Former Afro Sports Editor and Hall of Fame journalist Sam Lacy was always ahead of his time. He tackled the social injustices of race in sports with a voracity that changed the complexion of college and pro athletics. He was so far ahead of the curve and his relevance only grew during his career because many of the organizations he covered ultimately realized that they had to face the harsh reality that segregation was not in the best interest of organized sports.
Along the way, however, there was a moment where Lacy, who died in 2003, and his intrepid brilliance derailed history.
The AFRO’s Sam Lacy was instrumental in revealing that Syracuse player Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was not Indian, but Black, a fact in 1930s America that caused him to be relegated to the sidelines. (Courtesy photo)
Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was an outstanding two sport athlete who starred as a basketball player at New York’s DeWitt Clinton High School in the early 1930s. After earning a scholarship to Syracuse and earning status as a “the only Hindu basketball player in the United States” Singh was asked to play for the Orange’s football after he was noticed on campus playing in an intramural game which should have been the stuff of legend.
As soon as he stepped on the football field his basketball athleticism and raw talent took over. He was an original dual threat athlete who was dangerous as a single wing running back as he was as a quarterback. He stood to become the first Black football player to face Maryland in College Park.
In 1937 Maryland played in the Southern Conference, which forbade their schools to play against teams with Black players. Had the secret of Singh remained in the closet he would have broken that color barrier on Oct. 24, 1937. If only he could have remained behind the façade of his Hindu last name maybe Syracuse wouldn’t have lost 13-0.
We’ll never know.
Lacy knew D.C. back then the way the legendary TV and radio broadcaster Glenn Harris did in contemporary days. He had contacts throughout the insulated Black community because of the segregated times of the Jim Crow era. The grass roots local sports community was his arena. With history about to be made in his own backyard he was faced with a journalistic dilemma that confronts reporter and columnists routinely.
Lacy watched from afar as Singh’s reputation grew nationally while the “Hindu” with game produced epic performances against the Ivy’s League’s best teams. Lacy knew the family secret. Singh was Indian in name but not by birth.
He was born in D.C. as Wilmeth Webb – son of Elias Webb, a Black pharmacist from the Nation’s Capital and Pauline Miner. Wilmeth was raised in New York after Webb died from a stroke in 1925 and adopted by Miner’s second husband -Samuel Sidat-Singh – a West Indian physician who gave him a new last name.
But on Oct. 23 Lacy broke the news that Singh would be playing in College Park and that he was not Indian, but Black. It was a great piece of compelling journalism for D.C.’s Black community.
However, it came at an enormous price for the Singh/Webb family. On the cold rainy day at Maryland’s stadium Syracuse University relented and kept Singh on the sidelines. Instead of backing their player, they capitulated to the rules of the times. Wilmeth’s family was forced to watch as he was an innocent bystander in their shutout loss.
The story became a source of scorn and ridicule for the family. Wilmeth should have been a hero but became a pariah. He’s barely a footnote historically. Decades later the University of Maryland apologized for its racist behavior. The irony was Singh/Webb made headlines but never made history.