MULBERRY, FL (WFLA) – Arthur Jones integrated USF athletics in 1970 when he became the first Black student-athlete to join the men’s basketball team.
Arthur Jones, 71, was the first Black student-athlete to receive a scholarship and play a sport at the University of South Florida in 1970. Jones was a leader on the team who still holds records at the school.
Born and raised in Polk County in Mulberry, Jones started playing basketball when he was 5 years old.
“It would always be a group of boys playing,” Annie Jones. “I said I don’t know if he will be a better basketball player or football player but I always would go for basketball.”
Annie is Arthur’s 93-year-old mother. She raised Arthur and his four siblings as a single mother.
“I practically raised all my kids by myself, with just a little bit of money,” Annie said. “I worked at the hospital in Mulberry and would take home $91 a month and we just had to make it work.”
Raising her children in the 50s and 60s, they all faced racism and discrimination.
“It was really bad,” Trellis Haygood said. “They actually had a tree, they called it the hanging tree in Mulberry.”
Haygood is Jones’ younger sister. Although they may have faced those adversities, education, and athletics were at the forefront of their upbringing.
“Sports was the big thing in our family,” Haygood said. “Arthur started doing really well once he got to high school.”
He dominated so much that he received an offer from Florida State University. However, Jones and Haygood say FSU changed up their offer to Jones while he was on his visit. When USF called, they offered him a full ride for all four years.
“When he hit that campus freshman year it was on until senior year,” Haygood said.
He was 6ft. 4 in. 220 lb. power forward on the team. He dominated all of his four years on campus and broke records. He broke barriers while on campus too. As the only Black student-athlete on campus, he faced a little résistance from other students.
“Oh of course there were students who didn’t want to be around him, but my brother never cared about any of that,” Haygood said. “He made friends with a lot of those guys that didn’t like him at first. I remember he had a white friend that he met at school. He brought him home with him for the weekend, it almost started a riot.”
That friend was Bill Lear.
“We get to the game and I’m sitting with Arthur, his family and friends, and this guy comes up to May and says I want to kick your butt, but not using those words,” Lear said.
“Arthur’s mother Annabelle came running up with her purse, shaking going, leave my boys alone, leave my boys alone,” Lear recalled. “That’s when I knew Arthur and I would have this bond that’s never been broken.”
Arthur and Bill’s relationship started as teammates in 1970.
“Even though we were only roommates for two and a half years we’ve remained lifelong friends,” Lear said.
Bill says the team and coaches always stood up for Arthur when racism came his way.
“We really didn’t sense anything odd because we just wouldn’t acknowledge it,” Lear said. “I remember us traveling and they made Arthur sit in the back of the bus and we just all sat with him.”
Arthur has always overcome adversity. In 2018, Arthur suffered from a stroke and everything changed.
“I was inside the house and noticed he was outside just sitting there for a while and something told me to go check on him,” Annie said. “I ran around him and when I got there I looked in his eyes. I called him by name, he didn’t say anything. I said to myself, it looks like he had a stroke.”
Arthur recovered for weeks in the hospital with his family by his side. As a result of the stroke, Arthur lost his speech. He now relies on his sister, mom, and loved ones to communicate on his behalf.
“He has overcome some serious issues in his life and he’s still, even with not being able to speak, he’s still the proudest person I know,” Lear said.
Fifty-three years after his first year on campus, Jones stepped back on USF’s campus to be recognized for the impact he made and currently makes on the USF athletic program.
“It brought a whole new spark to his step, to know that people care about him,” Lear said.
The momentous occasion happened on his birthday, as well as his mother’s birthday.
“It was all so exciting, I think I cried some,” Annie said. “I’m 93 and he’s 71 and I’m still proud of him.”
Arthur said the recognition from USF was one of the best moments of his life.