In honor of Black History Month, we will be releasing a story every week about a black athlete or team whose story has rarely been told. In order to appreciate the array of sports we have today, I feel that it’s important to understand where they have come from and to sing the praises of those contributors whose stories have mostly been forgotten.
“With his head hung and a towel draped over his head, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh sat on the sidelines in College Park, Maryland, humiliated. He suffered the pain of hatred and bigotry as he just sat there; helplessly; watching his team’s hopes of an undefeated season grow fainter with every snap of the ball. Syracuse was a much better team than Maryland but Sidat-Singh, their star halfback, could not go out on the field and lead the Orangemen to victory as he had all season. After all, he was black, and at the University of Maryland blacks were not allowed to compete in intercollegiate sports.”
“Did you see that thing?
That’s Wilmeth Sidat-Singh!
The Syracuse Walking Dream!
Oh, he was amazing!”
~ Attributed to Grantland Rice1
Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was born in Washington, D.C in 1918 as Wilmeth Webb, the son of Elias and Pauline Webb. When Wilmeth was seven, Elias Webb died of a stroke and his mother then married Samuel Sidat-Singh, a doctor from the West Indies. Wilmeth adopted his stepfather’s surname and the family moved to New York City.2 Wilmeth Sidat-Singh grew up in the Big Apple with an incredible love for sports. He learned how to play basketball, football, baseball, and tennis on the sandlots of Harlem near the place Dr. Sidat-Singh practiced medicine. Young Wilmeth spent hours discovering how to throw a football and shoot a basketball along childhood friends John “Wonder Boy” Isaacs, Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch, and Jazz legend Duke Ellington’s son, Mercer. Wilmeth quickly grew to be an extraordinary athlete. Isaacs recalled that he once saw Sidat-Singh throw a football “60 yards, flat-footed” and that on the basketball court he was a fast, powerful, and dynamic player. Sidat-Singh was a rare talent and Isaacs was not the only one who noticed.3
As he grew and went on to attend a DeWitt High School in New York, Sidat-Singh became a two-sport standout in football and basketball. Whenever Wilmeth had a ball in his hands, it seemed that he was capable of anything. John Isaacs once explained that, “anything he [Wilmeth Sidat-Singh] put his mind to, he would do it.” Sidat-Singh became renowned for his explosiveness on the basketball court when he led DeWitt High School to a title in 1934. In 1935, Sidat-Singh made the all-city team3 and led the Govs to a second consecutive preparatory championship.1 After his senior year; Wilmeth was awarded a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University. Though everyone in his hometowns of Washington, D.C. and Harlem, New York knew he was black, people began referring to him as a Hindu.3
Nobody took much notice of Sidat-Singh his freshman year at Syracuse because in the 1930’s, freshmen were athletically ineligible. The following year when Sidat-Singh was able to play for the basketball team, he picked up right where he left off at DeWitt. The athletic superiority of the player wearing number 19 was immediately noticeable1 and papers began writing about Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, the “Manhattan Hindu”.2 Sidat-Singh facilitated the offense and had a great ability to lead his team on the floor and control the pace of the game. For all three seasons that he was at Syracuse, number 19 led his team in scoring and brought Syracuse basketball to prominence. They had three straight winning seasons with Wilmeth at the helm. His senior year at Syracuse the “Manhattan Hindu” led his team to a 14-0 record and an unofficial national title.3
Although Sidat-Singh was a great basketball player, he was not taken seriously as an athlete. He was viewed as more of a novelty than anything. Even though he was Syracuse’s greatest star he was demeaned because of his race and forced to live off-campus in the poorest parts of the college town. In the media, the press continued to have misconceptions about his race as they deemed Wilmeth the nation’s only “Hindu Basketeer”. They did not recognize his unmatchable talent on the court, only his mistaken racial association. Sidat-Singh had never claimed to Hindu and had even tried to explain at one point that he had “never been to India” but regardless, the press continued him a “full blooded Hindu” and that was what made him newsworthy, not his athletic talent.1 Syracuse tried to perpetuate the misnomer by asking Wilmeth to wear turbans and traditional Indian garments but Wilmeth refused.4 If all Sidat-Singh had accomplished was an exceptional basketball career, the only mention of his name may have been the continued cases of mistaken racial identity. However, Syracuse assistant football coach Russell Simmons, Sr. saw something in Sidat-Singh in 1936 that was going to make Wilmeth a household name.5
