Something to Cheer About for Betty Jean Love Gibbs

March 1, 2010 at 11:18 pm 9 comments

Betty, left, and her daughter Cynthia pose after the special presentation at Sunday's City Lights event.

Like the rest of the staff, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading back issues of The Penn Stater and its predecessor, Penn State Alumni News, because we’re approaching the magazine’s 100th anniversary. I’ve learned a lot about Penn State history, so I figured I was well-prepared for the Alumni Association’s City Lights event Sunday in Pittsburgh. It was staged at the new August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, and the title of the lecture by Courtney L. Young, librarian and professor of women’s studies at Penn State Beaver, was “Famous African-American Penn Staters.”

And, yes, I knew the basics about the Penn Staters whose lives Young highlighted. But it was the tale of a woman I’d never heard of—and whose story was nearly lost—that made the biggest impression on me.

Betty Jean Love Gibbs ’56 arrived at Penn State as a talented dancer and gymnast. But when she wanted to try out for the cheerleading squad in 1953, she was told that was impossible. “Negroes are not allowed on the squad,” officials told her.

The story shocked me. Just two issues ago, we featured the Men of ’47, the Penn State football team that refused to play without its two black players and integrated the Cotton Bowl. How was it possible that just a few years later, a black woman wasn’t allowed to be on the cheerleading squad?

Darryl Daisey ’83, who researched Gibbs’ story, isn’t sure, but he has a theory. “In the late 1940s, Penn State was pretty progressive,” he said after the program. “But some things were still taboo, and that included interracial dating and dancing.” He thinks that cheerleading may have fallen into a similar category.

Daisey learned about Gibbs from Charles Blockson ’56, an African-American history expert, and he tracked down the details for his Web site, He then told her story at Sunday’s City Lights event, and he and the Alumni Association made a special presentation to Gibbs, giving her a prize-winning photo of her dancing that was taken by Penn State faculty member Edward Leos, a proclamation from Penn State cheerleading coach Curtis White naming her an honorary cheerleader, and her very own official Penn State cheerleading uniform.

Gibbs didn’t let the cheerleading setback hold her back. She competed at the 1956 U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, and after graduating with a physical education degree, she worked at various YWCAs, danced professionally in New York, and opened Love’s Academy of Dance when she moved back to her hometown, Pittsburgh. She also taught at Pittsburgh’s acclaimed high school for the Creative and Performing Arts.

“I enjoyed my life at Penn State,” Gibbs told the gathering of alumni. “There were some things we could do, and some things we couldn’t do but did anyway. We got an education, and that was the important part.”

You can read more about Love and some of the other prominent black Penn Staters in this story (which had a lot of help from Daisey) from Monday’s Centre Daily Times. And you can find out more about upcoming City Lights programs, which reach out to alumni in five major metropolitan areas (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, New York, and Washington, D.C.) here.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

Entry filed under: Alumni Association. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Debra L Johnson  |  March 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I am so proud of Betty Jean Love Gibbs and of Penn State!

    I was a Cheerleader at Penn State and happen to be African American. When I tried out for the squad in 1976, there was already 1 black cheerleader, Rita Frealing. We worried that they would reject the opportunity to have 2 black cheerleaders. We both made the squad. Rita and I became roommates and remain great friends.

    Right on Betty! You are the Rosa Parks of black cheerleaders at Penn State!

  • 2. Rita Frealing  |  March 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    You go, Betty! I was Debi’s roommate and you paved the way for us in many ways.

    I hope I get to meet you at a reunion sometime.

    We are…Penn State!

  • 3. Lori Shontz  |  March 3, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Debra and Rita, thank you so much for sharing your memories. You are all inspiring!

  • 4. Darryl Daisey  |  March 3, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Lori – Great Job in communicating the well deserved tribute to Betty Love Gibbs that occured in Pittsburgh on Sunday to those who could not attend. Mrs. Love Gibbs was very appreciative of the honor (being named an Honorary Penn State Cheerleader), and of having her contributions to Penn State remembered.

    I thought it might be additive to share the proclamation from Penn State cheerleading coach Curtis White:

    To Betty Love Gibbs
    February 28, 2010

    Betty Love Gibbs, it gives me great pleasure to select you as an Honorary Penn State Cheerleader.

    I wish I could be there to join you. I have read your impressive biography and many accomplishments. Through your work in dance and especially your achievements with young people, you are an exceptional ambassador and shining star for Penn State. The Penn State Cheerleading mission includes being an excellent ambassador for our great university. In our alma mater are the words “may our lives but swell thy fame” and you are an example of what these words mean.

    Congratulation Betty Love Gibbs, our 2010 HONORARY PENN STATE CHEERLEADER!

    Curtis White
    Head Coach
    Penn State Cheerleading and Nittany Lion Mascot Programs

  • 5. Cynthia (Gibbs) Jackson  |  March 4, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Thank you for the wonderful pictures and the amazing afternoon. The experience touched both my mother and I greatly. While I knew of most of her history and experiences, it was wonderful to see it in another context. Words cannot express how special the event was to our family. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    As soon as I can get my mother in the uniform, I will send pictures! ;-)

  • 6. Iola Ragins Smith, Ph.D.  |  March 15, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    I was a student at Penn State with Betty (and Charles) when she was denied the opportunity to audition for the squad. Although her face was sad, I never heard a negative comment from her about the cheerleading squad as she related her rejection to several of us. As for me, I always thought “well maybe next year.” At last, next year has finally come!

  • 7. sandra long  |  June 26, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    i would like to know on a high school cheerleader team do it suppose to be aleast two blacks on a team. only two black tried out and neither one made it for varsity but was offer to be on the jv squad

  • 8. Tammy Sumpter  |  December 27, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Ms. Gibbs is an incredible woman, mother, dancer and teacher. I was blessed to have studed dance under her for several years, and I am not surprised that her moxy would not allow the prejudice of her time to hold her back.

  • 9. Darryl Daisey  |  August 25, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    Saddened to report that Betty Love Gibbs passed away in early 2013. Really happy we recognized her contributions before her passing.

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