Once A Jayhawk, Always A Jayhawk: Nolen Ellison
On April 4, 1968, Nolen Ellison, former point guard for the Kansas Jayhawks, had just been elected to the Kansas City Kansas Community College Board of Trustees. He was the first African-American to be elected to this position. It was a normal day in his office in the Kansas City City Hall. The TV and radio were on in the office that day, and a breaking news report came across the television. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot and killed on the balcony of his hotel.
“I was shook,” Ellison said.
Before he had the opportunity to truly process what happened, the phone in his office rang. The president of the KCK Community College, Jack Flint, was on the other end. He was in need of Ellison’s help. With the news of the MLK assassination, the students at the college had barricaded themselves in the student union and refused to leave. Ellison said Flint was afraid he was going to have to get the police involved.
So, Ellison went down to the student union and the students allowed him to enter. Ellison said the students were upset and distraught at the news of King’s death. He spoke with the students in an attempt to calm them down and get them to understand what could happen if the police had to be involved. Ellison said he left the building and went to Flint’s office and by the time he got there, they looked out the window and saw the student filing out of the building.
“It avoided what could have been an unfortunate confrontation between the police and those students that day,” Ellison recalled.
Ellison said that was an important day for him.
“The Martin Luther King assassination was a turning point for me,” Ellison said. “And I never looked back.”
Ellison was born in January of 1941, during a time in the United States when African-Americans were known as Negros, coloreds, coons or even worse. This was a time in history before lynching a human being was a federal crime. Ellison was born into a world where he was considered, by most, to be less of a human and less capable than those with white skin. These are the types of things Ellison heard on a regular basis, but he was determined to do something with his life. He had dreams of being more than what the world said he was supposed to be.
Ellison and his older brother, Butch, didn’t have much growing up.
“We grew up at 4th and Freeman in Kansas City,” Ellison said. “In the heart of the ghetto.”
The Ellison brothers attended segregated schools throughout their childhood, but that changed in 1954. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education determined that the segregation of public schools under the, back then, logic of “separate but equal,” was actually, in fact, unequal. With the opportunity to attend another school, the younger Ellison decided to attend Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas, which was originally an all-white high school.
It was at Wyandotte High School where Ellison became a basketball standout and began his journey toward becoming a Jayhawk. He played in three-consecutive state championships, he was selected as a High School All-America player, and was inducted into the National Honor Society his senior year. He also was a member of the football and baseball teams.
Ellison was recruited out of high school by Roy A. Edwards and Kansas head coach Dick Harp. In 1959, Ellison received a full athletic scholarship to play for the University of Kansas.
“I enrolled at KU in 1959 with a long tradition of stellar athletes from Wyandotte High School who continued to excel in basketball at KU,” Ellison said. “Players like Monte Johnson, Al Donahue and Harry Gibson had proceeded and played on basketball teams with me prior to attending the university.”
The opportunity to attend college on a full scholarship sent Ellison down the road less traveled by young men like him. It was an opportunity that he is deeply grateful for. His brother Butch, who spent two years at a community college before attending KU, also received a full scholarship.
“Roy Edwards was instrumental in me and my brother both going to KU on full scholarships,” Ellison said. “I could not have gone to the university otherwise. My mother could not afford a college education for two boys. The education I got from KU—well, I am deeply appreciative for it.”
The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing during Ellison’s time at Kansas. African-Americans across the country, with the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., were fighting for their right to be seen as equals. Ellison believed in MLK’s movement for non-violent social change, but in Lawrence, Kansas, Ellison didn’t feel ostracized or unequal. Ellison and his older brother were allowed to room together in the new JR Pearson freshman dorms even though his brother was a junior. While they had experienced an integrated learning environment, integrated living was new to them.
“This was a small accommodation for us since we were facing integrated living arrangements for the first time in our lives,” Ellison said.
Ellison’s relationship with his teammates was not what most would think for that time period, but Ellison said race, color, ethnicity and cultural difference were not an issue for the team.
“Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Bridges, Wayne Hightower, Ralph Hayward, George Unseld, Jimmie Dumas and Al Correll, as black athletes, set high standards for togetherness, team play, and friendship with the white players on the basketball team,” Ellison said.
Even when traveling with the team Ellison says he “experienced little overt discrimination.” Ellison said Coach Harp made sure travel to non-conference games offered a wide range of experiences for the highly-integrated team.
“The influence of early black KU athletes like LaVannes Squires, Wilt Chamberlain, Maurice King and Bill Bridges had addressed the several issues of race that confronted American sports in the late 40s and 50s,” Ellison said. “The clear leadership and decisions of Chancellors Franklin Murphy and W. Clark Wescoe were important to the basketball program in this regard.”
