Sports

“The Most Loyal Tiger of Them All”

In the early 20th century, a black trainer named Wash Randall was a fixture in the LSU football program. His story—and what it tells us about the Jim Crow South—deserves to be remembered.

A yearbook photo of Wash Randall.
Washington “Wash” Randall.
1936 Gumbo Yearbook, Louisiana State University, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In 1963, Maryland’s Darryl Hill became the first black football player in any of the previously all-white major Southern athletic conferences. Nine years later, Ole Miss and LSU were the last major football programs in the South to integrate. These pioneering players weren’t the first black men associated with Southern college football, though.

Consider the case of Washington “Wash” Randall, who worked as an athletic trainer, masseur, and groundskeeper at LSU from 1909 through 1935. White-owned newspapers described Randall, who was known to coaches as “Louisiana” and “Big Loosey” and to players as “Governor,” “Senator,” and “Sugar Babe,” as widely beloved at the school. “Everyone knew him,” LSU’s student newspaper the Reveille reported in 1935. “He seemed to be as much a fixture here as the team itself, attending every game and practice session, caring for the field, lining it off for games, rubbing kinks out of sore muscles, sponging off the hot faces of athletes as they came off the field.”

Randall was an integral part of the staff that helped LSU’s football and track teams compete for championships. He was also consistently infantilized. In Randall’s obituary, team doctor J.A. Tucker said, “I have never seen Wash angry. But I have seen him lie face down on the field and cry like a baby when the Tigers lost.” Randall’s assistant, “Handy” Beekam, told the Reveille that Randall cried hardest when a player got hurt and he couldn’t help him.

Randall grew up in the first generation after the Civil War, and contemporary newspaper accounts cast him as the beneficiary of a new form of Southern paternalism, which had its roots in slavery. In the antebellum years, slaveholders increasingly defended the practice of enslavement by representing themselves as being “good” to the people they enslaved. The best treatment often went to house slaves whom plantation owners tasked with cooking their food, cleaning their laundry, and in the case of wet nurses (known as “mammies”), nursing their babies. In those instances when they offered the people they enslaved treatment they considered kind—feeding them well, teaching them to read, perhaps beating them less severely—masters patted themselves on the back for it, and expected to be rewarded with a strong work ethic and extreme loyalty.

Those are the traits that would define Randall to the white world. In its obituary, the State Times Advocate hailed him as “the most loyal Tiger of them all.” Former LSU athlete Sterling Gladden told the paper that “Wash knew the first and last names of every participant in any sport at LSU, and when a fellow from as far back as 1909 came up to him he could immediately call him by name.” The Associated Press described his “most prized possessions” as autographed pictures of Tiger players and coaches, which he displayed in the room in which he died.

Before arriving on campus, Randall lived on the Armant sugar plantation south of Baton Rouge. On the plantation he’d been a ditcher. While it’s unclear why and how he went to LSU, the work there certainly would’ve been less physically demanding than digging and repairing ditches.

With a reported 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame, Randall would’ve had the size to play for the Tigers in a later era. Instead, he did whatever manual labor the athletic teams needed. Trainers didn’t need formal educations then. They needed good rapport with players and coaches and, especially for black employees, a willingness to put in long hours for paltry pay.

Randall and most of his black contemporaries came to college campuses looking for work. Some, like “Blind Jim” Ivy of the University of Mississippi, were not directly employed by the university and became known as ardent fans. Ivy, who occasionally sold peanuts and candy at Ole Miss games, strolled around campus talking to students and fans, serving as a kind of living mascot and Ole Miss sports historian. As Anthony James points out in Mississippi Folklife, this image of Ivy as a super fan, counselor, and vendor created an “illusion of racial intimacy for the university community. … While Blind Jim acceded to the paternalism extended by Ole Miss and clearly benefited from the care and concern it brought him, the university community used this relationship to bolster its idea of the ‘southern way of life’ and defend its segregated practices.”

The line between a true bond and an illusory one is hard to draw. The Atlanta Constitution’s Ralph McGill claimed that Vanderbilt’s longtime trainer, a black man named Bolling Fitzgerald, had a genuine connection with the school’s athletes. “It was Bolling who would drop into a young man’s room on the campus and help chase away homesickness or discouragement,” McGill wrote in 1958. McGill told the story of Harvey Hendrick, a retired baseball player who drove more than 170 miles to enjoy Fitzgerald’s company in 1941. They sat, reminisced, and laughed, until at last Hendrick had to drive home. Once there, he shot himself. “In those last desperate hours Bolling was the one he turned to before he made his earthly exit,” McGill wrote.

