The Great Divide
By Jayson Jenks
For the first time in 23 years, Wilt Chamberlain returned to Lawrence to watch his jersey hang high in the rafters next to the other greats. Everyone in the crowd wanted to see the legendary KU basketball player in person, perhaps for the last time. Monroe wasn’t any different. He asked an usher standing in one of the aisles to point out the aging Chamberlain. Moments later, they started talking.
They were once distant acquaintances, occasionally hanging out in the same places while they lived in Lawrence in the 1950s. Now, they were young again.
“Remember when you were back here in school, and we were running around, going to the Golden Arrow?” Monroe said to Chamberlain that day.
The Golden Arrow, a black nightclub in north Lawrence, separated and connected the two men. For Monroe and other African-Americans, it was one of the few places they could go for late-night entertainment. For Chamberlain, it was just another stop in a well-traveled life.
Yet when Monroe mentioned the Golden Arrow that day in 1998, Chamberlain laughed. He remembered.
The two men then parted ways.
Later that day, Chamberlain stood on the court in front of 16,300 adoring fans. Everyone cheered. Monroe looked down from the stands.
Leonard Monroe settles into a chair in the corner of Milton’s Café on Massachusetts Street and orders a grilled cheese and potato chips for lunch. He then sips his coffee and smiles.
Behind the coffee mug, his grayed hair is covered by an Air Force hat recognizing his time in the service. His glasses rest gently on his nose in front of a wrinkling face. He is 79.
At one time, Monroe was an up-and-coming athlete at Lawrence High. Fast. In shape. Still holding onto a dream. He was the second-fastest quarter miler in the state of Kansas, he says, and he competed in multiple events.
But that was a lifetime ago when tracks were loose cinder and races were measured in yards. Sometimes the past is best left as a memory, and that’s how Monroe would like to leave it. Talking about any of that now seems irrelevant.
Instead, he discusses his Air Force tour and the people he met along the way; about the city garage he opened and ran for 23 years in Lawrence; about how even then some people said a black man couldn’t properly run the garage; and about his six children — all of whom received college degrees.
“I don’t regret anything now,” Monroe says. “My life was a whole lot better than a lot of other people.”
But Monroe still grew up in a racially-divided community at a time when the racial unrest of the 1920s and 1930s had started to cool, but before the Civil Rights movement firmly took hold. The University had opened its doors to African-American athletes in the late 1890s, but those doors quickly shut and the school kept black athletes out shortly after the turn of the century.
Monroe grew up at a time when the opportunities for an African-American living in one place differed for an African-American somewhere else. Where Wilt Chamberlain played the part of growing star, Leonard Monroe fell in line with the everyday man.
In high school, Monroe played basketball on the Promoters, an all-black basketball team formed in the 1920s with students unable to play on Lawrence High’s segregated team. He loved it.
Around Lawrence he could only eat at a handful of restaurants, and he had to sit in the last few rows at the four local movie theaters, called the Crow’s Nest. Monroe never minded. “Best seat in the house,” he said.
But there was a time when … No, Monroe doesn’t really want to get into the details. He’ll tell you what happened that day when he was still a toned college freshman. Tell you how he wanted to run for KU’s famed track and field team only to be denied. Tell you the rejection he experienced that day triggered one of the worst feelings in his life — not just then, but even now. Tell you that same rejection was why he dropped out of college and joined the service.
The hurt stayed with him during his first stint with the Air Force, even overseas. He continued learning and adapting and moving on with his life, but the feeling still hung around, at least a little. A rejection that deep can age a young man in a hurry.
Monroe returned to Lawrence after a four-year absence in 1955, hoping to find the kind of change that comes with a good job. The job never came — and because of that he spent an additional 19 years in the Air Force — but something else did.
Every college basketball program in the country wanted Chamberlain, and every program in the country made sure he knew that.
Letters from interested colleges flowed into the Chamberlain’s Philadelphia household, sometimes as many as four or five a day. Coaches constantly visited and called. Kansas coach F.C. “Phog” Allen even enlisted the help of singer Etta Motten and journalist Dowdal Davis, the editor of the Kansas City Call, an African-American newspaper.
