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Roberts and other athletes blazed new paths
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Roberts and other athletes blazed new paths

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Probably no one in the Quad-Cities did quite as much trailblazing in the field of race relations as Simon Roberts.

The Davenport native became the first Black wrestler to win an Iowa high school championship when he claimed the state title at 133 pounds for Davenport High in 1954. Three years later, at the University of Iowa, he became the first Black NCAA wrestling champion.

In 1966, he became the Quad-Cities' first Black high school head coach in any sport when he took the reins of Alleman’s wrestling program. He later became the city's first African-American to be voted into public office when he was elected Davenport’s parks commissioner in 1969.

He also served as an interim member of the Davenport school board and as director of adult education at Black Hawk College for many years.

"I knew I was kind of a pioneer," Roberts said.

He was one of several Black athletes from the Quad-Cities who overcame huge obstacles more than a half century ago to achieve big things in sports and perhaps even bigger things in their lives after sports.

Clinton’s Duke Slater was one of the first Black players in the NFL and went on to become a circuit court judge. Rock Island’s Jim Holland starred in a variety of sports and eventually became a major civic leader in Gary, Ind. Davenport’s Gene Baker blazed paths in baseball even after he stopped playing.

Roberts, now 84 and living in Kansas City, felt some sort of connection to all of those men and still has a few memories of what it was like to grow up as a Black man in Davenport in the 1940s and 1950s.

While it perhaps wasn’t as openly hostile and occasionally violent as it later became in the 1960s and today, there was plenty of racial discrimination.

Blacks were not allowed to eat in certain restaurants or hold certain types of jobs. The A&W stand in Davenport served frothy mugs of root beer in glass containers to white patrons but if you were Black, you had to get it in a paper cup to go.

Blacks were not permitted to use the pool at the Davenport YMCA until protests prompted a change in policy to allow them to use it once a week.

Roberts didn’t let anything keep him from becoming a high achiever, however. He was a straight-A student at Davenport High, president of the student council and captain of both the football and wrestling teams.

But he admitted it did raise a few eyebrows when he dared to try out for the school’s wrestling team.

"At that time, at least in Iowa, there was an unwritten rule that blacks would be allowed in football and basketball, but not in a one-on-one contact sport like wrestling," Roberts said in a 1995 interview prior to his induction into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame.

Only 5-foot-5, Roberts was cut from the Blue Devils’ basketball team, but a friend encouraged him to try wrestling. Head coach Jim Fox ignored those unwritten rules and accepted Roberts onto his team in 1952.

"It’s such an individualized sport," Roberts said in a recent interview. "It was kind of difficult to run up against discrimination, that type of thing. You’re out there wrestling another person regardless of what color he is. You just do your thing."

He said that although he wasn’t necessarily greeted warmly, he doesn’t know of an instance in which an opponent refused to take the mat against him.

"But there weren’t very many of us Black wrestlers in the sport when I was coming up," he said.

He made history by beating two-time defending champion Ron Gray of Eagle Grove to win his state title in 1954, then continued to make history in college. In 1957, he again defeated Gray, then at Iowa State, in the NCAA 147-pound finals.

Roberts still encountered subtle forms of discrimination at the college level. He recalled being refused service at a restaurant in Stillwater, Okla., when he was in the presence of his white teammates and he was limited as far as where he could live off campus at Iowa. There were only three boarding houses in Iowa City that allowed Black students in the 1950s.

By that time, Roberts had begun to be mentored by Slater, who was one of the first Black football players in the Big Ten and the first Black lineman in the NFL. For three years in the late 1920s, Slater was the only Black player in the league.

After becoming an attorney and judge in Chicago, Slater had a nurturing influence on dozens of athletes who followed in his wake.

Davenport resident Robert Copeland Smith wrote a series of guest columns for the Quad-City Times in 1999 about how Slater’s success was a beacon for kids in local Black neighborhoods in the 1940s and 1950s.

"That sent a message to us in The Neighborhood that sports was not the end goal. Sports was the vehicle to attain the end goal," Copeland Smith wrote. "We were learning that the road to success could not be traveled without a college degree.

"And we were learning that although we were poor, we could go to college. Sports could send us to college."

Roberts had a personal connection to Slater.

"My uncle on my father’s side (whose name also was Simon) was the best friend of Judge Slater …," Roberts said. "They were the best of friends.

