CHARLESTON, S.C. — Fifty years isn’t long enough to keep the tears from welling up in Melvin Hamilton’s eyes, eventually spilling onto his face and rolling down his cheeks.
He’s usually a cheerful guy. But the peaceful sunroom inside his quiet Lake City home can’t offset the Charleston native’s emotions when he reflects on the hateful words he heard that fateful day in October 1969 as a member of the University of Wyoming football team.
That was the day Lloyd Eaton, the head coach at Wyoming, stereotyped Hamilton as an underprivileged black kid who should have been thankful he could attend a white college. Eaton’s words were aimed at Hamilton and the 13 other black players on the team.
“He just berated us,” said Hamilton, shaking his head. “He made us feel worthless. Like we were nothing.”
Eaton’s furious rant came the day before a big game against Brigham Young University, a Mormon-based institution that incorporated some racist practices into its religious philosophy at the time.
The 14 players wanted to protest during the game but were derailed and kicked off the team by Eaton, a powerful coach whose success on the field gave him influence over the town of Laramie and the entire state, including Wyoming Gov. Stanley Hathaway.
In September, as the 50-year anniversary of the incident neared, the players, now known as the Black 14, received an official apology from the University of Wyoming.
It offered some closure. But it doesn’t erase Eaton’s tongue-lashing or the school’s lack of action during the Civil Rights movement. Both left scars on Hamilton’s young adult life that have followed him all the way back home to South Carolina.
Hamilton was born in 1947 inside his family’s home on South Street in downtown Charleston. When he was 3, his family moved to Wilmington, N.C.
Hamilton was raised a Catholic and believed that he would one day be a priest. That was until he turned 13 and started drinking, smoking and getting into trouble.
His parents sent him to an all-boys school in Nebraska. Though the optics didn’t appeal to a teenage boy, Hamilton enjoyed his time at the school.
It was majority white but included students from all backgrounds and shielded him from the racial tensions brewing in other areas of the country.
But that was short-lived. He’d quickly be reintroduced to the evils of racism when he accepted a football scholarship to attend Wyoming in 1965.
The weather was brutal in Wyoming. Playing for Eaton, who started coaching at the college the year Hamilton was born, didn’t help matters.
About a year into his time there, Hamilton’s girlfriend, a white woman, became pregnant. He tried to apply for student family housing, which would have included cheaper rent and food. The athletic director gave him the green light. Eaton did not.
“Keep in mind, the athletic director is over all of the coaches,” Hamilton said. “But Eaton had the power. He said he wouldn’t allow a black man to get student housing to live with a white woman.”
He wanted to fight back, but instead went into the Army after he and his girlfriend decided to part ways.
After 18 months, Hamilton got the itch to play football again and felt Wyoming was the only place that made sense for him. So he returned in 1969, looking to get back on the field and hoping to find his former girlfriend and his daughter.
“People always asked why I would go back to Wyoming,” he said. “But it just felt like the only place I could go.”
Wyoming was 4-0 and beating opponents by an average of 20 points per game. The week of the game against Brigham Young University, a college owned by the Mormon church, Hamilton and the other players learned that the church did not allow blacks to become priests.
“As a Christian man, I knew that wasn’t right,” he said. “We felt like we had to do something. Protests were happening all over the country. So we just felt like it was our time.”
They planned to wear black arm bands in the game as a way of protesting. They tried to meet with Eaton early that week, but the head coach avoided them until the day before the game — Oct. 17, 1969.
It was on that day that each player received a letter from the school saying they were dismissed from the football team. Hamilton said Eaton then led them to the field house bleachers and unloaded on them with words he’ll never forget.
“He told us how most of us were on welfare and didn’t have fathers, how he fed us and took us off the streets,” Hamilton said. “It was just the worst way you can talk to a person.”
Friend or foe?
Not quite defeated, the players banded together to protest outside of the game the next day. And they continued their protests for the next six months.
