Norwood soars past segregation

By Aaron Graff, @Aarongraff_DE

It takes a whole village to make change.

Bill Norwood became the first black quarterback at SIU and the first African-American pilot for United Airlines, but he said he had a lot of help getting there.

“We don’t do things alone,” Norwood said. “None of us. And if we don’t have that support system, it becomes more and more difficult and sometimes impossible for some people. I’ve had a good support system.”


Norwood said when he went to SIU from 1955 to 1959, outside the university was segregated. He said he and other black players could not go to restaurants downtown.

He said the football team would get tickets to see movies after games, but black players were treated differently than white players.

“We’d go to the movie and black players had to sit upstairs,” Norwood said. “White players could sit downstairs or upstairs. That’s the last time I went to a movie. I said, ‘Don’t give me any more tickets.’”

SIU journalism professor Bill Recktenwald, a friend of Norwood’s, said he remembers going to Kentucky in that time period and seeing segregation signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains.

“The ‘50s and ‘60s separation of blacks and whites was so intense,” he said. 

Recktenwald said it was a big accomplishment to be the quarterback of a football team in the time period.

Norwood’s book, “Cleared For Takeoff: A Pilot’s Story of Challenges and Triumphs,” tells how an assistant coach told him he had such speed and good hands that he should be a flanker back or a split end.


Norwood considered it because he valued his education, but his backfield coach, Carmen Piccone said, “Bill, you do not know what he’s trying to do, but I do. If you stop being my quarterback, I will take your scholarship.”

Norwood said he threw just 4 passes his senior year of high school. He said the quarterback was used more for catching passes and blocking in the formation used.  

Former SIU quarterback Gerry Hart was a senior when Norwood came to SIU. Norwood said Hart took him aside and showed him how to throw a football correctly, something he practiced nearly every day.  

Norwood led the team to a 7-2 record in 1958 and was inducted into the Saluki Hall of Fame in 1993.

“Bill’s imprint has been left here in a number of ways,” interim athletic director Harold Bardo said. “He was an original in terms of being a black quarterback.”

After football, Norwood served six years in the Air Force and had a 31-year career with United Airlines.

“Whenever you’re the first—first of your gender or first of your race—it puts a little bit more pressure on the professional job you perform,” Norwood said. “A lot of people didn’t want any African-American pilots.”

When he retired, his name was painted on the 727 airplane he used to fly. The plane is now in the “Take Flight” exhibit in the Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Recktenwald said the plane was stripped of unnecessary parts and landed at Meigs Field in Chicago. It was then put onto a barge and taken down Lake Michigan to 55th Street. They then rolled it to the museum.

Norwood helped form the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals in 1976 and was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007.

Since he retired in 1996, Norwood has visited southern Illinois multiple times. He said it is a lot better for race relations than when he graduated.

Norwood said Black History Month is a time to celebrate historical achievements that once were relegated to the back page. He said it is important, but America should have an awareness year, celebrating all cultures and each group’s contributions, instead of Black History Month.

While he has been recognized by a lot of people during Black History Month, Norwood gives credit to the people who helped him get where he is today.

Recktenwald said Norwood is a guy who will remember you after meeting you once. 

Bardo said Norwood and his wife Molly are helping SIU students reach milestones by providing scholarships.  

For those interested in learning more on Norwood, his book can be found online at or

Aaron Graff can be reached at [email protected] or at 536-3311 ext. 256.