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‘Flippin Project’ to honor UNL’s first African-American student-athlete

At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, George Flippin was a large man for his day. That, along with his hard-running style, helped him to become one of the University of Nebraska’s very first football stars.

But in the course of his lifetime Flippin became a man of great stature in many other ways. As the university’s first African-American athlete, he saw success on the field despite enduring racial bigotry from opposing teams and fans. He excelled in the classroom, completed medical school in three years, practiced medicine in Illinois and Arkansas, then returned to Nebraska to establish a hospital in Stromsburg in 1907.

A world traveler, Flippin often studied advances in Europe and brought them back to his well-respected practice in Nebraska. When he died in 1929, his funeral was said to be the largest Stromsburg had ever seen.

On Friday, Sept. 16, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will honor Flippin’s legacy with the unveiling of a new art project bearing his likeness at the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center. The event begins at 7:15 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

The iconic, four-by-six-foot mural-style portrait of Flippin standing proudly in his Nebraska football uniform – a white sweater emblazoned with a red ‘N’ – was the culmination of the work of a dozen student volunteers.

The Flippin Project, as it has become known, provided an opportunity to transcend cultural boundaries through art by enlisting the talents of the volunteers from Prof. Aaron Holz’s advanced painting class in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts. Holz and Jon Humiston, creative director at UNL’s Office of University Communications, divided a black-and-white photo of Flippin into 24 equal-sized squares, then asked each student to paint two of them. No other creative instruction was given, so students could interpret and paint their slices of the overall portrait in whatever manner they chose.

The result is a fascinating patchwork of styles, colors, effects and interpretations that reflect the students’ diversity while unifying to form the iconic image of the university’s pioneering student-athlete.

Students worked independently, researching Flippin’s life and his contributions to the university, before putting brushes to canvas.

“One of the most amazing things about George Flippin’s story was that despite being the first free-born generation in his family, he was able to use his incredible talent to rise beyond the racial obstacles of the time,” said Kyren Conley, a senior from Alliance who participated in the project. “I was also proud to learn that despite the times of widespread segregation and racism, his team supported and respected him.”

Crystal Sanders, another of the student artists, painted the panel depicted above. Sanders, who graduated in August, said she was pleased with how the mural came together and that like in football it required a team effort by the student artists. In the end, she said it will help to preserve Flippin’s legacy at UNL. The mural will remain on permanent display at the Center.

“I am very proud to be a part of the history of the school I graduated from and I am proud of the school for acknowledging art as having importance,” she said.

In addition to the mural’s unveiling, several speakers during the event will discuss Flippin’s life, his impact on the university and his contribution to the state.

The Gaughan Center, linked to the east side of the Nebraska Union, opened in 2010. It features 30,000 square feet of space, including student offices, tutoring rooms and areas for faculty, staff and students dedicated to diversity and multicultural programming.

For more on The Flippin Project, contact Jon Humiston, Creative Director, University Communications, (402) 472-7026 or jhumiston2@unl.edu.

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