This article appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of the Miamian Magazine. MURedHawks.com has been granted permission to run this feature story on men's basketball alumnus John Swann on our site.
John Swann ’65 MEd ’67 reflects on his years as a Colored-Negro-Black student on campus during the changing 1960s.
When John Swann moved into Collins Hall in 1961, life changed drastically for the African-American freshman from West Virginia.
Suddenly and for the first time in his life, he was welcome to eat in restaurants, such as Oxford’s Al & Larry’s and Mac ’n’ Joe’s. He could sit anywhere he wanted in the Miami-Western Theatre to watch Paul Newman in The Hustler. And he could share a bedroom and a bathroom with his white dorm mates in East Quad.
This felt like freedom to a 17-year-old coming from the South where “colored only” water fountains and segregated bathrooms were the norm and “Negros” sat only in balconies at the theater. He had to adjust.
“I went Uptown to the movie. Blew my mind because there was no upstairs. I panicked. I didn’t know where to sit.”
He finally settled into a dark corner by the exit. Those were the days of single movie screens and uniformed ushers with flashlights. Every time an usher moved, Swann was sure the fellow was heading his way to throw him out.
But no one asked him to leave — in the theater or the restaurant. No one called him the “N” word either, at least not to his face. He thought he was free at last.
High tea and Aunt Jemima
The oldest of four and the only boy, John C. Swann Jr. ’65 MEd ’67 grew up in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., home of The Greenbrier resort. These days, as he tells of his youth and his college days at Miami, he’s retired from education administration and sitting at the glass dining room table in the north Dayton home he shares with Diane, his wife of 46 years.
As he talks, he looks at a large china hutch filled with ornate, green-banded dishes featuring bold pink rhododendrons, West Virginia’s state flower. This is china from The Greenbrier, where, as he describes it, his mama worked for 47 years as “the coffee and high tea girl.”
His daddy was The Greenbrier’s longtime captain in the dining room and room service. Because the C&O Railroad owned The Greenbrier, the golf resort was a major stop for the Cardinal, which ran from New York to Chicago. John C. Swann Sr. often rode the train from D.C. to the resort so he could serve the senators and congressmen along the route.
In the morning when the train arrived, his mother handed out Danish and coffee. Then she’d head back home until 4 or 5 in the afternoon when she returned to serve what Swann refers to as “tea and crumpets.”
He chuckles when he thinks about other people treasuring the dishes he grew up with.
“Mama … it’s interesting about her because when she first started there, she had the Aunt Jemima outfit. And she fought the battle to wear … I guess you’d call it a regular outfit? See, that was the antebellum South. That’s what the Greenbrier Hotel was and basically still is.”
Hanging up the phone, Diane walks in from the family room saying, “And your mother stopped, during her service, the wearing of the Jemima outfit.”
“With the bandana,” John adds, then asks Diane, “Was she still wearing that when I was at Miami? I think she was maybe ’til my senior year.”
Leaving the South behind
Although his sisters went to West Virginia State College, Swann came to Miami because of basketball. He didn’t find out until later that his parents wanted him out of West Virginia, where he and four others integrated his secondary school. He likes to brag a little that it was in 1956, before the nine in Little Rock made national headlines. Friends with one of the Little Rock Nine, he likes to teasingly point out that he and his classmates didn’t have any troops escorting them safely into their school, which housed grades 7 through 12.
“We went down to that school and couldn’t get in ’cause they’d locked all the doors. I guess we went back home, but I know they had to go to court. We didn’t get back in that school until December or January. Missed the whole first semester of seventh grade.”
Although the school remained the only thing integrated in White Sulphur Springs, Swann still thought his hometown “about the best.” He didn’t realize people treated him special because of basketball. He played point guard (“What else do little people play?”), and his team made it to the state tournament where Coach saw him for the first time.
To Swann, Coach is and always will be Dick Shrider, head coach of men’s basketball at Miami 1957-1966 and Miami’s athletic director 1964-1988.
Swann had a chance at some scholarships in West Virginia, maybe even a full ride. The same wasn’t true at Miami, not a full ride, at least not at first. He was all set to stay close to home, but his parents “cooked it up” so that he’d take the C&O train to Cincinnati’s Union Terminal and then catch a ride to Oxford for a visit. That’s when he decided on Miami.
North not so different
Called Colored or Negro his freshman year, he discovered discrimination in the North. It was just more subtle. The stares when in the company of non-minority females, the constant glances when in the stores Uptown, the exclusion of minorities from Greek organizations. There was only one black fraternity on campus with a handful of members and no fraternity house.
