Norman Seabrooks clutched his diploma in one hand; the other was balled in a fist. He accepted his degree from The Citadel in honor of Charlie Foster and Joe Shine, who came before him; Red Parker and Keith Roden, who struggled beside him; Herb Cunningham and Flossie Gordon, who sheltered him; the anonymous faces who stuffed his pockets with extra desserts and milk after late-night practices; the maintenance staff that publicly embraced him like a son and privately prayed for Norm’s strength and safety. But this, he thought as he left the stage with degree in hand, was for William Thomas Seabrooks.
“I chose The Citadel to please my dad,” said Seabrooks, more than three decades after his graduation.”That was the only reason. Out of loyalty and the need to really appease him, I said yes.”
Seabrooks’ father dropped out of school when he was in fourth grade, and never returned. He was drafted into the Army as a teenager and after spent 47 years working to support his family. It was easy to see why his father was excited about the idea of his son getting a college degree from a military school. Norman would be the first person in the family to earn a college degree. His higher education would represent a demarcation of the family’s past and future.
Norm could have spent all day praising his supporters, but that would require spending more time in Charleston, South Carolina at The Citadel – and that was not going to happen. Instead, he collected his college diploma, packed his bags and left the South in the dust, seemingly abandoning four years of inner turmoil.
If only it were that easy, neatly stuffing emotional parcels into our luggage, conveniently zipping them in to pockets; little bundles of baggage inside baggage like a Russian Babushka doll. Sounds simple, but it’s complicated – and messy.
“You’re the first person to ask what I felt; I felt uncomfortable,” said Seabrooks during a phone interview. “I felt like an outsider. I felt like they didn’t understand me.”
Pahokee, Florida is 528 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina, far enough that 16-year old Norm Seabrooks had never heard of The Citadel. In fact, he’d never ventured outside his home state of Florida — until the summer of 1968. That’s when Bulldogs head football coach Red Parker first laid eyes on Seabrooks from behind a grainy, black-and-white eight millimeter projector. He was hard to miss: a six-foot-one, 245 pound, African-American teenage monster. At first glance he reminded Parker of the country boys he grew up with in Fordyce, Arkansas.
Seabrooks high school education traveled up one side of segregation and down the other side of the Civil Rights Act, where his two hometown Florida high schools merged and, for the first time, African-Americans were attending all-white schools.
He was part of the second phase of the school’s integration plan. After a three-day series of tests Seabrooks was the only African-American placed in the advanced section of the school, a decision that would isolate him throughout high school.
So, when Parker contacted Seabrooks about visiting the campus, the teenager was excited. For a 16-year old boy the invitation to visit Charleston seemed more like an adventure than a prospective change of address.
“When I got to The Citadel and looked around, I think there were only three African-Americans on the campus,” said Seabrooks. “A bit naïve, it never dawned on me what I was getting into.”
Besides, Seabrooks still had his sights set on the National Football League. The plan was scripted on his mental chalkboard and evolved like one of those magical X and O diagrams Vince Lombardi had been seen teaching his great Packer teams. Seabrooks believed, despite his father’s wishes, he would get his education 90 miles from home at the University of Miami then begin his NFL career.
“My father had the belief that if I had gone to school 90 miles from home I’d be home every weekend. I would not be as dedicated to getting the education,” remembers Seabrooks. “I saw The Citadel as an interruption of my goal of being an NFL player.”
But a recruiting “visit” didn’t necessarily mean a commitment, Seabrooks believed. So, in the summer of 1968, he boarded a plane to Charleston to see the campus for himself.
“At the time I was there I had no idea I was the first African-American they had offered a scholarship too, or at least tried to recruit,” said Seabrooks. “I think my thought process would have been different if I knew that but it just never occurred to me.”
