Charles Wilson among eight Monroe High School students to Desegregate Cocoa high in 1964
WATCH: Charles Wilson would be among the first eight African-American students to attend an all white school in Brevard County. Not only was he a talent on the football field, but he was also the first African-American captain on a public high school football team in the state of Florida.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – The year was 1964. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated less than a year earlier, the Vietnam War was in its infancy stages, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just been signed into law, which, among other things, outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
All across this nation, there was general unrest.
This is about the time Charlie Wilson started to make a name for himself, not only in the sports arena but also in life. Prior to desegregation, Wilson attended Monroe High School, an all-black school in Cocoa, Florida.
However, in 1964, with racial desegregation of public schools a legislative mandate throughout the U.S., including the South, the decision was made that Wilson and seven other Monroe High School students would attend Cocoa High School.
They would be the first African-American students to attend the all-white school. Wilson and the others were among the top academic students at Monroe, and it was felt that because of that, their possibility of success was good.
Wilson was born at Wuesthoff Hospital in Rockledge and had been in Brevard County all of his life. His dad, Phillip James Wilson, Sr. (PJ) was a successful golf professional and was one of the best teaching pros in the area. His mom, Etta Ruth Wilson, with eight children, not only worked at home but was a top-notch salesperson at a large department store.
As a young child, Wilson’s life revolved around sports. His dad coached him in little league and pony league baseball where Wilson excelled at all levels on the diamond. However, football was the sport that would eventually land him in the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame.
When the 1964 school year began Wilson was entering the 10th grade, and he and his seven Monroe High School classmates, now Cocoa High School classmates, were ready.
However, there were many unanswered questions. Would they fit in? Would they be accepted? Would the talented Wilson be given a chance to prove himself on the athletic fields? Only time would tell.
Wilson loved the game of football and had been a starting defensive end on Monroe High’s team since the 7th grade. He loved defense and he loved to hit. Sam Huff and Ray Nitschke, two of the top NFL linebackers of all time, were a couple of players that Wilson admired and wanted to emulate.
There was no question that Wilson wanted to continue playing football at Cocoa High. One of Wilson’s mentors, Monroe football coach Dick Blake, spoke with the coaching staff at Cocoa High and was assured that Wilson would be given a chance to try out for the team.
If the name Dick Blake sounds familiar, it’s because he was the first African-American to teach at an integrated school in Brevard County, the first to be a head coach and the first to be named high school principal. Blake is also a member of the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame.
Wilson’s first practice at Cocoa High was not your typical high school football practice. There was a big crowd to watch because they heard a former Monroe player was going to try out.
They wanted to see how good he was, and if he could withstand the pressure of being the first African-American football player at Cocoa High. Wilson was so impressive in his first practice that, despite the fact that he broke his arm, he locked up a spot on the varsity.
Two questions were immediately answered. He was good enough to play football, and he could withstand the pressure. Wilson played three years of football at Cocoa High and also played basketball and ran track.
When asked about the differences between athletics at Cocoa High and Monroe High, what came to mind for Wilson was not the play on the field, but the facilities.
According to Wilson, “The facilities were much bigger and better at Cocoa.” He said that coaching techniques were slightly different, which is not unusual, and that both schools played at Provost Park.
“The individual talent level at both schools was about the same,” said Wilson.
A couple of standouts that immediately came to mind were Andrew Howard and Billy Hughes. When asked about 2016 Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame Inductee Willie Ric-Rac Wright, Wilson said, “He is a legend in Cocoa. He is one of the people that I admired. I grew up saying, I want to be like Ric-Rac.”
Wilson also spoke highly of Walter Jackson, better known as “Alabama Red,” and Clyde Thomas. These players were not only great football players but played basketball and baseball as well.
So, there was talent galore at both Monroe and Cocoa. Both schools had players that went on to college and the NFL.
FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN TEAM CAPTAIN IN FLORIDA
As Wilson entered his senior year at Cocoa High, he was being heavily recruited. Not only was he a talent on the football field, but he was also the first African-American captain on a public high school football team in the state of Florida.
Multiple colleges were interested in Wilson, among them were the U.S. Naval Academy, Baylor, Kansas, Michigan State, Citadel, UCLA and Penn State. The Naval Academy stood out to Wilson because of its tradition and standards of excellence.
