Frank Dowsing, Mississippi State’s first black football player, is almost unknown today
A state struggles to remember a racial pioneer — is it partly because of his sexuality?
As the Tupelo High School B team lined up for the first play of its first game in September 1967, the question on his teammates’ minds was whether Frank Dowsing could play football.
Dowsing broke his jaw in an automobile accident just before the first day of school and hadn’t been able to practice. On the bus ride to the game, quarterback Jack Reed had led a cram session, teaching his new tailback a few plays.
Reed took the opening snap and tossed the ball to Dowsing. A few seconds later, a stadium full of Mississippians was roaring with joy and Reed was running toward his coach and screaming, “We scored on the first play! We scored on the first play!”
Dowsing, the first African-American to play at Tupelo High, had just run 80 yards untouched. Dowsing’s talent was so obvious that coach Dennis Waite felt compelled to bring his deliriously happy quarterback down to earth.
“Jack,” he shouted above the din, “Don’t get used to Frank on the B team.”
Dowsing, one of five African-American students to desegregate Tupelo High that fall 50 years ago, kept on running. He played for the varsity the next week, and by the time he graduated, Dowsing had earned all-conference honors in football, basketball and track; led the basketball team to a state championship; set a state record in the 100-yard dash; represented Mississippi at a national 4-H conference; was voted Mr. Versatile by his peers; and graduated sixth in his class. He enrolled at Mississippi State University, where he became the school’s first black football player, earned All-America honors as a defensive back, was named to the Academic All-America team and was voted by fellow students as Mr. Mississippi State before being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles and attending medical school. Classmates, white and black, remember Dowsing as a shining light: smart, charismatic, kind and strong.
By the time he turned 24, Dowsing had already built a life to remember. No one was more important to the integration of athletics in Mississippi, and where in the country could that have been more difficult? And yet today, his name has faded from the state’s collective memory.
He would not be the first African-American pioneer to be written out of history. But there’s more to it. Dowsing’s story has been neglected, some say, not only because he was black, but also because he was gay. And because he died of AIDS.
From his front porch in the tiny community of Palmetto outside of Tupelo, a young Frank could see the familiar icons of the rural South: cotton fields on one side of the street and a church on the other. He was up by 5 each morning to feed the family’s cows, while his older sister, Virginia, handled the chickens. Frank enjoyed the pastimes of a country kid: wading in the pond, climbing trees, playing football and basketball with his father and grandfather. Black students in Mississippi attended school in the summer and were out in the fall — not for a delayed vacation but so they “could pick the white man’s crop,” Virginia Dowsing Toliver recalled. Dowsing earned $2 a day picking 200 pounds of cotton. When the mobile library came to town, the Dowsing kids were eager to check out books. Dowsing was a smart kid, and his grandmother stressed that education was the way out of the cotton fields.
The weight of segregation was heavy in Tupelo — blacks drank from separate water fountains, stepped off the sidewalk when a white person approached, knew which neighborhoods to avoid lest they be harassed by police, and called white children “Master” and “Miss” no matter the age difference.
Still, people in Tupelo — black or white — will tell you this wasn’t the Delta. And that meant race relations, despite the daily degradations, were a little better here than in other parts of the state. In a history of the city, author Vaughn Grisham Jr. wrote that the Klan never amounted to much in Tupelo, and an attempt to organize a White Citizens Council fizzled. Blacks had a history of voting and organizing for better wages, and an NAACP office opened without incident in 1965. The Daily Journal was progressive on race, advocating for integration and against white violence, in the name of economic development. Jack Reed Sr., a prominent Tupelo business leader, became one of the state’s loudest white voices against segregation, and in so doing “saved Mississippi’s soul,” former Gov. William Winter said at Reed’s memorial service last year. He ran Reed’s department store on Main Street, a shop that had employed Gladys Presley in 1934 when she was pregnant with a boy to be named Elvis. And Reed’s son, Jack Jr., was the B team quarterback at Tupelo High in 1967.
In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Reed Sr. successfully lobbied white families to remain committed to the public schools at a time when segregationist state legislators called for the dissolution of the school system altogether. Unlike elsewhere in the South, where all-white private schools dubbed “segregation academies” spread like kudzu, that never happened in Tupelo. Even today, nearly all students attend public schools, which are roughly half black and half white.
