On Thursday, October 11, if you were fortunate enough to be one of the 100 or so attendees at the ‘Integration of Sports in Arlington’ program you were treated to an entertaining and historic night. The event was co-hosted by The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington and the Arlington Historical Society (AHS), and was coordinated by Carmela Hamm.
The night started with the AHS’s Annette Benbow introducing Ms. Hamm who was simultaneously on her cell phone lining up legendary Washington-Lee High School basketball coach Morris Levin to be Skyped on the big screen for the audience. Coach Levin is nearly as old as Arlington’s 93-year-old high school, where he coached teams to three Virginia State Championships. Once the Skype connection was made he surprisingly recounted stories of players he coached over 50 years ago, as if it was just last season.
Another W-L sports legend, Reggie Harrison, known today as Kamal Ali Salaam-El and once a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was the forum’s emcee and was joined in a casual setting on stage by a Who’s Who of Arlington sports stars. All the participants shared entertaining stories well past the program’s scheduled time and it was clear the audience didn’t want to leave.
There was plenty of discussion about W-L’s three basketball State Championships with the famous brothers, Ed and John Hummer. Ed was instrumental on the 1962 and 1963 championship teams and John led the 1966 winning squad. Ed, living locally these days and very educated on the history of school integration in Virginia, emotionally displayed his respect for and friendships with African-American players. Alongside the Hummers on stage was James Spriggs, an African-American on the 1966 squad which was the first integrated team to win a state championship in Virginia.
George Owens (number 32 in the picture above), the first African-American basketball player at W-L (1961-62), shared stories with the audience, as did quarterback and co-captain Lynn Moore of the 1962 W-L football team. But it wasn’t all about W-L, Clayton “Cookie” Powell, who transferred from Hoffman Boston High School (when it was closed in 1964) to Wakefield, told a number of stories, including naming the all-black little league teams in the county when he was young. Clayton was an integral part of Wakefield’s Northern Region Championship football (1964) and basketball (1964-65) teams. He talked about his Wakefield basketball team traveling to Richmond to play in the state championship but they couldn’t practice in the city because the team was integrated – they had to practice at nearby Virginia Union.
Ladies were also represented at the event with Winnie Owens (Hart), a swimmer at W-L, and Leslie Deskins (Ronnie and Clayton’s sister) who started cheering at W-L in 1967. Winnie spoke movingly about having to walk to school around “the wall,” which was constructed by an adjacent white neighborhood to Hall’s Hill, a predominantly black neighborhood at that time. She also spoke of having to pass by the appalling George Lincoln Rockwell Nazi headquarters. Some others listed in the evening’s program were Alease Montgomery, Deborah Newman (W-L’s first African-American cheerleader), Ron Deskins, David Ruffin, Arthur Branch, John Carroll, and Tron Brekke.
There was plenty of passionate participation when moderator Reggie Harrison asked for comments and pointed out Tyrone Epperson, whom Reggie called the “greatest” athlete he played with in school. Curtis Spriggs shared a fun story about “accidentally” doing so well on a test, as a fifth grader at Langston Elementary, he was placed in a summer school class for advanced students; he was then sent to the white Taylor Elementary the following school year.
One emotional memory from Bernetta Vaughan, who indicated she was best friends in school with former Arlington County Board member Margaret Whipple’s daughter, had many in the auditorium in tears. She told a heartfelt story of wanting to be a cheerleader at an Arlington junior high school but was told she was “too dark.” Later, Barbara Hamlett, a cheerleader at W-L in the early 1970’s, shared a sorrowful story of being accused of plagiarism by a white female teacher.
The racial stories were raw and passionate from the athletes and in the end, most shared an affection for one or more of their coaches or teachers. Jerome Green discussed how his math teacher would meet early in the morning to help him with homework and he stated John Youngblood, the former head football coach and later Athletic Director at W-L, was his favorite. According to Jerome, “Mr. Youngblood was fair and honest.” Reggie said he loved W-L football coach Ellis Wisler and Frankie Houston Evans, author of “Scarred on Both Sides,” declared his love for Coach Levin. James Spriggs thanked Coach Levin for getting him in a North Carolina college to play basketball after his days in the Army.
One story stood out from an African-American basketball player who said he recalled being one of only two African-Americans in the gym – himself and a janitor – during an away game against a Fairfax high school team. At one point, he added that there was a break in the game and someone in the stands yelled “the n word.” This caused the event’s crowd to grow uncomfortably quiet when suddenly Reggie Harrison shouted, “You mean the guy yelled you were nice?!,” which brought relief laughter.
Thank you, Reggie, that’s just how everyone involved with the evening should be remembered.
Writer’s note: It was hoped Lance Newman could attend this event but he passed away unexpectedly one week before. Lance is remembered as one of the four African-American students who were famously escorted by Arlington police into Stratford Junior High School in 1959 to break Virginia’s color barrier in public schools. (The others were Gloria Thompson, Ronald Deskins, and Michael Jones.) Lance went on to play sports at W-L and during the evening, it is believed to be Jerome Green who stated Lance was the hardest working athlete on the field he ever saw.