Kentucky's Nat Northington: the man who broke the color barrier in the SEC.
On Sept. 30, 1967, Ole Miss traveled to Lexington to face the University of Kentucky Wildcats for the start of SEC play for both squads that season. The outcome was what you might expect: "Mississippi overwhelmed inept Kentucky in the first half and rolled to a 26-13 Southeastern Conference victory," the AP reported thus completely missing the historic importance of the game.
The Wildcats defensive end, Nat Northington, played for a total of three minutes in the contest. His performance cut short that afternoon by a dislocated shoulder that would plague him the whole of the season. Despite its brevity, his presence on the football field marked the first integrated Southeast Conference game. Just more than five years later, every team in the SEC would have African-American athletes on their roster. (Ironically, the last team to add a black player would be that same Ole Miss squad).
A week before the Kentucky vs Mississippi contest, Northington started in the Wildcats season opener against Indiana in Bloomington, In. Although it marked the first time an SEC team took the field with a black player in the starting roster. Despite the milestone, the day was a dark one. The Wildcats lost 12-10 and Northington dislocated his shoulder (later that week the team would bury the squads other black player, Greg Page, who died from injuries he received in fall practice).
While the SEC was considered the "final citadel of segregation" in college football, when integration finally arrived, it moved relatively quickly across the conference. A key reason is that toward the end of the 60s the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare began threatening to pull federal funding from schools not in compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I've put together a chart showing the chronolological order each team in the SEC integrated their varsity football squad with the names of their first black players as well as the year of their signing class.
The information here is culled from Charles H. Martin's superb book Benching Jim Crow: The Rise And Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980. I've also drawn from the records of the conference itself and news clippings available online. Despite that, I could use some help filling in the details.
Every "First Game" listed in italics is simply that team's season opener that year. I have not been able to confirm the players listed actually started in those contests or if they did so later in the season. I would welcome any further information confirming this information or correcting it.
I've also had trouble discerning the facts about Vanderbilt's first black player. Taylor Stokes was the first black player offered a scholarship to the school in 1969 and he was on the freshman team that year. He was injured the next season and it's not clear if he played or not. Stokes only saw limited action as a kicker in 1971. In the interim, James Hurley, who had been on the Georgia team as a walk-on during the late 1960s, left Athens and enrolled at Vanderbilt where he was offered a scholarship and lettered in 1970. If he actually made it on the field in 1970, he may have been the Commodores first black player but I can find no information on that either way.