|Chuck Holton ’52, now living in Milwaukee, still has the moves that kept the crowds entertained when he played with the Harlem Globetrotters (left).
Globe-trotting alum a true trailblazer
By Art Kabelowsky
Jackie Robinson made history in 1947, breaking major league baseball’s color barrier. Chuck Holton ’52, then a senior-to-be at Milwaukee’s St. Benedict the Moor High School, definitely took notice.
“Jackie Robinson was one of my heroes. He set an example for everyone,” Holton says. “That helped me a lot, to see what he was going through.”
At the time, Holton had no idea that he was destined to become a trailblazer, too.
Today, at age 79, Holton looks back on a life filled with achievement.
After starring in basketball and track for St. Norbert, Holton became the first African-American to graduate from the college, in 1952. He went on to play six years with the Harlem Globetrotters, then returned to his hometown to become a social worker and served almost four years as the director of the House of Peace organization.
“I was familiar with St. Norbert College because we made it to the state Catholic high school basketball tournament a couple of times, and it was played there,” Holton says.
“After I graduated, my pastor at St. Benedict was anxious for me to go on to school, and when he mentioned St. Norbert, I was interested. I got some [financial] help from the Catholic Knights organization, and I did some work on campus to help take care of the cost of school.”
It all happened quickly – As Holton recalls, his decision to attend St. Norbert took place around Labor Day of 1948 – but Holton thrived nonetheless.
“I was there ‘B.C.’ – before co-ed – and so it was a much different setup and layout than it is now,” says Holton, who last visited the campus about four years ago. “In my first year I did some work in the dining room, setting tables for the college and the high school, and in my second year I started working in the publicity director’s office, covering the athletic programs.
“A number of the priests at St. Norbert were very influential in some of the classes I took. It was kind of close to home, and that made it easier.
“I was a shy person, coming from a small, all-black high school to an all-white college, but I didn’t encounter any problems. I was so busy trying to get my education that I really didn’t think about it much.”
Holton was named sports editor of the St. Norbert student newspaper as a junior, then became editor-in-chief as a senior. He was selected for “Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges,” was inducted into the national scholastic honor society Delta Epsilon Sigma, and earned four letters in both basketball and track.
“We played against DePaul and we beat Marquette in its gym in 1951,” Holton recalls. “That was pleasing to me because Marquette didn’t offer me a scholarship, and they had a habit of offering scholarships to top players from the Catholic Conference.”
Upon Holton’s graduation in 1952, a friend who knew Abe Saperstein, founder and coach of the Globetrotters, got Holton a spot in a tryout camp in Chicago.
“I was fortunate enough to be successful in the tryout,” Holton says. “We had three units of the Trotters that year, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast and ours, which was based in Chicago and played mostly local teams that year.”
Eventually, Holton’s barnstorming with the Globetrotters took him from coast to coast, including games against the infamous Washington Generals. He visited Europe, South America and northern Africa as a basketball ambassador with the Globetrotters.
“Basketball is a world game now, but back then most people weren’t familiar with it, particularly in Europe,” Holton says.
After leaving the Globetrotters in 1958, Holton returned to Milwaukee. He served as a social worker with the Milwaukee County Department of Social Services, then worked with the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services from 1967 through his retirement in 1998.
In 1997, he was tabbed by founder Brother Booker Ashe, O.F.M., Cap., to lead the House of Peace organization, which provides emergency food, clothing, shelter and outreach programs to the poor in Milwaukee.
“I went down there to volunteer, and they put me to work,” Holton says. “I was very close to the Capuchin fathers from St. Benedict, and a Capuchin priest ran the [House of Peace] program. So it was nice to be able to do something.”
Holton still resides in Milwaukee, where he and his wife of 40 years, Carol, raised three children and are now enjoying their four grandchildren. As he sees it, the wisdom of his life experience boils down to one simple point.
“People will often talk about how things were back in the ‘good old days,’ as compared to now,” he says. “It’s just that what you’re exposed to during one point in time is so much different than what you might have seen in a different period. I’ve learned to say that we’re just products of our times.”
A new multicultural lounge in the Campus Center is to be named in honor of Chuck Holton. The facility will be dedicated in February.