First Lieutenant, United States Army Air Corps
SYRACUSE, N.Y. Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was one of Syracuse University's greatest sports stars, but his achievements were stunted because of the racial discrimination he faced as a black athlete in the late 1930s.
On February 26, 2005, Syracuse will honor Sidat-Singh during halftime of the Orange's basketball game against Providence by raising his No. 19 jersey to the roof of the Carrier Dome. He'll take his place alongside Syracuse's other sports legends: Dave Bing, Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas and Vic Hanson.
"I think this will be a fitting tribute for an extraordinary individual who up until this point has almost been hidden from us," said Larry Martin, an assistant vice president at Syracuse.
Martin first proposed the ceremony two years ago after the Orange basketball team captured the NCAA title behind freshman sensation Carmelo Anthony, now a star in the National Basketball Association with the Denver Nuggets.
"When we won that national championship, and everyone was offering credit for the victory, I thought of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh and how he paved the way for generations of African-Americans at Syracuse," Martin said.
Sidat-Singh came to Syracuse on a basketball scholarship but became a Syracuse legend as one of the first black quarterbacks in college football.
Although African-American, Sidat-Singh was able to play only because the school maintained he was "Hindu." The ruse, though, did not protect him from the slights and humiliations of life in a segregated nation.
At Syracuse, he could not stay in all-white dormitories with his teammates. At least twice _ against Maryland in football and Navy in basketball _ he was benched when the Orange played road games south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Racial barriers kept him from playing in the newly formed National Football League, so after leaving Syracuse he became one of the leading scorers for the all-black Renaissance Five, an elite professional basketball team. When World War II broke out, Sidat-Singh joined with the Tuskegee Airmen, a black fighter squadron assembled because black servicemen were not allowed to serve alongside whites.
In 1943, Sidat-Singh was killed when his plane crashed on a training mission over Lake Huron. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
"I'm very proud of him and I'm glad he's getting all this attention now," Adelaide Henley, a 92-year-old aunt from Washington, D.C., told The Post-Standard of Syracuse.
Henley attended that Syracuse-Maryland football game in 1937 that was supposed to be one of the high points of her nephew's illustrious career. But upset at the idea of playing against a black man, Maryland's coaches and administrators threatened to pull their team off the field and Syracuse acquiesced.
"It was very sad to see him sitting on the bench," said Henley, who will attend the Syracuse ceremony along with other relatives and several members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Syracuse lost that game to Maryland 13-0, but would rout the Terps a year later, 53-0, when they came to Syracuse and Sidat-Singh was able to play.
Raising Sidat-Singh's jersey is intended both as a tribute and as a means of healing some old wounds.
"It's simply the right thing to do," said Martin.
Like the simple stone monuments surrounding it, the marker at Grave No. 5381 in Section 8 of Arlington National Cemetery silently poses a sorrowful question.
What if this life, cut short by war, had continued
in peace? What if this young man
In the case of Lieutenant Wilmeth W. Sidat-Singh, the man buried in grave 5381, the what-ifs loom large, because this mostly forgotten figure may have had the right stuff to rewrite one of football's more shameful chapters: the half-century lockout of African-Americans from leadership roles, especially the quarterback position.
Even in a graveyard full of martyrs, Sidat-Singh was exceptional — an outstanding athlete, a high-performing student, a pioneering aviator, an African-American success sotry in a time when racism didn't allow many.
"Sidat-Singh was my hero, my idol," says Lee Archer, a Tuskegee Airman and World War II ace who once shot down three Nazi planes on a single bomber-escort mission. "He is why I became a pilot."
The story of this hero's hero, a son of Harlem and the stepson of a Manhattan physician from India, sounds almost too good to be true.
On the football field at Syracuse in the late
1930s, Sidat-Singh's passing and poise so
"Sidat was something," says John Isaacs, a Renaissance teammate who grew up playing with Sidat-Singh in Harlem sandlots and against him on the PSAL hardwood. "So competitive, so disciplined, anything he put his mind to he would do it."
