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The Daily Tar Heel

These Tar Heels broke racial barriers to become trailblazers for UNC athletics


Charlie Scott is pictured during the 1968 men's basketball season. Photos from DTH Archives. 

Although UNC has had organized sports teams since the 1860s, the University's first Black athlete did not play until a century later. Black athletes at this time were trailblazers in their respective sports and in the greater UNC community. 

These five Tar Heels conquered racial barriers to become significant athletic figures at the University. 

Edwin Okoroma

Okoroma, a Nigerian student and the first Black athlete to play at UNC, played soccer in the fall of 1963. Okoroma graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1965 and went on to medical school to become a physician. 

In 2021, Okoroma was a recipient of the inaugural ACC UNITE Award, which honors individuals affiliated with the league who have made an impact in racial or social justice. He was honored alongside Ophelia Speight, who joined the women's fencing team in 1974 and was the first Black female athlete to play at UNC. 

Willie Cooper

Cooper walked onto the first-year basketball team in 1964, making him UNC's first Black basketball player — two years before Charles "Charlie" Scott stepped on campus.

Cooper faced plenty of discrimination as a member of the team, including harassment and being refused meals. Cooper was not allowed to travel with the team to South Carolina for a game because his coaches were afraid for his safety.

Despite the barriers he faced, Cooper continued to improve as a point guard and averaged about four points per game in his first year. Before he could try out for the varsity team as a sophomore, Cooper quit basketball to focus on his academics. He later went on to serve in the army and got a job at IBM.

In 2020, he was honored as a Tar Heel Trailblazer by the University. 

Charles "Charlie" Scott

Scott was the first Black scholarship athlete to play for North Carolina. Scott averaged 22.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game during his career on the men's basketball team, and he dominated with 27.1 points per game in his final season. 

Although he was an incredible asset to the team as a three-time All-ACC member, he was not welcomed by fans and classmates due to his race. Prejudice made bonding with his team difficult as they were not allowed into the same events. 

Scott did not let callousness get to him, leading UNC to its second and third consecutive Final Four appearances in 1968 and 1969. He also won an Olympic gold medal for Team USA in 1968. Scott went on to play in the NBA for eight years and won a championship for the Celtics in 1976 before being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.

Synthia Scott Kearney

Kearney was the first Black player for the UNC women’s soccer team. She helped the team win its first two national championships in 1981 and 1982. 

Kearney had not played soccer until she began at UNC and worked her way up from the club team to varsity. She scored the game-winning goal in the 1982 NCAA semifinal victory over University of Missouri-St. Louis, which sent the Tar Heels into the national title game. Kearney was honored as a Tar Heel Trailblazer in 2022 as an inspiration to the generation that came after her. 

Hubert Davis

Davis became the first Black head men's basketball coach in 2021 after replacing a retired Roy Williams. After spending nine years as an assistant coach, Davis immediately made an impact by leading the Tar Heels to the national championship game, becoming only the fifth first-year coach to accomplish the feat.

Davis was also a standout player for North Carolina. He joined the team in 1988 and quickly emerged from a role player to a Second Team All-ACC selection in his senior season when he averaged a team-high 21.4 points per game. 

Throughout his career, he maintained a .435 3-point shooting percentage, which is still a program record.  

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