The national media picked up the story. The players began receiving death threats as the small town suddenly became national news. They were subjected to harassment and racial obscenities on a daily basis. Some black residents wanted the 14 students to call it quits because it was making it harder for them to carry on with their lives.
It got to the point where Hamilton and his teammates didn’t know what to expect when someone approached them.
“We’d get recognized even when we weren’t protesting and someone would ask who we were,” Hamilton said. “It was either going to be someone ready to yell in our face or congratulating us and cheering us on. But either way we knew we had to keep going.”
Carolina to Wyoming and back
After the protests died down, Hamilton continued the fight by voicing concerns in the community. Despite the pushback, he graduated from Wyoming in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
By then, he had been married to his first wife, Tearether Cherry, for two years. They moved to North Carolina in 1972, but Tearether wasn’t happy there and the couple returned to Wyoming two years later. They had two children, Malik and Amber, before getting a divorce in 1977.
Hamilton stayed in Wyoming for the next 36 years.
“I just felt like my job wasn’t done in Wyoming,” Hamilton said. “I wanted to help kids who looked like me and make sure they didn’t have to go through some of the same things.”
Overall, he served as an educator for 40-plus years in Wyoming. He also got his master’s degree in counseling psychology from Lesley University in 1992, via a program that sent professors from the Massachusetts school to Wyoming.
Hamilton remarried in 1982 and had two more children, Derek and Zella, with his wife, Carey. They moved into their Lake City home in 2013.
From South Carolina, Hamilton keeps in touch with all of his children, including Kimberly, his oldest child he had in college.
Going back to Wyoming wasn’t something new to Hamilton. He and other members of the Black 14 talk to students on campus and work with administrators.
But going back in September to receive an official apology was different. The school held multiple events, including a ceremony for nine of the 14 players. Three are deceased and two others chose not to attend.
The initiative was the latest nationally and locally that involves schools and government bodies apologizing for their roles in racial injustice. For example, William & Mary apologized in April 2018 for its use of slave labor.
The Maryland Institute College of Art apologized earlier this year for discriminatory admission practices. And in April of last year, the City of Charleston apologized for its role in the slave trade and other acts of racism.
Wyoming’s apology, in part, reads: “Please accept this sincere apology from the University of Wyoming for the unfair way you were treated and for the hardships that treatment created for you. We want to welcome you home as valued members of this institution.”
Hamilton said he experienced a mix of emotions at the ceremony, knowing that Eaton’s decision created a difficult path for each player involved.
“I don’t want to mention any one person, but many of us have ongoing issues, whether it’s mental health or something else. And I can’t say they don’t stem from what we were subjected to in Wyoming,” he said.
Keep it alive
From the day he was old enough to understand what his father went through, Malik Hamilton has been proud of how the Black 14’s story fits into the Civil Rights movement.
At the same time, he longs for a day when the story doesn’t hit so close to home.
“Black athletes’ careers can be halted for simply wishing to make a statement about inequality,” Malik Hamilton said, referencing former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the 2016 season. “I think my father would be just as happy to have the Black 14 forgotten because equality was achieved and the story was now irrelevant in today’s world.”
Along similar lines, Melvin Hamilton is still bothered. He believes there’s a case to be made for the pain and suffering he and his friends had to endure.
In his spacious home decorated with pictures and memorabilia from his days in Wyoming, Hamilton wonders if he should pursue a new lawsuit seeking compensation for the Black 14.
There’s no rush on that decision as he continues his work to impact generations after him and teach them about the men and what each of them went through.
The latter has been going well. Spike Lee produced a documentary on the group last year, prompting interviews and more discussions on their impact. In Lamarie, a mural of the players was painted on a brick wall.
And River Gayton, a high school senior in Jackson, Wyo., is petitioning to get a Black 14 monument on the Wyoming campus. As a freshman, she won a statewide history contest by writing an essay on the impact of the football players.
That essay is now part of the African American Museum in Washington D.C.
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