Florida A&M coach Jake Gaither (standing, middle) played a vital role in the evolution of the Orange Blossom Classic.
Historic Florida/Alamy

As sporting event and communal celebration, the Orange Blossom Classic rose as an answer to invisibility, the kind Ralph Ellison famously rendered in his novel, Invisible Man. In 1937, when Miami opened the Orange Bowl stadium, a public facility built with public funds, it excluded blacks from all but one section of the eastern end zone. No integrated football team was permitted onto the gridiron until the Nebraska Cornhuskers played Duke in the 1955 Orange Bowl. Blacks were barred from participating in any of the pageants and events related to the bowl game, much as they were barred from patronizing the resort hotels in Miami Beach. The black maids and janitors and cooks and bellhops who comprised the ­human infrastructure of those establishments had to obtain identification­ cards from the police. Even the black performers who drew the crowds — Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald — were forbidden from staying in the hotels where they entertained.

During the 1930s, Miami blacks began their own competitor to the Orange Bowl festivities, which they called the Coconut Festival. It had its own beauty queen, its own parade and its own football game, played in Dorsey Park, a segregated square block named for Miami’s first black millionaire. The Coconut Festival game, though, lacked much football pizzazz. That’s where J.R.E. Lee Jr., the son of Florida A&M University’s president, came in.

Even before Lee, black colleges had sought to create their own version of season-ending bowl games. In the 1920s, Lincoln University and Howard University began playing annually in the self-proclaimed Football Classic of the Year, and Tuskegee University met Wilberforce University yearly at Soldier Field in the Midwest Chicago Football Classic. Inspired by these ­examples, Lee conceived a “Black Rose Bowl,” naming it the Orange Blossom Classic. In the first game, in 1933, Florida A&M beat Howard by a score of 9-6 before 2,000 spectators at a blacks-only ballpark in Jacksonville, Fla. For the next 13 years, the contest migrated among the Florida cities of Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa, becoming an itinerant attraction that gradually built its audience and reputation.

Then, in 1947, Lee linked the game’s fortunes to the Coconut Festival’s and settled it in Miami. Miami had the largest stadium in Florida. Miami also had the greatest concentration of media anywhere in the state. And Miami, as it entered the postwar boom, was beginning to shake off its rigid segregation, largely owing to the influx of Jews from the North, most of them either tacitly or actively supportive of civil rights.