Historian Thomas G. Smith of Nichols College in Massachusetts says Sidat-Singh was the Michael Vick, the Donovan McNabb, of his day, "who could beat you with his arm and with his feet."
More than that, remembers Roger Mabie, the student manager of Sidat-Singh's Orangemen football teams, "He was really a great guy. Never got a big head, even though he was very well-known. All the coeds would faint when he came by."
The public memory of Sidat-Singh is all but gone, a casualty of the twin tragedies of America's color line and his untimely death in 1943, at the age of 25.
McNabb — the Eagles Pro Bowl QB who starred at Syracuse 60 years after Sidat-Singh — has never heard of him.
But there are those who believe Sidat-Singh, had he lived, was talented enough to unlock the doors that shut out black quarterbacks for the better part of 50 post-war years.
"That might have been the crack they needed,"
says Archer, a former track athlete at NYU and board member of the International
Amateur Athletics Federation. "It would have been tough to say no to someone
who did so much at a so-called white school. It
Smith, the historian, isn't so sure, given
the era's prejudices. "I think they'd have moved him to another position,"
he says. "But if anyone might have been able to do it, it would have been
John Isaacs remembers it like it was yesterday: the Rens, the sandlots, the Y — and Duke Ellington's football. Now pushing 86, Isaacs works at the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club on Hoe Avenue in the Bronx, looking lean and spry enough to block a shot and start a fastbreak like he did in his playing days as "the Boy Wonder" who signed a pro contract right out of high school. He hung out near Sidat-Singh's house at 221 W. 135th, right near the arlem Y, and they got to know each other. Whatever sport there was, they played.
Everybody knew Dr. Samuel Sidat-Singh; the Indian physician's office was on the block. And everybody knew his adopted son Wilmeth, a transplant from Washington, D.C., where he was born in 1917 to Pauline and Elias Webb, a pharmacist.
"My brother Elias died when Wilmeth was very young," says Adelaide Webb Henley, Sidat-Singh's aunt, who still lives in D.C. "My mother took Wilmeth in for a time, and then Pauline re-married to Dr. Sidat-Singh and moved to New York."
The doctor's son proved a gritty New Yorker. "We used to play football on sandlots, in playclothes — no pads, no Jordans, no nothing," Isaacs says. "Duke Ellington's son, Mercer, was like Winnie Winkle, a little rich kid. And Mercer had a whole brand-new uniform: a helmet, shoulderpads — and the football."
So they needed him. "But when we had 23 guys, guess who sat out? Mercer," Isaacs says. "We told him we didn't want him to get his nice uniform dirty.
Sidat-Singh was good at everything, from baseball to tennis. "He and Eyre Saitch, another player for the Rens, would play this power game — wham," Isaacs says, pantomiming a forehand. And football? Isaacs saw him throw it 60 yards, flat-footed.
He first made a name in basketball, at DeWitt
Clinton High, leading the Govs to the 1934 PSAL title and making all-city
the following year. A shade under 6-feet tall and a tad over 190 pounds,
he was thickly built, yet explosive. "A great first step," says
When Sidat-Singh earned a basketball scholarship to Syracuse, the white city newspapers that followed his exploits referred to him as Hindu, though everyone in Harlem knew he was African-American.
His talent quickly shone through upstate. He starred on the SU basketball team for three years, leading the Orange to a 14-0 season as a senior. But his greatest fame came in football, almost by accident.
One day in 1936, Orange assistant coach Roy Simmons spotted Sidat-Singh throwing a football in an intramural game and ordered him onto the varsity.
He started the next season at halfback in the Orangemen's single-wing offense — the equivalent of today's quarterback. His dangerous arm and quick feet complemented the world-class speed of his roommate, Marty Glickman, the Brooklyn-born sprinter (and later legendary broadcaster) fresh off making the 1936 Olympic team.
Cornell was the power in the East at that time, led by one of the first black All-Americans, Jerome "Brud" Holland. Syracuse beat them twice, with Glickman running wild for more than 100 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 14-6 victory in 1937. The next year, Singh completed six passes for 150 yards and three TDs in the game's final nine minutes, lifting the Orange from deficits of 10-0 and 17-6 to a 19-17 victory. It was heaven for headline writers: "Singh's Slings Sink Cornell," went one; "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Singh," read another.
