On the same day we recognize Juneteenth, the oldest national holiday commemorating emancipation from slavery in the United States, Seldon Wiggins, a 94-year-old Army veteran of World War II, is inspired by the movement of young people across this country protesting social injustice.
“I’m glad to see the young kids both Black and White being able to speak out, and not hide behind," Higgins told NBC Sports Washington. "This seems to be real, I don’t think it’s a fake thing. And I think my generation can look at it with mixed emotions. We weren’t organized enough to do what’s being done now, we were isolated.”
To say Mr. Higgins has lived a full life would be an understatement. He was born before the Great Depression, served our country honorably, marched during the Civil Rights Movement and saw a Black man become President.
But in 1943, Mr. Higgins made history of his own. Playing varsity basketball for Booker T. Washington in Ashland, Ky., it is believed Higgins was part of the first interracial basketball game in the South between Black people and white people.
The journey to Olive Hill to play the all-white team started with a pair of flat tires, a trip that took 150 miles. Just 60 miles into the trip, the Booker T. team called ahead to say they wouldn’t be able to play the game due to tire issues. However, instead of delaying the game, members of Olive Hill staff drove to pick up Higgins and his teammates to make sure the game went off without a hitch.
Unfortunately, racism reared it’s ugly head once they arrived in town as Mr. Higgins recalls.
Said Higgins: “There was a sign in the city that read, ‘N****** after 6 o’clock, move away.’”
Higgins later explained that Black people didn’t live in the town, they only worked in that community.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, Olive Hill, a mountainous city in Kentucky, has a population of 1,599.
Once Higgins and his teammates arrived at the gym something unthinkable happen.
“As we walked in they started saying, ‘hey let us see your tail,’” Higgins said.
“They assumed we had black tails because they thought we were monkeys.”
Despite the awful treatment before the game, what happened afterward was truly remarkable.
“After the game, we were prepared to go back [to Ashland], and they said, ‘No, you going to stay here all night in the gym. We’re going to take care of you,'" Higgins said. "So the next morning, we got up, they got us breakfast, saw that we had gasoline in the car and pulled off.”
In case you were wondering, Booker T. Washington lost that game to Olive Hill on Dec. 3, 1943, 34-22.
It was at that point Higgins says he realized that sports can help integrate society.
Higgins, an accomplished high school player, is the first Kentucky player -- white or Black -- to be selected All-State for three consecutive seasons.
Higgins, a retired Army veteran, offered an opinion on Colin Kaepernick, who protested by taking a knee during the national anthem against police brutality in 2016.
“I was shocked and the reason I was shocked is because he was doing the things we did going down to Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia," Higgins said. "He would of been right in that march, he would of been not a supporter but a leader. And when I saw that, I smiled. That took a lot of courage, a lot of courage and now people been listening and stuff is beginning to change.”
Despite being shocked and angry by the events of George Floyd’s death, Mr. Higgins believes that actually prompted Black people and white people to not only talk to one another but more importantly listen and respond to police brutality.
“I saw a mixture of White and Blacks joining together and it shows how much time has changed," Higgins said, "when you saw maybe a majority of whites, young Whites involved in this, and that is very encouraging.”
Higgins moved to Washington D.C. in 1951 to start working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. One of his first initiatives was to create an internship program for African Americans attending historically Black Colleges.
Oh, and by the way, when asked who in the NBA plays as he did back in the day, Higgins quickly said, “LeBron James.”
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