Robert Cornelius of Crossett was one of five athletes honored at the recent Ouachita Baptist University Sports Hall of Fame induction in February, 2010. Not only was he an outstanding basketball player for OBU, he also broke the color barrier at OBU and for the entire Arkansas Collegiate Conference.
He grew up in Camden and played for the all-black Lincoln High School. During his senior year, the team not only won the state championship for black high schools but also played in the national black high school championship in Nashville, Tennessee. He recalled that the team had four players who could successfully dunk a basketball.
Though his high school was all black, the games attracted white fans as well. He recalled that the team was so popular that fans had to get to the tournament by 5:30 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game and that the stands might be half filled with white fans. A local sporting goods store told the high school coach that if the team could make the state semfinals, then the store would provide new warmups for the team. Cornelius recalled that the team won all five games in the state tournament, and "I will never forget them," referring to the new gray and blue warmups. He said the team had enough warmups they could change almost every night and then come out with new ones for the state finals.
After high school, Cornelius enrolled at OBU, playing basketball there for four years and earning all conference honors three years. Even though much smaller than current big men in basketball, he played center at 157 pounds and 6-5 ½ . "I had a lot of speed," he recalled, adding that in his best game, he scored 46 points against Arkansas College, now Lyon College.
As the first African-American athletic in the AIC, Cornelius faced some challenges. "There were some dark days at the very onset because it was a matter of me adjusting to the system, and the system adjusting to me. That is the most realistic way I can put it," he said in an interview this past week.
He said that the support of the school and its administration helped with the necessary adjustments. "I had a very good OBU family," he said. "They went to great lengths to make sure I felt right at home with the OBU family."
He said that from the OBU president, Dr. Ralph A. Phelps, "all the way down to the groundskeeper, it was family, and they really made sure that I did not conjure up any idea of the nature that I was not welcome there."
The first year, he said, "There was no control, and it got pretty rough on different occasions on some of the trips we took." He mentioned that the team had stopped at a restaurant in Louisiana for a pre-game meal on the way to play McNiece State. "We were seated in a private dining area… and the waitress looked into a huddle of whites and saw me and went to get the manager," he remembered. The restaurant manager told the coach that Cornelius had to eat somewhere else. "The entire team got on their feet, and they marched out, and we were on the bus and found a different restaurant," he recalled. "We never stopped there again." He said that as the years passed, that type of incident did not happen again.
Cornelius said that he became a celebrity of sorts, not only at OBU but also across the Ravine and in other AIC schools. "I began to generate as much popularity in Arkadelphia, including Henderson and their fans as well as around the AIC conference; people wanted to come and see for themselves. They could not believe that an individual, particularly a black individual, was playing ball of that caliber." After his first year at OBU, Cornelius recalled, "Integration in the AIC was off and running in all areas."
While OBU and other AIC schools did not offer scholarships when Cornelius started college, they did offer grants in aid to help pay tuition and fees. By the time he graduated, the schools did offer scholarships, and "There is no way in the world I could have dreamed of OBU," without such help, he said. Cornelius added that during the summers, he remained on campus, working on the grounds crews. "There was always something to do," he said, "and the athletes availed themselves" of such work opportunities.
He graduated with a major in political science and pre-law, intending to go to law school. He noted that OBU Coach Bill Vining hoped that he would go into professional basketball. The coach, Cornelius recalled, had connections to put him in touch with professional teams. In fact, Cornelius was offered a chance to play with the Harlem Stars, a demonstration team like the Harlem Globetrotters, and was offered an American Basketball Association tryout.
However, he said, "Then came the draft." With greetings from the President of the United States, a draft notice, Cornelius was sent to Korea where he was stationed on the Seventeenth Parallel at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). While the active war was over, the Cold War continued, and he and other American troops spent a lot of time staring across the DMZ to North Korean troops. Also, he said, "I played a lot of ball in the army." After Korea, he was stationed at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico until he left the army in February, 1972.
Cornelius returned to OBU to take some additional classes with the intention of entering law school. Then he went to Crossett in the summer of 1973 "to work one summer" and eventually took an early retirement as an ENI technician at the Georgia-Pacific paper mills in 2006.
In his adopted home town, Cornelius has served on the Crossett School Board for 21 years, including around 15 terms as president or vice president. He is also a past superintendent of the Sunday School at his church, New Bethel Baptist, and has been a 33rd degree Mason for 40 years. He also tried his luck in the political arena, running unsuccessfully for state representative on three different occasions. He and his wife, Emma, have been married for 40 years with one son, Robert, Jr., and a daughter, Staci. They have three grandchildren.
In addition to his induction in the OBU Sports Hall of Fame, Cornelius also earned other honors while on the basketball team from 1965-1968. He earned the team award as the top rebounder for two years in a row and is a member of the school's 1,000 point club. "I went way over 1,000," he recalled, but said that he does not remember his scoring and rebounding average for his years at OBU, nor does the college have records from that era. The college yearbook also includes a picture of him holding the ball about 18 inches over the rim, and he recalled that during part of his career, the dunk shot was illegal. Also, during his years, there was no three point shot in high school or college.
In regard to his color barrier breaking career, Cornelius recalled, "It was a touchy period of time with no blacks in the AIC. I have to credit Bill Vining and Dr. Phelps." After his first year at OBU, other schools also integrated. "I think by my sophomore and junior year, every area of athletics was integrated through the AIC," he said. But it was this man, who now lives in Crossett, that showed the way and set the standard.