Breaking barriers, making history: James Cash has built a monumental legacy

James Cash and the statue (Photo by Sharon Ellman/TCU Athletics

When James Cash arrived on the TCU campus in 1965, he became the first Black scholarship athlete in Southwest Conference history.

But Cash – Dr. Cash now – was far from finished with making history and impacting society. He has spent almost his entire life breaking barriers.

The 75-year-old Cash was recently honored with a statue outside of the Schollmaier Arena on the TCU campus. The statue depicts him playing basketball but Cash has contributed much more than his talent on the hardwood to the university and the world.

Cash earned Academic All-America honors as a Horned Frog in 1968 and 1969, rounding out his senior year as an All-Southwest Conference basketball star before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

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“Reflecting on the fact that many of my fellow students and I from elementary and middle school years would not have been permitted to be students on the TCU campus, it felt surreal,” Cash said of the statue. “The most important thing to focus on are all the people that contributed to this honor. Starting with my parents and family, my teachers who prepared me, my fellow students that encouraged and supported me, the courageous people at TCU and elsewhere that violated the Jim Crow laws – this statue is a testament to providing opportunities to the least among us.”

The one year that Cash said stands out most during his time at TCU was 1968, a turbulent year for all of America. He said much happened that year to help define the person he would become.

The early months of the year set an encouraging tone with the Horned Frogs winning the SWC basketball championship and defeating Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament round of 16. But the auspicious start took a tragic turn when civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4. Two months later, on June 5, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. In August, the Democratic Convention in Chicago was disrupted by riots and at the October Olympic Games in Mexico City,  Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their hands in a Black power salute, putting the world on notice that racial tensions existed in every phase of society.

Cash said he feels blessed to have been at TCU during that time because, “At 20 years old, the conversations I had with a broad range of people at TCU helped me keep perspective and optimism, instead of developing the opposites.”

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At the NCAA Final Four in 1994, Cash received the Silver Anniversary Award, which recognized a select few distinguished athletes on the 25th anniversaries of their college careers. Cash was honored alongside the likes of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Duke University Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“One of the family stories that gets repeated on a regular basis is when my son, at age 11, joined me on the dais. He looked at the other recipients and, after he couldn’t hold his confusion any longer, he asked, ‘Dad, I know why they are here … why are you up here?'” Cash said with a laugh.

The moment took Cash back in time not only in basketball, but also to a time many years earlier when he wasn’t even wanted in the very arena in which he was being honored: “Twenty-nine years after I had a police escort to enter Barnhill Arena at the University of Arkansas the 1994 NCAA champion was the University of Arkansas, with a Black coach – Nolan Richardson – and started five Black players.”

“During my final years as a member of the board of directors of Walmart I served as lead independent director,” Cash added, “Our annual meeting was held in the University of Arkansas basketball arena.”

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In 1976, after earning his doctorate in management information systems from Purdue University, Cash joined the faculty at Harvard Business School. His leadership included strengthening diversity and he also held the James E. Robison Chair of Business Administration.

In 1985, he became the first Black faculty member to receive tenure. He was also the first Black person to have a building named for him on campus, the Cash House.

Ironically, Cash’s name on the building replaced that of the late politician Carter Glass, who helped establish the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and passed the Federal Reserve Act. However, his professional accomplishments were overshadowed by his support for segregationist policies, including poll taxes and literacy requirements.

In 2003 Cash joined the Boston Celtics’ ownership group, where he helped launch community-based initiatives focusing on racism and racial inequality through six pillars:

  • Voting and civic engagement
  • Criminal justice and law enforcement
  • Equity in healthcare
  • Breaking down barriers and building bridges across communities
  • Economic opportunity and empowerment
  • Equity in education

He continues to work with the team as an investor and a member of the board of directors. He and his wife, Clemmie, spend five months out of each year in Massachusetts and seven in Florida.

Cash played at I.M. Terrell High School in Fort Worth for legendary basketball coach Robert Hughes, who was a championship-winning coach in the all-Black Prairie View Interscholastic League before coaching in the integrated University Interscholastic League.

