Visit the African/African-American Historical Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and one of the most unforgettable displays (among many) is dedicated to John Bright. Bright was born in Fort Wayne in 1930, the son of a steel worker. His years playing football at Drake College (now Drake University) in Des Moines, Iowa would be his claim to national recognition. They would also forever link him to a racial incident that brought national disgrace, the John Bright Incident. Despite being the victim of this ugly incident, Bright went on to live his life with grace and resilience.
On October 20, 1951, Drake College’s football team, the Bulldogs, played the Oklahoma A&M Aggies (now the Oklahoma State Cowboys) at Lewis Field in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The star of Drake’s team was the talented young halfback, Johnny Bright, an NCAA All American. At the time, Bright led the nation in yards per game. In 1950, he set the single-season total offense record with 2,400 yards, a record that stood until 1964. That same year, he averaged 266.7 yards a game and scored 18 touchdowns. In 1951, he won the Swede Nelson Award for outstanding sportsmanship and finished fifth in Heisman trophy balloting.
John Bright was a star in the making before the Incident
He was also an African-American man visiting a Southern state. Two years earlier when Drake played Oklahoma A&M, Bright had been the first African-American to play at Lewis Field. There had been no incidents that day in 1949. Since then, the Oklahoma A&M Aggies changed head coaches. J. B. Whitworth replaced Jim Lookabaugh. The change in coaching signaled a change in attitude.
While the (all white) rest of the team stayed in a Stillwater hotel, segregation laws at the time forced Bright to board with a Black minister in town. In 1951, the civil rights movement had barely begun. Brown v. Board of Education was still three years away, and the integration of the Arkansas public schools wouldn’t come about until 1957.
In the middle of the first quarter of the game, the undefeated Drake led 7-6. Seven minutes into the game, Bright handed the ball off to the wingback, Gene Macomber. Two Oklahoma linemen rushed toward Bright. One went toward Macomber, who had the ball. The other, Oklahoma’s #72, Wilbanks Smith, headed right for Bright, though Bright was no longer involved in the play. Smith cocked his elbow and deliberately ran into Bright’s face. At the time, football helmets had no face shields. Bright went down. Then he got up.
On the next play, Bright was able to throw a 61-yard touchdown pass. Apparently unaware of how seriously he had injured Bright, Smith cocked his elbow in an illegal position and struck Bright again. At the end of the first quarter, Coach Warren Gaer pulled Bright from the game. Trainer Ben Mankowski and Drake guard Jack Hamm (#26) had to help Bright off the field. An x-ray later confirmed Bright’s jaw was broken; Bright said he could feel the bones move. Bright played in only two more games with Drake the rest of the season.
Erin E. Schmidt has written for magazines including True Love, The Saturday Evening Post & The Almanac For Farmers and City Folk. Honestly more of a basketball fan, she’s the author of The Magical Girls’ Guide to Womanhood and can be found online at https://erineschmidtsmith.com/.
Drake University News Bureau press release. Undated. Accessed through http://ddr.lib.drake.edu/digital/collection/du-jb/id/41, February 2, 2010.
Edmonton Journal, The. “Black athletes survive sports’ very bumpy road.” The Edmonton Journal, January 20, 2010. Accessed through , February 2, 2010.
“Film crew visits Drake to depict ‘The Slugging of Johnny Bright.’” Drake University Update, Winter 1999. Accessed through http://ddr.lib.drake.edu/digital/collection/du-jb/id/39, February 2, 2010.
Hanson, Dave. “Bright not bitter: Blow helped clean up sports.” Des Moines Tribune, November 13, 1980. Accessed through http://ddr.lib.drake.edu/digital/collection/du-jb/id/36, Drake University Digital Collections, February 1, 2010.
“Johnny Bright, Drake.” Biography created for Bright’s induction into the Missouri Valley Conference Hall of Fame, 2003. Accessed through, http://ddr.lib.drake.edu/digital/collection/du-jb/id/46, February 2, 2010.
Kelly, Martin. “Overview of Civil Rights Legislation, Supreme Court Cases, and Activities: Civil rights activities of the 1950s and 1960s.” https://www.thoughtco.com/overview-civil-rights-legislation-supreme-court-104388. Accessed February 2, 2010.
Moorehead, Jim. “1951 John Bright Incident Causes Drake Withdrawal From MVC.” Drake Times-Delphic, October 30, 1964. Accessed through http://ddr.lib.drake.edu/digital/collection/du-jb/id/37, Drake University Digital Collections, on February 1, 2010.
Podolsky, Mickey. “Johnny Bright All Time Drake Great.” Drake Times-Delphic, November 1, 1963. Accessed through http://ddr.lib.drake.edu/digital/collection/du-jb/id/47, February 2, 2010.
Turnbull, Buck. “Johnny Bright, Drake University, 1970.” Des Moines Register, March 24, 1970. Accessed through , February 2, 2010.
White, Maury. “Aggies Outlast Drake, 27-14.” Des Moines Register, September 21, 1951. Accessed through http://ddr.lib.drake.edu/digital/collection/du-jb/id/26, Drake University Digital Collections, February 1, 2010.
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