Curtis Williams – Trailblazer

Curtis Wiliams - SEMO's first black student-athlete 12-28-1966When I ran photos of the Southeast Missouri State Indians playing the Martin Branch of the University of Tennessee, several readers commented on Curtis Williams, #34. It turns out I had some action mug shots I took of him for either The Missourian or The Sagamore in December of 1966.

Central grad first black SEMO athlete

Curtis Wiliams - SEMO's first black student-athlete 12-28-1966What I didn’t know until I read an excellent profile by Marty Mishow in the February 19, 2004, Missourian was that the CHS grad was SEMO’s first black student-athlete and a basketball and track standout from 1964 through 1967.

Kermit Meystedt, Williams’ former basketball teammate at both Central and Southeast who along with Williams was inducted into Southeast’s Athletic Hall of Fame last October said, “He was just a very class individual, and an excellent, very gifted athlete.”

In basketball, Williams was a three-year letterman under coach Charles Parsley. He averaged 18.4 points per game as a senior to earn first-team all-MIAA honors after being second-team all-MIAA as a junior.

On the track, Williams earned four letters and excelled in all the jumps. He at one time held school records in both the high jump, at 6-8 3/4, and the triple jump, at 48-8 1/4. He was a multiple conference champion.

Wasn’t on a scholarship

Curtis Wiliams - SEMO's first black student-athlete 12-28-1966The story pointed out that Williams began his SEMO career without a scholarship, which meant that he not only played sports, but he routinely worked almost a full shift at Cape Frozen Foods, which specialized in butchering and storing meat.

Track coach Marvin Rosengarten said, “He worked at least 30 hours at the frozen food locker on Broadway. I always used to have him promise me he wouldn’t work the day before a meet so he wouldn’t be worn out.

“But after his sophomore year, I went to Charles Parsley and we worked out a deal where we split the scholarship. I think in his junior year he was just on a partial scholarship but by his senior year he was on full scholarship between basketball and track.

Flashbacks of racism

SEMO Indians vs Tenn Martin Branch 12-22-1966Williams was quoted as saying that he was well accepted by his teammates.

“Coming back from trips, sometimes we wouldn’t get served in restaurants, or they’d say I had to go eat in the back, but Coach Parsley said we would all eat together or we wouldn’t eat there. I remember we left one place outside Jonesboro.”

While Williams said he never encountered much negative reaction because of being black while at Central or Southeast, he was certainly not exempt from racism.

“During the early years of my life, I grew up at a time when blacks had to go in the back doors of restaurants to be served, where you were not allowed to attend movies or swim in public pools,” he said. “To this day, I still have flashbacks of those moments when one was made to feel less than human. You deal with it and move on.







27 Replies to “Curtis Williams – Trailblazer”

  1. It’s very painful now to realize how sheltered, unaware and naive I was growing up in Cape. It literally made me sick to just read Curtis’ words about growing up here and attending Semo. That he didn’t receive a scholarship until his senior year is shocking and shameful. Guys like Curtis and Paul Nugget Banks at CHS and Walter Smallwood at Semo were not only some of the best athletes I knew and admired but were also some of the finest individuals and young men.
    I guess I realized blacks were mistreated in the news and in other places, but not here in little Cape and especially not to these good and humble human beings. I truly idolized them and when they spoke to me and called me by name as a freshman and sophomore – it thrilled me and made my day. Even if it was “little Brun” – it was always said with a smile and accompanied by a pat on the head or back.
    I am ashamed that I didn’t realize more then or even later – what their lives were like and what they had to endure. And when I see them occasionally when back in Cape to visit or be honored for sports – I marvel at what they’ve accomplished with their lives, and that they are still the humble gracious men that I remember so fondly growing up.

  2. Curtis was a great classmate and a gracious but shy friend. I still remember he received an Optimist Award in the 8th grade and didn’t want to come down to receive it. He always had a smile. Just an all around class person.

  3. I remember Curtis an a high school sophomore football player at 96 pounds when I was a Senior. I had hoped to see him at Ritenour High School a couple of years ago as I was close at times with his fellow teachers. They would tell me about working with him when I was around them but I never got to see Curtis. There was a lot of respect for him in the Ritenour School District based on their comments.
    I never realized there was some discrimination in Cape. Such things I am sure were undercurrents and I never saw it on the team. I played school football, Church league basketball and summer baseball with Howard McGee, Paul Banks, Frank Baker, Lester Miller, Vernal Smith and Curtis to name a few blacks that come to mind. They were all good players but more importantly great teammates.

  4. Curtis Williams must have been an amazing athlete. I have never really followed sports and I remember Curtis Williams on the court very well. I was aware of the institutional racism, maybe in part because my father was from Mississippi and I grew up across the south. That is probably why I am currently so concerned about voter suppression efforts. It isn’t over yet.

  5. Curtis Williams was and is a class act. His dedication to attaining an education and making things better for himself and his family was very evident throughout his career. He never complained, worked absurd hours, never missed practice, was always ready to practice and super ready for the game. Curtis should have been on a full ride with track and basketball. I would think the university made a little money on the skills of Curtis Williams. Houck was sold out his entire career.

  6. You’re right Charlie – especially since tuition and books was only $80 per semester back then, and room and board was only a couple hundred dollars – if that. I could “may be” understand his freshman year – them letting him prove himself in the “culture of the times”… but after that letting him work full time at the meat locker while others were on scholarship …. was a crime.

  7. Curtis was and is one of the finest humans on this planet! Always smiling , always happy to see you and give a big hug. As well as I knew him and went to school with him including Semo I never knew until this story that he was not on scholarship. Curtis is the ultimate role model and gentleman with an amazing family. Love ya Curtis… Thinking back I am so ashamed of Semo but proud of Coach Parsley and Rosengarten two good guys themselves.

