A fistful of firsts

Alumnus and gifted athlete, Jeremiah “Jerry” Gaines (Spanish ’71) was the first African American on a Virginia Tech sports team—and the university’s first black athlete to receive a full scholarship.

In 1990, in what was another Virginia Tech first, Gaines became the first black athlete inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, which was established in 1982 to honor and preserve the memory of athletes, coaches, administrators, and staff members who have made outstanding contributions to athletics at the university.

   

Jerry Gaines Jerry Gaines

This year, Gaines, passing more than 35 years of service to Chesapeake, Va., Public Schools, was named supervisor of student activities, an apt title for a mentor whose favorite quote is “Get right or get left.”

Jerry Gaines got it right.

Professional educator

Following graduation and a stint in the Army as a second lieutenant to fulfill his military obligation, Gaines returned “home” in 1972 to teach Spanish at Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, coaching football, track, and cross country. Notably, under Gaines’s leadership, the cross country team won eight consecutive district titles and three regional championships.

During a 21-year tenure in the classroom and on the fields, Gaines, who did his master’s work at Norfolk State University, was named Chesapeake City Schools’ PTA Teacher of the Year in 1984 and 1985, Portsmouth Sports Club’s High School Coach of the Year in 1987, and Chesapeake Teacher of the Year in 1990. Gaines was later promoted to assistant principal at the Chesapeake Center for Science and Technology and then to assistant principal at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake.

Through hurdles

    Jerry Gaines performing the long jump

Back when Virginia Tech’s formal name was simply Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI), the university, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to recruit black students, an early effort to increase the diversity of VPI’s student body.

“We students of the 1960s,” notes Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, who received his first degree from the university in 1969, “actually experienced the infancy of racial diversity on this campus.”

By mid-decade, there was but a handful of African Americans on campus and black students were not allowed to compete on the university’s athletic teams, which were steadily gaining more respect and visibility both in the state and around the country.

Because many of the universities with which VPI competed had begun to include black student-athletes on their teams, the VPI Athletic Association Board in early 1966 “adopted a statement reasserting a policy of recruiting student athletes ‘with high levels of academic and athletic ability, regardless of race,’” explains Warren H. Strother and Virginia Tech Professor of History Peter Wallenstein in their book, From VPI to State University: President T. Marshall Hahn Jr. and the Transformation of Virginia Tech, 1962-1974 (Mercer UP, 2004).

Such measures mightily cleared the way for VPI’s first black athlete. And what an athlete he proved to be.

Raising the bar

    Jerry Gaines running

In 1967, VPI track coach Martin Pushkin landed a highly sought-after high school recruit—Gaines—a standout in football, baseball, and track at Churchland High School in Portsmouth, Va.

Gaines, who enrolled at VPI as a freshman with some 2,200 other students, ultimately became a significant part of the university’s history—not only as its first African-American athlete but also as its first black athlete to receive a full scholarship and its first track freshman to receive a full scholarship. In addition, he was the first black to be signed by any “Big Five” school in Virginia, which included The College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia.

By any account, that’s an overwhelming number of “firsts” for a teenager, but Gaines, who was an Army ROTC member of the Corps of Cadets, apparently took the challenges in stride. Among the nearly 9,500 predominately white undergraduates, he was both a “strong student and outstanding athlete,” writes Craig Swift in his essay, “Toeing the Line: Jerry Gaines and Virginia Tech,” which appears in Wallenstein’s 1998 Essays.

Gaines’s performance in the sprints, quarter-mile, high and low hurdles, broad jump, triple jump, and high jump eventually pushed the track and field squad into the state’s elite, prompting a team member to tell The Virginia Tech, “He is a most valuable asset to the team. Other than his scoring ability, Jerry’s spirit is contagious.”

But sustaining that “spirit” and making VPI history were not without their difficulties.

“Those initial years were without a doubt some of the loneliest I have ever had in my life,” Gaines admits. “I had been up and down the coast but never in the mountains, which made the experience even more foreign to me.”