The visit was short and, in hindsight, a foreign experience for both Seabrooks and the Citadel cadets. The upperclassmen, who were assigned by the football staff to escort visiting recruits, had no experience with African Americans. Most of the cadets had never met, let alone socialized, with a black kid. In context, the Civil Rights Act was in its infancy and most schools in the South were still segregated.
“I was a new experience for them,” said Seabrooks. “These kids who were taking me around were probably seeing an African American for the very first time.”
Seabrooks was as green as he was black, and his true colors were about to show.
A song and a dance
“I wouldn’t give those who wanted me gone the pleasure of seeing me walk out.” – Norman Seabrooks
One year later, in the fall of 1969, a decade dominated by race riots and the Civil Rights Act, Norman Seabrooks stepped back on The Citadel campus, this time as a freshman cadet and the first African-American scholarship athlete to attend the academy.
Three years earlier, in 1966, Charles Foster made history when he entered Padgett-Thomas barracks and reported to his G Company First Sergeant. Foster was the first-ever African American to attend The Citadel. In 1967, Joseph Shine followed Foster.
By design or ignorance, Seabrooks’ arrival in 1969 came and went without fanfare.
“We were aware of the historical significance, but I don’t think the community was as cognizant of the significance the way we are today,” said family friend Herb Cunningham.
The transition appeared peaceful until the moment Seabrooks heard the first spirited note of Dixie performed by the cadets kicked off the football season. His ears perked, his blood boiled as Seabrooks witnessed the soundtrack of slavery and racism right before his eyes.
Oh no, thought Seabrooks as he watched crowds celebrate from Charleston to Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.
“When I heard Dixie it was always a code to me for racism,” said Seabrooks. “To me, the South was a place I couldn’t wait to get out of because of the racism. I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin in the South. When I heard Dixie, that’s what I was feeling – uncomfortable. When Southern whites here that song, it’s pride. It’s about the Civil War. It’s about all the things they grew up hearing and feeling proud of a part of their country. To an African American it was totally different. It was about slavery. It was about racism.”
Seabrooks informed coach Red Parker, as team captain, he would not lead his team onto the field prior to games. The Bulldogs first African American scholarship athlete needed to make a statement. According to media reports, he would sit or walk away when Dixie was played. Prior to games, Seabrooks intentionally took the field early, before the band started playing the song.
The song rocked Seabrooks’ world. Norm tried to quite The Citadel – twice. The first attempt failed.
“I can’t stay here, I’m quitting,” Norm told his father by phone.
Norm’s father balked at his son’s attempt. It wasn’t the act of quitting that pricked his father, but the principle his son would set that would follow him long after he left The Citadel or anywhere else. It was a concept Norm, the teenager, could not understand. It was a decision that had to be made for him, not by him.
“You’re going to have a lot of tough times in your life, but quitting becomes comfortable when you do it the first time,” his father said. “Once you start quitting it never stops,”
Norm backed off.
The hurdles grew bigger and tension grew. The Citadel policy kept Seabrooks separated from upperclassmen. His interaction with Joe Shine (then a junior) and Charlie Foster (senior) was infrequent.
“I don’t think I had more than three or four conversations with Charlie (Foster) my entire freshman year,” remembers Seabrooks. “I was confined to the Fourth Battalion and he didn’t have much exposure to me … being exposed to people and being accepted was such a major part of who I was, I really thought, I’ve got to get out of this place because I’ve lost who I am.”
Later, during his freshman year Seabrooks agreed to attend a dance being held on the campus of South Carolina State, hoping the experience would change the way he was feeling.
“I walked into a dance at South Carolina State University in 1969 and I felt so uncomfortable,” he said. “I was a fish out of water. I was in a room full of black people and I feel uncomfortable. I realized that I’d been isolated for so long in my own mind from this kind of environment that I was no longer fitting in anywhere. That was a real awakening to me.”
Not long after, Norm picked up the public phone from the Trailways bus station and called home. When his father got on the line, Norm cut to the chase. This time he was leaving; he was quitting.
