SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY AND A&M COLLEGE, BATON ROUGE, LA– has had many remarkable students pass through it’s campus. During several of the past decades, it was a flourishing setting for athleticism. Over the years, the campus would become home to the world record breaking Rodney Milburn and Audrey Patterson, the first African-American woman in history to win an olympic medal. Then, in 1965 came a non traditional military student by the name of Willie Davenport. Word spread fast around campus of an mad that would run so fast on the track, his nickname was “Breeze.”
Melvin Robinson, is a happily retired, former Director of Intramural Sports at Southern University. Coach Robinson came to Southern as a student in the 50’s. While working on campus in the 60’s he remembers befriending Willie Davenport saying, “I had students who were assigned to me during their internship at the recreation department. Willie use to come to the recreation center to my gym and workout. Some kind of way we latched on to each other and became friends.”
During the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Willie won a gold medal for the USA in the 110 meter hurdles. Willie just like other black olympians were using talent and conviction on the world stage, to prove that they had a right to America’s respect. since Jessie Owen’s 1936 victories, the world was seeing just how equipped and necessary black representation was in all facets of society.
Back on Campus, the word had spread of Willie’s accomplishments, that down from the heavens, an olympian had descended and white runners down the road from Southern University made their way to the campus to race against Willie. Coach Robinson recalls the excitement saying, “If Willie Davenport was running, they wanted to be in the stadium to see him run. Seven miles down the road at LSU, administrators would not let their athletes visit. However, athletes slipped off and defied their coach and came up here to run against Willie Davenport and Rodney Milburn.
Throughout his career, Willie Davenport would run in five olympic games and in the 1980 bobsleigh competition, he became the first African-American to compete in the winter olympics. It was his last time representing the USA in olympic competition. Two years later, in 1982, he was inducted in to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. He continued to play an active part in the local track club and also served as a representative to the U.S. Olympic Committee. He passed on in 2002.
Coach Robinson says “Willie was one of the ones that showed them that if we are given a chance, then we will prevail.”
Be sure to watch Friday 21st and Saturday 29th as WGNO runs a special 30-minute show telling a few stories dedicated to black history in the state of Louisiana.