The impetus behind integration in the public school system was, of course, equality in the classroom. That's what Oliver Brown had in mind for his little girl. That's what the Supreme Court had in mind when it ruled in Brown v. the Board of Education.
Walter Bowser, right, and two unidentified members of the Huntington High School football team circa 1967. But life goes beyond the classroom, especially in the formative years of life. There are after-school activities ranging from the varsity football team, which draws thousands of fans on Friday nights, to clubs that meet in relative anonymity. African-American athletes had their status to help gain acceptance in predominantly white atmospheres. Not so with members of the Latin Club.The first sign of integration in high school athletics wasn't seen until the early 1960s, almost a full decade after the Brown decision. Five years later, the changing times were evident on the playing fields and courts across the Peninsula. Into the 1970s, seeing blacks and whites competing with and against each other had become commonplace.Yet progress was slower for other activities. The cheerleading squad at Suffolk's John Yeates High was all-white until 1969, and it took pressure from the NAACP to break that color barrier. Integration led some schools to cancel their proms, others to stop ranking graduating seniors.But change was in the air.
By Dave Johnson
When he became the first African-American student at Newport News High in 1963, only a year after JFK had dispatched federal troops to enforce integration at the University of Mississippi, Eric Burden found surprisingly quick acceptance. Then again, he was a gifted football player who had become friends with the team captains.
Legendary coaches Thad Madden of Huntington and Charlie Nuttycombe of Newport News - one black, the other white - were close friends for decades. By no coincidence, their two schools - one all black, the other predominantly white - enjoyed a strong relationship.
And when court-ordered busing led to tension in 1971, the football team at Ferguson and basketball team at Warwick helped unify their schools and maybe even their city with championship seasons.
Sports, it has been said, offers a reflection of society. But sports also can affect society, or at least nudge it along.
"It was all about athletics bringing everybody together," said Ted BaCote, an assistant under Madden from 1961-71. "I think athletics changed integration."
Ten years after the Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal, high school athletics on the Peninsula was separated by race. There were the Group 1-A white schools - Newport News, Hampton, Ferguson, Warwick, Kecoughtan and York. And there were the black schools - Huntington, Carver and Phenix.
Officially, students were given the option of choosing their school - "freedom of choice," it was called. But integration, both in the classroom and on the playing fields, remained a dream.
"It was a very emotional time," said Victor Hundley, who became the first black to enroll and play football at Ferguson in 1963. "The city at that time, even though life revolved around the shipyard where blacks and whites worked together, was a different place."
Change was gradual, and three school years were particularly instrumental.
1964-65 - A color barrier broken
Today, approximately 85 percent of the Peninsula District's football players are African-American. Time was when that must have seemed as likely as a man walking on the moon. In the fall of 1962, more than 200 young men suited up for the six teams on the 1-A level - the equivalent of Group AAA today. Every one of them was white.
"My kids now, they look at the team pictures with all those white guys and they laugh," Hampton coach Mike Smith said. "The black guys and the white guys, they just laugh."
Funny or not, that's the way it was.
There were a few black athletes at 1-A schools in the early 1960s. At least four African-Americans ran track during the 1962-63 school year. Kecoughtan had four blacks on its 1963-64 basketball team. Yet football, which had by far the largest fan following, remained one color.
In the fall of 1964, four black players - Eric and Larry Burden at Newport News, Linwood Talton and Victor Hundley at Ferguson - broke through on the 1-A level. There was little resistance and no media hype.
In scouting a preseason practice at Newport News one August afternoon, the Daily Press reported the following: "Eric and Larry Burden were seen scooting around the ends in a manner not unlike a scared jackrabbit trying to dodge shotgun pellets." A few days later, the newspaper ran a picture of Ferguson coach Wayne Begor kneeling with four of his players. One was Hundley.
There was never any mention of their race or historical significance.
"That wasn't talked about back then," Hundley said. "We're talking about it here in 2004, but you didn't talk about that back then."
Nor was there any resistence. Four years earlier, all-white Oscar Smith High in Norfolk had canceled a basketball game against Norview, which had just become integrated. But Sept. 18, 1964 - the night Hundley, Talton and the Burdens made history - passed without incident. Newport News beat York, Ferguson lost to Hampton, and that was it.
Hundley began Ferguson as a 9th-grader in the fall of '63, becoming the first African-American in the school's history. He played halfback on the JV team that year and moved up to varsity for the final two games. He remembers returning a punt or two, making him, it is believed, the first black to play for a previously all-white school on the Peninsula.
Hundley started at halfback from his sophomore season on. As a senior in '66, he scored 17 touchdowns and made the all-district team. His time at Ferguson wasn't all Hallmark material, yet he won people over. When he graduated in '67, his classmates voted him Mr. Valentine and Best Dancer.
"I think playing football had a lot to do with how I was accepted," he said. "Along with the touchdowns came a certain amount of fame."
Eric Burden had a similar experience across town. In the fall of 1963, he became the first black to attend Newport News High when he transferred from Huntington as a sophomore. Virginia High School League prohibited him from playing that football season, but he participated in every practice. Almost immediately, color wasn't an issue.
