TUPELO – Family members and former teammates of Frank Dedric Dowsing Jr. gathered on Friday at Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau to unveil a new exhibit chronicling the historic black scholar athlete during a segregated South.
Dowsing’s sister, Virginia Frances Toliver, collected significant artifacts from Dowsing’s life and helped organize the curation with Pat Rasberry and Brian Rucker of CVB.
The unveiling of the exhibit brought tears to Toliver’s eyes as she saw her brother’s life laid out in front of her – from his humble beginnings in the cotton fields in the Palmetto community to his budding academic career at Tupelo High School to his rise to the top at Mississippi State University.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton introduced a proclamation honoring Dowsing’s extraordinary life and then gave copies to Toliver and Dowsing’s niece, Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo, and Dowsing’s great niece and nephew.
“The exhibits here have been the most famous people to ever come from the city of Tupelo,” Shelton said. “You can’t just be anybody and get a display. You have to be someone who has changed the city. Frank certainly did that. And it’s something we’re proud of.”
Almost 50 years ago at the height of racial unrest, Dowsing transferred from Carver High School, an all-black school during segregation, to Tupelo High School.
He became one of the first black students to attend THS in 1967.
At THS, Dowsing fiercely pursued academics and athletics, while at the same time overcoming disparities, mistreatment and cruelties caused by racism.
He graduated sixth in a class of 219 and was All-Big Eight Conference in football, basketball and track.
Dowsing talked with his sister during those times, recounting experiences of racial slurs. He was fortunate to have a supportive team, she said, but when they traveled to schools for games, others called him names and treated him poorly.
Toliver said Dowsing believed strongly in his faith and followed the Golden Rule. His faith strengthened his character and enabled him to accept others despite adversity and to recognize the shortcomings in others.
He grew up in an extremely religious household that held the belief to look for the best in everybody.
“Frank encountered many negative forces because of his race, but he was able to tolerate and accept that because he was able to recognize the shortcomings in a person,” Toliver said. “That’s all racism is. It’s a shortcoming in one’s moral character.”
During his senior year at THS, Paul Bear Bryant, former University of Alabama football coach, heavily recruited Dowsing, but he signed with Mississippi State as one of the first black football players at the university.
In 1972, the students at MSU voted Dowsing as the first black Mr. Mississippi State University.
To this day, Dowsing still holds the MSU career record for average yards per punt return, and his 88-yard punt return against Alabama in 1971 ranks as the third-longest in school history.
Dowsing died on July 11, 1994, at the age of 42.
Former Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr., who played alongside Dowsing, spoke at the exhibit, recalling the tenderness and grace of his friend he met at the age of 16.
During Reed and Dowsing’s time together in 1967, Tupelo won its first All-America City Award in large part because of how Tupelo handled integration in the public school system in a peaceful manner.
“I would say that nobody was more important to Tupelo’s first All America City winning leg of peaceful integration in our community than Frank Dowsing,” Reed said. “The whole community came around him. It wasn’t just me and our teammates, it was the whole school. How brave was that for them to come to what they hoped was a better education?”
The exhibit, which is located at the Tupelo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau building downtown, will remain open through the end of March 2016.