"He gave me quite a bit of advice," he added.

When Slater also was inducted into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame, posthumously in 1993, Roberts accepted on his behalf.

Roberts also was a distant cousin of Baker, who grew up in the same Davenport neighborhood and became a trailblazer in another sport that discouraged Black participation.

Baker starred for the highly successful Davenport High basketball teams of the early 1940s but was mysteriously cut from the baseball team in 1942.

"It made me angry ...," Baker recalled in an interview nearly 50 years later. "There wasn't much I could do about it."

A few years after that, Baker played for all-star baseball teams in the Navy, then became the shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League, playing the same position for the same team that had produced Jackie Robinson only a few years earlier.

Baker ended up being the first Black player signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1950, although the Cubs let him languish in the minor leagues for four years before Baker and Ernie Banks became the franchise’s first African-American players late in the 1953 season.

"I didn't feel I was any better as a player in 1953 than I was in 1950," Baker said in later years. "I was ready when they signed me."

Baker remembered much of the same subtle 1950s discrimination that Roberts experienced. He could only stay in certain hotels and eat in certain restaurants, although the racism occasionally became more overt.

"There was always somebody who would come down to the railing before the game and yell something at you," said Baker, who died in 1999.

"You'd just get a lot of comments, mostly from fans. You'd get some from the other team's benches sometimes, but in most cases you didn't get much of that because there was always the chance they might get on the field and you'd have a chance to get even."

Like Roberts and Slater, Baker continued to blaze paths even after he stopped being an athlete. Following an 8-year playing career with the Cubs and Pirates, he became the first Black manager in organized baseball with the Class A Batavia (N.Y.) Pirates in 1961. He later joined Pittsburgh as a major league coach, becoming only the second Black man to do that.

While Roberts, Baker and Slater were battling to overcome racial obstacles on the Iowa side of the Quad-Cities, Jim Holland was at the forefront of doing the same in Illinois.

Holland was a tremendous multi-sport athlete at Rock Island High School in the early 1940s, starring in football and basketball and setting a state record in the broad jump. He even was elected president of the senior class at Rocky in 1943.

But he still experienced discrimination in the classroom. A teacher once openly questioned the high score that Holland achieved on a test and forced him to retake the test. Holland dutifully did so and achieved the same score.

After serving with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, Holland won the NCAA championship in the broad jump at Northwestern and lettered twice in football. He was elected captain of the Wildcats’ track team at a time when there were only 15 African-American students in the entire student body.

In 1950, he began a 2-year quest to get hired as the first Black teacher at Rock Island High School but ultimately was turned down. School board officials insisted there was no discrimination involved, but Holland indicated in newspaper interviews at the time that he had been informed otherwise.

"I stayed around Rock Island a year or two, trying to find a good job, and then decided it was time to get on with my life," Holland told the Rock Island Argus many years later. "I guess people just didn't want to make a fuss, didn't want to take a risk."

He moved to Gary, Ind., where he taught government and economics for 18 years, served as the city’s deputy mayor from 1976 through 1988, then became president of Gary Intercity Lines and general manager of the Gary Public Transportation Corporation.

Black in the Q-C: In Their Own Words

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I have prior military experience, so I am comfortable with being around diversity. So far as being an African-American in the Quad-Cities, I adjust and it’s just the way I was raised. So I don't have any issues with being an African-American in the Quad-Cities. Growing up in Selma, Ala., Selma is the birthplace of civil rights. My grandparents and my great-grandparents, they were all part of the civil rights movement. Being a part of that legacy and having parents and grandparents that were a part of that movement, it actually instilled some values in me to appreciate my heritage and appreciate where I come from and the struggles that my family have had to endure over the years of growing up there.

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I am from Davenport and graduated from Davenport Central High School and Iowa State University. Going to school of course, obviously it is mostly students who are not of color. I have always been one or two persons of color in class.

It’s challenging at times being an African-American woman

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Growing up in Rock Island as a black person was tough. There was a lot of gang activity in the community at that time. (1980s and 1990s.) Those years were learning. I learned a lot. Being a young man at that point in time, I didn't really understand a whole lot. I guess you could say profiled back then, but me being a young man back then, I didn't really know it. But now I look back at the things that had happened to me and it was just different. Me driving down the street in a car, and I get pulled over and somebody else didn’t.

Watch now:Black in the Q-C: In Their Own Words

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