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Seabrooks’ time at Citadel ‘complicated’

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by Diane Knich, Post and Courier

When Norman Seabrooks walked onto The Citadel’s football field as the team’s first black player in 1969, the school played “Dixie” at games and fans waved Confederate battle flags.

Seabrooks, now 59 and one of the top 100 employees at the Fortune 500 company Aetna, will speak for the first time at his alma mater Thursday about his experiences there during a tumultuous time in history.

Seabrooks’ story differs from those of other graduates who laugh about the physical challenges they endured, delight in stories of campus hijinks and get choked up when they talk about lifelong friendships they forged as cadets.

Seabrooks describes his relationship with the institution as “complicated.”

His wife observed that The Citadel taught him “to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” he said. And he thinks she’s right.

Marcus Cox, a history professor, associate dean and founding director of the African American Studies program at The Citadel, said Seabrooks’ talk is “important for the history of The Citadel and race relations of the time.”

Not all students immediately feel part of The Citadel family, Cox said, “and some feel alienated and discouraged.”

Seabrooks, who graduated in

1973, felt those things as he “broke barriers and did the right thing,” Cox said. But Seabrooks found a way to use those experiences to be successful in life.

Few students now know who Seabrooks is, Cox said. “That’s not right at a school that embraces tradition like this one does.”

Seabrooks, who grew up on a farm in Southern Florida, said he had no idea what he was getting into crossing a color-line in 1969.

“We were all just kids,” he said of himself, other black students and white cadets. Nobody understood at the time how meaningful their experiences were and the importance of the historic era into which they had marched.

His father wanted him to have a military education, and he thought The Citadel was “the West Point of the South.”

“I chose The Citadel to please him. My own choice might have been different,” Seabrooks said.

The Citadel didn’t do anything to accommodate the handful of black students who enrolled in the early years of integration, Seabrooks said. But when people found out he could play, “my life got easier,” he said.

The black women who worked in the mess hall were proud of him and looked after him, he said. When he returned to the campus in 1994 to be inducted in The Citadel Athletics Hall of Fame, some of those women were still working on the campus. “They ran up to me and hugged me,” he said.

But he wouldn’t have survived the lonely, uncomfortable years if it weren’t for Charleston resident Herb Cunningham and his family. Cunningham was a black man who had a local radio talk show.

After interviewing Seabrooks, Cunningham brought him home for dinner. Then he made him part of the family for the next four years.

Seabrooks said there are only a handful of other alumni, all former football players, whom he kept in touch with over the years and considers friends. And most of those relationships developed their depth after graduation.

His connections to the school continue to grow as he tries to give back and be a mentor when he can.

This year, Seabrooks fell while on vacation and suffered a severe spinal injury. Doctors thought he might be paralyzed from the neck down, he said. He got a call from one of his former Citadel roommates while he was recovering, and he told him about the injury.

That friend apparently called other former athletes immediately after his conversation with Seabrooks and told them about the injury.

Within hours of his conversation with the former roommate, his e-mail box filled with messages from Citadel alumni asking what they could do to help. It was a powerful experience, he said.

Many of the differences that divided them all those years ago seemed to fade into the background over the years, he said. “We all grew up.”

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Written by Symphony

November 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Education

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