Jim Crow laws in the South barred Blacks from participating in overall integration activities, including college athletics, at the time Robert “Bobby” Grier Sr. made history in the Sugar Bowl. Despite the fact that integrated teams had previously been invited to the bowl game, no Black player had participated in the event since it began in 1935. The only place for black players to watch the game was in the press box.
Grier was one of only two Blacks on the University of Pittsburgh football team when it earned a chance to play Georgia Tech in the 1956 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The 22-year-old was a standout fullback and linebacker who was about to play when Georgia governor Marvin Griffin asked the Georgia Tech Board of Trustees to cancel the game due to Grier’s involvement.
“The South stands at Armageddon,” he stated in a telegram cited by History.com. “The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle. There is no more difference in compromising the integrity of race on the playing field than in doing so in the classrooms. One break in the dike and the relentless enemy will rush in and destroy us.”
Grier quickly became a national topic of discussion. His Pitt teammates and the student body, as well as Georgia Tech players and students, all supported him. When asked by the media if he would skip the game so that his white teammates could play, Pittsburgh University responded, “No Grier! No competition!” According to the university, “Bobby Grier will travel, eat, live, practice, and play with the team.”
Georgia Tech students also staged a protest against Griffin. “A river of flame flowed down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street as 2,000 torch-carrying students marched two miles from campus to the governor’s mansion,” writes History.com. They set fire to Griffin effigies, overturned furniture inside the State Capitol, and placed cans and signs on Confederate statues. Effigies of the governor were also set ablaze at Mercer and Emory universities, and students at the rival University of Georgia showed their support with signs reading, “This time we are for Tech.”
Griffin’s request was also denied by Georgia Tech’s president, Blake Ragsdale Van Leer. At the end of the day, authorities permitted the game to take place. Grier and Pittsburgh visited New Orleans and stayed on Tulane University’s all-white campus.
“As I look back on it, I think I was probably the first Black person to sleep in a dormitory at Tulane,” Grier said later in an interview.
Grier became the first African American to play in the Sugar Bowl on January 2, 1956. Pitt was defeated 7-0. The victory margin was determined by a disputed pass interference call on Grier, according to The Washington Informer. According to the report, photographic evidence later revealed that the referee’s decision was incorrect and biased.
Grier attended the post-game awards banquet and even dined with a group of Georgia Tech players. Grier, who is now in his 90s, grew up in mixed-race neighborhoods and participated in mixed-race sports in Massillon, Ohio. During his three years at Massillon, the school won three straight Ohio state football championships, including a national championship in 1951.
When Pittsburgh traveled below the Mason-Dixon Line, he encountered segregation for the first time.
“We were separated when we played down south.” “The Black players stayed at a nearby Black college or a motel,” Grier explained in a 2014 interview with The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Grier graduated from Pitt with a business degree before joining the Air Force as a captain. He also worked as a foreman at a steel mill before retiring as an administrator at Allegheny College’s Community College in Pittsburgh.
He was inducted into Pitt’s Sports Hall of Fame in October of last year. He was inducted into the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame in New Orleans two years prior.
He told The Washington Informer recently from his home in suburban Pittsburgh that his family has ties to NFL coach Bobby Grier, NFL’s Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, and NHL star Mike Grier, who recently became the NHL’s first Black general manager.
“Bobby was just an all-around athlete,” said Ed Grier, a Massillon High School basketball star and Grier’s cousin. “Bobby could play any position and was equally as knowledgeable about the books.” Racist policies prevented him from being recruited by Big 10 and other majors. Pitt, fortunately, hired him.”