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Being a First was Secondary to Being a Star

Frankie Allen was the first black athlete at Roanoke College, and he went on to become the first black head coach at Virginia Tech. But he says breaking those color barriers was relatively uneventful. "Never did I feel discriminated against because of the color my skin."

By RALPH BERRIER JR.
The Roanoke Times


Most of 1967 had flipped by on the calendar before Frankie Allen made it one of the most important years in Salem's recent history.

Things were changing in the Roanoke Valley, although no one would have mistaken it for an East Coast version of San Francisco. This was still Southwest Virginia, where people take their time, where patience would overcome prejudice, where Allen would become the first black boarding student at Roanoke College.

Allen just wanted to play basketball, and he did it very well for Roanoke. He played it so well, in fact, that it didn't take long for people to forget that he was the first black player to suit up for the Maroons. He was simply star.

"Negro Star Awaits First Game," read on the headline on the Roanoke World-News sport page on Dec. 12, 1967, the day Allen made his home debut in the brand new Salem-Roanoke County Civic Center, a building that stood as another symbol of changing times.

Accompanying the story were photos of a nattily attired 18-years-old freshman walking across campus, sitting in class and eating lunch with his classmates. The photos were simple, yet profound, statement of how things had changed in the South just a few years after young people had made their own bold statement merely by sitting at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.

That night, Allen scored 16 points, and he set a school record with 27 rebounds.

"I was so pumped up that night," said Allen, who returned to Salem last weekend for a reunion of Roanoke College players. "I really felt comfortable, like I was at home."

Allen also knew 1967 was special for another reason.

"It was the 20th anniversary of Jackie Robinson" breaking the major leagues color barrier, he said.

Robinson had been a boyhood hero to Allen, whose father, Ernest, had been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan since 1947, the year Robinson broke in as the Dodgers' first baseman.

In 1955, when Brooklyn won its first World Series, Allen's dad took him out of school so he could watch the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees in Game7.

"I remember as a kid, I used to get teased because I walked like a little pigeon-toed," said Allen. "My dad used to tell me, 'Jackie Robinson walked pigeon-toed, too'"

These days, Allen has several reasons to celebrate years that end in a 7. In addition to being the 50th anniversary of Robinson's achievement, 1997 marks the 30th anniversary of Allen's enrollment at Roanoke.

Ten years ago, Allen became Virginia Tech's first black head coach in any sport when he took over the men's basketball job, a position he held until 1991. Today, he coaches at Tennessee State in Nashville, where he has guided teams to two appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

Now 48, Allen is still as soft-spoken and as courteous as he was 30 years ago, when he was Roanoke coach Charlie Moir's very first recruit. Later, when Moir became Tech's basketballcoach in 1976, Allen went along as an assistant.

Allen almost refrains entirely from saying anything unfavorable about his Roanoke College experiences. The only incident of racist taunting he received, he said, came during road games at places like Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon. He even qualifies those remarks by nothing, "We were such rivals, they were probably heckling because I played for Roanoke, not because I was black."

Still, there were signs, literally, that some people were not ready for a black player to step up in the court. Once at Randolph-Macon, a spectator held a sign that directed a personal, foul salutation for Allen. The sign also included-not spelled out completely- the word "N---R."

"Everytime I looked up, though," Allen said, "they put the sign down real quick. I think I scored about 40 (points) that night."

You just kept playing. I believe the administration at two schools [Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon] went out of their way to try to keep things like that from happening. Not long after that, there was black players at those schools."

Those were the days when Roanoke was a member of the old Mason-Dixon Conference and a burgeoning national power at the NCAA Division II level. When Roanoke moved to the Division III level few years later, the Maroon took the lead in changing the look of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. In 1980, Roanoke's Ed Green became the first ODAC coach to put five black starting players on the floor.

Allen had been gone nearly a decade by then, but his legacy was still tangible.

"I went to Roanoke and experienced nothing but great things," Allen said. "Never did I feel discriminated against because of the color of my skin. The college, the team accepted me for being Frankie Allen."

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