In fall 1967, the “Freedom of Choice” plan made it possible for students from all-black Carver to attend Tupelo High, or vice versa. No white students chose to attend Carver. But five blacks — including Dowsing, a junior, and football teammate David Adams — made the brave decision to desegregate THS. Dowsing’s parents, who were both teachers and former athletes at Mississippi Industrial College, believed the move made sense for two reasons: The academic opportunities at THS were better, and the football team was worse. While they worried Dowsing might not see the field at powerhouse Carver, he could be a star for the Golden Wave.
Five years after deadly white riots accompanied James Meredith’s entrance to the University of Mississippi, Dowsing and the other black students arrived at Tupelo High. There to greet them, conspicuous in a sea of blank stares, was the smiling face of student government vice president Jack Reed Jr. Reed saw Rachel Holomon, his first black female classmate, step out of her father’s car and made a beeline toward her. “Most people think we must have been like those students getting escorted to schools like in Little Rock, but it wasn’t like that,” Holomon recalled. “My dad let me out of the car and Jack came up to me and welcomed me to the school, and everybody else followed suit. If anybody had a problem with me, they didn’t let me hear it.”
But attending THS was considered punishment by many of Dowsing’s black peers. His childhood friend Malcolm Jackson said teachers at Carver High would threaten students by warning them to behave or “you’ll be sent to Tupelo High!” On top of that, Dowsing was initially unable to speak because his jaw was wired shut. But eventually, his friends and family say, Dowsing won over most of his new classmates. He excelled in sports, sang in the chorus, played a wise man in the Christmas pageant, dominated 4-H speech competitions. “He was one of the best people I’ve ever known,” said Bill Beasley, a white classmate. “And he was great at everything.”
He made it all look easy. His sister, Virginia, a student at Jackson State University at the time, knew better. Tupelo High students may not have openly harassed her brother, but that didn’t mean they didn’t whisper behind his back or wave Confederate flags at football games and pep rallies. When Dowsing attended a Christmas party at Reed’s house, some THS parents were aghast. Holomon said a particularly tough English teacher later admitted to giving her failing grades simply because she was black.
“People don’t realize how hard it was to be black in the segregated South,” Toliver said. “There was so much pain on the inside. It hurt so much to be considered a non-person, it hurt so much to be told these other people are so much better than you. And you kept all of that on the inside because you knew if you let it out you could end up like Emmett Till. Frank knew how to hold his tongue in the face of adversity.”
Dowsing’s white friends saw glimpses of the dangers. One classmate emerged bloodied from a gymnasium brawl after confronting a rival basketball fan who made derogatory comments about Dowsing. The night before the state track meet in 1968, Beasley shared a room with Dowsing at the Holiday Inn in Greenwood. The night was interrupted by the shouts and slurs from white men outside their room who threw stones at the door and threatened to rough up Dowsing if he showed up the next morning. Dowsing did show up, won all five races he entered and set a state record in the 100 meters.
Dowsing’s athletic and academic success were obvious, and his character was appealing to white college football coaches who sought a “Jackie Robinson type” to integrate their programs. Nat Northington had become the Southeastern Conference’s first black football player as a freshman at Kentucky in 1967, and when Dowsing was recruited by Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, he knew he would be the first African-American player at any of those schools.
The legend is that only after Southern Cal’s Sam Cunningham came to Tuscaloosa and ran roughshod over Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide in 1970 did Bryant begin recruiting black players. But Dowsing might have become Alabama’s first black player as a freshman in 1969. Bryant recruited Dowsing heavily, and up until the night before signing day, everyone thought Dowsing was headed to Tuscaloosa. Mississippi State coach Charles Shira made one last effort, dispatching a young assistant basketball coach and ticket office worker named Kermit Davis to Palmetto. Davis had previously coached in Tupelo and knew Dowsing’s father.
“I told him it would be great if he went to school in Mississippi so it would be closer for his mother and daddy. But when I left, I still thought he was going to Alabama,” said Davis. But when he got home around midnight, his wife told him Dowsing had just called: He was coming to Mississippi State.