The buzz Chamberlain generated surpassed anything the sport ever experienced. He was a star, and he wasn’t even 18.
Chamberlain grew up near a predominantly Jewish community and attended Overbrook High School, a predominantly Jewish school. And yet, he was the most popular person in the school. He was magnetic.
During the summers, Wilt and his sister, Barbara, would go to a camp in the Poconos. They were there to work, but only one of them truly did. During the day, Wilt rode horses. At night, he’d sneak off to have fun.
On the basketball court, Wilt couldn’t sneak away from anyone. His friends and family called him “Dipper” or “Dippy” because his height forced him to dip when he entered rooms. He liked it.
Philadelphia sportswriters called him “Wilt the Stilt.” He despised it. He always thought it made him sound freakish.
And if there’s one thing people agree upon when it comes to Wilt Chamberlain, it’s this: He always wanted to be more than people thought.
Leonard Monroe played basketball on the Promoters in high school, but he lived for track. That was the sport he cared about, the one he invested most of his time and energy in each year.
In 1950, when Lawrence High’s basketball team integrated during his senior year, Monroe had the cartilage knocked loose in his knee playing football. He couldn’t jump or cut the same as before.
He still made the basketball team as one of the school’s first black basketball players, but he quit shortly after and joined an intramural team to rehab his knee. He wanted to be ready when track season began.
Monroe ran the quarter mile in 48.9 seconds, the second fastest time in the state. The fastest runner, Frank Cindrich, took his talents to the University of Kansas — a school with one of the nation’s best track teams.
That’s where Monroe wanted to go, too.
During his senior year in high school, his three track coaches fed him different advice. They said he should look at Emporia State or Washburn or Kansas State. He didn’t know why they told him that — he still doesn’t know with any certainty — but he didn’t listen.
He even had scholarship offers from Maryland State, North Carolina A&T and Arkansas Pine Bluff. None of them interested him. He was set on Kansas.
He enrolled as a freshman in 1950, and when track season finally rolled around that spring, Monroe headed to Memorial Stadium. He wanted to talk with KU track and field coach Bill Easton about joining the team.
Now, finally, here was the payoff for all those years of hard work. His dream was just a few words away.
It was late one night in 1955, sometime close to midnight, but Wilt Chamberlain didn’t care. This couldn’t wait.
He drove straight to “Phog” Allen’s home from Kansas City. When he got there, he pounded on his coach’s door, intent on letting Allen hear about his night. The drive did little to cool him off.
When Allen answered, Chamberlain immediately started in. He told him about the restaurant in Kansas City, the one that refused to serve him unless he ate in the kitchen after he drove more than 1,100 miles from Philadelphia. He told Allen he wouldn’t put up with something like this if he was going to play at Kansas. Not a chance.
Calmly, Allen listened and had someone bring his talented freshman hamburgers to Allen’s home, a tactful gesture as much as one of kindness. The burger joint, the Greasy Spoon, was also segregated.
“He knew that if I found that out, I’d probably say, ‘Fuck Kansas,’ and head back to Philadelphia before the first day of classes,” Chamberlain wrote in his 1973 autobiography, “Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door.”
Chamberlain visited the University twice when he was in high school and never experienced a hint of racism on either trip. Not once. But the campus is separate from the town around it. It’s isolated, an island of sorts, and a player can be shielded from such things if a recruiting trip is properly handled.
The city Chamberlain visited in high school was quite different from the one Monroe grew up in.
“This had never happened to him before,” Chamberlain’s sister, Barbara Lewis, said. “Never. And it’s certainly not going to happen when you’re considered the greatest high school basketball player coming out. People are going to bend backward to accommodate you.”
Almost immediately, Allen’s son, Mitt, an attorney with a reputation for being a bulldog, met with local business leaders. He delivered a simple message, one he also shared with Chamberlain.