“Dad I need money to leave,” Norm asked.
“OK, stay right there I will wire you the money,” his father said.
“Dad I’ll be home tomorrow,” said Norm.
“No you won’t,” said Norm’s father. “If you quit, don’t come home. If you quit, go somewhere and I’ll see you in four years with a degree. If you’re going to quit, finish out the year, come home and then transfer, but do not walk away mid-year.”
Norm returned to The Citadel.
He remembered the long conversations he’d had with his father during the summer riding in his truck and they began to make sense.
“Norm, I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” his father said.
His most memorable days as a child and student was the first day of school when everyone received their new books. “My father couldn’t wait to start reading those books,” said Norm. “He was a voracious reader. He would always tell me how much he resented not having a formal education.”
But William Seabrooks education did not stop him. He missed five days of work during his 47-year career. The last 30 years of his life he never cashed his own paycheck — he gave it to his wife. He got a $25 allowance to go play poker with his buddies from the first day of his marriage until the day he died said his son. He worked long and hard providing for his family.
“What you expect and what you get is an education,” he told Norm before he left for college. “You have a responsibility to people who recruited you, but you also have a responsibility to people who are looking up to you. Don’t let people drive you away because they don’t accept you. Change their minds. Play football. Get a good education, but make sure they know who you are.”
“It became personal to me to stick it out,” said Seabrooks. “The ladies who cooked in the mess hall, the people who maintained the campus, the people who did the laundry, they would come over and tell me how very proud they were. They made me aware of how important it was for me to be a part of that football team … (it) meant so much to those people who worked there. Given the fact that I was the first African American athlete, if I quit, what kind of message does that send to everybody involved in my being there? I felt an obligation.”
Cunningham, who hosted Let’s Talk Sports on WPAL, a daily sports-talk show in Charleston, visited The Citadel in the fall of 1969 to interview Seabrooks, and later invited him to dinner with his family.
“It didn’t deal with football, it was helping him build some character while being away from his family, giving him a place that he knew he could feel comfortable with,” said Cunningham.
As clichéd as it sounds, Norm walked into a home away from home. The Cunningham’s had three children, all daughters, of their own at the time.
“He was very close to his family, but just being there for those four years, you’d like to think you had a footprint for that success,” said Cunningham. “You put some stability in there to give him a chance to succeed. Norman knew he always had a place to come when things got bad.”
After dinner that night, as Norm thanked the family and readied to leave he was handed a house key. “You are now part of our family,” the family told him. “You now have a place to come home to when you leave the campus.”
For the first time since he arrived in Charleston, Seabrooks had a sense of comfort and peace.
With the approval of administration and Coach Parker, Seabrooks was allowed to spend weekends off campus with the Cunningham family.
“We just opened the door to him and my mother-in-law (Flossie Gordon) really took to him and he took to her,” said Cunningham. “On Fridays, he would move into my youngest daughter’s room and on Sunday he’d go back to the school.”
Norm finally convinced himself get through the first six months, then transfer elsewhere. “Toward the end of my freshman year I began to understand that I could deal with the environment,” said Seabrooks. “I could deal with the stress, but I was never comfortable.”
Experience is not only what happens to you but what you do with what happens to you. The freshman experience was being claimed, partitioned and snatched away from Seabrooks in small parcels. It would be 21 more years before Norman Seabrooks would break his silence.
Norman Seabrooks was elected to The Citadel athletic Hall of Fame in 1994. When the announcement was made and the formal invitation arrived at his home in Seattle, Washington, Seabrooks told his wife Susan he wouldn’t wasn’t going back to accept the award.
“That’s ridiculous!” she told him.
“Susan, I have not been comfortable there for a number of years,” said Norm.
“Have you told anybody what you were thinking, what you were going through?” she asked.
“No,” Norm said.
“You really need to go back,” Susan told her husband. “Not being there for your Hall of Fame induction would be graceless.”
