Six Little-Known HBCU Connections to Russell Wilson

Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, Jr.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s resemblance to his father the late Harrison B. Wilson III is uncanny–but both men look like Russell’s grandfather Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, Jr.

For more than 25 years, the HBCU community has held on to the glory of Grambling State University alumnus Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to play in a Super Bowl game, who was named MVP in Super Bowl XXII for leading the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 defeat of the Denver Broncos. Oh, we’re still holding on to it too.

As  the second-ever African-American quarterback to lead his team to Super Bowl victory, Russell Wilson joins Williams as a champion in this league of extraordinary not-so-gentle men. And now, we can even share in the joy of Russell Wilson’s HBCU roots, which run deep.

How deep? Now 88 years old, Wilson’s grandfather is just the beginning. Here are six HBCU connections to Russell Wilson, you probably didn’t know.

Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, Jr.
Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, Jr.

6. His grandfather graduated from Kentucky State University. He enrolled at the age nineteen, and received his B.S. degree as an honor student while he was star athlete in basketball, football, baseball and track.

Young Harrison Wilson art KSU in the 1940s
Young Harrison Wilson art KSU in the 1940s

5. His grandfather was president of Norfolk State University from 1975 to 1997. President Harrison B. Wilson’s tenure, which spanned over three decades from 1975 until 1997 was formidable. During his headship, Norfolk State’s annual budget increased from $14 million to $86 million; student enrollment increased from 6,700 to 8,100, and the number of faculty and staff grew from 377 to 412, with a student-faculty ratio of twenty-two-one. The University also added fourteen new buildings and acquired fifty-one acres of land during Wilson’s tenure.

Wilson once said, “We must continue to broaden our horizons in all we do at Norfolk State University. In academics as well as athletics, you need to raise the bar …set higher goals and work for excellence. The students, the University, and the community deserve nothing less than representing ourselves at the highest level of effort.”

Dr. Lucy R. WIlson
Dr. Lucy R. WIlson

4. His grandmother graduated from South Carolina State University. Dr. Lucy R. Wilson is a 1951 graduate of South Carolina State and prior to becoming the first lady of Norfolk State, she also worked on the faculty of Albany State University, Claflin University, and Tennessee State University during her long and outstanding career as an academic administrator.

3. His grandfather was one of the  most successful coaches in Jackson State University history. Considered by many the architect of modern men’s basketball at JSU, Dr. Harrison Wilson, Jr.’s 371-93 career record wins rank the highest for JSU basketball. In 17 seasons at the helm of the Tigers’ program, he never had a losing season and recorded 13 20-plus win seasons. His teams also posted 29 wins in a season twice (1955-56 and 1963-64). His 1963-64 team won the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship. He coached some of the most talented players in the country, including Cleveland Buckner (drafted by the New York Knicks in 1961), Ed Manning (former NBA player and the father Kansas Jayhawk great Danny Manning) and Paul Covington (a disciple of Wilson’s and took over as head men’s basketball coach at Jackson State).

2. His great-great grandmother graduated from Wilberforce University in 1901. Here’s an excerpt from a 1978 interview with Dr. Harrison B. Wilson:

“On my mother’s side, my mother’s mother was a schoolteacher. As a matter of fact the interesting part of my mother’s side of my family was that there wasn’t any of her family ever slaves. Her mother [Elizabeth “Bettie” Price Ayers] graduated from Wilberforce University in 1901 and they grew up in Xenia, Ohio. And she went to a little town in Kentucky from Xenia by the name of Falmouth, Kentucky where she became a school teacher. She met a young man who worked around the City Hall. He was kind of a politician and she married him and that was on my mother’s side. On my father’s side, it’s a very interesting family because (for me to be here in Virginia) our roots more or less in America started in Big Island, Virginia where my grandfather, my father’s father, was a slave. And he served as an orderly to a confederate Colonel for 3 years during the Civil War and when the war ended he left and went to Kentucky, my grandfather did. He was eighteen years old in 1866.”

Legendary Football Coach John A. Merritt
Legendary Football Coach John A. Merritt

1. His grandfather was the first cousin of legendary TSU Football Coach John A. Merritt. Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, Jr.’s mother Marguerite Ayers was the sister of Grace (Ayers) Merritt, mother of JSU and TSU football coach John A. Merritt. During his coaching career at TSU, Merrit had four undefeated seasons, claimed four Midwestern Conference titles, seven Black College Football Championships: (1965, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1979 and 1982) and earned the school’s first-ever NCAA Division I-AA playoff victory in 1982. Completing four undefeated seasons and winning six national championships and four black college football titles, Merritt also coached National Football League (NFL) standouts Edward “Too-Tall” Jones, Waymond Byrant, and Joe Gilliam were among many others.

A seventh connection! His aunt is a professor at Hampton. This just in. Hampton Assistant Professor April Woodard is Russell’s aunt. (Thanks to our readership!)

April Woodard Russell Wilson 

Sources: The History Makers2013 JSU Hall of Fame Inductee: Harrison B. Wilson.

Crystal deGregory Headshot 2012A 2003 graduate of Fisk University, Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is the founder and executive editor of HBCUSTORY, Inc. an advocacy center presenting inspiring stories of the HBCUs past and present, for our future. She teaches in Tennessee State University’s department of history, political science, geography and Africana studies. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian.


  1. This is great info to know. I was student at Norfolk State University when Russell’s grandfather was the president. Feel like I/we have a connection to this young man because of path knowing his grandfather. Great accomplishments and great job in Super Bowl yesterday. Well deserved.

  2. Great piece. Harrison Wilson II’s maternal uncles, Willis T. Ayers and Lesley J. Ayers, attended the now defunct HBCU Walden University in Nashville in the late 1800s. Willis T. Ayers also attended and graduated from Meharry Medical College.

  3. I am from Clarksdale, Ms. I attended, and graduated from Tenn. State Univ. in 1975. TSU Assit. Basketball Coach William ‘Pop’ Gaines played for Coach Wilson on Jackson State Univ. Basketball Team in the 50’s. Between 1971, and 1974 both Coach Gaines, (Basketball) and Coach Merritt (Football) were employed at Tenn. State Univ.!

  4. You may also add that Dr. Harrison Wilson was a senior administrator at Fisk University prior to assuming the Presidency at Norfolk State University.

  5. Don’t forget that both Willie Richardson (Baltimore Colts) and Lem Barney (Detroit Lions) were Jackson State football alumni, as well.

  6. AS WAS WALTER “SWEETNESS” PAYTON of the worlld champion Chicago Bears, one of the greatest running backs of ALL TIMES!!!

  7. Big John merritt, great recruiter of talent I have ever seen in my lifetime and too be the cousin of Russell Wilson. Russell comes from a athletic family of granddad and uncle in Big John Merritt. TSU Alum, 1970, J Stewart

  8. Russell’s biological grandmother, Anna Gertrude Williams Wilson was my 8th grade teacher at the Jackson State University Laboratory School. I remember when his father, Harry B., was born. I also remember the day his grandparents arrived on campus. His grandmother was carrying his uncle, Benjamin Francis, in her arms. His grandfather, Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, (Coach Wilson), was basketball coach at JSU. I have yet to see college basketball as exciting as it was when he was coach. His biological grandmother, Anna Wilson, later became a professor at Jackson State. That is another HBCU connection. I am so proud of Russell.