Dowsing may have had a tough time choosing between Mississippi State and Alabama, but that didn’t mean the football programs had much in common. The Tide won three national championships in the 1960s, while Mississippi State was dreadful. “No one takes anything for granted in Starkville,” proclaimed a Newsweek writer in 1968, “because State is always capable of an all-out losing effort.” Former defensive back Emile Petro recalls looking at the schedule and seeing the Bulldogs playing six homecoming games, and losing all of them, including their own. Rock bottom came in 1969 when the Bulldogs lost 74-0 at Houston.
Dowsing and Petro were freshmen that year and weren’t part of the carnage. Along with Ken Phares, they were a trio of defensive backs who arrived with great fanfare and even a nickname: Black (Dowsing), White (Phares) and In-between (Petro, who is Lebanese). The newcomers led a resurgence, and when Mississippi State went 6-5 in 1970, Shira was named SEC Coach of the Year. Dowsing made perhaps the most important play of that season, intercepting a potential game-winning pass in the end zone against 10th-ranked Ole Miss and securing an upset of the Bulldogs’ rival.
When Richard Holmes became the first black student at Mississippi State in 1965, there was none of the violence there had been at the University of Mississippi, although it may have been more a testament to State students’ passion for zigging when their cross-state rivals zagged than any special desire for racial healing. When Vanderbilt basketball players Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard became the first black SEC athletes to play in Starkville as freshmen in 1967, they described the road trip as “hell on earth,” with State fans — mostly football players — threatening violence throughout the game.
Dowsing experienced a different brand of racism on campus. White students were content with a status quo that applauded their supremacy, and nods to the Old South were everywhere, from the Confederate flags at the Kappa Alpha fraternity house to statues honoring Lost Cause generals. The few black students weren’t so much harassed as ignored. The lack of social opportunities was a common complaint, as was the apathy of white students and administrators at a time when many other universities were bubbling with protest. By the time Dowsing arrived in 1969, black students had organized to take their first steps to address institutional racism. Activists called for representation in student government; the recruitment of more black students, faculty and staff; a speaker for Black History Week; library books on black history; and the inclusion of a “black beauty” in the yearbook.
As he had done at Tupelo High, Dowsing tried to bridge the racial divide. White classmate Michael George remembered an encounter with Dowsing at an intramural basketball game. When George badly injured his ankle, Dowsing accompanied him to the hospital, ensured he made it back to his dormitory and, in the months that followed, always said hello. In a letter to Dowsing’s family after his death, George said Dowsing’s kindness was transformative. “He showed me that no matter where you come from, no matter what color you may be, we are all God’s children. Frank changed my heart.”
After their freshman season, Petro arranged for Dowsing to speak at a high school football banquet in his hometown of Leland, Mississippi, in the Delta. Dowsing wowed the crowd. But nearly 50 years later, Petro was nearly in tears recalling how, after dinner, Dowsing was left to navigate the dark and dangerous Highway 82 back to Starkville. “I walked him out and said goodbye, and no hand was extended to him in terms of staying at our house,” Petro said. “We had beds available. I look back and think about how he took a bigger step toward me than I did toward him.”
Dowsing did not always go unappreciated. In October 1972, when Dowsing was a senior, his fellow students voted to make him Mr. Mississippi State, the first time a black student had won a campus election of any kind. Some white alumni complained, but that didn’t stop Dowsing from riding a float through downtown Starkville alongside Sydney Tucker, a white cheerleader from Vicksburg who was voted Miss MSU.
Life was good, and it appeared Dowsing’s future was set. There was the possibility of playing professionally, but with or without an NFL career, he was determined to attend medical school. Ever since he had received a doctor’s kit for Christmas as a child, he dreamed of becoming a physician, a dream that gained significance once he recognized that there were few black doctors in Mississippi and just one in Lee County, Dowsing’s home.
In December of his senior year, Dowsing proposed to his girlfriend, LaFawn Gilliam. They were married less than six months later at Mississippi State’s Chapel of Memories. The next day, they both graduated. Dowsing was accepted to medical school in Jackson, Mississippi, and drafted by the Eagles. In a letter to his family, he reflected on his journey: “All of you have given me so much in helping me to reach my goal, thus far, that failure seems almost impossible … Feel proud that without the guidance and training that you gave me at home – none of this would have been possible.”