“In one of the soc classes I had, a professor asked me, ‘What is the difference between the Northern Whites and Southern.’ I said, ‘Location. And that. Is. All.’ Then I explained the differences. It’s blatant and open in the South, and up here you had to figure people out.
“See, you knew when you came from the South, you knew who hated you and who didn’t and how far to go with each group. That person right there? Don’t go near him. Wasn’t no doubt.
“The rough thing was trying to figure out who was my friend on the campus and why. Were they following the trends of the time then because they were supposed to treat us right, publicly anyway? Or were they my friend because I was a basketball player? You start to become skeptical of everybody. That’s where a lot of the damage takes place.”
Still, the white students he encountered seemed more aware of African-Americans than his West Virginian classmates and weren’t reluctant to initiate conversation. Outgoing himself, Swann established many close friendships within the Miami community.
Now looking back at that time, he believes the student body was quite receptive to change, as were his professors and advisers. To him, it was the administration that seemed neutral, at best, and failed to provide a support system, leaving minority students “to fend for themselves.”
“When I arrived, not only was the African-American population very small (approximately 1 percent), but within our own group, there was some initial in-group separation due to diversity such as vast gaps in experiences — Northern/Southern, Urban/Rural, disparities in wealth, athletes/non-athletes, upperclassmen/freshmen/grad students, townies. Temperament ranged from the very docile to those with very militant viewpoints, which were becoming frequently prevalent during this era.”
Seeing a need, Oxford’s African-American families stepped forward to bridge these gaps and offer unity and fellowship.
“The black families in town, that was the whole support system. The Smiths, the Riles, the Nashes, the Jacksons. Mrs. Smith, she was something in the registrar’s office, so she looked out for us. She’d give parties, she made us do the … what’d you call it? The Wesley Foundation. I mean, those were parents away from home. Mz. Smith didn’t allow you to wear no hat in the presence of a lady indoors.”
Roundball and road trips
Swann benefited from another support system not available to all minorities, the basketball team. They not only practiced and played together, they ate their meals together during road trips and worked together because all athletes were required to work 20 hours a week in campus jobs back then. They even sang together.
“See, we didn’t have laptops. We didn’t have earphones. We had my portable record player with 45s that I had to carry everywhere. We played it in dressing rooms. We’d all get around that thing in the back of the bus …”
“And sing,” Diane adds.
“Favorite records? Back then? ‘Ooh Baby Baby’ by Smokey and the Miracles. Charlie’s was ‘My Guy’ by Mary Wells. And Big Daddy’s was ‘Gypsy Woman’ by The Impressions.”
Charlie was Charlie Coles ’65, who later became the men’s head basketball coach in his own right. He and Charlie Dinkins ’65 and Swann roomed together until Charlie surprised everybody by marrying Dee Dee (Delores Jackson ’64) the night before practice began senior year. After their sophomore year, Swann spent all his summers at Charlie’s home in Springfield, Ohio, because there was nothing to go back to in West Virginia. Plus, they’d made a pact to play against competition in the summers so they’d get better.
Their Miami team was a successful one, which Swann believes helped enhance the popularity and acceptance of its African-American members.
He’ll never forget their first away game.
“Our first trip was Eastern Kentucky. They were waving a confederate flag as big as this wall (he points to his living room wall) behind the basket. And we won. We won at the buzzer, so we had to get out of there quick.”
When they hit Nashville, Coach told them to pick a movie to go see.
“And I threw my hand up. He said, ‘Here you go again.’ I said, ‘Coach, you gotta remember where you are, man. Down here they don’t play no man-to-man defense. They play zone in Tennessee. Ain’t no pickin’ what movie we want to see. We better figure out which one we can go to first.’ Coach was gettin’ on me. ‘You’re always bringing that up.’ The assistant Vanderbilt coach was with us and he said, ‘He’s right. You better call.’ And when we start callin’, weren’t but two we could go to.”
Swann shouts into the kitchen were Diane is washing the lunch dishes. “What was the downtown movie, Honey?”
“What?” Diane shouts back. She can’t hear over the running water.
“The movie. In Nashville.”