"Eric was respected by all his peers," said Nuttycombe, the head football coach at Newport News High from 1961-69. "It wasn't like he was trying to do anything - things just happened. Coach Madden had told me, 'You're going to like this young man.' And everybody did. Within a week or two, he was one of the guys."
Larry, two years younger than Eric, came aboard as a freshman in '64. Eric emerged as a star and in his senior season made first-team all-district. His highlight was a 65-yard punt return for the game's only touchdown in a 7-0 victory over Warwick. The Typhoon went 7-2-1 in 1965 and was crowned the inaugural Peninsula District championship.
To the black community, the Burdens became pioneers.
Wendy Hill (bottom), and Diane Parsons appear in the 1971 John Yeates High School yearbook. Hill was the first black cheerleader at John Yeates High School in Suffolk. After a battle involving the NAACP to get on the squad, Hill said she feels like she opened the door for other African-Americans to join the team. By her senior year in 1972, Hill was co-captain, and one other African-American girl cheered for the school. "They were probably the perfect ones to go there and integrate," BaCote said. "They did a very good job of going to Newport News High and representing the black race. They were like pace-setters."
In the fall of '65, the Peninsula District had at least six black football players, including the first three at Hampton High. York had its first African-American player in '66 - 12 more followed a year later when James Weldon Johnson, the county's all-black facility, was converted into an intermediate school. By the end of the decade, blacks comprised at least one-third of the district's football rosters.
"Believe it or not, and I found this out in the last couple of years: My friends were so proud of what I had done that they actually compared me to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks," said Eric Burden, now 56 and living in Fort Washington, Md.
"But I don't think of it as a distinction. It's something that just happened, and I happened to be the person it happened to," he said. "It's not a feather in my cap, or anything. It would have eventually happened to somebody else if it hadn't been me."
1968-69 - The merger
In 1966, Hampton won its last six games to finish 7-2-1. The Crabbers blew out their last five opponents by a combined score of 212-13 and clinched the district championship with a 55-6 pounding of Newport News on Thanksgiving Day.
Huntington won all 10 of its games, outscoring the opposition 340-52, and were declared state champions. The Vikings were led by star quarterback Walter Bowser, who threw for 29 touchdowns and became the first black to be named the state's high school player of the year.
Which team was better? Because they played in two different leagues, we'll never know.
Hampton, like the rest of the Peninsula's predominantly white institutions, played in the Virginia High School League. Huntington - along with Carver, Phenix and Bruton Heights in Williamsburg - was one of 90 black schools that competed under the arm of the Virginia Interscholastic Association. The two organizations were completely separate. But hardly equal.
"I can remember watching Eric McCaskill running hurdles in the hallway because we didn't have a track at that point," Bowser said. "I was probably the first black player who got any media attention. Still, Newport News, Ferguson and Warwick were out on the front page, and we were relegated to the third page."
Leroy Keyes might be the best running back the Peninsula has produced. He remains Purdue's all-time leading rusher with 3,635 yards, was the runner-up to O.J. Simpson for the 1968 Heisman Trophy and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Yet at Carver in the early 1960s, he was barely known outside the black community.
"You'd look at the paper on Saturday morning and there'd be something on a kid from Warwick who rushed for 102 yards," Keyes said. "Yet a kid in our conference would rush for 300 yards and it wouldn't get publicized. Or, if it did, it was on the last page."
Crossover competition between the VHSL and VIA was rare. In 1961, the track teams at Huntington and Newport News competed in the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. In '64, the Vikings dominated the Northern Virginia Relays in Alexandria. Huntington's mile relay team of James Melvin, Darryl Clark, Ray Pollard and McCaskill set a meet record in beating Hammond High, the defending VHSL champion.
The inaugural Peninsula Relays in 1967 featured eight teams from the VHSL and four from the VIA. Huntington won a meet-best four gold medals - two by Cecil Pugh, who beat the great Doug Dickinson of Newport News in the broad jump and triple jump. (Dickinson got his revenge two years later with five first-place finishes as the Typhoon edged the Vikings in the first dual meet between the schools).
In the fall of 1968, the VHSL and VIA merged. Huntington, Carver and Pembroke (formerly Phenix) joined the Peninsula District that fall. With James Blair, Denbigh and Bethel having been added since the 1964-65 school year, the Peninsula District had grown to 12 members. In the first game pitting a predominantly white school against a former VIA institution, York beat Pembroke 14-6 behind Jimmy Dieck's two touchdown passes.
"It became a racial situation, blacks playing whites," said Tommy Reamon, a Carver running back who was a junior that season. "I thought it was quite tense, but exciting."
Neither able to play a full Peninsula District schedule, Huntington finished 6-2-1 and Carver went 4-4-1. Having started the process of joining the VHSL earlier, Pembroke, now integrated, played nine district games and finished 2-7.
Hampton finished 9-1, its lone loss coming out of district to Highland Springs. The Crabbers outscored their eight PD foes 229-14. A year later, they went 11-0 and won their fifth of 16 state championships.
"Everybody knew each other, so it was more like neighborhood vs. neighborhood," said former Hampton star Teddy Powell, who transferred from Phenix prior to his junior year. "It was a great blend of people coming together."
