The University of Tennessee will honor its Black history Thursday by unveiling larger-than-life statues of African American football pioneers Lester McClain, Jackie Walker, and Condredge Holloway – and, additionally, Tee Martin, a latter-day “first.”
The statues were the idea of new AD Danny White when he came on the job in January and are a testament to the power of college administrators to effect campus memory – if they so choose. “They carried themselves with strength and grace as they led the way for so many others,” said White, proud that current and future Vol players will pass by the statues on their pregame Vol Walk. “I hope it serves as a reminder of those who came before them and paved the way for progress.”
Kentucky is the only other SEC school to erect a statue to its initial Black athletes. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, changed the name of the road in front of Memorial Gymnasium to Perry Wallace Way to honor the SEC’s first black varsity basketball player. SEC schools in the Deep South have been slower to recognize their first black athletes in a public, permanent way, although Alabama did retire basketball player Wendell Hudson’s number in 2020.
Tennessee’s bronze statues will be unveiled Thursday morning at Neyland Stadium, which will open its centennial football season Thursday night against Bowling Green.
McClain, a wide receiver, became Tennessee’s first Black scholarship football player in 1967 and then, in 1968, the first Black SEC player to score a touchdown. Walker entered Tennessee a year after McClain and was the SEC’s first black All-American in 1970, and again in 1971. An explosive linebacker, Walker was so fast he once intercepted an Alabama lateral and ran it back for a touchdown. He had 11 career interceptions, returning five for TDs.
Holloway became the SEC’s first starting Black quarterback in 1972. (Only hours later, Mississippi State’s Melvin Barkum became the second.) Holloway was All-SEC in 1973, and a quarter-century later, Martin was the first black quarterback to lead an SEC team to a national championship in 1998.