As previously mentioned, Wilmeth had been a multiple sport standout throughout his youth and high school career. Though he was brought to Syracuse on a basketball scholarship, Sidat-Singh participated in a number of intramural sports, football among them. During the fall of 1936, Coach Simmons decided to go watch a touch football game between two of the Syracuse dormitories and became intrigued with the young man who was calling the plays for one of the team.5 He was only about six feet tall and 190 pounds3 but he had a vibrant playing style, was quick on his feet, and every pass of his was on target. As the game progressed, Simmons figured out that the young man calling the signals was the school’s basketball star Wilmeth Sidat-Singh. Coach Simmons recalled that he immediately halted game play and went down on the field to Wilmeth and said, “Singh, you don’t belong here. You belong down on that other field with the varsity.” Sidat-Singh had always enjoyed the game of football and after his sophomore year, despite his basketball coach’s worries; he took Simmons up on his offer and decided to become a two-sport athlete at Syracuse.5
Wilmeth quickly excelled on the football field and showed that he was just as talented on the gridiron as he was on the hardwood. The arm that Simmons had admired and the speed that made him a basketball phenom made Sidat-Singh a perfect fit for Syracuse’s single-wing offense. Wilmeth played the halfback position which was a hybrid position that demanded the swiftness of a running back and the throwing ability of a quarterback.1 Throughout his collegiate football career he exhibited dominance over every team he faced. In any athletic endeavor he pursued, Sidat-Singh seemed invulnerable and his abilities were unparalleled. On the basketball court, he established supremacy with his quick feet and ability to score quickly. On the field, his passes were on target and he was able to get by any line that he matched up against. That is, until t Sidat-Singh tried to run past a line called the Mason-Dixon.1
In the week leading up to the Syracuse game, Sam Lacy from The Washington Tribune ran the story, “NEGRO TO PLAY U. OF MARYLAND, THEY CALL HIM A HINDU”. The article explained how Sidat-Singh had been born Wilmeth Webb and how his mother, Pauline, had remarried. At the time many schools in the South, including the University of Maryland, had a strict segregationist policy that they did not play against black teams or athletes in any sport. Days earlier this same exclusion had not applied to an alleged Indian, but now was being applied to a black star. Maryland refused to let Sidat-Singh play on their field and Syracuse conceded to their demands.2
When the day of the game arrived, Sidat-Singh had traveled to Maryland with the team but the Orangemen would take the field without their star player. With his head hung and a towel draped over his head, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh sat on the sidelines in College Park, Maryland, humiliated. He suffered the pain of hatred and bigotry as he just sat there; helpless, watching his team’s hopes of an undefeated season grow fainter with every snap of the ball. Syracuse was a much better team than Maryland but Sidat-Singh, their star halfback, could not go out on the field and lead the Orangemen to victory as he had all season. After all, he was black, and at the University of Maryland blacks were not allowed to compete in intercollegiate sports.1
“Seared in the flames of withering injustice”; 10 miles away and more than 30 years later that is how Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech would phrase
the sting that Sidat-Singh felt.6 Syracuse running back Marty Glickman looked on in disgust, because a year prior, he had felt it too. Glickman had been invited to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as a member of the 4 x 100 relay team. Right before the race, he and teammate Sam Stoller were taken off the team and replaced by Ralph Metcalfe and Jesse Owens. Glickman and Stoller were both Jewish and the relay team they were a part of was a favorite to win the gold medal that year (which it eventually did, setting a world record that would stand for 20 years). It was believed by many that United States Olympic Committee had replaced Glickman and Stoller at the request of Adolf Hitler who did not want his athletes to suffer the embarrassment of losing to a couple of Jews. Glickman had been denied the greatest honor an athlete can know because of his race.7 He had been seared in the flames of intolerance. Now, just fourteen months later, Marty Glickman stood yards away from his teammate and friend Wilmeth Sidat-Singh as the inferno of prejudice continued to smolder.3