“He loves telling the story of how I made a basket in the wrong goal when he first saw me at James E Guinn as a seventh-grader,” Cash recalled. “For him to take that James Cash and help develop me into a person that you are interested in interviewing says more about him than me.”

“While there were many men that contributed to my growth and development,” Cash said, “my father is the only man more important than Coach Hughes. Over the years I have continued to emulate so many of his attributes and behaviors,” Cash continued. “His voice and instruction still ring in my head when faced with certain situations. The most important attribute he helped me to develop was based on his belief that while everyone wants to win or succeed, not everyone is committed to the preparation required to ensure success or winning.”

But his greatest influences have always been his parents, Cash said. They valued education, pushed him to pursue leadership roles in church and at school while facilitating his participation in sports.

“My father worked two jobs during most of my early years. His father died when he was a sixth-grader, and as the oldest male he started working to support the rest of his family,” Cash recalled. “He valued education because of his lost opportunity and insisted his siblings and children pursued it as a high priority.

“My mother graduated from Tuskegee after growing up in Cleburne. Before Blacks were permitted on the TCU campus, she participated in classes taught by TCU professors at a Black elementary school, as an example of her commitment to education.”

Following the decision to permit Black students to attend classes on campus in 1962, she continued taking classes and received a masters degree in 1965. When describing her experience she would preach to her students and her son, “If the elevator isn’t working, take the stairs. Don’t give in to constraints if other options exist.”

Looking back, Cash acknowledged that while he knew coming to TCU was a moment of significance, it wasn’t until years later that he fully realized its impact.

“Because the civil rights movement was in full motion by 1965, I was aware that I had an opportunity to contribute. The day referred to as Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965, the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama) was a few weeks before I signed the scholarship offer from TCU,” Cash reflected. “I thought that I should ‘do my part.’ However, in retrospect, at 17 years old I did not appreciate the full significance that has been conveyed over the years.”

And while Black students had been permitted on the TCU campus since 1962, not enough time had passed to eliminate race-based stereotypes, he said.

“My wife likes to describe an evolution in perceptions and behaviors, that is based on communication leading to exposure leading to experience. The journey starts with honest and candid communication,” he said. “For example, as hurtful as the comments from my freshman math counselor were when he asked if I was sure that I wanted to major in math because ‘You people aren’t good in math,’ he was honestly conveying his perception. As he got additional exposure to me, he began to change his perception.

“Finally, as he had to deal with some issues caused by faculty who were not happy to have a ‘Negro’ in their classroom, he experienced and better understood some of the challenges I was facing. In his case it increased his commitment to providing support for me, and he became a model ally for my time at TCU. He taught me a very important lesson to focus more on what people actually do, instead of what they say. What is said may be misleading, especially if they are early in this journey.”

Cash said he thought there was no option at the time other than fighting through racism. He had observed the courage of leaders such as John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Andrew Young and many others.

“I had been warned that verbal abuse and racial stereotyping should not affect my confidence because of the preparation provided by my family, church, teachers, fellow students, coaches and others,” he said. “At every stage of my life there have been people from Fort Worth that I could emulate to pursue the next level of achievement.”

While much has changed since those days, including America electing Barack Obama as its first Black president in 2008 – and re-electing him in 2012 – Cash said the battle against racism continues. After all, he said, structural racism that led to inequality unfolded over centuries, but he is encouraged by what he’s seeing from society.

“The significantly increased number of people who are working to make the world a better place for all human beings is encouraging,” he said. “One measure is the racial and ethnic mix of people that demonstrate after events like the murder of George Floyd. During the civil rights movement of the ’60s, eighty percent of us were Black. Several more recent demonstrations in response to race-based brutality were larger and had the opposite racial/ethnic composition.”

A quarter century after graduating from TCU, Cash was asked to deliver a commencement address to the 1994 graduating class. A memorable and inspiring quotation from that speech is now enshrined on the statue at TCU. He said the words summarize his thoughts on his experience at TCU:

“TCU helped me accomplish more than others thought possible, by teaching me to care more than others thought wise, which empowered me to take more risk than others thought was safe.”