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Terrapins own up to 76-year-old act of racism

Almost everything about Saturday's game was ugly. One moment wasn't.

Between the first and second quarters of Saturday's ugly loss, Maryland made amends for gridiron segregation 76 years in the past. (Please excuse the mediocre long-range photo.)
Between the first and second quarters of Saturday's ugly loss, Maryland made amends for gridiron segregation 76 years in the past. (Please excuse the mediocre long-range photo.)
Alex Kirshner

It took 76 years, but Wilmeth Sidat-Singh finally got his due Saturday for an act of racism by Maryland officials that festered in the university's history for three quarters of a century.

In 1937, Sidat-Singh, a black Syracuse halfback, was barred from playing in a Baltimore game against the Terrapins. Maryland hadn't yet desegregated, and it was revealed just before the game that Sidat-Singh, who had been posing (or painted) as a full-blooded Hindu, was really a black man of American descent. Geary Eppley, the Maryland athletic director who now has a campus gym named after him, engineered a deal with Syracuse to keep Sidat-Singh on the sidelines.

If Sidat-Singh took the field, the Terrapins threatened to cancel the game. He sat, and the Terrapins won, 13-0, against a previously unbeaten Syracuse squad. (The next year, when Sidat-Singh was allowed to face them in a game in Syracuse, the Orangemen obliterated Maryland, 53-0.)

I wrote extensively about Sidat-Singh's plight at The Diamondback this week. Self-promotion isn't a virtuous thing, but I hope you take a minute to read a little more about his backstory and the university's exclusion of him.

Dave McKenna, a longtime Washington journalist and an true historian of sports and race, previously penned fascinating profiles of the situation for The Washington City Paper in 2008 and, recently, Deadspin. I hope you read those, too, because Sidat-Singh's story has been so under-told for so long that it deserves to have as many eyes on it as humanly possible. Interestingly enough, it would have remained that way if not for a neat bit of coincidence.

Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Maryland's chief diversity officer, happens to be a relative by marriage of Sidat-Singh. A cousin of hers and Sidat-Singh's direct descendant, Lyn Henley, brought McKenna's 2008 story to her attention about a year ago. Before that, even she hadn't known Sidat-Singh's story: how his father died when he was young, how he changed his name and was ostensibly turned Hindu, how he faced garish discrimination and exclusion, how he starred in every sport he tried, how he joined the Tuskegee Airmen and died in a plane crash before he was 30.

"It's an amazing tale," McKenna told me. It felt like fiction to him as he researched it for his initial piece on the man Grantland Rice once dubbed "The Syracuse Walking Dream." That was the title of McKenna's first story on Sidat-Singh.

Upon learning it herself, Shorter-Gooden brought the Ballad of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh to athletic director Kevin Anderson, and the ball started rolling from there. Maryland administrators hadn't acted to apologize for the university's sin for 76 years, but Anderson and other senior university officials decided to put a stop to it on Saturday.

The Terrapins did that in a ceremony at the first quarter break. Sidat-Singh's picture flashed on the Byrd Stadium video boards, and the public address announcer explained the sordid tale of his benching. His family was presented with a dedicated Wounded Warrior football jersey and held it up high. Sidat-Singh wasn't allowed beyond the sidelines in 1937, but his relatives stood near the center of the field and got applause from thousands.

It isn't news that the university -- like so many in the South -- has a checkered racial history, and we cannot fully detach ourselves from the past. Saturday's game itself was played in a stadium named for a university official, Curley Byrd, who opposed having black students on the College Park campus. The school didn't let black students in for years after Sidat-Singh was forced to the bench in 1937.

There are untold thousands of Sidat-Singhs, other American blacks whose skin color precluded them from equality for years upon years. Sidat-Singh surely isn't the only black man the university excluded.

But after 76 years, the university has formally owned up to a black eye buried deep in its past. Scores of football fans have learned a story that was long left untold, and a family can be at ease after years of wondering if anybody else would ever get to hear it.