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Race and reflection: For UMD's Oden, lessons learned 50 years ago still apply

Harry Oden when he was a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. (Submitted photo)

There were times Harry Oden thought about quitting college at Minnesota Duluth in the racially charged early 1960s, but the one thing he never forgot was a promise he made to his father, Rayfield, over Labor Day in 1953.

Harry wasn't applying himself in school — he was getting suspended and his grades were poor — and his father made it clear that type of behavior was unacceptable. He wanted his son to do the best he could possibly do in school, and to take it as far as he could, and young Harry, 15 at the time, promised to turn it around.

And he did.

"That was the last night I saw my dad before he was killed in an automobile accident by a drunk driver," Harry Oden said. "And that's really what kept me going."

Harry Oden

Oden, 80, a former UMD basketball star, is taking part tonight in a film screening and discussion of "Through the Banks of the Red Cedar." The film is about the 1963 Michigan State Spartans football team and how coach Duffy Daugherty gave 23 black athletes an opportunity, and how the first fully integrated college football team in America helped change the game forever.

The documentary was directed by Maya Washington, the daughter of former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Gene Washington, a member of that Spartans team. They will take part in tonight's discussion, as will Oden, who will provide a local context of what it was like being a black athlete in Duluth at that time.

The underlying theme of the movie is, "What happened fifty years ago is still relevant today."

"The film is a tribute to my dad, and men of his generation, who paved the way for African-American athletes in college and professional sports," Maya Washington said. "It's extremely important to understand the contributions they made from a historical perspective in order to approach conversations about African-American athletes and race today."

Greyhound to Duluth

The legendary Norm Olson recruited Oden to UMD out of Milwaukee's North Division High School through a coaching connection. It was a package deal, as Eugene Hamilton also was recruited and Oden, whose first love was baseball and had only played a year of basketball, said he was "kind of thrown in." They arrived in Duluth in the fall of 1959, the only known students of color on campus.

Oden's knowledge of the city didn't extend beyond the Greyhound buses he'd see bound from Milwaukee to Duluth.

"It'd be like on 12th and Walnut, and it'd say 'Duluth,' and i didn't know what Duluth was," Oden said. "As a matter of fact, one time I was coming from the playground and I almost stepped in front of the bus, and then all of the sudden I ended up going to Duluth and the university, so maybe I was predestined by the Almighty that I'd end up going there."

But once in Duluth, things didn't go so smoothly. The players had no social lives, and nobody other than teachers and teammates talked to them. Oden spent a lot of his time back in his dorm room reading.

"To put it frankly, those might have been the worst years of my life," Oden said. "It was miserable. I guess I can say playing basketball and going to practice and games was something, but when you left that situation, the locker room, it was a whole different world. The games were a nice break, but you couldn't play basketball 24 hours a day, all year round."

Hamilton returned to Milwaukee, only to come back for a short stint, but Oden was often alone. He looked into sharing a room, but was told blacks and whites couldn't room together. He couldn't believe it. Eventually, he and a teammate did anyway.

After mostly watching and learning from the sidelines that first year in 1959-60, Oden became the first black to start on any athletic team at UMD, to earn all-conference and be named captain. UMD went 79-20 over his four-year tenure and won a pair of Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships.

But Oden continued to be treated like a stranger in a strange land, with other students not talking to him.

"I played basketball there for four years, I started for three, I was an all-conference player, I was a captain, I was the most valuable player, but not one single game did a cheerleader ever say, 'Good game,' or 'Hello,' or anything," Oden said. "In four years, there was not one or two games where you saw a black face in the crowd, and I asked about it, and it was because of how they were treated. They weren't welcomed at UMD."

A UMD pioneer

Sports have certainly helped with integration.

While future Minnesota boxing great Bobby Daniels, a friend of Oden's, may have been the first black athlete at UMD, playing a stint of football in the 1950s, Oden was the first to stick it out and graduate, like he promised his father.

Oden returned to Milwaukee, and after taking part in preseason camps and exhibition games with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks in 1967-68 and playing two years in the Continental Basketball League with the Milwaukee Metallist Modes in 1971-73, Oden embarked on a 36-year career in education, starting out as a teacher, then assistant principal and principal and taking various administrative jobs.

He retired in 2000, but remains busy, dealing with school safety and security, giving black history presentations around the country and recruiting for colleges and universities, not just from an athletic standpoint, but for students who want to go to school.

"I was busy before, but now that I'm retired, I can say 'no' when I want to," Oden said.

While his time in Duluth was challenging, he said it made him a better person, and he appreciated the help he received along the way from teammates, coaches and teachers.

"They didn't see colored kids," Oden said. "They just saw kids."

Olson and former UMD football coach Jim Malosky, a freshman basketball coach at the time, took him under their wing, and Soup Stromme helped Oden land a student-teaching job when others wouldn't take him.

"There was no one else you could go to," Oden said.

Now people can go to him. Oden continues to recruit for UMD, and he keeps a close watch on the athletes he gets to come to the university. He considers it his duty.

"Those are my kids, I recruited those kids," Oden said. "There has been some positive change, but there can be more. I made myself another promise when I graduated, that I would never let another kid of color go through what I went through at UMD, that I would do anything I could to prevent that from happening."


What: Film screening and discussion of "Through the Banks of the Red Cedar"

When: 6:30 p.m. today

Where: Marshall Performing Arts Center, 1215 Ordean Court on the UMD campus

Sponsors: Minnesota Duluth and St. Scholastica in conjunction with Black History Month

Cost: Free and open to the public