First HBCU team to win national championship finally gets White House visit after six decades of victory

Dollita Okine April 10, 2024
Before they left the White House, the players gave Harris—an HBCU alumna herself—a customized jersey. Photo credit: CBS/Willie James Inman

Over 60 years later, former Tennessee A&I Tiger basketball players finally got the chance to shine during a joyous visit to the White House.

George Finley, one of the players, said to CBS that meeting Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House was “the greatest day of my life.”

Finley was joined in the Roosevelt Room of the White House by his colleagues, the majority of whom were in their eighties: Henry Carlton, Robert Clark, Ron Hamilton, Ernie Jones, and Dick Barnett. The vice president had invited them all, along with their close friends and family.

Harris remarked, “I look at each of you and the path and the journey that you’ve been on and your willingness to tell the story in such an active way is so important. There are forces right now that would try to overlook or deny our history. But I think the only way that we will continue to strengthen ourselves and see progress as a country is when we remember where we’ve been to help us guide where we want to be.”

“I thought this would never take place,” Finley said, reflecting on the decades it took to experience the moment. “[Winning] the championship was big, but it wasn’t as big as being here with [Vice President] Harris today.”

Despite being picked by the NBA’s Detroit Pistons after playing for the 1959 championship team, Finley opted to play for the American Basketball League.

The men’s basketball team of Tennessee A&I Tigers made history by being the first HBCU team to win a national championship in 1957. They also became the first college team to win three consecutive national titles from 1957 to 1959.

However, Black collegiate athletes were frequently denied recognition and opportunity to compete at the highest levels during segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. Tennessee A&I, now Tennessee State University, is a public HBCU.

As per CBS, the team faced numerous obstacles on and off the court on the route to the White House visit. On their flight home from Kansas City after winning the 1957 NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) championship, the team received a bomb threat. Later, team members took part in a sit-in to protest segregation policies at a lunch counter in Nashville.

The Tigers were finally honored for their historic victories and admitted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019 after decades of waiting. But they were still yet to have a celebration at the White House for their championship victory, a celebration that has been an American tradition over the years. In January, more than 50 members of Congress signed a letter on behalf of the team asking for a White House invitation for a “proper celebration.”

On Friday, before they left the White House, the players gave Harris—an HBCU alumna herself—a customized jersey.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: April 10, 2024


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