By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When a U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the door for African-Americans to attend previously all-white colleges in 1954, U.S. Air Force veteran Billy Owens chose to walk through that door.
Owens broke the color barrier at Concord College (now University) 59 years ago. This week, he returned to his alma mater, honored as grand marshal of the homecoming parade on Thursday evening.
This afternoon, the former starter for the Mountain Lions football team will be the honorary team captain for the coin flip prior to the 2 p.m. homecoming game in Athens.
Owens grew up in the coalfield community of Giatto, near Matoaka in Mercer County. He said Giatto was “the town where all of the other towns would (visit), because it had all the stores.”
His father was a miner for 45 years in the Arista area, and his mother “did domestic work,” Owens said. But he did not want to follow his father’s line of work.
“I never, ever was going to go into mining,” he said. “I saw too much of that. I figured, if they wanted me to get that coal, they wouldn’t have hid it so well from me.”
One day, after returning from service, he struck up a conversation with Billie Harris, who ran the Giatto post office. He said he’d decided to enroll at Bluefield State College, the region’s historically black college.
He said on Friday, “She told me, ‘Why don’t you go to Concord? With the court ruling, you can go there now.’ ... I said, ‘Concord?! Are you kiddin’ me?’ She said, ‘It’s a good school.’ I agreed, so I did come over and register. I went to school on the G.I. Bill.”
He was the first African-American to enroll there, he said. The registrar of the college, S.L. McGraw, gave him a pep talk that stuck with him.
“Mr. McGraw told me, ‘Listen, Billy, you’re going to graduate just like any other student from this school.’ That made me feel pretty good. That moved me on to keep going.”
He found his new classmates to be “polite,” he said. “I never heard any negative words concerning anything.”
While a student at Bluestone High School near Giatto, Owens had played football, so he tried out for the Concord team coached by Joe Friedl Sr. He got his starting job the old-fashioned way, by proving himself on the practice field.
“After practice, Coach had me running against the others,” Owens said. “I was faster than the others. A good friend of mine, Tommy Hawkins, was the second fastest.”
Owens saw plenty of action in games in the 1954 and 1955 seasons, playing end on offense, defensive back, and returner on kickoffs.
“They had a very good team,” he recalled.
He encountered racism on one trip north to play an out-of-state opponent.
“We had to stay overnight,” he said. “We went to the hotel and ... the person in charge there told us that I couldn’t stay. That’s when Joe Friedl spoke up and said, ‘Well, if he don’t stay, we won’t stay.’ ”
Ultimately, he said, he was given a room at “an all-black place” in the city’s downtown. “That was the only time that I had a lodging place that I had to deal with like that,” he said, “because most of the teams that we played (were close enough to Athens that) we didn’t have to stay overnight.”
An exception was a trip to Tennessee. “I told the coach, ‘I’m not going.’ I figured it was a little bad here, but I knew it would be much worse, there.”
He said when the team returned from that game, a player told him, “Billy, you should have come. As soon as we drove up on the campus, there was a black girl sitting on the bench over there, studying.”
After two years at Concord, including summer school, studying biology and physical education, he was advised by a professor to “take a semester off” before doing his student teaching and earning his final credits for an education degree.
“Coach wanted me to come back,” he said. But members of Owens’ family found him a job in Ohio, and the senior never completed his degree.
He eventually was hired to work at Long Beach Memorial Hospital on the New York coast, from which he retired in 2006 after 34 years of service. During his time there, he oversaw the building of an addition to the hospital’s nursing facility.
He was the first African-American to serve on the Long Beach zoning board of appeals, assisting the city council in that role for 13 years.
The Black Student Union (BSU) organization at Concord spent more than a year tracking Owens down. On Friday, Owens participated in an open forum with Concord students and staff in the college stateroom, hosted by the group.
BSU president James Riley said just before the forum, “I’m honored that he’s here right now. I think it’s very important for people to get in touch with their history.”
Owens told the students, “I have to give many thanks to the Black Student Union. I had actually forgot coming here, it was so long ago.”
— Contact Tom Bone at