Although the majority of Ellison’s experiences on the road were positive, “Missouri was different,” Ellison said. This became clear on March 11, 1961, when the Jayhawks traveled to Brewer Field House in Columbia, Missouri. Ellison remembers that day all too clearly. What started out as a fist fight between Wayne Hightower of the Jayhawks and Charlie Henke of the Tigers, in the blink of an eye, turned into and all-out brawl between both benches as well as fans. Ellison said this was an all-time low.
“The liberal use of the ‘N-word’ was a glaring problem in Missouri,” Ellison said. “Traveling to Columbia, Missouri, to play basketball was never fun again.”
Despite that seemingly low point in Ellison’s college career, he went on to have a successful career at KU becoming a member of the small fraction of Kansas basketball players to score over 1,000 points. In 1961 Ellison was an All-Big Eight Conference selection, and was team captain his senior year in 1963.
Ellison graduated from KU’s School of Education with a Bachelor of Science degree in education. This was the same year the March on Washington took place, where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech. Ellison said he believed in those dreams King spoke of.
His success on the basketball court at KU allowed Ellison to enter the NBA draft and he was selected by the Chicago Zephyrs, who later moved to Baltimore and were renamed the Baltimore Bullets. He was offered a contract and ultimately turned down the opportunity to play professional basketball. He went overseas to help train the Olympic teams for the 1964 Olympic Games.
“I wanted more,” Ellison said. “I believed I could be more. I look at the athletes today and I think that many of them are selling themselves short. I try to exemplify the other road that you can take.”
Ellison wanted to teach young minds. He was told he was going to have to go back to Kansas City to practice teaching, but Ellison said he wasn’t too keen on the idea of someone telling him what he had to do. Especially when he considered the reasons why he was told he had to go back to Kansas City.
Ellison said the Kansas City Schools didn’t integrate teachers when they integrated students. Ellison refused to start his teaching career out somewhere where he only got the job because of his skin color.
“I went to the University of Kansas to be a teacher,” Ellison said. “Not to be a ‘black’ teacher. I am black, and I have no problem with that, but that isn’t why I went to the University of Kansas—to be a ‘black’ teacher.”
So, Ellison completed his certification and began “practice or lab teaching” in the Shawnee Heights school district outside of Topeka, and he eventually took a job teaching world history and government at Sumner High School in Kansas City. During his time at Sumner, Ellison ran in the elections for the KCK Community College board and wonHe then came in contact with a representative from the Kellogg Foundation at Michigan State University. This representative gave Ellison the idea that he could do more—that he could be more.
“A rep from the Kellogg Foundation said, ‘You can be president of one of these schools,'” Ellison said.
Ellison’s response: “How do you do that?”
The University paid for Ellison to receive his doctorate degree at Michigan State so that he could pursue his new dream of one day being a college president. A dream that he would soon realize. Ellison spent three years at Michigan State University where he earned his Ph.D. in Education/Leadership Management in 1971.
Ellison went on to accomplish great things throughout his long career as an educator. At the age of 31, he served as president of Seattle Community College which made him the youngest Chief Executive Officer of a higher education institution in the state of Washington and one of the youngest in the United States. But that was just the beginning for Ellison. Shortly after, the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce selected Ellison as one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year.” From there, he became the district chancellor of Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio.
After Ellison’s time in Cleveland, his life came full circle. He found himself back in a place that was the scene of one of the all-time lows from his college career—the University of Missouri. Ellison was an endowed professor of Urban Leadership, Management and Economic community development for the University of Missouri for more than nine years.
Some of his many other accomplishments include Phi Delta Kappa’s award as one of 75 outstanding educational leaders in the United States and one of the 100 young leaders of the Academy by the American Council on Education. Ellison also received an honor from his alma mater, the University of Kansas. He received a Citation for Distinguished Service for his personal achievements and his work in promoting the benefits of higher education.
Despite all of the time Ellison spent at other higher education institutions once he left the University of Kansas, he proudly admits that KU is his home. KU is where the dream began for Ellison. It’s where he was when he married his wife Carole. Ellison said he realized KU, for him, was the dream Martin Luther King, Jr., was speaking of in his infamous speech.
“KU was home to the beginning of the vision of where I could go in life,” Ellison said. “Martin Luther King’s speech, ‘I Have a Dream,’ is a dream that we all are challenged to live, and because of basketball at KU I was able to live that dream.”
Once A Jayhawk, Always A Jayhawk.