My colleague, DrugMonkey, recently wrote an absolutely fantastic post on bigotry in sports and the pioneers other than Jackie Robinson in breaking the so-called color barrier. I had actually forgotten that in the 1970s, Warren Moon spent much of his career in the Canadian Football League because NFL teams wanted him to convert to some other position, you know, because Black players couldn’t be quarterbacks. The post is much deeper than that and I encourage you strongly to read it.
But Brother Drug triggered my longstanding intention to write about a related topic; between his post and the currently ongoing NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments, I am reminded that I missed writing about a milestone that occurred in my neck of the woods 65 years ago on 12 March.
Historian Dr Scott Ellsworth describes being flabbergasted when he learned of “The Secret Game”: an integrated college basketball game in the South ten years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Montgomery bus boycott. Most recently, I learned last month in this great netzine article by Ralph Brauer that ESPN included this story in their documentary last year, Black Magic, the story of basketball at US historically-Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Back in 1996, Ellsworth had a piece in the New York Times magazine about a long-forgotten and, because the risks at the time, poorly-documented game between a Duke University intramural basketball team and the then-North Carolina College for Negroes four miles away in Durham.
It was 1944, a banner year for basketball at the North Carolina College for Negroes, in Durham (now North Carolina Central University). The Eagles had lost only one game all season and were making a name for John B. McLendon, their 28-year-old coach. His standouts — Stanley, Henry (Big Dog) Thomas, Floyd (Cootie) Brown, James (Boogie-Woogie) Hardy — ran a blistering, high-speed attack. “We could have beaten anyone,” says [the late] McLendon, now a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. But there was no way to prove it. Neither the National Invitational Tournament nor the N.C.A.A. tournament allowed black colleges to participate.
Across town at Duke University, the Blue Devils had won the Southern Conference championship. But they weren’t necessarily the best team on campus. The Army and the Navy had established wartime training programs at Duke, and the intramural teams were stuffed with former college athletes.
The medical school team was perhaps the best. Dick Thistlethwaite, a former star at the University of Richmond, played center. David Hubbell, a forward, had started for the Duke varsity. Homer Sieber had played at Roanoke College, and Dick Symmonds at Central Methodist in Missouri. Jack Burgess, the team’s newest member, had played guard at the University of Montana. As much as he liked Duke, Burgess despised the Jim Crow laws. Once, he was chased off a Durham city bus — at knife point — when he told the driver what he thought of the seating arrangements.
Burgess had played against African American players before and had a Black teammate at Montana. Moving to the American South was a frustrating and sobering experience for the Duke medical student.
Ellsworth noted that the YMCA teams at each college had begun meeting informally to discuss a game but even those conversations were conducted under threats from city police. After a North Carolina College student heard a member of the Duke medical school basketball team suggest they could beat anyone, pride overcame fear and plans were made between Coach McLendon and Duke to host a game. However, there was absolutely no chance that Black basketball players could even been seen traveling through Duke’s campus.
[Not known to many is that Duke's stunning Gothic architecture was designed in Philadelphia by a Black architect working for the Horace Trumbauer firm, Julian F Abele. Abele's masterpiece, the understated cathedral called Duke Chapel, is the center of campus and his signature also appears on plans for Duke's revered Cameron Indoor Stadium, completed in 1940. Most accounts suggest that Abele never stepped foot on the Duke campus due to the racial climate at the time, but a superb 2005 investigation by the Smithsonian disputes this legend.]
[Another lesser-known anecdote about the effect of World War II on Duke relates to the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Duke was scheduled to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA, a few weeks later and tensions were high about the possibility of a high-profile Japanese attack on the US West Coast. Therefore, the 1942 Rose Bowl was moved to the Duke University campus - however, there are no roses in North Carolina in January.]
Sunday, March 12, dawned blustery. McLendon had scheduled the game when most of Durham, including its police force, would be in church. He hadn’t told the school administration about the game; when a reporter for The Carolina Times, Durham’s black weekly, found out, he agreed not to write anything. No spectators would be allowed.