That loneliness seemingly did nothing to diminish his athletic prowess, however. In his freshman season, Gaines sailed 23' 6 1/2" in the long jump to break the university’s oldest record on the books, set in 1925, and to win the collegiate state championship in the event.

In addition, he earned the distinction of becoming the first freshman to be named VPI’s “Athlete of the Week.”

Capping off an outstanding first year, Gaines qualified for the NCAA Indoor National Championships. Correspondingly, the 1967-68 “record” for all VPI athletics proved to be the best overall season in the university’s history, notes Strother in the spring 1968 issue of Context, a former bulletin published quarterly by the university.

The next year, Gaines anchored the track team to an upset victory in Virginia’s state indoor meet, a title that VPI had never won. Not only did he set another school indoor record in the long jump, he also finished second in the 60-yard hurdles, second in the triple jump, and first in the 60-yard low hurdles.

Jerry Gaines had arrived.

Never breaking stride

As more African Americans trickled onto campus, Gaines admits that his “experience bettered every time another black student came to Tech.”

The 1969-70 academic year saw Charles Lipscomb Jr. (management '72) become the first black starter on the varsity basketball team. “We became very close,” says Gaines. “There were other black students on campus but my athletic endeavors kept me away from them; my weekends were tied up with track competitions.

   

Gaines (left) and Charles Lipscomb (right) in their athletic uniforms Gaines (left) and Charles Lipscomb (right) in their athletic uniforms

“The athletes then, as now, were always separated. My first year, I lived in Miles; the next year in Hillcrest, [we were] at the far corners of campus. We athletes were always on periphery of campus activities.”

Fellow student James Darnell Watkins (biology '71) shared similar impressions of the Blacksburg campus. “When we came to campus, there were no black athletes, that is, no basketball players and no football players. Jerry Gaines came in with me. He was the first black athlete and he was in track. We rarely saw him.” (From a 2000 interview with Watkins.)

Needless to say, the track teams against whom VPI competed certainly saw Gaines—again and again and again.

Gaines’s outdoor long jump of 24' 10" in 1971 at the University of Tennessee still holds the top spot in Tech’s record book. He also holds the record for the 120-yard hurdles and stands fourth all-time in the indoor long jump.

After finishing his degree, Gaines had one more year of eligibility to play football, a sport that track coach Pushkin had discouraged his young “star” from pursing. No longer the “legs” of the track team, Gaines joined the football team and was a powerful contributor that season at defensive back and punt returner.

With many years of perspective on his college days, Gaines remains humble. When asked if he felt his time at Tech was a “heavy load,” he replied, “Not so much a heavy load. I don’t look at it like that. It was a privilege and an opportunity. Being first was not my goal. It just worked out that way.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Juliet Crichton at crichton@vt.edu or (540) 231-8538.

In the news

In February 2007, ESPN.com celebrated Black History Month with a series of stories on the contributions made to sports by African-American athletes and executives.

Gaines is featured in the Feb. 26 story by Richard Lapchick, chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida and director of the university's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Gaines is an accomplished angler, too!

From the digital archives of the University of Virginia's Cavalier Daily

Virginia Tech took advantage of second and third place finishes in preventing perennial track power William and Mary from capturing its fourth straight State Indoor Track title, 77 1/2 - 69. . . . Tech was led by sophomore Jerry Gaines who scored 19 points by winning the long jump and the 60-yard low hurdles, placing second in the 60-yard high hurdles, and scoring a third in the triple jump.

Top performer for the team in the meet was Jim Shannon who leaped 23’ 3” in the broad jump to take second place, nine inches behind winner Jerry Gaines of Va. Tech.

The Indian squad was involved in its usual close battle with Virginia Tech, but also had points taken away by Norfolk State and Virginia, who finished third and fourth respectively in the 14-team field. . . . The field events were Tech's specialty. The Hokies captured the shot put . . . and the long jump on Jerry Gaines' 23’ 9 1/4” leap.

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