The offers were on the table. But what makes this story so unique is that Charlie Wilson had decided he wanted to attend a major Division 1 university. Until now, it was common practice for African-American athletes in Brevard County to attend historically black colleges like Florida A&M and Grambling.
Wilson and his dad were extremely close and were big-time football fans. They watched football on TV and knew about the big schools, Penn State included. Wilson was a big fan of Penn State players Lenny Moore, Rosey Grier and Roger Kaufman.
He was also very interested in Michigan State and was impressed with the Wolverines’ linebacker George Webster and Spartan head coach Duffy Daughetry. A lot of things about Michigan State intrigued Wilson.
He had gotten it into his head that he wanted to go to a major football school and wanted to select a school that was nationally known, that would appear on TV, and would go to bowl games.
Blake, Isaiah Russell and LeRoy Smith working together to secure a scholarship for him eventually landed Wilson at Penn State. Russell was one of Wilson’s teachers and did his summer graduate work at Penn State.
While there, he met head coach Joe Paterno and struck up a friendship. Russell told Paterno that he knew of a great student-athlete from his hometown of Cocoa that he should recruit. Blake, Smith and Russell put together game film of Wilson, sent it to Paterno, and the rest is history.
Wilson went to Penn State on a recruiting visit, not knowing Coach Paterno, who had been there only one year. Wilson was impressed with the school, coaching staff and all they had to offer.
“It seemed like a good school with a good reputation,” Wilson said.
Sometimes the choices you don’t make turn out to be good ones. Wilson had a chance to go to Marshall University. They were the first school to offer him a recruiting trip to visit their campus. He liked it, and was impressed with what he saw. It just wasn’t big-time like Penn State.
Had he chosen Marshall, he likely would have been on the plane that crashed on November 14, 1970, killing all 75 people on board, including 37 members of the football team.
ABOVE VIDEO: Many years have passed since Wille “Ric-Rac” Wright attended the African-American only Monroe High School in the early 1960s, but his former coach says watching Wright on the field and the basketball court was magical.
PENN STATE’S FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN RECRUIT FROM FLORIDA
Wilson’s decision to attend Penn State was groundbreaking. He was the first African-American from the state of Florida to attend Penn State. He was also the first African-American to attend a major Division 1 university from Cocoa High School – and quite possibly Brevard County.
Wilson enjoyed playing for Coach Paterno. “He was pretty tough,” said Wilson. “He not only was a coach, but a friend.”
Paterno had Wilson over to his house numerous times for dinner and seemed to take a special interest in the young man from Cocoa. After all, he was Penn State’s first African-American recruit from Florida and he wanted to try to help ensure his success, not only on the field, but off the field. Many times they would talk about things other than football.
On the field, Wilson played running back and wide receiver. By his sophomore season, he was the starting running back for the nationally second-ranked Nittany Lions.
A devastating knee injury slowed Wilson down a bit, but he played a solid four years and began his senior season as the starting safety.
Wilson went on to lead a very successful business career. He started with the Kendall Company, rising to director of human resources. After being employed by Frito-Lay, Wilson went to work for Clarian Health, and then to Penn State – Hershey Medical Center where he was Chief Human Resources Officer until he retired in 2014.
He will be the first to tell you that he has not done this alone. His mentors have been many, and have been extremely important to him. Among them, he counts his dad and mom; his coaches, including Reche Sims, Smith and Blake; and his teacher, Isaiah Russell. And, there have been many more along the way that have guided and molded him into the man he is today.
When asked about lessons learned on the football field that carried over to life, Wilson used words like never giving up, always giving your best, being relentless, persistence, always striving to be better than the last time and teamwork.
He emphasized that not only did the African-American community pull for him and the Monroe students’ success, but the white community did as well.
“I had a wonderful experience at Cocoa High,” said Wilson.
“I had the support of the coaches. I made a lot of friends – friends for life. People I had known, we lived in different neighborhoods and came from different walks of life, but we were able to connect on a level that has carried on to this day.”
Yes, 1964 is where it really began for Charlie Wilson and his eventual induction in the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame.
The question – would the eight Monroe High School students fit in at Cocoa High School was answered – yes, they did. Would they be accepted at Cocoa High School – yes, they were. Would Charlie Wilson be given a chance to prove himself on the athletic field and life – yes, from day one.
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