Wendell Hudson was the first African American scholarship athlete in The University of Alabama’s history. Last month, he made history, again, becoming the university’s first student-athlete to have his jersey retired.
But what about the unsung heroes whose stories are untold because they don’t have a storybook ending? Today, I want to reflect on the life of a forgotten pioneer.
Henry Harris was the first African American scholarship athlete at any SEC school in the Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana) . In the book Remember Henry Harris: Lost Icon of A Revolution: A Story of Hope and Self-Sacrifice in America, he’s praised as “the pride of the people and the promise of a new day.”
Harris and his siblings were raised by a single mother in Boligee, Ala., where he attended Greene County Training School. He was the editor of the school newspaper and president and valedictorian of his senior class. He also averaged over 30 points per game in basketball.
He was the center of an Alabama-Auburn recruiting face-off for what would be either school’s first black scholarship student-athlete and basketball player. Auburn won the battle and Henry began his college career in 1968. He was team captain and an All-SEC player by his senior season.
Off the court, Harris was a mentor for other black athletes that journeyed in his footsteps; but, on the court, he suffered a knee injury during his junior season and played through the pain for the duration of his career. That injury changed the trajectory of his life.
At the age of 24, Harris fell from a dorm room window at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he was a student-assistant coach. His death was ruled a suicide, likely influenced by depression as a result of the knee injury, the termination of his job and not being drafted by the American Basketball Association days before his death.
For the people who knew him, it was hard to believe the same young man who had been a hero for black folk in the Jim Crow South didn’t have a hero when he needed one the most. It was hard to believe that the same young man who had provided hope for his impoverished family and community lost hope, himself.
But just because he experienced a breakthrough doesn’t mean he was immune to a breakdown.
Henry’s untimely death doesn’t negate the paths he paved and the bridges he built to be crossed for future black athletes in the state of Alabama like James Owens, Auburn’s first black scholarship football player and Wendell Hudson, who went on to play in the NBA and ABA following his career with the Crimson Tide.
Harris didn’t have a storybook ending, but his story still deserves to be both told and remembered.