In honor of Black History Month, I’m highlighting an important figure in ACC athletics history: Charles Scott, who in 1966 became the first black scholarship athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill. While he was NOT the first black player in the ACC, as is sometimes reported (including in Hugh Morton’s North Carolina on page 172), Scott had a huge impact as the Conference’s first well-known, charismatic, and all-around great African-American player.
Scott had an exceptional career at UNC, leading his team to ACC Championships and two consecutive final four appearances. He played on the 1968 Olympic Team, and after graduation had a decade-long professional run — first with the now-defunct ABA, then with several NBA teams including the Celtics and the Lakers.
But as a 2001 interview in the Chapel Hill News reveals, it was not all triumph and accolades for Scott, especially during his UNC years. The late 1960s were highly tumultuous times, and breaking the color barrier proved to be solitary work. Scott says:
At that time, no matter how comfortable I felt with my teammates, they still had to deal with the fact that they never had been around black people, either. I still couldn’t go anywhere with their friends because their friends were still brought up in a South that was very separate…There was a lot of loneliness on my part and a lot of times I questioned myself why I was here.
When the highly deserving Scott was passed over in his junior AND senior years for ACC Player of the Year in favor of a white player, many blamed persistent racism.
Legendary coach Dean Smith played a big part in easing Scott’s UNC experience, as described in detail in an ESPN column by Richard Lapchick and in Barry Jacobs’ 2008 book Across the Line. Hugh Morton reports (on page 193 of HM’s NC) that when Scott spoke at the ceremony honoring Smith with the UNC System’s University Award, he said, “When they introduce Coach Smith’s family, why don’t they mention my name? My father died when I was twelve years old, and Dean Smith is the only father I ever had.”
Morton shot Charlie Scott both on and off the court, such as when he paid Scott a visit in Los Angeles in 1986 (when the portrait at the beginning of this post was taken). These photos are powerful and lasting documents of one of the great pioneers in sports history.