Cleveland Abbott Paved the Way and Created Opportunities for Many
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Cleveland Abbott

Chris Laughery: Cleveland Abbott excelled both academically and athletically. Born in the late 1800, Cleveland Abbott paved the way and created opportunities for many. As a young black child, Cleveland didn't let much of anything get in his way. Here to help us get to know Cleveland Abbott is Bruce Danielson. Bruce, a bit of a historian himself, I'd guess you'd say, and is very, very passionate about Mr. Abbott. Bruce, welcome to In The Moment.

Bruce Danielson: Thank you. I love being here.

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Chris Laughery: I'm going to start this by congratulating Cleveland Abbott on his induction into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. He passed away in 1955, but his accomplishments have really warranted his induction.

Bruce Danielson: It's a passage that has to happen.

Chris Laughery: Let's start with speaking about Cleveland. They call him Cleve. In his early days, what do you suppose it was like for him being a young black child in the early 1900s?

Bruce Danielson: Well, in South Dakota, you got to remember South Dakota history, and how South Dakota history has shown these all these immigrants, at that time, everybody was an immigrant to here except the Native Americans. So Cleve's family was just like the Norwegians, and the Swedes, and the Germans, and all these other people coming in. And for some reason when Cleveland's parents moved to Yankton, they had Cleve, and then moved up to Watertown, they fit in because they were like everybody else looking for a place in society. And it's remarkable for me to see how Cleveland fit in, in the few photographs we have of Cleve at that time, the boys that are with him, show their arms around him, that he's part of them. And so I think he felt part of society at that point in time. And that he could do whatever those other kids were doing. And it showed in the progress that he made.

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Chris Laughery: His parents were married in Alabama in the late 1800s, but for whatever reason, when Cleveland was born in 1894, they were living in Yankton, South Dakota. And my question is, is there any reasoning behind why Yankton, and what do we know about Albert and Molly?

Bruce Danielson: Well, I know that Albert was born into slavery. In 1862. His mother, Molly was born in 1868, so right outside of there. And Abbyville is actually very close to Tuskegee down in that part of Alabama. And so, they came up here in this big migration that was happening from the slave areas of the Mason Dixon, up to the Dakotas to try and develop a home up here. And they followed the Missouri River. I can only assume by the census data that I found from 1900, that Cleve's father was a brick layer.

And then later I learned that he went to Huron with the Chicago Northwestern and worked for them. That's all I've been able to find out at this point. And I found that through Albert's obituary.

Chris Laughery: I suppose Molly was a homemaker then.

Bruce Danielson: Molly was a homemaker. And she died when Cleve was just starting high school.

Chris Laughery: 15?

Bruce Danielson: Yeah. So it was 1909. Yeah, 1909.

Chris Laughery: So by the time the family moved to Watertown, the family grew to seven children. Cleveland, we just talked about lost his mom, he was only 15. How do you suppose that changed his life?

Bruce Danielson: It just boggles my mind that he put all this energy into academics, and into his athletics.

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Chris Laughery: Yeah, he was incredibly gifted, and that leads me into my next thought. I read that he trained his mind like he trained his body.

I just love that term. Now, he was among the first black South Dakotans to graduate from a public high school and college, all while excelling in sports. So he was rather gifted both academically and athletically. This blows my mind, earning a total of 30, 3-0, 30 varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis.

That's crazy.

Bruce Danielson: And he used every one of those skills, the rest of his life. Both the academic and the sports. It just sends chills up my spine every time I think about it. The way that this man could wrap all of this stuff together in such a cool package. And I'd like to talk about his wife a little bit.

His wife, Jessie, was from Des Moines. So, they met when when Cleveland was winning in the Drake Relays. They were down there from South Dakota State to run in the Drake Relays. And he met Jessie, and they fell in love.

And that became the way that they went through the rest of their lives together as a team. And they did everything as a team. And if we had more time I would tell you some of the amazing things that they did together.

Chris Laughery: Sure.

Bruce Danielson: For women's athletics. But I will tell you, if you don't mind my jumping ahead a little bit.

Is, it was because of this bond that they were able to accomplish the great things that they did for the Olympics, the USA Track and Field, and everything else that were to come in their lives.