“Milt told him in no uncertain terms,” former Lawrence Journal World writer Bill Mayer said, “‘Wilt, if you go into some place and they kick you out, you let me know and we’ll close the god damn thing down.’”
Behind the scenes, Chancellor Franklin Murphy started making similar moves, if only with more subtle approaches.
Murphy, who became chancellor in 1951 after years of racial unrest at the University, met with local movie theater owners and told them if they didn’t eliminate the Crow’s Nest seating policy, he’d show movies on campus.
“He was able to do stuff like that,” said Bill Tuttle, professor emeritus of American studies at the University. “And he did it overnight.”
Maurice King, a talented guard who arrived two years before Chamberlain in 1953, used to leave his white teammates when they boarded a bus hours before home games. He was told to go rest at home; his white teammates went somewhere else. Only later did he learn that his teammates headed to The Eldridge for a pregame nap.
The Eldridge didn’t accommodate blacks.
Then Chamberlain arrived, and King could go almost anywhere, especially when accompanied by the 7-footer. He started eating at restaurants he previously hadn’t heard of. The limitations in Lawrence started to vanish.
“When Wilt Chamberlain came to that campus, a lot of that foolishness stopped,” King told The University Daily Kansan in 2006.
But the changes came slowly to those African-Americans not named Chamberlain. If Chamberlain was the source, then those closest to him started to see the benefits while the everyday man still had a ways to wait before desegregation came full circle.
Still, it was a start.
“Before long, things just began to tumble and crumble,” Mayer said. “Wilt was a mover in the integration of the community. Now, it wasn’t all gone when he was gone, though.”
It all happened so quickly that spring day in 1951. Monroe approached Bill Easton, the KU track and field coach, about the possibility of joining his team. Easton didn’t consider it.
“No way you’ll run for me,’” Monroe remembers Easton saying.
And then Monroe headed home, devastated. He told his parents he was dropping out of college and joining the Air Force. That was that.
Monroe doesn’t know what happened that day. Was it his ability, his skin color or something entirely different that kept him off the track team? There’s no way to really know for sure, but Monroe remembers what he thought that day. More importantly, he remembers how he felt.
“That was one of the biggest heartaches I’ve ever had in my life,” Monroe said.
When Wilt Chamberlain rolled into Lawrence, everyone took notice. The students, the alumni, the national media outlets. Everyone.
Including Leonard Monroe.
He couldn’t find a decent job out of the Air Force, but he kept looking in Lawrence from 1955-58 — the same three years Chamberlain played basketball for Kansas.
When he read about Chamberlain or watched him play, something happened. The animosity he felt toward the University — for the athletic chance he never got — slowly dissolved. Wilt Chamberlain was playing for Kansas, and he was the best basketball player in the country.
“I kept up with him the whole time,” Monroe said. “It wouldn’t do no good to hold a grudge like that anyway. I got back to cheering for them and everything. It’s just so strange that it’s so different.”
Chamberlain left Kansas after three years, choosing to sign with the Harlem Globetrotters and write about his decision for Look magazine for $10,000. It took 40 years before his jersey finally hung in the Allen Fieldhouse rafters. Nearly 21 months after the ceremony, he died of heart failure. He was 67.
After working his way up to the rank of senior master sergeant in the Air Force, Monroe finally found the decent job he was looking for. He returned to Lawrence to open and run the city garage until he retired in 2000.
But the real change came more than 40 years after Monroe dropped out of the University — more than 40 years after he learned he couldn’t join KU’s track team. His son, Darryl, played in the outfield for the Kansas baseball team. He was pretty good, too.
And from the stands Monroe watched as Darryl, playing in a Kansas uniform, helped the Jayhawks reach the College World Series in 1993.
“Forty years after I couldn’t get a job or go to KU to run, 40 years later, my son was the No. 1 pick to play baseball at KU,” Monroe said inside Milton’s Café. “So things change, thank goodness.”
And with that, he picked up his coffee, took a sip, and looked out the large windows in front of him at the people and shops along Massachusetts Street.