WMU preserving legacy of pioneering black athlete

Hidden History

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Western Michigan University is working to preserve the legacy of one of the first black athletes to play for the Broncos.

Sam Dunlap was a halfback and a punter on the football team. He achieved several records at WMU, according to Sharon Carlson, the director of the Zhang Legacy Collections Center.

“He definitely was a pioneer and he was an outstanding athlete,” Carlson said. “He was born in Chicago, but his family moved to Benton Harbor.”

Known as “The Black Ghost” because of exceptional speed, Dunlap’s talents to this day are still the envy of many players.

“He played in the 1915, 1916 and 1917 season,” Carlson said. “His time in college was interrupted briefly, he served in World War I and then he returned in 1919.” 

Dunlap faced racism while he played for the Broncos. Some teams, like the Culver Military Academy, refused to play against a black player.

“I think the team was consulted and Sam encouraged them to go ahead and play without him,” Carlson said.

The Zhang Legacy Collections Center is preserving Sam’s history by saving articles, photographs and other artifacts.

“Interestingly enough, we have Sam’s pants to one of his football uniforms, his shoulder pads and a helmet, and that’s kind of unusual,” Carlson said.

Sam was inducted into Western’s inaugural Hall of Fame in 1973, more than a decade after his death. He never had the opportunity to experience the recognition himself.

“I still kind of consider it a bittersweet story because there are the accomplishments on the field and at his time at Western but the racism that permeated society, I think made it very difficult for him,” Carlson said.

If you would like to learn more about Sam Dunlap, you can visit the Zhang Legacy Collections Center at Western Michigan University.

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