A young African-American athlete in Ahoskie, he saw Duke play football on television, was mesmerized by All-America halfback Jay Wilkinson, the Blue Devils helmets, and the school’s name.
“That made me fall in love with the university; Duke was where I wanted to play,” said Newsome, who was a standout football player at Ahoskie High. “But at 13, I never thought it would be possible to attend Duke.”
That was in 1963, before schools in the south were recruiting black athletes, before racial barriers had been broken.
But color wasn’t an issue for Duke coach Mike McGee, who signed Newsome, a strong, mobile 6-foot-3, 215-pound linemen, and All-America defensive back Ernie Jackson from South Carolina in 1967. They arrived on campus in the fall of ’68 as the university’s first African-American scholarship football players.
In acknowledgement of Black History Month, Newsome — now president of Shaw University — Jackson, former basketball player C.B. Claiborne and former football player William Turner were honored at halftime of the Duke-St. John’s game Saturday in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Jackson was not present.
So was venerable coach Vic Bubas, who built Duke into a national power in the 1960s and has been elected to the National Basketball Hall of Fame.
When Newsome enrolled at Duke, times were turbulent, fueled by the transition from segregation to desegregation.
“It was extremely challenging in every respect,” Newsome said. “There were so few African-Americans [on campus]. We went through the natural process of making friends, finding a circle of support, including whites as well. I met outstanding people [of both races]. We made our way.”
Newsome lettered two seasons in football as an offensive and defensive linemen and battled back after tearing a medial collateral ligament.
Academically driven, he graduated in three and a half years and, in 1972, became the first African-American to give the commencement address.
Newsome also earned a degree from Divinity School, got a Ph.D in Philosophy as well, then taught in the Divinity School before becoming a college president at Howard and Shaw.
“Coach [McGee] lined up a tryout for me with the St. Louis Cardinals,” Newsome said. “But I felt the calling on my life was to stay in Divinity School.”
Newsome, still big on football and academically ambitious at 57, remains involved with his alma mater.
He was a member of the search committee that helped in the hiring of new football coach, David Cutcliffe.
An advocate of diversity, Newsome said Duke made the right choice in hiring Cutcliffe over a list of candidates that included two African-Americans.
“We gave every candidate due consideration,” he said. “Race didn’t matter. We went after the best person. Coach Cutcliffe is our choice. There was no doubt about it on the search committee.
“I think the day will come when we see an African-American in a head-coaching job at Duke. I’m delighted to see the university on whole grow the way it has in regards to diversity. It has come such a long way and I applaud that.”
Meanwhile, Newsome is staying busy at Shaw, stressing academic and athletic excellence, and trying to help all students realize their ambitions.
Newsome can assure them that some “Impossible” dreams can come true.