Richard “Dickie” Wells, the first Black basketball player at American University (AU) and the first African American player in the Mason-Dixon Conference, was inducted into the American University Hall of Fame in a weekend ceremony, which also honored former University of Maryland head basketball coach Gary Williams – whose first collegiate head coaching job was at AU.
Wells joined American 56 years ago, before black players were routinely recruited for white colleges.
It was just a couple years removed from the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in the public schools in America.
But Dave Carrasco, a Mexican-American coach hired by AU, had a vision of a racially integrated basketball program at AU and after several home visits and fried chicken dinners he was able to convince Wells’ mother that her son, a star football and basketball player at D.C.’s Spingarn High School, was the right person to join the team.
Wells was second all-time at American University with 1,184 career rebounds, sixth and eighth with 433 and 412 rebounds in a single season, respectively, and ranks third with 16 free throws made in a single game at Towson State University.
He also was the school’s first player to receive All-American honors when he was named a Little College All-American Honorable Mention in 1958. He was also named an NCAA college Division Honorable Mention in 1960.
Wells grew up in the far Northeast section of D.C., near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, riding 2.5 hours each way on the bus to get to campus each day.
He developed a reputation as a hard worker and tenacious rebounder on the court.
More importantly, however, he was described as an unselfish player who helped make everyone around him better – personally as well as athletically.
But Carrasco also knew that integrating AU’s team was going to be tough at times and he made it clear to Dickie, there was to be no fighting, no matter what the score of the game.
“He said, ‘If we fight we lose everything,’” said Ed Wells, Dickie Wells’ older brother – an outstanding athlete in his own right at North Carolina A&T, adding he thought his brother was an unlikely choice to be a racial pioneer.
“My brother was not one to turn the other cheek. I still can’t understand why he would commit to such an undertaking.
Plus, I thought I knew my brother far better than anyone.
This was not the Dickie Wells I knew. There was nothing in his DNA, nothing in his day-to-day persona that would lead anyone to select him for this Jackie Robinson role.”
During the first road game in the Mason-Dixon Conference to a small, white school in Virginia, hundreds of placards, reading “N—– go home” or other vulgar ephitets directed at Wells and Carrasco, littered the arena. Several black cats were released upon the floor delaying the game, Ed Wells said.
The name calling and verbal abuse continued until Dickie Wells fouled out of the game early in the fourth quarter. The student body stood in unison, locked hands and rocked back and forth with eyes closed as the band played “Bye, Bye Black Bird.”
Each year, when AU returned to play that school, there was at least one more black player on the team and the trash talking and the singing diminished until Wells’ senior year when at least four black players took the court.
That year, there was no “Bye, Bye Black Bird,” before, during or after the game.