In 1969, Taylor Stokes entered Vanderbilt as the first African American scholarship athlete to suit up for the football team. Though he had dreamed of playing in the Big 10 or at Alabama, he accepted Vanderbilt’s invitation at the urging of his father.
“My father was a visionary,” says Stokes, who grew up in Clarksville, Tenn., northwest of Nashville. “He knew that if African Americans were going to get ahead, they needed to have a presence at schools like Vanderbilt—and not just on the football field.”
But times were different then, and Stokes says he endured frequent racial slights around campus and on the field, even after making seven extra-point kicks in one game against Ole Miss during his second season—a Vanderbilt record that stood more than two decades.
When Stokes’ father died in 1971, he withdrew from Vanderbilt to run the family painting and contracting business, and ultimately became a successful businessman. Life went on, but always with something missing.
Bitter about his Vanderbilt experience, for 35 years he avoided even driving near the campus. Then a few years ago, his wife, Chandra, and some former friends and teammates encouraged him to return to campus and finish what he had started. One of those friends was prominent Nashvillian Walter Overton, BA’74, who had followed Stokes to Vanderbilt and became the first African American scholarship football player to graduate. Overton is now general manager of LP Field, home stadium for Nashville’s NFL Tennessee Titans.
Receptive Vanderbilt administrators put together a plan of action for Stokes, and in 2007 he started his journey back at Vanderbilt—even beating a bout with cancer along the way. Head Football Coach Bobby Johnson saw to it that Stokes received the varsity letter jacket he’d never picked up in 1971.
On May 8, 2009, after a 40-year detour, Taylor Stokes finally crossed the Commencement stage and received his diploma, a bachelor of arts degree for an interdisciplinary major focusing on race, culture and religion. Stokes had majored in sociology his first time at Vanderbilt.
“I could feel the bitterness of the past being chipped away.”
A devout Christian, Stokes next plans to pursue a master’s degree in Christian counseling. He also has taught in the Clarksville school system.
“I could feel the bitterness from the past being chipped away because of the generosity and love I’d experienced,” says Stokes of his return to Vanderbilt.
“How often do you get to return to the scene of your greatest tragedy, and it becomes your greatest triumph?
“I want people to see that there can be life after death, a resurrection so to speak. You can rise out of the ashes. You can return to the scene of the crime, and there can be a different outcome—an outcome of survival that allows the victim ultimately to become the victor.”