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R.L. Stockard and Birth of the Bayou Classic

Bayou Classic 1977 program.

Every year in November, more than 200,000 visitors from across the South and throughout the country travel to New Orleans to watch two rival HBCUs go head-to-head on the football field. More than just a game, the Bayou Classic is a week-long event celebrating historically black colleges and universities and their traditions of academic achievement and friendly competition. It features a festival, expo, parade, and other events in the lead up to Saturday afternoon, when the Grambling State University Tigers and the Southern University Jaguars finally take center stage, and one team is declared the champion for another year.

One of the men responsible for this annual display of sportsmanship was Russell L. Stockard, Sr. R.L. Stockard always had an investment in African American higher education. With degrees in history, anthropology and geography, he taught at both Florida A&M and Southern Universities. However, it wasn’t long before his devotion to sports began to creep into his professional life. Recognizing a lack of coverage on African American athletics in the daily papers, he began to supplement his academic income by launching a career as a sports journalist. From the 1950s through the 1980s, his byline could be found in the Tallahassee-Democrat, the Baton Rouge State-Times, and the New Orleans States-Item, as well as the Baton Rouge News Leader and the Louisiana Weekly, where he served as sports editor.

R.L. Stockard helped orchestrate New Orleans’ first integrated high school basketball game between the St. Augustine Purple Knights and the Jesuit Blue Jays.

Stockard focused on dispelling stereotypes about black athletes and sports programs. Outside of his columns, he used his influence to better the athletic landscape in the South. During his stint at the State-Times, Stockard set up a meeting with the sports editor and officials at Southern University which resulted in the expansion of the paper’s coverage of black athletics. He also assisted in coordinating the “secret” basketball game between St. Augustine and Jesuit High Schools, the first integrated game in New Orleans high school basketball that became the basis for Harold Sylvester’s film Passing Glory. All this was accomplished while Stockard served as the newspaper’s first African American sports writer.

Stockard was responsible for a number of such “firsts” during the course of his career. He was the first black graduate student to study both geography and history at Louisiana State University. He became the first black staff sports writer for a non-African American daily newspaper to have a byline and picture in 1953. He was the first Sports Information Director for Southern University, the first Sports Information Director for the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), and also the conference’s first Compliance Officer. His pioneering work did not go unnoticed. In 2001, Stockard was inducted into the Nokia Sugar Bowl Sports Hall of Fame, followed by the SWAC Hall of Fame in 2004, the Southern University Hall of Fame in 2007, and the Louisiana Sportswriters Association State Hall of Fame in 2008. Stockard also received the W.E.B. Du Bois Award from the Black Chamber of Commerce of Orange County, California, in 1999.

It was during Stockard’s tenure as SID of SWAC, which was headquartered in New Orleans at the time, that he served on the committee responsible for bringing the Bayou Classic to the city. The first official Bayou Classic was played at Tulane Stadium in 1974, where Grambling won with a shutout victory. Southern snagged their first win in 1979 at the Superdome, where the event has been held since 1975. For decades, Stockard could be found in attendance at the event he helped bring in to existence. Sadly, this week will mark the first match-up since his death in March of this year. When Southern and Grambling take the field on Saturday, take a moment to reflect on the career of R.L. Stockard and his influence on Southern sports.

More information about the Russell L. Stockard, Sr. Collection at the Amistad Research Center can be found here.

Images from the Russell L. Stockard, Sr. collection and Harold Sylvester papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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