Skip to content

Breaking the color bar: the integration of UNC’s basketball team

By Corinne White

Basketball is as much of a symbol of UNC as the Old Well. Tied up in the school’s rich basketball legacy are a complicated history of integration, alumni and administrative pressure, and, of course, victory and defeat.

The Tar Heels play in their first regular season game against Oakland University this Friday. As players and fans prepare for tip off, we listened to Ann McColl’s 1991 interview with civil liberties lawyer — and key player in the integration of UNC basketball — Daniel Pollitt.

Pollitt, who was also the faculty advisor for the university’s NAACP chapter, recalled memories of Charlie Scott, UNC’s first black scholarship athlete in 1966.

“He broke the color bar,” Pollitt said.

Pollitt also pointed to the trouble the school had at the time with attracting black applicants.  “The question was, ‘how do we encourage people to come here?’ We thought there should be role models, and that is sort of a maybe racist attitude, but we thought athletics is… We’d start there. It seemed like a logical thing to do, so maybe you should have a learned surgeon instead, but the reality of the world then at least, was that the role models were basketball players and football players.”

Davidson College was the first to recruit Scott, a top high school prospect, under Coach Lefty Driesell. But when Scott visited the school, a town restaurant refused to serve him.

“Charlie decided he didn’t want to go to a town where he couldn’t eat in the restaurants,” Pollitt said.

Pollitt accompanied 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree Coach Dean Smith to Laurinburg, N.C. on UNC’s first attempt to recruit Scott, along with a UNC medical student because Scott had pre-med aspirations.

“Dean Smith wanted the best basketball players he could get, but he also wanted to break the color bar,” Pollitt said.

Scott endured hateful chants from opposing fans, but still remembers fondly lessons from Smith.

“What he did more than anything else was to give me someone to look at in a different skin color that I could accept and see that everyone was not like the bigots, or like the racists,” Scott said in an August 2013 interview with the Raleigh News and Observer.

“He could not take away the words of those individuals, or the way those individuals acted towards me. Those things were there. What he did was give me a barometer to look at outside of the racism and bigotry.”