“Right. The Tennessee. We went to The Tennessee, and it was a little shaky there. All of us mixed, four blacks, 11 whites, all of us in red blazers standing outside of a movie theater ’cause we weren’t going to go right in because we were waiting for the movie to change. The cops came up. Oh, yeah. They figured it out after some talking. ‘No, this ain’t no demonstration. We just waiting for the movie to change. We don’t want to go in at the end of the movie.’ ”
“Yeah, we had some experiences. We played in Miami Beach in ’64. We could stay in the hotel, but we couldn’t go on the beach, which made no sense.”
Talk about a revolution
He enjoyed his freshman year and was eager to return sophomore year. He came back to changes. First off, he discovered he was now “Black.”
“That’s what tickles me. We fought the battle in the South to be Colored. And just as soon as I finally become a Negro … that’s what all the papers had, Negro-lad and all that stuff … I come up here to Ohio, and all of a sudden, they’re fighting for the black name. In the South, we would fight if someone called you black. That was derogatory.”
There were also more minority students, and they were more vocal, “more out” than his class. And the group behind them, the ones who arrived his junior year?
“Whoa. That’s when the movement started. They didn’t care. They were coming down, and they weren’t gonna take nothin’.” They, too, eventually “fell in line after awhile or left,” Swann says.
It was 1963-1964, the same year some Miami students went with Bob Strippel, an assistant dean in the student affairs division, to North Carolina to register black voters. A couple of months later, 800 students, mostly white and mostly from East Coast colleges, attended two weeks of voter registration training on Western College’s campus.
But Swann and his friends and classmates weren’t aware of the Mississippi Summer Project on Western, later known as Freedom Summer, which made national headlines after three of its participants — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — were kidnapped and killed in Mississippi.
For most students at Miami, black and white, the civil rights movement was something vague that was happening in the distance. On a campus that felt “insulated and isolated,” they may have been “generally supportive but not widely involved.” They were far more impacted by Kennedy’s assassination, the Beatles, and the Vietnam draft, according to 29 essays written by 1965 graduates for Jane Marie Jordan’s 1993 senior honors project, which evolved into the book The Mood of Miami: Interpretations Amid the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.
Swann recalls approximately 10 African-Americans in his graduating class of 1965. He stayed for another two years to earn a master’s in education. Free of restrictions from the athletic department, the administration, and opinions of others, he found it a time of growth and freedom.
“I went where I wanted, did what I wanted, and had conquered many of the internal conflicts I had faced earlier. I lived in an old fraternity house behind the Phi Delt house with eight other friends. (He was the only minority.) I ate all my meals at the Phi Delt house without incident or comment, attended frat parties Uptown and in frat houses, dated who I wanted, and escorted the reigning J-Prom queen to the Prom without incident.”
The more things change
Because of his close ties with Coles and rest of his teammates, Swann has returned to campus often through the years. Not long ago he went into Withrow Court, where his team reigned, to see the locker rooms once again. And remember.
“I wouldn’t trade the education and experience for anything. I’d go through all this again. What we realized while living through it, it takes a special person of color to make it in that place because there’s so much more pressure other than academics. That’s still true in that culture today.”
“What he’s saying, from my perspective is that the more things change the more they stay the same,” Diane says.
“It’s a little different though,” John says. “Last time Diane and I were down there, we were walking down the street, and this young black lady was coming up the street. Now, all of my life … (“And mine,” Diane adds.) There’s a code that when you see familiar folk in the atmosphere that’s there … you give a gentle nod. Like, Hey … unspoken, but it means a whole lot. Just that gentle nod. This young lady did not look our way. Black lady, black young girl, did not look our way. Like we were not there.”
“Now in my day, she would have been stopped with, ‘Hey, Baby, what’s happening?’ We were an isolated group and when you saw each other, you acknowledge each other. It’s universal. You give the nod.”
So, maybe, John and Diane conclude, the culture has changed, but not for the better. Nowadays it’s the smart phones and tablets that appear to be causing the same kind of isolation that they sometimes felt. This makes them sad.
Rattling the ice in his empty tumbler, having finished his third or fourth glass of tea, John pauses. He has some advice. It sounds simple, but history has proven that it’s not.
“Communicate. Talk to folks. All comes down to talking to each other. Majority. Minority. We’re not all that different.”
Donna Boen ’83 MTSC ’96 is the editor of Miamian.
Miami University is hosting a national conference Oct. 12-14, 2014, to observe the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. For more about the conference and about our Year of Celebrating Freedom, go online to MiamiOH.edu/celebratingfreedom.
For more about the history of Freedom Summer, go to the Summer 2014 Miamian at MiamiAlum.org/Miamian and click on the link to “A Constant Struggle.”