Sweet Integration: The story of Bobby Grier and the 1956 Sugar Bowl

Hidden History
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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA–Today on a great adventure, I strolled into the Historic New Orleans Collection for a bit of history. What I received was a greater gift than expected. The HNOC covers over 150 years of athleticism and human spirit in their exhibit “Crescent City Sport”: Stories of courage and change. 20 stories are told with brilliant photography and artifacts. Everything from John L. Sullivan boxing matches, negro leagues, horse racing and Super Bowls trophies are on display.

One particular story about the Sugar Bowl struck my fancy. In 1935, amidst the Great Depression, the Sugar Bowl sprouted out of the shadow of Anaheim’s Rose Bowl game. The first Sugar Bowl was held in Tulane Stadium down in New Orleans. Whilst enjoying the tale and looking at my reflection in the first Sugar Bowl trophy, a living legend came my way.

Bobby Grier, the first African American athlete to play in the Sugar Bowl had come to see an exhibit about himself. In 1956, the Sugar Bowl committee put two of the best teams against one another, the Pittsburg Panthers and Georgia Tech. Hailing from Massillion, Ohio was a player of about six foot one and weighing 200 pounds. His name was Bobby Grier and he was before me today in all his glory.

“Is that me? Was that really me playing back then? I did a whole lot of running. I was one of the fastest guys in the backfield,” says Bobby Grier. Bobby Grier’s playing in the Sugar Bowl was a monumental step towards integration. Despite the governor of Georgia’s disdain, both teams played together in New Orleans.

Mark Cave, senior curator and historian at the HNOC provided me the story of the outcome of Bobby’s game saying “there was one controversial play in the game where Bobby was called for pass interference when he wasn’t anywhere near it. It was just a bad call which lead to Georgia Tech’s win. After Bobby Grier’s participation in the Sugar Bowl, segregationists hardened their position. It was difficult to hold integrated events until the passing of the Civil Rights act in 1964. Sports was always an indicator of the future in regards to race relations.”

Bobby Grier and his teammates didn’t know it at the time, but they were playing the long game towards civil rights. Eventually, teams were heavily recruiting black athletes by the end of hte 1960’s and in 1970 USC’s domination over Alabama’s all-white team would help to close a flawed playbook of segregation.

“Sports can bring a lot of people together. It was amazing, you look up there and all you saw was the stands loaded. For me it was just another game. All I wanted to do was play in a bowl game,” says Bobby Grier.

Last year, Bobby Grier was inducted into the Sugar Bowl hall of fame. To learn more about his story as well as other phenomenal stories, head over to the Historic New Orleans Collection for a free ticket to see their sports exhibition.

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