Opinion

She Made History as a Black Basketball Star. Why Won’t Her College Name Its Arena for Her?

The Walter Sillers Coliseum, a 3,000-seat brick arena, has been the basketball mecca of Delta State University since it was built in 1960. At that time, Delta State, today a public university with just over 2,500 students in Cleveland, Miss., was a white-only institution.

But it was a Black woman who made the coliseum famous. In 1973, Lusia “Lucy” Harris played her first game of college basketball as the only Black player on her team. The coliseum was Ms. Harris’s home court when she led the Lady Statesmen to three consecutive national championships. It was where she came home with a silver medal after becoming the first female Olympian ever to score a basket in 1976. It was where she worked as an assistant coach when she turned down the N.B.A., which made history when the New Orleans Jazz drafted her (the first and only time a woman was officially drafted).

Despite all that, if you traveled to Cleveland to visit the coliseum, you might think Lucy Harris never existed. You’d pass a towering bronze statue of her coach, Margaret Wade, who was white and never won a national championship without Ms. Harris. You’d pass a plaque in the lobby dedicating the building to Walter Sillers, who, as the longtime speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, fought tooth and nail to keep Black students out of Delta State. And finally, you’d arrive at the hardwood itself, which the university dedicated in 2015 to Lloyd Clark, the white high school coach it hired as head coach instead of Ms. Harris.

The half-century omission of Lucy Harris’s legacy from Delta State’s campus and from the American consciousness at large reveals that there has never been a shortage of compelling female — and in particular Black female — athletic superstars. Their names just weren’t etched in stone like so many men’s were.

Credit…Delta State University Archives, via Ben Proudfoot

The coliseum was where Ms. Harris learned that Delta State had passed her over for that women’s head coaching job, breaking her heart. And it’s where she returned in a wheelchair after decades in obscurity to film scenes for “The Queen of Basketball,” the New York Times Op-Doc I directed that was executive-produced by Shaquille O’Neal and Steph Curry.

And last year, it was where friends and family gathered around her coffin.

Despite having been one of the last public universities in Mississippi to integrate, Delta State is now among the most diverse universities in the state. And yet only one of Delta State’s more than 60 buildings — the laundry building — is named for an African American person and nothing is named for Ms. Harris, the first Black woman inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Perhaps a Black woman was simply too inconvenient and incongruous a hero to the white men who have led Delta State University for the last half-century.

Ms. Harris’s family has spent years lobbying the university to rename the coliseum in her honor. When I learned of their efforts, I sent a letter to Bill LaForge, the president of Delta State, imploring him to consider the request. It seemed like an easy win: Replace the name of a racist politician with that of a towering hero who inspires students. He replied that he would reflect on it.

Ms. Harris died unexpectedly less than a month later, in January 2022, prompting her family and me once again to urge the university to honor her legacy by renaming the coliseum. The president repeatedly provided vague responses to our pleas, asking for patience without offering any timeline in return.

In March, it was Oscar night. “The Queen of Basketball” was nominated for best documentary short. Ms. Harris’s (notably tall) children sat amid celebrities at the black-tie ceremony, and they clasped hands and prayed that their mom would finally be recognized and respected by Hollywood in a way she had not been by Delta State University.

Josh Brolin opened the crimson envelope. “The Queen of Basketball,” he read. It was an unforgettable moment. As I walked to the stage to accept the award on the film’s behalf, I heard Ms. Harris’s family shouting from the mezzanine, “Hallelujah!” I was proud to be a filmmaker that night.

A rendering of the proposed renamed coliseum.Credit…Will von Dehl

The following day, I offered to loan the Oscar indefinitely for exhibition in the lobby of the coliseum — if the university would rename the building. Mr. LaForge declined to discuss the matter any further, citing internal naming procedures that are the province of the university. A month later, the university named a campus recreational area after a graduating senior who had been student government president.

In June, Mr. LaForge was abruptly forced out of his position by the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning board, without public explanation. (In a note to Delta State’s campus, Mr. LaForge said that the board cited declining enrollment and financial underperformance as primary reasons for his ousting.) He sent Ms. Harris’s family an email reading: “I will share with you that it was my intention to place Lucy’s name on the coliseum, and I believe that it should be done. The very rough, tentative plans for doing so had a lot of moving parts, some of which were controversial. But, unfortunately, I am no longer in the position to lead the charge as I had wanted to do.”

Nearly a year after her death, the family is still waiting. My Oscar offer stands.

In the Delta State University archives, the same place we uncovered the boxes of long forgotten gameplay footage of Ms. Harris that made “The Queen of Basketball” possible, there is a 1957 letter written to Governor J.P. Coleman regarding the matter of Mississippi’s oldest state park, named for LeRoy Percy, a white Mississippi senator. It had come to the writer’s attention that the park “might be converted into a negro park.” The missive forewarned the governor of the widespread objection and forthcoming “formal protest” to that plan, urging him to dismiss the idea, or else heed the suggestion if the park were to start welcoming Black Mississippians: Remove Mr. Percy’s name from it. “With personal regards,” the letter is signed, “Your friend, Walter Sillers.”

Ben Proudfoot is the director of the New York Times Op-Doc “The Queen of Basketball.”

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