Education and Community - by Stanley Kinard
Solly Walker and the Integration of College Basketball
St. John’s University recently honored the Top 50 basketball players in the 100-year history of the school.
Brooklyn Legend and Educator Solly Walker was one of those honored.
Solly Walker was the first African-American basketball player to ever play at St. John’s University in 1951. During his tenure, he led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists, as well as to participation in both NCAA and NIT postseason tournaments. He is considered by some as a “Jackie Robinson of college basketball,” being one of the first Blacks to integrate the sport at a collegiate level.
Facing tremendous racial opposition, he was the first Black to ever play against the University of Kentucky, or at any major college in the south, which was no easy feat. Jim Crow segregation laws were still in effect as Mr. Walker opened the doors at St. John’s University to other Brooklyn legends such as Tony Jackson, Leroi Ellis and a host of other great players.
Solly Walker graduated from the old Boys High School where he excelled both as a student and as an athlete earning All-American and All-Scholastic honors.
After college, he was drafted by the New York Knicks but chose to pursue a career in education.
Mr. Walker became one of the first Black high school principals in New York City. In addition to his work as an educator, Mr. Walker continued to serve the youth of our community as a night center director where he taught hundreds of young men the fundamentals of basketball.
These night centers fed Brooklyn high schools with some of this city’s finest ballplayers.
It is unfortunate that the majority of the athletes that have played high school basketball over the past 40 years are not aware of the history of Blacks in the sport. Not only are they not aware of the Solly Walker’s story, they don’t know about Connie Hawkins, Oscar Robertson or Bill Russell.
This is quite shameful and unacceptable and is another example of a missed opportunity to teach our youth. Walker graduated in 1954, which is the year of the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision. A lot has changed over the years as we are on the brink of electing our first Black President.
It is important that high school coaches teach Black Sports History to their student athletes. They need to understand the journey to integrate both college and professional sports and to value the opportunities that have been created by those who came before them.
They should also know that just 40 years ago, most of the high school basketball coaches were white. Wingate, Tilden, Erasmus, Jefferson, Lincoln and Boys High School all had white coaches.
With basketball being the primary sport in Black communities, we are missing a great opportunity to engage our youth in an important historical dialogue. It is a dialogue that can not only restore a sense of dignity, pride and character in our youth but may also save their lives.
This is the legacy of Solly Walker’s story. It is a very important piece of Black history that we must never forget.