The yearly gridiron matchup known as the ORANGE BLOSSOM CLASSIC helped to even the playing field for black players, coaches and fans. But it was about so much more than football.
THE CALENDAR OF black America includes several specific holidays. Juneteenth, celebrated every June 19, honors the day the Union Army liberated slaves in Texas following the end of the Civil War. Kwanzaa, beginning on Dec. 26, is a seven-day festival of African heritage. On Dec. 31, which is called watch night, churches hold worship services to commemorate the way their forebears had stayed up all night awaiting the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
This article was adapted from Samuel G. Freedman’s new book, Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights. It is available at www.samuelfreedman.com and at bookstores nationwide.
And for a 30-year heyday beginning in the late 1940s, the Orange Blossom Classic football game and festival in Miami was the most important annual sporting event and the largest annual gathering of any kind for black Americans. For most of those years, more than 40,000 spectators attended the game in the Orange Bowl stadium, while tens of thousands more thronged to marching-band parades. Black tourists flocked to the hotels, restaurants and clubs of Miami’s Overtown and Liberty City neighborhoods. Pro-football scouts with binoculars, Ray-Bans and stingy-brim hats elbowed their way along the sidelines to scout prospects.
While the Orange Blossom Classic lives only in memory now — it served as the de facto black college championship until 1978 and was still played sporadically until 2004; it was ultimately the unexpected casualty of racial integration in sports and in society — its spirit persists in the dozens of “Classics” played between football teams from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). There are 37 on the schedule this season, and several of the most famous are coming up. Florida A&M University plays Bethune-Cookman University on Nov. 23 in the Florida Classic in Orlando, Fla., and Grambling State University faces Southern University and A&M College in the Bayou Classic on Nov. 30 in New Orleans.
Football, though, is only part of a Classic. Marching bands, step shows, networking, gospel concerts and shopping excursions are all parts of the experience. These Classics continue to draw crowds as large as 70,000 for the on-field rivalry and a broader sense of affirmation.
“Historically speaking, there were not always so many opportunities for African-Americans to socialize in public,” says Todd Boyd, a University of Southern California professor who specializes in race and popular culture. “So the opportunities that did exist often took on added significance. Yet over time, the events became part of a larger tradition. I think the games now have a nostalgic feel. So it’s all about tradition and ritual once again.”