1971-72 - A time for change
In April, the Supreme Court upheld a controversial measure to bus school children in order to help achieve integration. That led to a tense summer throughout much of the nation - the Peninsula included.
In the months leading up to the beginning of school, it was announced that Huntington, Carver and Newport News would be converted into intermediate schools. Students would be reshuffled to either Ferguson, Denbigh, Menchville or Warwick. On the first day of school, already nervous parents awoke to the news that a bomb had gone off at a school in Chattanooga, Tenn. But here, the biggest problem was the expected confusion and a couple of buses running into each other.
Madden was shifted from Huntington to Warwick, which had finished 5-5 the previous season. Nuttycombe had left Newport News a year earlier to take over at Menchville; his replacement, Harlan Hott, moved to Ferguson. Each coach inherited a make-shift roster made up mostly of kids they had never met.
The change in demographics was dramatic. In 1970, Ferguson's 34-player roster included only one black. A year later, 25 of the Mariners' 45 players were black. Among them: running back Tony McCright, wide receiver Ronnie Moore and future NFL lineman Larry Bethea.
Ferguson, which had gone 2-8 the previous year, became a clear favorite. Jump-started by a 32-14 pounding of Hampton in the second week, the Mariners finished 9-1 to win the district championship. It was one of eight winning seasons in Ferguson's 34 years of competition. And it united the school.
"I think it helped that we were a good football team," Hott said. "That seemed to pull the school together. I don't remember any racial problems at all. And when we started winning, it seemed to flow to the student body."
Few schools in the state that year went through a bigger metamorphosis than Warwick. Of the 324 seniors in the graduating class of 1971, none were African-American. But the following school year, the racial makeup had changed to 60 percent white, 40 percent black, according to Warwick's yearbook.
Although there were no major incidents, the transition wasn't completely smooth. The first week of class, about 50 white students staged a walk-out. A controversy arose when some black students objected to the school's longstanding nickname - Farmers. After a vote the first week of class, Warwick became the Raiders.
In Warwick's history to that point, there had been one black player on the varsity basketball team. But through busing, the Raiders had a completely different look for the 1971-72 season. Of the 13 transfers on that team, 11 were black.
"Almost every single good basketball player in the city, by complete accident, ended up at the same high school," said guard Tyrome Best, who came from Carver. "You had Newport News, Huntington and Carver sending their best players to the same high school. I remember the first day of practice there were 40 guys trying out for the high school team. It was the most intense competition I've ever faced."
Warwick's best player was Kenny Baker, a white shooting guard who had arrived from Newport News. Integration in the schools only solidified his every-day life.
"I grew up in the downtown area playing against the kids from Huntington and Carver," Baker said. "My father always told me: To be a good basketball player, you have to go down to the East End and play with the kids down there. They played a tougher brand of ball down there, which I liked."
Playing up-tempo basketball, the Raiders won their first 13 games. Warwick finished 16-2 to win the regular-season title and swept the district tournament. In the Eastern Region opener, the Raiders rallied from 11 down at the half to beat Lake Taylor 77-71. The next day, Tony Ellis scored six of his 15 points in overtime as Warwick clinched a state berth by defeating York 41-37. But the run ended six days later with a 66-64 loss to Hopewell in the state semifinals.
The Raiders finished 21-3, but their accomplishments went beyond that. In a poll taken by the yearbook that year, 65 percent of the student body said the basketball team's season helped ease the transition during a difficult period.
"We united the school like nothing else could have," Best said. "All of a sudden you looked up and we were 8-0, 10-0, 13-0 ... I think it created a united school like nothing else could have done. And that's not in hindsight - that was something you noticed right away."
Not every change through integration was for the good.
Huntington and Carver high schools were no more. Their students were shifted across town to one of four destinations, their coaches and administrators sent elsewhere. Records, pictures and trophies disappeared.
"That community spirit that you had when you only had Huntington and Carver in Newport News, now you had to divide that spirit into one, two, three different areas," said Reamon, who became the head coach at Warwick in 1996. "The first couple of years were very interesting, and a lot of issues went into play in athletics."
"When Huntington and Carver played on Friday nights, those games actually were major social events," Bowser said. "That no longer exists in Newport News because the games are played in Todd Stadium. That's a shame."
But integration, they know, had to happen. The bigger issue was always equality in the classroom, not atmosphere at Friday night football games. Still, athletics was a driving force.
"Sports was a big mixing pot for the transition," Hampton's Powell said. "It was a great blend of people coming together."
Begor, who became an assistant principal at Ferguson after his coaching days, remembers one of the first days of school in September of 1971. A black kid and a white kid got into an argument at lunch - one had cut in front of the other in line. In a matter of seconds, fists were flying. Considering the climate at the time, it could have been a disastrous moment for racial relations in the school.
Instead, the fight was quickly broken up. The peacemakers were two football players - one white, the other black.
"The white kids saw a black kid who was for law and order just like they were," Begor said. "The black kids saw one of their own stepping in and taking charge. That moment really solidified things for us. From that day on, the blacks and the whites really meshed together. And they saw that together, we were much better than when we were separated."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times