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Traveling up to Charlottesville, Va., to take on the University of Virginia in 1963, Edwin Okoroma and his fellow UNC men’s soccer teammates stopped at a restaurant. They entered the diner, and a woman approached him saying, “We don’t serve Blacks here.”

For Black people living in the South during the 1960s, this was not an uncommon experience. Okoroma simply said “no problem” and left the restaurant.

“What impressed me the most was the minute that I got up to leave, my teammates, without anything, also got up and followed me,” Okoroma said.

By playing on the UNC men’s soccer team in 1963 and 1964, Okoroma became the first Black varsity athlete in the history of the University.

At a time when Franklin Street was still segregated and few Black students attended the University, Okoroma was a pioneer — the first in a long line of influential Black athletes at UNC.

“That was okay with me,” Okoroma said of being the school’s first Black athlete. “I knew there was no history of it.”

To this day, despite being an undeniable trailblazer at UNC, few people are aware of Okoroma and his story.

‘I'm going to America to study, not to fight segregation’

Okoroma was born on March 14, 1940, and grew up in Imo State, Nigeria. He attended a mission school from 1954 to 1958, where he first started playing soccer.

After secondary school, he went to a post-secondary school in Lagos, Nigeria called the Federal Emergency Science School, where he wasn’t able to play soccer due to his studies.

“I was fairly good in tennis, and I represented that institution on the tennis team,” Okoroma said. “But it wasn't as time-consuming as if you were going to do soccer or cricket.”

By focusing on his academics, he was able to earn college credit for lower-numbered biology and chemistry classes. In 1962, Okoroma left his home for the United States by way of the African Scholarship Program of American Universities, an initiative that began under President John F. Kennedy in April 1961.

ASPAU was an expansion of an earlier initiative from the late 1950s, which only awarded scholarships to Africans from Okoroma’s home country of Nigeria. Because of Nigeria’s past history with American universities, even when the program expanded, almost a quarter of the ASPAU scholarships were awarded to Nigerian students.

Okoroma said a bachelor’s degree was guaranteed under the program. If scholarship recipients maintained high grades, the government would then assist students with paying for graduate or professional school.

UNC was one of the first southern schools to key in on the scholarship. When ASPAU expanded in 1961, 239 African students were admitted to American universities. Okoroma was one of 246 students selected to the 1962 class.

Upon his enrollment into UNC, Okoroma became the first Black African at the school. He majored in chemistry with the intention of going to medical school after graduation.

During his first two years at UNC, Okoroma lived with Bill Strong — a fellow pre-med student — in Teague Residence Hall 326. Strong and his father, a professor of microbiology at the School of Medicine, “were very, very supportive” of Okoroma, he said.

Voices of America Picture

In 1964, Okoroma was interviewed for a "Voices of America" radio documentary that's been preserved by the University Archives. Listen to excerpts from that audio below:

Being an early winner of the ASPAU scholarship, a lot of pressure was put on Okoroma’s shoulders to succeed despite potential discrimination. During the interview process, Okoroma said the scholarship panel asked him a simple question: What would he do if someone stood up from their table when he sat down to eat?

“I said, well, I'm going to continue doing what I'm doing because I'm going to America to study, not to fight segregation,” Okoroma said. “And that is a fact too big for me at the moment.”

He would have such an experience, though. After chemistry class one day, Okoroma said he walked into Lenoir Dining Hall during lunch rush hour. He got his food and looked around for an empty place to sit and found an open spot.

Sure enough, he watched as a white student immediately got up from the table he joined, left his food sitting there and walked away.

The following semester, after realizing that Okoroma was not an American, but rather an international student from Nigeria, that same student knocked on Okoroma’s door to apologize.

Okoroma said this specific moment did not bother him, but rather, it was the young man’s apology that did.

“That made me more angry,” Okoroma said. “So it was alright for him to sit down with a Black African, but it wasn't good enough to sit down with an American Black student? So I just told him I wasn't impressed with his apology and he should go.”

‘I had to prove myself to belong’

On the UNC soccer team, Okoroma said he had “no problem at all” with racial discrimination.

Despite not having played organized soccer since 1955, Okoroma tried out for coach Marvin Allen and earned a spot on the roster. The squad was largely made up of players from prep schools in the Northeast.

Team Photo
The North Carolina men’s soccer team is pictured in 1963. Edwin Okoroma is positioned in the middle of the second row. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

Charlie Battle and Jim Talbot were teammates with Okoroma both seasons he was on the varsity team. They both remembered Okoroma being kind, yet typically quiet, around the team. Talbot said Okoroma “pretty much went his own way” whenever the team would hang out off the field.

Okoroma agreed.

“I was conscious of the fact that I was the only Black player there,” Okoroma said. “And the standards meant that I had to prove myself to belong and qualify for the team.”

For Talbot, when he pictures Okoroma 60 years later, he remembered his smile most.

He described their relationship as mainly professional because they played the same outside left position.

Despite being the leading scorer of that 1963 team, Talbot was moved to center midfield in 1964 to promote Okoroma to a starting forward. The decision ended up being a good one: Okoroma finished his final year at UNC as the second-highest scorer on the team with six goals.

“We wanted Edwin in the lineup because he was fast, he had a good left foot and he played well,” Talbot said.

During the 1964 season, Talbot and Okoroma combined to thrash N.C. State, 4-1 in their final game against the Wolfpack. Both tallied a brace in a dominant victory that saw UNC outshoot N.C. State, 32-12.

While Okoroma emerged as a go-to goal scorer, he said it wasn’t his sole focus.

