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A Commemorative Clash

Johnson C. Smith-Livingstone showdown marks 125th anniversary of first HBCU football matchup

Biddle University’s 1913 football team lost to Livingstone by a 3-0 score. Biddle later became Johnson C. Smith University. Johnson C. Smith University photo

On a Saturday morning in November, a horse-drawn carriage will carry a trophy down West Monroe Street in Salisbury, North Carolina, en route to the Commemorative Classic, just as a visiting football team was once paraded to the game 125 years ago.

The annual football rivalry features Johnson C. Smith, which lies in the shadows of the downtown skyline of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Livingstone, 40 miles away in Salisbury and nestled in quaint neighborhoods between the town’s high school and Catawba College. The Division II adversaries are linked by Interstate 85, legacies of sports firsts, and foundations as religious missionary institutions serving African-Americans.

Never before had two black colleges met on a football field until a Saturday two days after Christmas in 1892. According to the team’s founding member, T.M. Martin, the men of then-Biddle University studied the sport of football for two years before challenging Livingstone, whose team was formally organized that fall.

Livingstone’s Drew Powell busts into the Johnson C. Smith defense in 2015 during Livingstone’s 35-12 win. Johnson C. Smith University photo

While football started it all, competitions between the Golden Bulls and Blue Bears also yield volatility beyond the gridiron. “It became: If we don’t get you in football, we’ll get you in basketball,” says Stephen Joyner Sr., Johnson C. Smith athletics director and men’s basketball coach. “If we don’t get you in basketball, we’ll get you in volleyball.”

This year’s Nov. 4 contest at Alumni Memorial Stadium will be the 84th meeting of the Blue Bears and Golden Bulls on the football field. While the game didn’t pick up its current name — the Commemorative Classic — until 2009, the series has run consecutively since 1963. Johnson C. Smith owns the overall record lead (47-32-4) and seven victories in the last eight contests.

In 1892, Biddle rode in a segregated train car from Charlotte to Salisbury, then climbed aboard horse-drawn wagons for a journey that ended at Livingstone’s front lawn, described in tomes as cow pasture reserved from 40 acres of the old Delta Grove farm, where the school’s first building was erected. The uniforms were crafted by female students from the school’s industrial department, and players armed their street shoes with cleats. The two teams combined their cash to purchase a regulation football.

Two 45-minute halves determined the contest. Biddle scored on a run in the first period, earning five points under the scoring system of the era. A snowstorm caked the field in the second period, rendering boundary markers imperceptible. Historical records claim Livingstone’s W.J. Trent scooped a fumble for a tying score only to have the play reversed by his own coach, who was serving as an official, after Biddle players protested their ball carrier was tackled out of bounds. Supposedly, that dispute halted the rivalry until 1912, with the two World Wars marking the series’ few remaining interruptions.

Today, the schools use the classic to celebrate the achievements of historically black colleges and their graduates. In 2010, a Commemorative Classic Hall of Fame was created, honoring representatives from each school who stand on a lifetime of achievement acquired through their educational opportunity. The induction banquet presents one more occasion for the competitors to clash.

“We get up for Livingstone when we play Livingstone in anything,” says Johnson C. Smith sports information director K.C. Culler. “We could be throwing Frisbee against them, and people would feel that angst.”

Game on.


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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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