Daily Journal columnist Mac Gordon captured the prevailing sentiment at the time: “You’ll not have to ask 10 years from now whatever happened to Frank Dowsing Jr.,” he wrote. “[Dowsing] has no plans to fall into obscurity.”
But less than a year later, Dowsing and LaFawn were divorced. Two years after that, Dowsing dropped out of medical school. Twenty years later he was dead, and if one were to ask 100 Mississippi State students today about Dowsing, Petro is emphatic in predicting how many would know his name: “Zero.”
In 2007, Kevin Sessums published a best-selling memoir, Mississippi Sissy, about growing up gay in Mississippi, including the claim that he once had a sexual relationship with Dowsing.
Sessums wrote that he met Dowsing at a gay bar in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early ’70s, while Dowsing was in medical school. Sessums knew about Dowsing’s football stardom, and part of the attraction, he admits, was his celebrity. Sessums, who is white, recounts their sexual encounters, along with recollections of dinner parties that he and Dowsing had attended with novelist Eudora Welty. He also claims Dowsing told him he opted not to pursue a professional football career because he suspected it would be easier to be openly gay in Mississippi than in the NFL.
Indeed, Dowsing enrolled at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine without ever playing pro football. When he dropped out three years later, Toliver said it was because Dowsing was distraught over three hospital patients who had died within one week. “He was so involved with people and so caring, it was hard for him to see people die,” she said. “He pulled off the coat and never put it back on.”
Dowsing joined Bell Telephone, advancing as a salesman across the country in the 1970s and ’80s before settling in California, where he worked first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. It was there that he was diagnosed with HIV, a revelation made to just one member of his family, Toliver, who was also the only family member who knew he was gay.
By the spring of 1990, Dowsing had grown frustrated with his job and the distance from his family. He loaded his pickup truck and began the long drive to Mississippi. But not more than 100 miles into his trip, Dowsing, grabbing a bite to eat in Palm Springs, passed out and was taken to a nearby hospital. Doctors discovered a brain tumor – an ailment associated with HIV. When they reached Toliver, then living in St. Louis, where she was a university librarian, they told her Dowsing would only live a few days. She flew to California and was greeted by a nurse who handed her locks of Dowsing’s hair, saying she’d surely want them for the funeral.
But Dowsing didn’t die; he thrived. Toliver, who was already volunteering with AIDS patients and their families in St. Louis, got him to Palmetto, where he moved back into his childhood home. Instead of being a burden to his aging mother, he became her biggest helper. He bought a new car, enrolled in seminary school, led a fundraising campaign for the church, taught Sunday school, and filed tax returns for everybody in the family. Silently living with HIV, he was the rock of the community.
Shortly after Magic Johnson held his 1991 news conference to reveal that he had HIV, Dowsing called his old buddy, Reed, and invited him to lunch. Dowsing, with tears in his eyes, broke the news: “Jack, I’ve got what Magic Johnson has.” Dowsing’s condition deteriorated over the next two years. When Petro came to the hospital for one final visit, he was stunned to see his former teammate’s emaciated frame. At 11:30 p.m. on July 11, 1994, 42-year-old Dowsing died, one more casualty in a tragic trend: By 1994, more African-Americans ages 25 to 44 died of AIDS than any other cause. Palmetto Christian Methodist Episcopal Church was overflowing with friends and family at the visitation, so many classmates from THS and State that Toliver thought the line would never end. “It seems like people who really make a difference often live short lives,” she said at Dowsing’s funeral. “They come, accomplish a great deal, impact far more lives than some of us who live longer, and then they’re gone.”
In 1998, four years after his friend’s death, Reed, with the help of local sportswriter Gene Phelps, began campaigning to have Dowsing inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, an organization then controlled by the Jackson Touchdown Club. It seemed a no-brainer to Reed that “the Jackie Robinson of Mississippi” should be honored. But he got nowhere, rebuffed year after year. Phelps and others believed that whispers about Dowsing’s sexuality were part of the reason. Then in 2007, Mississippi Sissy came out, and for the first time, Dowsing’s name was embroiled in public controversy.