Grantland Rice chimed in with his purplest prose. "A new forward-pass hero slipped in front of the great white spotlight of fame at Syracuse today. The phenomenon of the rifle shot event went on beyond Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh. His name is Wilmeth Sidat-Singh." To ensure readers got the point, Rice called the game "one of the most amazing exhibitions of machine-gun fire I've ever seen, where the odds were all the other way."
He could not beat all the odds. The week Syracuse played Maryland in 1937, Sam Lacy, an African-American newspaperman in D.C. recently inducted into Cooperstown's writer's wing, wrote that the SU sensation was not "Hindu," but in fact, "Negro." Maryland threatened to cancel the game rather than face a team with a black player; SU coaches told the Orangemen their leader wouldn't be in the lineup.
"My sister and my husband went up there that day," says Henley. "Wilmeth was just sitting there, with his head down, so embarrassed and humiliated."
In the moments before kickoff, Glickman faced an agonizing choice. On the eve of the Berlin Games' 400-meter relay, American officials had scratched the 18-year-old Glickman from the race because he was Jewish; they feared it would offend Hitler. Glickman, who died last month at the age of 83, pondered sitting out in solidarity with his friend and roommate.
"At first he was going to say if Wilmeth didn't play, neither would he," says Marjorie Glickman, Marty's wife. "But it was so soon after Berlin, and Marty thought people would say, ‘There goes that Jewboy causing trouble again.' So he decided to play."
It haunted him the rest of his life. "He soon realized he should have been there with Wilmeth," Marge Glickman says. "He always felt bad about it."
In later years, Glickman told and re-told the story to mutual friends like Lee Archer, reiterating his regrets every time. "But I never heard Sidat mention that game," Archer says. "It wasn't something he carried around with him."
The Orange lost that day, 13-0. The next season, when Maryland visited Syracuse, Sidat-Singh led a 53-17 rout.
After college, Sidat-Singh had nowhere to take his football talent. The fledgling NFL had an unofficial ban on black players from 1934 to 1946, broken only when the Rams signed ex-UCLA stars Kenny Washington and Woody Strode to secure a lease in the L.A. Coliseum after the war.
So he played basketball for the Rens, alongside old-time greats like Isaacs, "Tarzan" Cooper and "Pop" Gates. Barnstorming through the East and filling Harlem's Casino Ballroom for games against industrial and college teams, the Rens were a phenomenon.
But the war got in the way. Not long after it started, Sidat-Singh moved back to D.C. and joined the police force.
He wasn't big on being a cop. "I remember one time he told me he was at Griffith Stadium and a fight broke out," Isaacs says, "and he yelled, ‘Somebody get the police,' until somebody yelled back, ‘You are the police!'"
Sidat-Singh got several Rens teammates to join him in a new venture, a Washington team called the Bruins, later the Bears, which played on Sundays in D.C. "Red Auerbach (the Hall of Fame Celtics coach) would come watch us every Sunday in Washington," Isaacs says. "I always tell people, ‘Ask Red where he got the motion offense.'"
Soon, Sidat-Singh's pioneering sports career would end. By 1943, he was trying to blaze a new trail in the Army.
Blacks weren't supposed to have the intelligence or discipline to fly fighter planes in World War II. But the military was desperate enough for manpower to experiment — and started a small, segregated training program in Tuskegee, Ala. Black America's best and brightest, including dozens of college athletes, heeded a clarion call. Sidat-Singh was one of them. He passed the entrance exam for the Air Corps and was called up by the Army. "Sidat-Singh was just like so many young, aggressive, athletic guys who loved the challenge and the idea of flying," says Dr. Roscoe Brown, director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at CUNY, and a Tuskegee Airman who in 1945 became the first U.S. pilot to shoot down a German jet.
"They had what I call the Paul Robeson syndrome," says Brown, himself a lacrosse player at Springfield College. "They weren't just great athletes, they were valedictorians and star students as well."
