McCrabb: The inspiring tale of Don Barnette, who broke color barriers at Middletown and Miami

Don Barnette, Miami's first Black basketball player, was part of a MAC championship team. SUBMITTED PHOTO.
Caption
Don Barnette, Miami's first Black basketball player, was part of a MAC championship team. SUBMITTED PHOTO.

BUTLER COUNTY — Before Archie Aldridge, Butch Carter, Cris Carter or Vince Edwards scored a point for Middletown High School, there was Don Barnette.

Before Ron Harper, Wayne Embry, Damon Frierson or Phil Lumpkin stepped on Miami University’s campus, there was Don Barnette.

Barnette, a standout basketball player at Middletown High, Miami University, in the U.S. Navy and with the Harlem Globetrotters, broke color barriers in high school and college. He was the first Black captain of a boys basketball team at Middletown High and the first Black basketball player at Miami.

It’s appropriate that we celebrate and salute Barnette after the 1952 MHS and 1956 Miami University graduate died Sept. 4 in California where he lived and worked since the late 1960s. He was 86.

As a high school senior, Barnette was a key member on the team that won the 1951-52 state championship, the fourth of the school’s seven state titles. That team, along with the 1952-53 team, recently was inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.

The 1951-52 Middies finished 25-1, the only loss was to Hamilton. In the state tournament, the Middies raced through the districts and regional and beat Steubenville, the No. 1 ranked team in the state, 63-53 in the state final.

While at Miami, Barnette led the team to the 1954-55 Mid-American Conference championship. The following season, he earned first-team all-MAC and honorable mention all-American honors.

The youngest of 10 children, he was the first from his family to attend college, according to his nephew, Duane Barnette.

After graduating from Miami, Barnette spent three years in the Navy, where he made the fleet and all-Navy team. From there, he earned worldwide notoriety as the 5-foot-11 Dribbling Wizard, playing for the Harlem Globetrotters.

He was inducted into the Butler County Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, the MHS Hall of Fame in 2000 and Miami’s Hall of Fame in 2002.

Duane Barnette, 72, said while growing up in Middletown, he idolized his uncle. He was bigger than life.

“I couldn’t wait for him to get home from college or whereever he was," Barnette said from his California home. “He was intelligent, bright, handsome and outgoing. We all wanted to be like him.”

While Barnette was blessed with all the attributes, he also was living a life influenced by the color of his skin. In fact, he wrote a book entitled: “Is My Skin My Only Sin?"

Barnette and Dick Vice, a white teammate at Middletown, were heavily recruited by several colleges and agreed to play together at the University of Cincinnati. But two weeks before school started, Barnette was told by UC officials that he failed the entrance exam, though none was given.

“Cincinnati wasn’t ready for a player like me,” Barnette once said.

Vice stayed at UC, and Barnette landed at Miami.

For those looking for historical perspective, consider Barnette started at Miami three years before Rosa Parks’ refused to give up her seat on a bus, 11 years before Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream" speech and just five years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

Which brings us to the time when Barnette had his name changed. Miami University was playing basketball games in Florida and no Black people were allowed on campus. So Coach Bill Rohr, a fast thinker, changed Barnette’s name to Jose Clemente, insisting he was Cuban, Hispanic or Latino.

So Barnette played 51 games for Miami, and some Clemente guy played two games.

Whatever his name, there’s no disputing that all Black players — and those of us who cheer for them — should be forever grateful for Barnette’s tenacity.

Don Barnette, a former Middletown High and Miami University standout, wrote a book about breaking down color barriers. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Caption
Don Barnette, a former Middletown High and Miami University standout, wrote a book about breaking down color barriers. SUBMITTED PHOTO