“I was more interested in scoring when I had the best opportunity,” Okoroma said. “If somebody was better placed near the goal, then I would pass the ball to him and let him score. But the one important thing was that our team wins.”

DTH Newspaper Clipping
One of Okoroma's most notable games was in 1964 when he scored a brace in a 4-1 victory over rival N.C. State. Famed baseball writer Peter Gammons, then just a DTH staffer, covered the match. Photo courtesy of DTH Archives.

Despite his prowess on the pitch, Battle said he believes Okoroma does not get the same level of recognition in UNC sports history because of how “low-key” soccer was at the time. Talbot even described a soccer athlete as a “second-class citizen” back then.

“We used to take bets in the locker room about how many people would be in the stands,” Battle said.

Even Charlie Scott, who became the first Black scholarship athlete at UNC when he played on the basketball team in 1967, said he had not known about Okoroma and his story.

“In the 1960’s, no one ever heard or talked about anything besides football and basketball,” Scott told The Daily Tar Heel in a text.

In Talbot’s words: “Soccer was a second class citizen back then.”

American sport historian Matthew Andrews said he believes that, because college soccer had a low profile, this allowed it to be the first sport to desegregate on UNC’s campus.

“No one cared about it,” Andrews said. “When Charles Scott shows up, people care. People celebrate it or people get upset about it — battle lines were drawn. Football, same thing. But soccer, I'm sure no one knew for the most part.”

Team Photo
Charlie Scott became UNC's first Black scholarship athlete when he joined the men's basketball team in 1966. Scott would go on to lead the Tar Heels to two Final Fours and was named the ACC Athlete of the Year in 1970. Photo courtesy of DTH Archives.

‘You had to do well’

Despite being so far from home, the only time Okoroma said he felt lonely was during shorter holidays like Thanksgiving. For the most part, he would stay on campus, alone in his residence hall. To pass time, he enjoyed reading or just walking around campus and taking in its beauty.

“UNC’s campus in the springtime was one of the best things you could ever imagine,” Okoroma said. “The cherry blossoms were there and the garden, which was a fun place for students to go and have their night out.”

He also took an interest in classical music, which helped him deal with loneliness. He said there were two or three stores on Franklin Street that sold classical records, and that he visited those shops often.

When the University was not on holiday and he wasn’t playing on the soccer team, he found community in two other aspects of his life — his studies and his religion.

“My major interest was to study,” Okoroma said. “Because if you lived [in] Africa and you went on scholarship and people told you that the future of the scholarship program depended on your performance, you had to do well to justify continuing the scholarship program.”

Okoroma majored in chemistry and said his classmates were quite friendly with him. He recalled that in his second year, there was a fellow student from Africa, a man from Kenya, but he lost touch with him once he left UNC.

To remind him of home, he joined the YMCA, a group he was a member of back in Nigeria. He said it was a familiar institution, and that he got along well with the white students in the organization.

Okoroma, who is a staunch Anglican, said there were no Anglican churches around UNC at the time. Instead, he attended the Episcopalian church. The pastor at his church, Reverend Thrash, as well as his deputy, helped raise funds for Okoroma to go to medical school.

But despite his success in undergrad, Okoroma would face barriers along the way.

Okoroma appeared several times in the Daily Tar Heel as a student at UNC. Click on the clippings below to read more.

‘A million-dollar question’

After graduating in 1965, Okoroma applied to UNC’s medical school but was not admitted. He was told UNC was not allowed to take non-Americans. Instead, he traveled north to New York to attend the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

“The funny thing is that I got admitted to the University of Rochester, which was at least at the time, better recognized as a medical institution than UNC,” Okoroma said.

He graduated in four years, which Okoroma said made him the first international Black student to do so at that school.

After finishing medical school, Okoroma continued his education at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

In 1973, Okoroma flew back home and spent time with his mother for three weeks. It was the first time he’d seen his family in a decade. His father died in 1966, and he wasn’t able to see him before he passed. In 1967, Okoroma tried to go home but couldn’t because the Nigerian Civil War had broken out.

After finishing his medical education at the Mayo Clinic and Mayo Graduate School in Rochester, Minn., in 1975 — he said he was one of the first Black recipients of the American Board of Pediatrics cardiology certification — Okoroma went back home for good.

“There was no question about my wanting to go back to Nigeria,” Okoroma said.

Okoroma’s program director at the hospital in Washington tried very hard to persuade him to stay on because there were very few Black pediatricians, and he wanted Okoroma to be there to integrate the faculty.

But his home country would always be where his heart was.

“Although I [held] no obligation to return to Nigeria, it was an obligation more for my family to go back and see them,” Okoroma said.

He became a full professor of pediatrics at the University of Nigeria from 1986 to 1990. After a 28-year stint working in Saudi Arabia at military hospitals, Okoroma returned to Nigeria and has worked at the Memfys Hospital in Enugu, Nigeria since 2018.

While he has retired from his primary engagement as a consultant in pediatrics, Okoroma still continues to work at the hospital at the age of 83.

“That is a million-dollar question,” Okoroma said when asked what motivates him to continue working. “Just the passion of helping children and also making a living for myself.”

Despite the many hardships he faced, Okoroma came to UNC to get an education and one day return to practice medicine in Nigeria. He was able to accomplish both.

Almost six decades after he graduated UNC and made history by becoming the first Black varsity athlete at North Carolina, Okoroma said he still remembers Chapel Hill with “a great deal of fondness.”

“I wish I could visit North Carolina again just to remind me of what life was all like,” he said.

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