Major League Baseball didn’t see desegregation until 1947. The National Football League had some black players before 1933, but from 1934 until 1946, the leagues followed a whites-only policy. Even the NBA kept blacks out until 1950.
But in Kalispell and the Flathead Valley, during those years and beyond, black players were a welcome addition to baseball, football and basketball teams. They have been featured in the Daily Inter Lake on a regular basis, and celebrated for their athletic prowess, as well as for their community spirit.
One of the most accomplished of those athletes was Michael “Mike” Gibbs, who was a standout for Flathead High School in the mid-1930s and went on to be a boxer, basketball player and coach locally for many years.
As a sophomore, Gibbs played on the 1935 Braves gridiron team that recorded the school’s first win (13-6) over Helena in a rivalry that dated back to 1929. As was not uncommon in those days, Gibbs played a number of positions, including quarterback.
In 1937, when he was a senior, Gibbs was team captain and playing in the defensive backfield when he was singled out by the Inter Lake for his fine play:
“Several of [Coach Alex] McLain’s men have been mentioned as possible all-state players, with special note being given to the work of Captain Mike Gibbs for his sensational tackling and Gene Hall for his driving line plunges.”
Gibbs also lettered in basketball the following spring, where he had a stellar season at guard.
In his high school years, Gibbs was also noted as an amateur boxer. In April 1937, the Inter Lake reported that he was featured in a four-round bout at Bigfork High School against the aptly named Tuffy Durocher, a Bigfork southpaw.
During World War II, Gibbs enlisted in the Army, but he returned afterward and became a fixture in adult and youth athletics. He played City League basketball for the Kalispell Taxi team, and played for the Keglers and Stockman’s Bar teams in the Kalispell and Valley Softball League in the late ’40s.
In 1952, he coached the Pee Wee baseball team sponsored by Howard’s Shine Clinic, the shoeshine parlor owned by his brother Howard Gibbs.
That was the same year when Sam McCullum was born. McCullum is one of the top athletes to ever come out of Kalispell. Born in McComb, Mississippi, he was partly raised in Kalispell, where he starred on the Flathead Braves football and basketball teams. McCullum graduated in 1970, and went on to be an award-winning wide receiver at Montana State University. He was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, where he played two seasons before being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks when they joined the league in 1976. McCullum played six seasons in Seattle as the No. 2 receiver behind Hall of Famer Steve Largent. He then finished his career with two seasons back with the Vikings.
McCullum played 129 games in the NFL, and ended his career with 274 receptions, more than 4,000 receiving yards and just seven fumbles.
When McCullum returned home for a Braves banquet in November 1977, the Inter Lake sports editor recorded the event in his column:
“Sam told the folks that it was ‘good to be home,’ even though Kalispell was his home for only about five years. His parents have returned to the Minneapolis area, and his brothers and sisters are mostly located in the Midwest.
“‘There’s no place like Kalispell. I tell all my friends that,’” McCullum said. “‘It’s just a beautiful area and people here have always treated me well.’”
A number of other black athletes from the Flathead have excelled not just in local competition, but in the college and professional ranks as well. Lex Hilliard, a 2003 Flathead High School graduate, was an all-star running back at the University of Montana and was later drafted by the Miami Dolphins. Following his NFL career, Hilliard returned to Kalispell and has worked as an assistant coach with the Braves.
Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake. He can be reached at 758-4447 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.