In other cases, trainers were depicted as little more than talismans. According to an Austin American-Statesman column from 1926, Baylor coach Frank White spent “a good part of his time during the game rubbing the kinky head of the trainer for luck.” (Talismanic head-rubbing endured as a ritual for decades. In the early 1980s, it was still happening to Georgia’s “Squab” Jones. By then, black players such as Herschel Walker had joined whites in rubbing his head.) Some school communities gave their trainers disparaging nicknames. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Rice’s trainer Jack Shelton was called “Nigger Jack” in some student papers and yearbooks. Nonetheless, Shelton received the same kind of treacly tributes and praise that was lavished on Wash Randall.

Another black trainer in Texas, SMU’s Garrett Turner, appears to have helped inspire his school’s relative progressivism on race. Turner, who SMU’s athletic director described as “the father of SMU football,” was a key member of the staffs that helped lead the school to an unofficial national championship in 1935. In 1937, SMU also became the first major Southern college to play an integrated team, taking on UCLA in Los Angeles. A year later, the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier’s Wendell Smith interviewed SMU coach Matty Bell, with Turner serving as a liaison. Bell told Smith, “I don’t believe in drawing the color line in sports.”

Articles from the early to mid-1900s show Turner, Randall, and their trainer/masseur contemporaries serving as the “male equivalent of the stereotypical antebellum mammy,” as Kurt Kemper writes in College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era. Randall was allowed a physical intimacy with whites that was off limits to most blacks. Just as mammies often spent more time with their young white children than the kids’ own mothers, Randall had more intimate relationships with LSU players than their coaches did. “He was always on the job, and when he wasn’t rubbing the boys he was petting them,” J.A. Tucker recalled to the State Times Advocate. “Some of the boys were accused of getting imaginary pains just so Wash would talk nice to them and rub them down. He always stayed close to them on football trips—they would hardly let him out of sight.” And just as mammies were allowed access into white-only spaces, being granted permission to sit with white children in white-only sections of buses and trains, Randall was allowed into stadiums across the South that usually permitted only whites to attend major college football games. (In the 1940s, black fans were increasingly allowed into segregated seating areas.)

Many trainers relied on donations from whites as their stamina waned and their health failed. Randall died of heart problems at age 61 in 1935 after a life of intense manual labor. Henry “Doc” Reeves, a trainer/masseur at the University of Texas, put in extra hours for decades with no pension, though the school did award him one after he suffered a stroke. During one game in Austin, Texas, fans passed around a metal can and collected more than $250 to cover his medical expenses. Honors were lavished in death, too. More than 500 whites and blacks, including many LSU athletes and coaches, attended Randall’s funeral at the black Mount Zion Church. The university sent two wreaths to the funeral—an immense purple-and-gold L from the athletic association and a purple-and-gold arrangement from the student association.

All the donations and eulogistic pomp and circumstance exemplified a persistent message across much of the U.S. in the Jim Crow era—that blacks served at the pleasure of whites and would be rewarded if and only if whites felt they deserved it. Another message: Don’t rock the boat. “We know you,” a black visitor to Rice University told whites at the school in 1943, “because you don’t care what we think of you and don’t try to conceal your thoughts from us. But you don’t know us because we Negroes have to hide our feelings.”

White reporters didn’t ask black trainers how they felt about needing to stay in separate hotels on the road or getting greeted with racial slurs. Had a trainer been asked probing questions, he likely wouldn’t have spoken his mind. The risk of getting fired—and getting harassed, bullied, or worse—was too great.

Because Randall was painted by contemporaries as a vessel of LSU pride rather than as a three-dimensional person, little is known about his personal life. The State Times Advocate obituary mentions he had a wife, Sedania Randall, and that his daughter by his first wife had died. He had no siblings.

It appears nothing has been written about Randall in the past 75 years. The LSU special collections department did not have vertical files on him when I contacted its staff—the university had essentially forgotten he’d existed. That’s not the case with Texas’ “Doc” Reeves, who was posthumously inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame in 2000. Likewise, LSU posthumously inducted Herman Lang, a black trainer who succeeded Randall, as part of its 2015 hall of fame class. Randall, who set the stage for Lang and others, deserves a remembrance of his own.