  8. I have pictures I found at Bill Harrison’s home of the wife and children of Curtis visiting Bill and Hazel. I believe Curtis lives in St. Louis but I do not have an address. I would love to be able to send these pictures to him. Bill and Hazel truly loved and respected Curtis.

    1. Hi!!! I am just doing some research and saw your comment! Do you still have these photos? Have you ever found him? Curtis is my great uncle!!!!

  9. Curtis Williams was my PE teacher in Elementary school in the late 70’s, to 1981. He was an incredibly fun loving, warm and patient human being who still, almost 35 years later, recognizes my mother and asks about my sister and I when he sees her in a restaurant. I never knew about his experiences or that he even played ball in college. But then, I already respected the man he was/is.

  10. I met Mr Williams last night at an O’Fallon basketball tournament. What a wonderful, interesting and talented individual. It was a joy visiting with him.

    1. Mr. Williams is one of the best men I have ever known. Like Michelle above Mr. Williams was my PE teacher at Marvin Elementary. I don’t think I ever saw him without a smile on his face. Everyone in schools favorite part of the day was seeing him in class. He seemed like superman to me and he could do anything. He was also a family friend and both of my parents and my brothers and sisters love him. We lived right by school and my dad would help Mr. Williams during field day. He had a summer business painting and I helped him paint one of the neighbors houses one summer. His grandson plays basketball and I ran into him recently and it brought a lot of those memories back. Knowing some of what he went through when he was young, and the fact he never let that change who he is, or have a bitter outlook of people, or the world, shows how strong of a man he is!

  11. I loved Curtis Williams. He was my sixth grade gym teacher at Marvin grade school when I moved to St. John in 1971. I remember him wrestling around with my friend Chuckie Jones and me and others in gym class. I loved being around him. He was full of love for all of us kids.

  12. I met Curtis Williams today for the first time. We were both attending the funeral for Vince Raddle, former teacher and administrator in Cape. Curtis had come because Mr. Raddle had been his teacher in elementary school. We talked about getting coffee after the funeral, but he had to hurry back to St. Louis. Being two years older than him (Curtis 76 & me 78), my memory kept me from remembering him, but yet I was sure I knew him from my past. Later in the day, I recalled, “That was the immortal Curtis Williams I watched play basketball at SEMO when I was a junior & senior there & he was a freshman & sophomore.” When I returned to Cape to teach in 1967, I began to hear sports stories about the athletic prowess of Curtis Williams. Some classmates of his, became my friends and often spoke of him as not only an outstanding athlete, but an all round good guy. In the few minutes we visited today, I was impressed by his extensive knowledge of what’s happening in high school sports in the St. Louis area. My grandson plays basketball at Westminster Christian Academy and he was very aware of their players and team’s successes. Same was true of other St. Louis basketball teams. I’m sorry we didn’t get to have that coffee and I missed out on getting to know the immortal Curtis Williams more.

    1. I haven’t seen Curtis since his CHS and SEMO days, but he’s someone who is worth spending time with. You should reach out to him. You can tell from the comments how highly he was regarded by those who knew him Back Then.

  13. i remember curtis as a baby sitter for the family of rev. leo ragland, as the boy who delivered the daily paper, and as sunday school and vacation bible school teacher. most of all i remember one sunday at the cape girardeau pool some folks asked curtis to dive from the high dive which he did, it was magic i saw it in slow motion a perfect demonstration of athletic poetry. that stills impresses me today

  14. Curtis Williams is my Uncle, my father (Guy’s) baby brother. Congratulations Uncle Curtis! It sounds like this is an accolade that’s well overdue! As you know, we all love and appreciate you ❤️. Thank you for being the Trailblazer in athletics in Cape Girardeau. You opened doors for many. May God continue blessing you and the family. Earl

  15. I have known Mr Curtis Williams for many years and have always admired the kind, friendly man that he is. He has impacted many lives and has been the standard for many who watched his journey. To honor this great man is precisely what needs to happen. Such a role model, community supporter and all around incredibly talented native. Cape Girardeau should be proud of him, I know I certainly am!!!,

  16. I remember Mr. Curtis Williams as a kind, gentle, friendly Young man, who people admire greatly. He was a phenomenal athlete, and I remember him being discussed often when I was just a young girl. My family knows his family and we all certainly love and respect him.. SEMO had no idea who they had when he played for them…they didn’t know they had GREATNESS among them…

  17. Ken, reading your article about Mr. Williams and all these comments makes me wish I had known him. I think I just missed him at Central High School as I graduated in 1961. My loss!

  18. Have always been proud to know Curtis and call him a friend. So happy he is being honored with the street naming along with Walt Smallwood. My mist recent memory of Curtis is his coming to my husbands visitation when he passed away in March. What a wonderful thing for him to drive down from St Louis to honor Norm and visit briefly with me! Because the visitation line was an hour and a half long I didn’t get to talk to him very long but will never forget his kindness. When we were in college and saw each other he never failed to give me a hug! Curtis is such an example to be followed! Love ya man❤️. Hope he gets to read all of these amazing comments!!

  19. Dear Mr. Steinhoff

    I am a South African researcher busy with a book project on basketball tours between South Africa and the United States between 1968 – 1980. Curtis Williams were one of three African American players on the 1973 tour who attracted huge media attention for their race. I would like to obtain two pictures to illustrate one of my chapters if at all possible. Unfortunately, I lack external financial support for my research and would not be able to pay a significant amount for photographs. I would naturally credit the photographer appropriately. Looking forward to your response. Regards

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