Toliver was upset when she read Sessums’ book. The rest of her family didn’t even know Dowsing was gay, and now a stranger was describing graphic sex scenes with him. She believed that if Dowsing’s sexuality was something he wanted to discuss publicly, it should have been a decision Dowsing made himself.
Petro, however, said some in the Mississippi State football and Jackson communities already knew about her brother’s personal life. Petro said he believes that Dowsing left medical school partly because of the rumors he was gay, at a time when such talk would have made practicing as a physician in Tupelo difficult. In any event, Petro said, there were former teammates at the funeral who knew about Dowsing’s sexuality and didn’t care. “It didn’t change what we thought about Frank at all,” he said. “It was like, ‘Oh, OK, big deal.’ ”
Toliver worried how Sessums’ book would shape memories of her brother’s life. Sadly, few remember him, even at his alma mater. He is mentioned only in passing in books published on the histories of Mississippi State University and of Bulldog football. Sylvester Croom, a Titans assistant who played at Alabama from 1972-74 and became the first black head football coach in the SEC at Mississippi State in 2004, says he recalls nothing more than Dowsing’s name.
After 12 years of advocacy, Reed eventually succeeded and got Dowsing inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. But Dowsing has never even been nominated for the Sports Hall of Fame at Mississippi State University (nor have Jerry Jenkins or Larry Fry, the school’s first black basketball players). Petro says Dowsing’s absence is hard to understand. “He should be in the [MSU] Hall of Fame, no question about it,” he said. “Not only on the merits of being the first black football player, but just for being an outstanding athlete in football, a model student, Mr. Mississippi State.”
One place they have not forgotten Dowsing is at the family home in Palmetto, just a couple of hundred yards from the cemetery where Dowsing is buried. One afternoon, Toliver, her daughter Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo (a Spelman and Stanford graduate who’s now an assistant dean at Washington University in St. Louis) and LaFawn Gilliam sat in the living room, looked through old photo albums and reminisced. Wilmetta recalled the supportive letters her Uncle Frank wrote when she was having a tough time as one of the few black students at her high school outside of St. Louis; know your own strength, and don’t let anyone else define you, he’d write. Gilliam said she still has the cookbook the Mississippi State president gave her for their wedding, and she occasionally slips on the maroon and white No. 40 jersey her ex-husband once wore. She’s become active in a black alumni group, where one of her projects is to raise money to erect a statue of Dowsing on campus.
Across town at Romie’s Grocery, a group of Dowsing’s friends from high school and college, black and white, recalled a young man who gave Mississippians the opportunity to reveal their best selves. “He was a friend who, in his forgiveness of all the prejudice and bigotry which he experienced, caused me to more clearly see my own darkness,” said Beasley. Reed compared Dowsing to Tupelo’s more famous native son.
“Elvis is certainly our worldwide ‘hashtag,’ ” said Reed, who served as mayor of Tupelo from 2009-13. “His birthplace is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state of Mississippi. But as far as the community of Tupelo, Mississippi — what it was and what it has become — Frank Dowsing has had more influence on Tupelo than Elvis Presley.”
A man like Dowsing deserves to be remembered. Still, Toliver is concerned about her brother’s legacy. “This is a small community, and homophobia is still very much alive,” she said. Mississippi’s record on gay rights and HIV prevention and care is dismal, and no American city has a higher AIDS rate among gay and bisexual gay men than Jackson. Beasley said he shares Toliver’s caution. “Our prejudices and ignorance which ultimately killed [Dowsing], in our attitudes that delayed treatment for AIDS, are as alive today as ever,” he said. “The fervent fundamentalist opposition to homosexuality that is at the heart of our most popular religious beliefs is strong both in the white and black community.”
That may be so. But Reed has an answer for anyone who would denigrate a man he says should be remembered as a Mississippi hero.
Dowsing, he said, was “a great man, a groundbreaking pioneer, a superior student and athlete whose grace and courage inspired many of us then and whose memory continues to inspire us today.”