In the early 1930s, Lee conceived of a “Black Rose Bowl,” naming it the Orange Blossom Classic. For its first 13 years, the contest migrated between Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa, an itinerant attraction that gradually built its audience and reputation. Then, in 1947, Lee linked its fortunes to the Coconut Festival’s and settled it in Miami.
Miami had the largest stadium in Florida. Miami had the greatest concentration of media anywhere in the state. And Miami, as it entered the postwar boom, was beginning to shake off its rigid segregation, owing largely to the influx of Jews from the north, most of them either tacitly or actively supportive of civil rights.
The very first Classic game in Miami made racial history. For the first time, black fans were permitted to sit in the main stands of the Orange Bowl. (In a perhaps unwitting reference to the Civil War, blacks sat on the northern side of the stadium, white on the southern.)
When a Rattler receiver named Nathaniel “Traz” Powell caught a 45-yard pass to break a 0-0 tie with Hampton Institute, he became the first black to score a touchdown on the Orange Bowl’s previously whites-only gridiron. Powell had grown up in Miami as the son of a laundress and a laborer at the city incinerator. For years to come, blacks around the state would speak about his touchdown as if he’d been Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her seat.
Firmly established by the 1950s, the Orange Blossom Classic far outdrew the University of Miami’s football games and, later, in the Dolphins’ first few seasons, the new AFL franchise. One year, the comic Nipsy Russell joined the Rattlers on their sideline, another time it was Sammy Davis.
All week long, the streets of Overtown and Liberty City were “crowded like the state fair, music pouring out of doorways,” as one participant remembered. At the Zebra Lounge and the Hampton House, in the Harlem Square Club and the Rockland Palace, all along the stretch of Northwest Second Street called the Great Black Way, stars of jazz, soul, and r&b headlined. Beauty salons stayed open all night to handle the female demand.
Politically speaking, no year was more significant than 1967. For the first time ever, both football teams were staying in integrated hotels on Miami Beach. The Ballantine brewing company was sponsoring a tape-delayed broadcast of the game on television stations in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, and New York – giving black college football its first significant television exposure. The local publicity for the game was being handled by Julian Cole, who counted the ritziest Miami Beach hotels among his clients.
The presence of a substantial market of black consumers, a market long ignored by most major corporations, became a palpable part of the festival. The Orange Blossom Classic’s souvenir program featured advertisements from Humble Oil, Prudential Insurance, and RC Cola, among other national companies. Coca-Cola sponsored a float carrying the Grambling College queen and her court in the pregame parade.
The celebrities in attendance included the first wave of black executives hired by corporations in search of black customers. Pepsi-Cola, the leader in the field, dispatched Charles Dryden, a bona fide war hero as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, now its vice president for special markets. Greyhound sent Joe Black, the former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, who had been newly appointed the bus company’s vice president of special markets. F.W. Woolworth, a company made notorious by its segregated lunch counters in Southern cities, dispatched Aubrey Lewis, a former Notre Dame football star and FBI agent it had recently hired as an executive recruiter.