BNV’S BLACK HISTORY STORIES: Barrier breaking in the heart of Dixie

Wilbur Jackson is a native of Ozark, Alabama, a small city of 14,000 located in the heart of Dixie. Jackson grew up in a time when segregation from schools was still prominent and integration during his high school career had just begun. But in the middle of all this, he became the first Black male student to receive a scholarship to attend the then-all-white University of Alabama.

Wilbur Jackson and my mother were born and raised in Ozark. Although Jackson is a few years older than my mother, they still knew each other and went to school together. I chose to write about Jackson because I was raised in Ozark and I also graduated from the University of Alabama. During the time that Jackson was in high school, Black colleges were the only schools that Black students could attend to better themselves. When Jackson received his scholarship to the University of Alabama, he broke a huge barrier, which gave Black people the possibility to not only attend the university but also obtain a scholarship.

Mural of Wilbur Jackson in downtown Ozark, Alabama. Photo credit: City of Ozark, Alabama
Mural of Wilbur Jackson in downtown Ozark, Alabama. Photo credit: City of Ozark, Alabama

In Ozark, D.A. Smith High School, formerly known as Ozark Negro High School, was the high school that all the Black students attended and Carroll High School was the school for white students only. As Jackson transitioned to high school, D.A. Smith closed its doors and all the Black students integrated into Carroll High School. This was a culture shock to both the Black and white students.

At Carroll High School, Jackson became a stand-out athlete, playing both baseball and football. He focused more on baseball until he broke his leg in his sophomore year.  From there he decided to focus more on football. Throughout his high school years and before he graduated in May 1970, he was recruited and offered a football scholarship to the University of Alabama by renowned head Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. During this time, the head coach of the university had the full decision power to decide what athletes would be recruited and who would receive scholarship offers. 

This was huge in the state of Alabama especially because six years before, Gov. George Wallace stood on the steps of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium, blocking the entry for any Black students to attend. Jackson became the first Black male student to receive a scholarship from a major all-white school. Because of the hostile racial climate in the South, Jackson thought about quitting and returning back home to Ozark,, but instead he persevered through it for the sake of his family. Coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant told Jackson if he ever had a problem “Don’t go see anyone else, just come and see me and we’ll work it out,” according to various sources and my mother. Those words stuck with Jackson to this day. 

Eventually, Jackson graduated and went on to be picked up in the first round of the NFL draft in 1974. Jackson had a successful football career,  playing for teams such as the San Francisco 49ers, and once he decided to retire he returned to his Alabama roots in Ozark, where he opened a business with his wife. Jackson was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 and honored by the University of Alabama in 2022 as a trailblazer athlete. He is hailed as a hero in his hometown, and a mural honoring him is on display in downtown Ozark.

Kenya Whitfield is a BNV’s technical specialist.

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