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Former legendary head coach Cleveland “Cleve” Abbott was among the 10 honorees inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame on Sept. 8. Abbott, one of Tuskegee University’s most notable athletic figures, was born in 1892 in Yankton, South Dakota, and paved the way for many in the athletics arena.
University archivist Dana Chandler said, at an early age, Abbott trained his body like he trained his mind and excelled in everything he attempted.
“South Dakotans who know of Cleveland Abbott know his amazing local sports scorecard,” Chandler said.
Abbott graduated from Watertown High School in 1912 with 16 varsity sports letters. He later graduated from South Dakota State College in 1916, becoming the first black athlete at the school — playing in a host of sports that included varsity football, basketball (for which he served as team captain), baseball, track and tennis.
Because of Abbott’s academic and sports reputation, he was recruited by Tuskegee Institute’s founder, Booker T. Washington, to help lead an effort to break American Jim Crow segregation laws through sports.
“Booker T. Washington was searching for a man of color to combine integrity, scholarship and athleticism to transform the stature and place in American society for his students,” explained Chandler.
Much of Abbott’s career was dedicated to creating opportunities for talented student-athletes without regard for race, and teaching others how to be successful.
“South Dakota gave Cleveland Abbott opportunities and experiences he would not have had growing up in the deep South,” Chandler continued. “Because of that, he used his education and skillset in a way that showed others the value of a person is not color based.”
While at Tuskegee, Abbott became the eighth head football coach and director of the Department of Physical Education from 1923 until his death in 1955. He modeled much of Tuskegee’s athletic programs after the ones he participated in as a kid in South Dakota.
Under his leadership, the university held a record of 202 wins, 97 losses and 27 ties — including six undefeated seasons topped by six black college football national championships. Tuskegee honored Abbott’s legacy by naming the stadium he personally helped build after him — the Cleve L. Abbott Memorial Alumni Stadium.
“Abbott was raised with the South Dakotan idea that he could do anything, so he would find ways to create possibilities for young men and women not allowed to dream,” Chandler said. “Abbott’s ideas created opportunities for all students.”
With his wife Jessie, Abbott created the first organized women’s college athletic programs.
“His efforts to help women brought to the world stage the first black woman to receive an Olympic gold medal, Alice Coachman,” Chandler said. “Abbott built a preeminent athletic program for all students — but for young female students, it was the chance to compete with others.”
Tuskegee Institute athletic programs — especially the relays — were created to showcase all young men and women. They became the model for what we now experience at every NCAA event.
In addition to Abbott’s service to Tuskegee, he served his country in the U.S. Army. A veteran of World War I, he served as a member of the Buffalo Soldiers and was one of the first decorated African-Americans to serve in the Army.
Abbott’s long list of accolades demonstrate the far-reaching impact of his service to the sports field. Most notably, beginning in 1946, he became the first person of color to be a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. His honors and awards include, but are not limited to, inducting into the National Football Hall of Fame in 1948, the South Dakota State University Hall of Fame in 1968, the Tuskegee University Hall of Fame in 1975, the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, and the Black College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
Since 1974, more than 700 South Dakotans have become members of the South Dakota Hall of Fame, which is designated as the state’s Hall of Fame. There are more than 200 living inductees, with the achievements of all inductees continuing to impact the state of South Dakota with the mission to “Champion a Culture of Excellence: One Act at a Time.”
For more information about the South Dakota Hall of Fame, visit http://sdexcellence.org.
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