Just before 11 A.M., the Duke team piled into a couple of borrowed cars. “To keep from being followed, we took this winding route through town,” Hubbell recalls. They pulled their jackets over their heads as they walked into the small brick gym.
Inside, stomachs had been churning all morning. “I had never played basketball against a white person before, and I was a little shaky,” Stanley says. “You did not know what might happen if there was a hard foul, or if a fight broke out. I kept looking over at Big Dog and Boogie to see what to do. They were both from up North.”
Once under way, the game opened with a stutter. Both teams flubbed passes and missed easy shots. At first, it was all just too eerie. Even though they had a referee, aside from McLendon and his team manager, the stands were empty. And the Duke players were a little thrown off by the floor of the gym, which was painted black with white lines.
Soon it did not matter. As the players started to heat up, the Eagles literally took off–running their high-speed break, pressing on defense, and finding the basket. As the score mounted in favor of North Carolina College, Aubrey Stanley experienced an epiphany. “Suddenly, it occurred to me,” he later told me near his home outside New York City, “that these weren’t supermen. They were just men. And we could beat them.”
While the game was in progress, word had filtered across the North Carolina College campus that something was going on in the gym. McLendon had locked the doors from the inside, but a handful of enterprising students climbed up to the high outside windows. Looking through the glass, they saw something then unthinkable in the South–blacks and whites competing as equals.
Final score: North Carolina College 88, Duke Medical School 44.
Then came the day’s second unlikely event. After a short break, the two teams mixed their squads and played another game, an even more egregious violation of Jim Crow. This time, it was skins and shirts. “Just God’s children, horsing around with a basketball,” says George Parks.
Of course, and sadly, there remained terrific civil unrest for decades – and racism continues.
But for one Sunday morning in 1944, some college kids just shot some hoop.
Having learned basketball while at Kansas from the game’s founder, James Naismith, Coach McLendon went on to a distinguished career, both in basketball and civil rights, as documented in this biography by Milton Katz and Billy Packer – from the description:
McLendon’s far-reaching list of firsts include being the first coach to win three consecutive national titles (Tennessee State, 1957-59), the first black coach of an integrated professional team (the ABL’s Cleveland Pipers), the first black coach at a predominately white college (Cleveland State), the first black coach in the ABA, the first black coach to publish a basketball book, the first black coach on the Olympic staff, the first black coach inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame . . . the list goes on. McLendon’s amazing career culminated in his efforts as a basketball ambassador; he traveled to fifty-eight countries teaching the fundamentals of the game and the value of sportsmanship, and many believe he contributed more to the proliferation of basketball worldwide than any other individual.
Ellsworth himself is also an interesting story ; he earned his AM and PhD (History) at Duke and spent much of his own life on various oral-history projects, including a well-regarded book on the 1921 Tulsa race riots in his native Oklahoma. In his follow-up article in the Duke Alumni magazine, The Secret Game: Defying the Color Line, Ellsworth tells briefly how digging into this story shaped his own career:
Armed with our tape recorders and notepads, we interviewed civil-rights organizers and folk artists, preachers and mill hands. It was the age of Roots and Studs Terkel, and there was a true sense of possibility in the air, as if we could not only help give voice to forgotten Americans, but shape our very understanding of the national experience. I caught the oral-history bug immediately.
And I’ve been at it ever since. During the past twenty years, ten of which were spent at the Smithsonian Institution, I’ve conducted something like 600 oral-history interviews. I’ve interviewed farmers, advertising executives, politicians, waitresses, country-music singers, film makers, writers, models, and one astronaut. I’ve conducted interviews in the White House and in housing projects. Once, a Ku Klux Klansman pulled a revolver on me. Another time, in a village in China, dozens of teenagers followed me about while I tried, in vain, to work. It’s been a grand experience–and I’ve had Duke to thank for getting it all started.
A 20-minute film entitled, “The Secret Game,” is presented throughout the town and campuses during the weeklong Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday celebrations.