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Bob Whitehead - Class of 1970
Black Villanova Oral History Project

 

Bob Whitehead

Class of 1970


Bob_-_Running.jpg

Bob Whitehead was born in West Philadelphia and grew up in the Mount Airy section of the city. In this interview, Bob describes the tremendous influence his father had on him as a young boy. Bob's father was a well-respected member of the community who worked for the Postal Service. Unfortunately, Bob's father passed away at the age of 42 but he instilled in Bob a strong work ethic and a strong desire to give back to his community. Bob's father also impressed upon him the value of a good education and told him at young age that he was expected to receive a college education.

Bob displayed a great of athletic talent as a boy and settled in on track as his main sport in high school. Bob drew the attention of Villanova track Coach Jumbo Elliott when he defeated several Villanova runners at a track meet when he was still in high school.  Bob remembers taking a liking to Jumbo because he felt the coach was "more arrogant" than he was. Bob remembers being unsure of whether Villanova was a good fit for him as friends of his father's warned him that Villanova "exploits their black athletes." However, knowing that Villanova was one of the premier track programs in the country, Bob eventually chose to enroll at Villanova over Penn State.

Upon his arrival at Villanova, Bob was assigned to Austin Hall or the "animal farm" as Bob recalls. Bob recalls being assigned a corner room in Austin Hall and found his new environment "isolating" and a "little intimidating." Bob describes the relative lack of social life on campus for black students and remembers feeling fortunate that he could go home to Philadelphia to socialize. Bob often invited his roommate Sammy Sims and other friends Howard Porter, John Price and Larry James home with him on the weekends.

Bob was active in the Black Student League and remembers things began to change in the fall of 1968 when the Black Students League was formed. Bob remembers the issue which most concerned the BSL during his time at Villanova was the recruitment of black students who were not athletes. Bob recalls several meetings with University administrators who were open to the idea of enhanced recruitment but he felt they were not proactive in making this goal a reality. Ultimately, the BSL, along with George Raveling, took it upon themselves to go out and recruit.

As far as Bob's experience with the track team, he remembers a strong sense of camaraderie among the members of the track team. In this interview, Bob recalls the events of the spring of 1968 when Villanova was scheduled to travel to the University of Tennessee to compete the weekend after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. The black members of the team, concerned for their safety, began to discuss whether or not they should go. Bob remembers the white members of the team, led by captain Dave Patrick, indicated that they would support the black members if they decided not to go. In the end, the team came to a consensus that they wanted to go and compete and Bob and the black members of the team were heartened by the fact that they had the support of their teammates. In fact, the entire Villanova team had earlier boycotted the New York Athletic Club Games in New York City in February 1968 after it was discovered that the N.Y.A.C. practiced racial discrimination. In that instance, the team had voted unanimously to support the boycott. In comparison to his relationship with his teammates, Bob recalls less fondly his relationship with Coach Elliott whom he often felt was "aloof." He mentions, though, that he learned a lot from Coach Elliott even if he "did not understand it then." 

In the end, Bob felt that he had a very good career on the track but felt like he could have achieved more. Injuries hampered him throughout his junior season. Often times, Bob felt as though he did not receive medical attention that was in his best long-term interests, leaving him feeling as if Villanova only cared about his athletic performance.

After graduation Bob felt a strong desire to give back to his community and entered into the teaching field where he spent many years as a successful educator in the Philadelphia School District.

 

Whitehead on Growing Up in Philadelphia and the Influence of His Family

Whitehead begins the interview by describing his upbringing in West Philadelphia and Mount Airy. He discusses the influence of his father, who encouraged his children to pursue higher education. 

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Whitehead on Accepting a Scholarship Offer from Villanova

Whitehead talks about how he was recruited by Villanova's legendary track coach Jumbo Elliott. Whitehead describes how he accepts the scholarship offer despite warnings from some of his father's friends.  

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Whitehead on His First Experiences and Impressions of Villanova

In this section Whitehead describes his first few weeks on campus during his freshman year. Whitehead discusses the housing arragnments for black students in Austin Hall, the freshman hazing rituals and the social life on campus.

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Whitehead on the Changing Atmosphere for Black Students on Campus

Whitehead cheekily describes the advantages and disadvantages of being a black student on campus and how this changed with the introduction of more black non-athletes on campus. Whitehead points to the establishment of the Black Student League in 1968 as a turning point in several respects.

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Whitehead on Racial Consciousness and Intragroup Relations

In these two segments of the interview, Whitehead discusses his racial identity as a black man in the late 1960s. Whitehead also describes how he came to understand that there were differences in terms of racial consciousness among the black student community at Villanova as well.

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Whitehead on Track Team's Decision to Attend Tennessee Meet After MLK's Assassination

Whitehead discusses the decision of whether to accept an invitation to attend a track meet at the University of Tennessee the weekend after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis.

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Whitehead on Larry "The Mighty Burner" James

Whitehead fondly recalls his friendship and his experiences with his teammate Larry James, nicknamed "The Mighty Burner." The first segment describes the transformation of James from shy sophomore to one of the fastest men in the world. In the second clip Whitehead discusses the black power controversy of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico and James' rivalry with fellow U.S. sprinter Lee Evans.

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Whitehead on Irish Track Teammates and Their Interesting Views on Race in the U.S.

Whitehead recalls an extraordinary conversation he had with Irish teammates Dez McCormick and Frank Murphy about the salience of race in the United States.

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Whitehead on Interactions with White Students

Whitehead describes some of the interesting conversations he had with white Villanova students who often demonstrated a lack of experience in interacting with African Americans. Whitehead discusses the positive relationships and friendships he developed with white students as well.

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Whitehead on Father Byrnes and Funny Class Incident with Howard Porter

Whitehead on what he learned from class with Father Byrnes. In this excerpt, Whitehead  recalls a humorous exchange in class between Father Byrnes and Howard Porter. 

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Whitehead on Frustrations with Coaching and Medical Issues

In this segment of the interview, Whitehead discusses his frustration with the treatment he received as a result of an injury sustained during his junior season.  

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Whitehead on his Thoughts on Commencement Day

Whitehead shares what he was feeling on the day of his graduation from Villanova. 

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Whitehead on Desire to Give Back and his First Teaching Position

Whitehead describes his ambition to go back to his community to become a teacher. His idealism meets reality when there is a teachers' strike in his first month on the job.

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Whitehead on Advice to Today's Villanova Students

Whitehead talks about his experience attending a meeting of the Black Cultural Society in December 2011. During this excerpt he shares some advice for today's Villanova students about th eimportnac eof education.

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