Norm had said no before, to friends, college representatives, even his former college roommate Keith Roden, who kept asking the question, “Why aren’t you coming back?”
Seabrooks avoided answering his former college roommate, a person he trusted and built a long-term friendship with, never knew about the isolation and resentment that had been percolating for decades.
“I avoided telling him that there were some people I became very close to this day are good friends but, by and large, I was isolated,” said Seabrooks. “There was no social interaction after class. There were cadets who resented me being there. There were a number of people that couldn’t understand why I hated hearing ‘Dixie.’ Why that song was not something I was enthused about running out to play a game.”
When The Citadel called about getting involved with recruiting prospective cadets, Norm’s feelings emerged. “I am a little concerned about recommending the institution to another African American student until I know that things have changed,” he told the official. “How could I, as an African American who benefited from a similar situation, say to someone, ‘You can’t do that.’ I could not imagine anyone saying to my daughter, ‘You don’t belong here because of your gender.’ I couldn’t imagine supporting any institution that has that type of narrow view.”
To no surprise, the discussion didn’t help mend fences and Seabrooks kept his emotions bottled up and his distance from the college.
But Roden persisted.
“One day he called and I just unloaded what I’d been feeling and the fact that being allowed to go there was a lot different than being accepted,” remembers Seabrooks.
When Norm finished, his friend and former roommate was silent on the other end of the phone. Finally, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I realized at that point I was as guilty as everybody else I had condemned because if I didn’t have the good sense to talk about my feelings to people who cared about me then why should they feel or know that I was uncomfortable, not feeling accepted,” admitted Seabrooks. “As I discussed my feelings I could see the genuine pain in their eyes when, those people who I was very close with over the years said, ‘I had no idea.’”
Suddenly, the baggage seemed lighter, the load a little easier to carry. Soon after, Seabrooks finally agreed to return to the campus in 1994, the place where he left so much anger, resentment and pain.
“I noticed something different,” he said. “I noticed the school was starting to make progress. You are seeing a generation of kids who are growing up whom, unlike my generation, were exposed to African Americans and others in high school and grade school.
“I was amazed at the comfort level of the African American students on that campus. I realized, these kids grew up in a world so different from my grade school years that, it’s a new place. To paraphrase Dr. King, people are now being judged on their character, not their skin color.”
While he sees the difference on campus today, Seabrooks deflects credit for the change in culture. “The credit for what has happened at that school really goes to Charlie Foster,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine being the only African American at that place and what he went through. I couldn’t imagine that.”
It took generations to cleanse that thought process. A meaningful change in societal habits does not change overnight while we snuggle in bed, nor does it come from a single person’s change of heart. Racism is a learned behavior. The Civil Right Act of 1965 changed the law, but did not change people’s hearts and minds.
“I was looking at The Citadel through a 20-year prism,” admitted Seabrooks. “I was looking at this school through my experiences and my biases.”
Without prompting he just blurted out his own question: “Would I do it over again?”
The answer was cut-and-dry: No.
He was the first person in his family to earn a college. Seabrooks was elected to The Citadel’s athletic Hall of Fame. He made a laundry list of friends during his four years in Charleston. The answer is – still – an emphatic no.
“It took me 20 years to get rid of,” said Seabrooks today. “I was not a very trusting soul. I was always guarded. I was never very comfortable in my own skin. I spent the first 20 years of my life saying what people wanted to hear because that’s what I did at The Citadel. It was only after talking to my wife and others later in life that I began to reach out to people and tell them who I was and what I thought.”
Seabrooks returned to The Citadel for Homecoming recently. As he sat on a bench in front of Bond Hall watching the parade pass by a woman sat down next to him. She proudly told Seabrooks about her son, and now grandson, who graduated from the academy. The woman looked down at Seabrooks hand and saw his class ring.
“What a wonderful institution,” she said. “You must be so proud of having gone here?”
Seabrooks smiled and nodded.