SU to honor athletic pioneer Wilmeth Sidat-Singh
SU to honor athletic pioneer Wilmeth Sidat-SinghFebruary 24, 2005Sue Cornelius Edsonsedson@syr.edu
Few may remember his name today, but Wilmeth Sidat-Singh ’39 was not only a great athlete-he was also an individual of extraordinary courage. On Feb. 26, Syracuse University’s Office of Program Development, the Office of the Chancellor and SU Athletics will honor the memory of Sidat-Singh, his family and members of the Tuskegee Airmen, by retiring his #19 jersey at halftime of the SU men’s basketball game against Providence. The honor will also be celebrated in a Feb. 25 private reception.
“Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was a pioneer in everything that he did,” says SU Assistant Vice President for Program Development Larry Martin. “He was a remarkable individual, a two-sport star and an outstanding student. Until now, his story has only been known to a few.”
Sidat-Singh was born William Webb, the son of African American parents: Washington, D.C.-area pharmacist Elias Webb and Pauline Webb. Elias Webb died when William was a child; Pauline Webb then married Dr. Samuel Sidat-Singh, a medical student who had come to the United States to study at Howard University. Samuel Sidat-Singh adopted Wilmeth and moved the family Harlem, where he practiced family medicine for many years.
An All-New York City basketball player at DeWitt Clinton High School, Sidat-Singh led his Bronx team to the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) city championship in 1933-34. Despite his talent and credentials, Syracuse University was the only school to offer the young black athlete a scholarship. At SU, the six-foot, 190-pound Sidat-Singh led the Orange basketball team to three straight winning seasons, including a 14-0 record in 1938-39, which earned the team an unofficial national title.
A leader on campus, Sidat-Singh also joined the football team in his sophomore year after an assistant coach spotted him throwing a 55-yard pass in an intramural game. He was subject to the indignities plaguing many African-Americans when the Orange traveled to southern states to play. Officials from some of the schools SU traveled to play prevented Sidat-Singh from playing, citing segregation laws. He was banned from the 1937 game at Maryland, which the Orange lost 13-0. One year later, when the teams met in Archbold Stadium, Sidat-Singh helped SU to a 53-0 triumph against the Terrapins. He played halfback in Syracuse’s single-wing offense, a position similar to today’s quarterback. In 1938, legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice came to Syracuse to scout Rose Bowl-bound Cornell. After watching Sidat-Singh engineer a stunning 19-17 upset for Syracuse-including six passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns in the final 9 minutes – Rice ranked Sidat-Singh with Sid Luckman and Sammy Baugh as one of the greatest passers of the era.
After graduation, Sidat-Singh played with the Syracuse Reds, one of the few racially integrated professional basketball teams of the barnstorming era. A year later, he joined the Harlem Renaissance (or “Rens”), the most famous of the African American barnstorming teams.
In 1943, Sidat-Singh passed the entrance exam for the U.S. Army Air Corps and was assigned to the segregated armed forces’ only pilot training program for African-Americans, the Tuskegee Airmen. Just days after earning his pilot’s wings, the engine of Sidat-Singh’s P-40 failed while on a training mission, forcing him to parachute into Lake Huron. His body was found a week later. First Lieutenant Sidat-Singh is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and today, his memory serves as a compelling reminder of African American athletes’-and SU’s-parts in the struggle against racism.