First HBCU team to win a national championship finally gets White House moment

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 11, 2024 1:21 PM EDT
The first HBCU team to win a national championship at the White House. Photo credit: Essence

The tradition of sports teams visiting the White House dates back to 1865 when President Andrew Johnson welcomed the Brooklyn Atlantics and Washington Nationals amateur baseball clubs. During his presidency, Ronald Reagan made the practice of honoring championship teams at the White House a regular occurrence. Today, about a dozen professional, U.S. national and major college teams visit the White House each year.

More than 60 years later, the first HBCU team to win a national championship has finally gotten its White House moment.

“This is the greatest day of my life. I thought this would never take place. [Winning] the championship was big, but it wasn’t as big as being here with [Vice President] Harris today,” said George Finley, a member of the history making Tennessee A&I Tigers team.

The Tennessee A&I Tigers of Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University (now known as Tennessee State University) made history in 1957 by becoming the first HBCU team to win a national championship. Their journey to victory was fraught with challenges. Following their victory at the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) championship game, the team was subject to a bomb threat on the plane on their return trip home from Kansas City. They were also the first college team to win three back-to-back national championships from 1957-1959.

At the height of the Jim Crow era, the achievements of the all-Black Tennessee A&I basketball team were not appropriately recognized. The three-time national champions were never invited to the White House. 67 years since the team’s first national title, Dick Barnett, George Finley, Ernest Jones, Henry Carlton, Robert Clark, and Ron Hamilton attended a private ceremony on Friday at the White House where they were finally given their flowers.

Vice President Kamala Harris paid homage to the team during a round-table discussion in the Roosevelt Room. She paid tribute to the team, acknowledging their pioneering spirit and indelible contributions to the game of basketball and the broader struggle for social justice. The team gave Ms. Harris a customized jersey and took a tour of the White House after the ceremony.

“There’s so much that we have accomplished as a nation because of the heroes like those that I’m looking at right now. I, like so many of us, stand on your broad shoulders, each one of you,” Vice President Kamala Harris said to the history making team.

Although nine players from the Tennessee A&I championship teams went on to play professional basketball, their accomplishments rapidly ebbed in the Jim Crow South. Their coach, John McLendon attempted to transfer Tennessee A&I to the NCAA but was denied. The team had to instead play in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Barnett, a former shooting guard on the team, has spent the last decade trying to correct the injustice of the past, campaigning for the team to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

In 2019, his work was rewarded when the Tennessee A&I teams of 1957-59 were inducted into the Hall of Fame. This journey was the subject of a recent PBS documentary, “The Dream Whisperer.” The remaining piece of their historic quest was to partake in a long-standing American tradition – a celebration at the White House. In January, more than 50 members of Congress signed a letter on the team’s behalf asking for a White House invitation “for long overdue acknowledgment and proper celebration.”

Only eight players and one assistant coach from the championship teams are still alive. It was announced during the Men’s Final Four tournament that Barnett will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Describing their playing days as “a constant struggle,” he never gave up on getting his White House moment.

“I look at this as a promotion for H.B.C.U. schools and the recognition that this school brought to all of those colleges; it’s really something big. Even though so many years have passed, it’s still good,” George Finley, 85, a former center for the team said in an interview before the ceremony.