They also had an unbreakable drive, necessary equipment to cope with racist instructors who wanted them to fail and communities that wanted no part of them. "I went in knowing these SOBs were going to try to get rid of me," Archer says, "but I wasn't going to let them."
The Tuskegee Airmen went on to become one of the most successful air units in the war. Assigned to escort B-17s and B-24s over Europe, the Red Tails of the 332nd Fighter Group didn't lose a single bomber. White Southern bomber pilots requested the 332nd take them to their targets.
Sidat-Singh, who by May of 1943 had completed the most difficult phases of training and had earned his wings, would have been one of those pilots, says C.I. Williams, who trained with him. "He'd have made it," Williams says. "I don't have any doubt about it."
On May 9, Sidat-Singh and Williams were flying a routine training mission over Lake Huron, when Sidat-Singh heard the the rat-a-tat sputter of a failing engine. As his single-seat P-40 pursuit plane plunged, the pilot bailed out of the cramped cockpit and popped his parachute, taking his chances on the frigid water rather than a crash landing.
As Sidat-Singh fell toward the lake, Williams circled him and saw his friend make a fatal mistake. "He didn't release his parachute before he hit the water," Williams says.
Entangled in the ropes, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh drowned. Williams circled as long as he could, until the Coast Guard came, then ran ut of fuel as he landed at the training base in Oscoda, Michigan.
Back in D.C., Adelaide Webb Henley heard the news over the radio that her nephew's plane went down, and called Sidat-Singh's mother in New York. Pauline hadn't heard. "I broke the news," Adelaide says. "His mother was on pins and needles."
But as the days passed, hope faded. They found Wilmeth Sidat-Singh's body on June 26th, nearly six weeks later.
His death was big news in the black press, but only merited a few paragraphs in the white world. There was a war on, with hundreds dying every day. Harlem was a tinderbox of racial strains, and a string of police brutality cases and high-profile street crimes were building toward what would become August riots. Sports, at least those not cancelled, were an afterthought.
As the war receded and sports returned, Sidat-Singh's legacy shrank. Syracuse football produced greater stars, from Jim Brown to Ernie Davis to McNabb, and the Orange basketball team became a perennial national power. The Rens were undone by the war and the NBA, and Isaacs would wait decades before people acknowledged his team's contributions to the game.
The Tuskegee Airmen, almost all of whom went on to prominence in other fields, also endured a five-decade wait for recognition — finally receiving it in the form of a 1995 HBO movie and the attendant media blitz. Sidat-Singh's name, meanwhile, remained interred in crumbling newspaper morgues.
But in the last few years, a few have begun to remember. In 1995, the DeWitt Clinton alumni association honored two of the school's grads who went on to become Tuskegee Airmen, Archer and Sidat-Singh. They brought in his aunt, Henley, and his former girlfriend.
The woman, now 80, and "the love of Wilmeth's life," according to Henley, still lives in Washington, but declined to be interviewed for this story. "She told me at the dinner she still carried a torch for him, after all these years," says Paul Pitluk, a Clinton alumnus who along with Howard Richter helped resurrect Sidat-Singh's memory with the fete.
In 1997, a writer named Thomas Dunn scripted a one-act play called "The Story," based on Sam Lacy's scoop that Sidat-Singh was not Hindu. "Every time it's produced," Dunn says, "I learn something more about his life. He's much more than a one-act." Recently, Dunn was contacted about possibly expanding the work into a full-length musical. "That is something," says Henley. "I didn't know he would be material for a drama."
Which raises a final question, one not steeped in melancholy. What if now, 60 years after his too-short life, people finally get to know Wilmeth Sidat-Singh?
The answer may lie in the words of his father, spoken at his son's funeral.
"We are certain he would feel that his life
was not in vain," said Samuel Sidat-Singh, "if it served to put a spark
into the lives of aspiring youngsters and to impress upon them that ability,
slowly but surely, receives recognition."
Posted: 4 November 2001 Updated: 5 June 2003 Updated: 10 February 2005 Updated: 27 May 2006