Glickman had considered whether or not to take a stand and sit out the game as well but was afraid of being depicted as a “trouble making Jew”. The decision to play against Maryland was one that he regretted all his life.3 The Terrapins defeated Syracuse 13-02 and their victory was credited to being better able to handle the field conditions but it was clear that Sidat-Singh was the difference. Following that game, Sidat-Singh returned to the line-up and became the nation’s best two sport athlete. In his senior year, he would defeat the legendary Sid Luckman’s Columbia squad 13-12. He was so famous by then that Maryland and Duke both lifted their racial exclusions for the Syracuse game. He defeated Maryland at Syracuse 53-01. His greatest triumph came when he scored a major upset against the Rose Bowl bound Cornell Big Red by throwing six passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns in the game’s final six minutes to lead the Orangemen to a 19-17 comeback victory. This performance prompted writer Grantland Rice to jot down the lasting words, “Did you see that thing? That’s Wilmeth Sidat-Singh! The Syracuse Walking Dream! Oh he was amazing!”8 Sidat-Singh was amazing as Rice had written but he would never escape the discrimination of college sport as his senior year he was forced to sit out of a basketball game against the U.S. Naval Academy due to the color of his skin.4
The Syracuse Walking Dream was amazing and one of the best athletes of his era. Upon graduating with a degree in zoology, Sidat-Singh began looking for opportunities to play sports professionally. It was well-known that the National Football League (NFL) had never allowed blacks among their ranks. As a result, Wilmeth decided to return to basketball and play the game that had brought him to collegiate athletics in the first place.1
He immediately signed with the Syracuse Reds and instantly became a star. In December of 1939, Sidat-Singh and the Reds defeated the Original Celtics 40 – 37. Sidat-Singh led the scoring with 14 points. Wilmeth only spent one season with the Syracuse Reds before he left to join childhood friends John Isaacs and Eyre Saitch as members of the Harlem Renaissance.9 He had moved back to Washington, D.C. after graduating from Syracuse in 1939 to live with his longtime girlfriend Marjorie Webb (no relation) and regularly commuted to New York to play with the Rens. By the time that the “Syracuse Walking Dream” joined the Rens, they were no longer what they once were. The team had grown older. Clarence “Fats” Jenkins and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper were gearing up to retire. Coach and owner Bob Douglas planned to build his team around younger stars such as Isaacs, Saitch, William “Dolly” King, and Sidat-Singh. Douglas hoped to make Sidat-Singh the focal point of his offense.10
As the 1940’s arrived, the Harlem Renaissance ran into fiscal concerns and broadcaster Hal Jackson pursued Sidat-Singh for his up-start Washington Bruins basketball team. Jackson was able to recruit the hometown hero and made him the first major signing of his new team. Jackson was excited to have his first big star but Bob Douglas insisted that Sidat-Singh was still under contract with the Renaissance. Sidat-Singh opted to pursue every possible athletic opportunity that he could while he waited for the expiration of his contract. He played semi-pro football with the U Street Lions, won a Colored City Championship with the Treasury Department fast-pitch softball team, and even played singles tennis.1
By the time that Wilmeth was contractually eligible to play with the Bears it was 1941 and Jackson had assembled a cast of collegiate all-stars, former Globetrotters, and former Rens to complement Sidat-Singh. Jackson had lured Tarzan Cooper out of retirement to act as a player-coach for the newly named Washington Lichtman Bears (after team sponsor Abe Lichtman). In the season opener, Sidat-Singh led the Bears with an unheard of 18 points (at a time when an average score for a winning team was around 30) as the Bears easily defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers. He served as the center of the Bear’s offense that entire season as the team played won several games before packed houses.1 When he was not running down the hardwood; Sidat-Singh walked the beat as a member of the Washington, D.C. Police Department.3
