The very first Classic game in Miami made racial history. For the first time, black fans were permitted to sit in the main stands of the Orange Bowl. And when a Florida A&M Rattler receiver named Nathaniel “Traz” Powell caught a 45-yard pass to break a 0-0 tie with Hampton Institute, he became the first black man to score a touchdown on the Orange Bowl’s previously whites-only gridiron. Powell had grown up in Miami as the son of a laundress and a laborer at the city’s incinerator. For years to come, blacks around the state would speak about his touchdown as if he’d been Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her seat.
The civil rights analogy was apt. Black colleges and their football teams operated in a kind of parallel universe during the segregation era. Even as they sent hundreds of players into the pros, the mainstream media rarely covered the schools. The proliferation of sports-focused talk radio and cable TV was decades away. So Jake Gaither, Florida A&M’s legendary coach, set about raising the Orange Blossom Classic to the status of a de facto black championship. Year in and year out, his Rattlers ranked near the top. And because Florida A&M hosted the Orange Blossom Classic, Gaither invited the strongest possible opponent.
As a result, the Orange Blossom Classic far outdrew the University of Miami’s football games and, later, those of the new National Football League (NFL) franchise, the Miami Dolphins. In black America, it supplanted the Negro League All-Star game as the biggest single event. Florida A&M’s renowned “Marching 100” band pranced in two parades, one through the black neighborhoods and the other downtown, each drawing thousands upon thousands of spectators.
One year, comedian Nipsey Russell joined the Rattlers on their sideline; another time it was Sammy Davis Jr. All week long, the streets of Overtown and Liberty City were “crowded like the state fair, music pouring out of doorways,” as one participant remembers. At the Zebra Lounge and the Hampton House, in the Harlem Square Club and the Rockland Palace and all along the stretch of Northwest Second Street called the Great Black Way, stars of jazz, soul and rhythm and blues headlined. Women spent a year’s savings on their Orange Blossom dresses, and beauty salons stayed open all night to handle the demand. When the parties ended near daybreak, people went their ways for breakfast before a sunrise snooze.
“The Classic was bigger than the Fourth of July,” says Marvin Dunn, author of the history book Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. “It was a black thing, and it was well done, and it added to the sense of pride. Even if you didn’t go to the game, you’d have all these people massed along the parade route. And the clothes — you had to get a new suit, a new dress for the Classic. There was not a seat to be had in a barber shop.”