Chris Laughery: We're talking with Bruce Danielson, a historian, if you will. We're talking about Cleveland Abbott. He's going to be inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame here in just a couple of weeks. And I have to get into my next thought. We talked about it briefly before we went on the air. And tell us how, I can't believe I'm even saying this, tell us how Booker T. Washington, the Booker T. Washington played a role in Cleveland Abbott's life?

Bruce Danielson: Booker T. Washington and President Preshell from SDSC were in Washington D.C. for a meeting.

They happened to be riding on the same train, so the story goes, after the meeting. And they sat together and conversed. And Booker T. Washington asked Preshell, if he had any thoughts about how to break Jim Crow segregation. And through sports Booker T. Washington did everything he could to find a way to remold the model of the black Americans, the African Americans, the freed slaves. This was his goal. And in that conversation with Preshell, he said, Preshell said, I have this student, and best I can come up with, he was a 19, 20 years old, just starting SDSU. And he said, when he graduates, I want to hire him to come to Tuskegee Institute to build an athletic program. And so, in 1916 a year after Booker T. Washington died, James Washington, Booker's brother, contacted Cleve to make sure that he was still coming to Tuskegee, because it was written in the notes that he had been hired.

Chris Laughery: Do you suppose Cleveland Abbott learned of Booker T. Washington's passing and went, my dream is over?

Bruce Danielson: Yeah, it would just be devastating for somebody like that. And to know that, now what am I going to do with my life? And so, he went on, I don't know if we have time to talk about World War One, being a member of the Buffalo Soldiers. And he was one of the first decorated black Americans in the army. And he went on, in fact, he was so well respected that the Buffalo Soldier's commander asked him to make the announcement to the American troops that the armistice was signed.

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He mustered out, went to Kansas, he did some amazing things in Kansas. He actually got his upper degrees. He actually went to Harvard and got some studies done. And then Tuskegee called him back and said, we need you. And in 1923, he went back to Tuskegee. Built an athletic program at Tuskegee that he has still ... He's the 34th winning American football coach. He was at Tuskegee for 32 years. He built the model for the modern NCAA athletic system. He was so successful with track and field, with basketball, with football, that he was asked to be the first black member of USA Track and Field Board. And then in 1946, he was asked to be a member of the US Olympic Committee. Very first in all of those, and he became the model for how American sports, collegiate sports today operates.

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Chris Laughery: Let's quickly differentiate between SDSC and SDSU. Tell us the difference.

Bruce Danielson: Well, South Dakota State College, in all of the old work ... In fact, there's a lot South Dakota State College of Agriculture and Industry as I believe the name was, and it wasn't SDSU until 1964.

So that was the old name for the school and then the new name. So in all of the old literature when I'm studying this, you see these name differentiations. And actually SDSU, my understanding is the third name that the school has had.

Chris Laughery: It's interesting to me, and I'm not sure if this was an era thing, or a time thing, or how he was brought up, but Cleveland Abbott ended up getting a degree in dairy science of all things. What do you suppose dairy science?

Bruce Danielson: One of the stories I read was, he went down to Brookings from Watertown and they asked him what his major was, and he was standing in front of a building that said dairy. And that became his dairy science. While it fit perfectly into what Booker T. Washington needed, because he taught dairy sciences at Tuskegee as one of his other fields.

Chris Laughery: Did Cleveland Abbott build that program at Tuskegee from the ground up?

Bruce Danielson: They had a football program that wasn't doing very well. And it wasn't fitting in the way that it had worked, the way they wanted it to work. So, in 1923, they asked Cleve to come back and take over the entire program and use all of these different skills to make it happen.

Chris Laughery: Cleveland was definitely a pioneer as he paved the way for not only black men and black women to excel, but all students in America. So essentially opened up opportunities for all of mankind. What an individual.

Bruce Danielson: One of the other things here, is he created the first women's organized athletic program. And they were so successful, that for 14 years if they ruled all of USA Track and Field for women. There wasn't anything else like it. And that's why he was called the Duke of Dakota.

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Chris Laughery: Bruce Danielson, thank you very much for taking time out of your day to come talk with us about Cleveland Abbott. We really appreciate it.

Bruce Danielson: You bet.

Chris Laughery: The South Dakota Hall of Fame induction ceremony is September 7 and 8 in Chamberlain. For tickets and more information go online to or call 605-234-4216.