Mural by Bermudian artist celebrating ‘Syracuse 8’ unveiled
A Bermudian artist has been left “honoured” after painting a high-profile mural celebrating a team of Black university athletes who took a landmark stand against racism more than 50 years ago.
Dubbed the “Syracuse 8” by the media of the day – even though there were nine of them – the football players at the nationally known Syracuse University in New York State campaigned from 1969 to 1970 for diversity and better support for their fellow student athletes.
They risked their academic careers, and faced a backlash from students as well as university officials.
But they ultimately returned to Syracuse University in 2006 to receive the university’s highest honour, the Chancellor’s Medal, in recognition of their fight for justice.
Rotimi Martins, 39, an Atlanta-based Bermudian graphic artist was called upon for the mural, A Legacy of Impact, commemorating their historic fight.
His tribute to the nine football players from the 1969-70 team was unveiled on September 4 in the JMA Wireless Dome stadium on the university’s campus – with six surviving members of the group attending.
Mr Martins said: “When I went there for the unveiling, a lot of these guys didn’t know that’s what they had been invited there for.
“A lot of them were speechless – they had tears in their eyes; they couldn’t answer me. I knew I struck a nerve and made them feel honoured.”
He added: “I can’t say it any other way – it’s just really cool.
“I feel blessed they picked me and I got to be part of this whole experience. I too feel honoured.”
The story, with portraits and a timeline, takes up a lengthy wall within the Dome, home to the Syracuse Orange football, basketball, and lacrosse teams.
The athletes are Gregory Allen, Richard Bulls, John Godbolt, Dana Harrell, John Lobon, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, A Alif Muhammad, Duane Walker and Ron Womack.
Along with calling for racial integration of the all-White coaching staff, the athletes petitioned for access to the same tutoring as their White team-mates; better medical care for all team members, and for starting assignments to be based on merit.
While the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s made legislative headway for equal rights in the US, much of everyday American society had yet to catch up.
After calling for change in 1969, the athletes boycotted practice the following spring when the university failed to heed their campaign.
They were suspended later in the year – but told they could come back if they signed a letter agreeing with their suspensions.
The boycott continued, and the university opened an investigation that saw the athletes reinstated for a match against the University of Kansas in September 1970.
Turmoil erupted at the university after the group maintained its boycott, and Syracuse lost the game.
In December 1970, the university’s trustee, faculty and student committee called the standoff “an act of institutional racism, unworthy of a great University".
The athletes’ stand came at great personal cost: of the nine to boycott in the 1970 season, just one played for the Orangemen again.
For Mr Martins, the journey to Syracuse began will falling in love with drawing and design back home as a Saltus student.
Although he initially studied animation after graduating, Mr Martins switched – pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in design at The Art Institute of Atlanta, in Georgia.
He started working after graduating in 2008, and was freelancing when an old colleague from an advertising agency contacted him about working at Syracuse University.
“I didn’t know about the Syracuse 8,” Mr Martins said. “That happened before I was born.”
He was commissioned in 2020 – and with alterations along the way, as well as delays in the unveiling, Mr Martins said he ended up “working on it up until August 31”.
Now married, with three children, Mr Martins was keen to take on an ambitious project.
Although he has worked with the university nearly four years, he said the assignment was his biggest.
Proud parents Rotimi Sr and Sheryl Martins said the job highlighted the talent in Bermuda.
Ms Martins told The Royal Gazette: “It’s a part of history that I had to read up on myself.
“They took a stand, and this has come out of it. The school wanted to portray that bit of history.
“We’re very proud of him – we always told him to go up there, work hard, and do us proud.”