, 50 years ago, came quarterback “Fast Freddie” Summers, setting records and sidestepping stereotypes.

“Freddie became a torch-bearer, unbeknownst to him,” says Bill Overton, a fellow African-American and Wake Forest teammate.

Summers emphatically earned his place on the field and as an ice-breaker in athletics. He won first team All-ACC honors and led the conference in total offense in 1967, his debut season in major college football. The 6-1 Summers paced Wake in scoring, passing and rushing yardage in each of his two seasons after transferring from a Nebraska junior college. His 90-yard run from scrimmage in 1968 remains tied for the longest in program history. Summers led the Demon Deacons to 632 total yards in a 48-31 victory over North Carolina in ’68, still the program’s best yardage output in a game and highest scoring total ever against the Tar Heels.

“He sure was good for us,” says Bill Tate, Summers’ coach at Wake. “He was an option quarterback. He threw a good pass. He was just an outstanding athlete.”

Teammate Bob Grant – with Ken “Butch” Henry the first black football or basketball varsity athletes (freshmen were ineligible) to play at a predominantly white university south of Maryland – recalls Summers as quick, graceful, skilled. “He had the right attitude to play the position,” says Grant, All-ACC in 1966. “You couldn’t intimidate him or anything like that.”

Gilbert McGregor, an African-American who enrolled as a Wake basketball player in 1967-68, describes Summers as athletic and “flamboyant,” fitting the quarterback model exemplified in the ’60s by “Broadway Joe” Namath.

Overton, like Summers a Bostonian who transferred to Wake from McCook Junior College, recalls his longtime friend as “smooth,” stylish and strong-armed. “He was meticulous in his dress. Very. And he carried that meticulous nature when he put on his football uniform. Lord knows, one of the reasons he ran so damn fast, he didn’t like to get his uniform dirty.”

Summers’ presence under center at Wake Forest in ’67 was notable beyond his on-field achievements – he was the first African-American quarterback to start for a major Southern university. That was five seasons ahead of any SEC school.

Keep in mind that blacks were routinely steered away from decision-making roles in sports and beyond during that era. Yet Summers’ breakthrough effort at Wake is unknown to contemporary players and virtually uncelebrated by the ACC, his alma mater or the media. His historical profile is so minimal, Wikipedia mistakenly recognizes Georgia Tech’s Eddie McAshan as the South’s racial pioneer at quarterback in 1970. “It’s amazing how far under the radar he slipped as being the first black quarterback in the South,” McGregor says of Summers. “In the South!”

He sure was good for us. He was an option quarterback. He threw a good pass. He was just an outstanding athlete.

Former Wake Forest coach Bill Tate on Freddie Summers

Tate, now 86 and living in Nebraska, laments that Summers and his barrier-breaking teammates are not more widely recognized. Attention has rightly gone to Darryl Hill at Maryland for breaking the color line in football south of the Mason-Dixon line in 1963. But Hill’s presence didn’t reflect a systematic effort. Tate met with Wake Forest president Harold Tribble shortly after arriving at Winston-Salem in the spring of 1964 and discussed immediately integrating the football program. Tribble told him, recalls Tate, “You recruit the players that you want, and I’ll get them in school.”

That fall Grant, a defensive lineman from Jacksonville, N.C., and Henry, a receiver from Greensboro, signed on. Grant intended to play in the Big Ten, as did many top African-American athletes from the South in those days. Until, that is, his coach at Georgetown High School, legendarily tough Gideon T. Johnson, showed him a photo of Tate in the newspaper. “They’re getting ready to integrate sports down here in the South and, he says, ‘this is where we’re going, baby,’ ” recounts Grant. “I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute!’ ” But Grant obeyed his coach, among the first blacks to integrate the U.S Marine Corps during World War II.

Grant and Henry joined the Wake varsity in 1965. Overton, a tackle, and running back Jimmy Johnson followed in 1966. Overton says he never faced another African-American player in ACC competition. “Had integration backed off probably another couple of years,” muses Tate, the 1964 ACC coach of the year, “Wake Forest would have been a very strong contender in all sports, and surely football, because we would have been able to get some of the top black students.” Even so, the school deserves recognition for a trail-blazing role in college sports for which it has not taken credit.

Events earlier this month at Charlottesville, where rioters asserted white supremacy, remind us that bringing in African-American athletes was a brave, risky, and significant act in the mid-’60s, especially in the segregation-stained South. Bland recitations of historical facts can’t do justice to times when intimidation, backed by violence, was a constant promise for blacks defying norms, and political correctness meant denying African-Americans equal treatment in all corners of life.

I got quite a few letters from the KKK. They wrote some pretty nasty things.

Former Wake Forest coach Bill Tate

We know how things turned out, but that wasn’t the case for athletes receiving threatening phone calls on the hall phone in their dorm, the cold shoulder from many Wake classmates, or dismissive comments like those of the dean who told Grant, “I’m not for this experiment, so don’t come to me for any kind of help.”

Nor did players know how to regard mail and telegrams from people vowing to kill them if they came to Alabama, where the team failed to find an integrated movie theater for pregame entertainment or lodgings readily open to them prior to a 1966 game at Auburn. “I got quite a few letters from the KKK,” Tate, an Illinois native unperturbed by the vitriol, recalls of his Wake tenure. “They wrote some pretty nasty things.”

Tate was fired after the 1968 season, his fifth non-winning effort in five years. Drafted by Cleveland, Summers lasted three seasons in the NFL as a defensive back, then went to the CFL, where his career was aborted by a broken neck. Summers died, unsung, in 1994, well short of his 50th birthday. Now a half-century has passed since he and Wake set an example worth remembering – and saluting.