By Attorneys Janice L. Mathis and Davida Mathis
Our hearts are full of joy, gratitude and humility as we celebrate our father’s induction into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. As coach and athletic director of the legendary Sterling Tigers, from 1946 to 1968, Joseph D. Mathis led the football team to a record of 107-17-26, including four AAA State Championships in 1947, 1950, 1953 and 1956. He also coached basketball, baseball and track, taught physical education and social studies and was Assistant Principal at GHS, counselor and coach at League Middle and job placement counselor at Donaldson Vocational Center. He coached girls, including us, with the same fervor and insistence upon excellence that he demanded of the boys, at a time when equality for women was theoretical, at best.
A gridiron star at both Benedict and Allen, after earning a degree in history, Mathis landed the job of his dreams at his alma mater. He had no money, no father, no connections and made no excuses. Winning was important, but getting an education was paramount. One former student postponed college, believing the most rational thing to do was get a job immediately out of high school to help his struggling family. He says Daddy was “relentless” in encouraging him to go to college. A full year after high school graduation Mathis introduced the student to a college coach, the young athlete accepted a football scholarship, graduated, built a thriving business and helped his family more than he ever thought possible. There are enough stories like this to fill a book, or a movie.
One friend says he was disciplined, preferring as captain to ride the team bus back to Greenville than to party with his friends. A co-worker from the tight-knit Sterling faculty says he used Mama’s Belk card to buy clothes for needy students. A former student says he regularly walked the halls at Sterling, checking athletes’ grades and class attendance. He admonished us all, “don’t ever get in the give up formation.” He stressed fundamentals, academics and hard work as the keys to success. Numerous Tiger players, including Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, went on to stand out at colleges and universities throughout the nation, including Maryland State, University of Illinois, North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M and Pacific. A few, such as Arthur Jones, J.D. Smith, R.C. Gambrell, William Thompson and Lawrence Acker, played in the NFL.
In the days of deep segregation, he treated everyone the same and Greenville responded in kind. The team drew thousands of fans to home games and was regularly covered by the Greenville Piedmont and WFBC radio. Yet, he understood the fraught legal history of race relations in the South - his master’s thesis on race relations in Greenville during Reconstruction is still widely quoted by scholars.
Daddy helped to build a political infrastructure in Greenville's black neighborhoods allowing residents to elect representatives of their choice. He was elected to Greenville’s City Council in 1979, working to improve police pay and minority contractor participation, bring the Municipal Stadium and the Braves to Greenville, and annex Haywood Road.
He passed in 2002. He was fond of saying that he hoped there would be something to do in heaven. “Like what?” we asked. “Like helping people,” was his reply. We hope the Joseph D. Mathis award will inspire others to allow God to use him or her to turn adversity into independence and achievement.
Attorney Janice Mathis is a practicing attorney and national vice president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition; she lives in Athens, Georgia. Attorney Davida Mathis is a former prosecutor and currently practices law in Greenville. She also Co-Chairs the Greenville Chapter of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition; she lives in Greenville, S.C. Both attorneys co-host the weekly radio program “Sisters In Law” on WAOK 1380 AM in Atlanta and blog at sistersinlaw.blogspot.com.