The following season, several of Sidat-Singh’s former teammates from the Rens joined Wilmeth in Washington John “Wonder Boy” Isaacs, William “Dolly” King, and Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch all drove down from New York on the weekends to play for the Bears. That season Sidat-Singh averaged 20 points a game and in a game against the Baltimore Mets, he scored, a record at the time, 28 points in the same state where years earlier he had not been allowed to play football.1 The Washington Bears were an elite basketball team during the 1942-43 season. They finished the season 66-0 and went on to beat the Oshkosh All-Stars in the World Championship Tournament in Chicago. Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was not at Chicago Stadium to share in his team’s glory. In August of 1942 (mid-season), Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, feeling an incredible sense of duty to country, had decided to join the United States Air Force.10
Before the 1940’s, it was extremely rare for blacks to fly airplanes – especially for the U.S. military. Nonetheless, in 1942, the American commitment in Europe and Asia had escalated and the U.S. Air Force wanted any pilot they could find. Just like American society, the military was segregated. Wilmeth was designated for assignment with the all-black 332nd Fighter Group.3 Today, many know the Fighting 332nd as the Tuskegee Airmen. In May of 1943, Sidat-Singh graduated from flight school and was ready to serve his country.1
Not long after his graduation, the news broke that the “Syracuse Walking Dream” had gone missing during a training exercise.1 On May 9, 1943, Sidat-Singh’s P-40 plane failed while he was flying a routine mission over Lake Huron. His flight trainer, C.I. Williams saw the whole thing happen. He claimed that Sidat-Singh did not deploy his parachute in the free fall and had drowned with his plane in the lake.3 Many refused to believe that Wilmeth was dead. Among those convinced he was still alive was John Isaacs who remarked, “If you saw him swim … you’d understand.”1 Six weeks after the crash, divers found the body of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh wrapped up in his parachute and stuck to his plane.3At the young age of 25, a great competitor and a greater person had been lost. He was an athlete who had unmatched talent and a person who had unparalleled resolve. The Syracuse Walking Dream was almost too good to be true. It was as if he could do anything that he put his mind to. That is unless, he put his mind to eating at a white lunch counter, sitting in the front of a bus, playing football in the state of Maryland, or being treated as an equal.
Wilmeth Sidat-Singh died for a nation that was founded on the belief that “all men are created equal” but had never lived up to that creed. The Syracuse Walking Dream had left his own endeavors behind because he believed in a concept that did not seem to believe in him. He chose to stop playing the games he loved and excelled at to fight for a democracy that for so long had fought against him. He protected freedoms that he had always been denied. He defended a dream that society would never allow him to realize. For a country that had made him, and those who looked like him, a pariah, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh made the ultimate sacrifice. He gave his life and just like that, the dream was over before it had ever really begun.
1 Dave McKenna, “The Syracuse Walking Dream”, Washington City Paper, May 23, 2008.
2 Ron Fimrite, “Sam Lacy: Black Crusader”, Sports Illustrated, October 29, 1990.
3 Luke Cyphers, “The Lost Hero”, The Daily News, February 25, 2001.
4 Gerald Horne,“The End of Empires: African Americans and India”, Temple University Press, 2008.
5 Sal Maiorana and Scott Pitoniak, “Slices of Orange: Great Games and Performers in Syracuse University Sports History”, Syracuse University Press, 2005.
6 Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream”, August 28, 1963.
7 Larry Schwartz, “Owens Pierced a Myth”, ESPN.com, Accessed June 9, 2010, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016393.html.
8 “SU to Honor A Pioneer — Wilmeth Sidat-Singh”, Syracuse University Athletics, Accessed June 7, 2010, http://www.suathletics.com/news/2005/2/24/sidat-singh.aspx.
9 “Countdown to Kickoff: The Legend of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh”, Syracuse University Athletics, Accessed June 7, 2010, http://www.suathletics.com/news/2003/8/9/sidat%20singh.aspx.
10 Hal Jackson with Jim Haskins, “The House that Jack Built”, Colossus Books, 2001.