Even if schools were not, students were ‘integrated’
On a fall Friday night in the 1940s and ’50s, there was no better place to be in Henderson than Veterans Field.
The Henderson High School football games were impressive spectacles. Full-scale parades leading to a game with packed stands were the norm.
Willie Holloway remembers walking down Rowland Street as a youngster in the 1950s and cutting through backyards to get to the games. He and his buddies climbed over a fence to get inside the stadium before taking their seats.
Going through the main gate never crossed Willie’s mind. He’s not sure whether he would have been let in. Conscious of the limitations that existed for blacks, he never tried.
Holloway recalls walking into a drugstore on Garnett Street and being refused service.
“I was simply told I couldn’t be served,” said Holloway. “I just laughed and turned away. I just accepted it for what it was and walked away.”
The royal blue-and-white clad Bulldogs of Henderson High had won football state championships in 1947 and 1949 and came close in 1950 and 1952.
Holloway, a three-sport athlete at Henderson Institute, just went to see the action — and the lights. The Institute’s field didn’t have any lights, so all of the Panthers’ games were played in the daytime.
“I used to sit out there at night wishing I could be playing,” said Holloway, a 1957 Henderson Institute graduate. “Just dream about it.”
Attending Henderson High games was common for many blacks. Some, like Johnny Johnson, who graduated from Henderson Institute in 1953, didn’t venture inside. They only watched from a distance.
Vance County schools didn’t fully integrate until 1970.
The curiosity and interest of many Henderson Institute students in Henderson High football was, at least in some instances, reciprocated.
Ed Wilson played baseball and ran track at Henderson High, graduating in 1960. He remembers watching football games at Henderson Institute and Mary Potter, a black school in Oxford.
Wilson, the manager on the Bulldog football team, doesn’t remember there being animosity or confrontation between the athletes on the Henderson High and Henderson Institute teams.
“We accepted the fact they were athletes and they accepted the fact we were athletes,” said Wilson.
Wilson recalls a time, before he reached high school, when Henderson Institute loaned the Henderson High track team about 10 hurdles.
Sam Watkins and his twin brother George played multiple sports at Henderson High and graduated in 1952.
Sam was impressed when he attended Henderson Institute football games.
No matter how great the respect one side had for the other, the societal divide remained. But that barrier seemed far less insurmountable when politics were set aside.
Blacks from surrounding neighborhoods regularly visited to play games on the outdoor hoop at Wilson’s house. He said skin color was never an issue in those contests.
“We just played,” said Wilson.
The same went for Sam, who grew up on Williams Street, a block removed from a black neighborhood in the Rock Spring Street area.
“Those guys came up the hill about a hundred yards and we were knocking heads on the basketball court,” said Sam Watkins. “Integration wasn’t on our mind. We were just having a good time.”
Sam remembers sandlot games too, in a park in north Henderson. When it came to picking teams, skin color was no object.
“Everybody knew who could play the best and you wanted them on your side,” said Sam.
Brothers Clarence and Joseph Ray lived nearby and often played with the Watkins brothers.
From Clarence Ray’s view, sports were typically the extent of the socializing between the black and white kids, but he never noticed any tension during games.
“Nobody said anything at all,” Clarence said.
Abdul Rasheed, who then went by the name Humphrey Cobb, also grew up in the Rock Spring area playing with kids of both races. He doesn’t remember any unease because most of the youngsters in the north Henderson quarter had grown up playing together.
Rasheed became the first black basketball player at Henderson High School in 1965.
Rasheed said the familiarity with some of his white peers from north Henderson aided in his transition from Henderson Institute to Henderson High.
Holloway doesn’t recall any trouble at integrated sandlot games at Henderson Junior High School.
Holloway and his buddies watched what he remembers as “little league” games between whites on weeknights. They would wait for foul balls, saving them for their own weekend games.
On Sundays, black and white youths often played together on the junior high diamond. Sometimes the blacks played the whites and sometimes they mixed together.
“Not one confrontation that I can recall,” said Holloway, who was about 14 or 15 at the time. “Never any friction. It was just a game between two teams.”
Some of the black kids got picked to play against teams from other neighborhoods or towns. Holloway remembers traveling with a group of white kids to Lickskillet in Warren County for a match against an all-white team. One other black player was chosen along with Willie.
Holloway’s Panther baseball teammate, Lee “Jake” Davis, a 1957 Henderson Institute graduate, wasn’t as eager to play with whites even though he was asked.
As an adolescent, Davis accepted an invitation to play in a baseball game with whites.
“The next thing I know, a police car was there,” said Davis. “And they told me to go home.”
Someone’s parents had called the police, Davis said.
George Vaughan played football at Henderson Institute, graduating in 1963. He does recall there being some tension at integrated pickup football games on East Winder Street that included Henderson High and Henderson Institute football players.
But that seemed to be competition-driven. Vaughan noted that the Henderson Daily Dispatch, as it was known then, featured photos and lengthy stories about Henderson High games while Henderson Institute photos rarely ran and the write-ups didn’t amount to much. That didn’t sit well with Panthers’ athletes and supporters.
“We wanted to take their heads off,” said Vaughan. “We wanted to show them we were just as good or better than they were.”
Vaughan remembers seeing the white kids he played with, accompanied by their parents, out and about on downtown Garnett Street. The black youths knew not to speak to them and vice versa.
“It wasn’t the younger kids,” said Vaughan. “It was their parents. Kids don’t grow up being prejudiced or grow up being angry. They have to be taught that.”
Vaughan wonders what those times might have been like had previous generations’ values not been impressed upon them. Maybe blue and white and black and gold wouldn’t have mattered and sandlot sensibilities could have reigned supreme.
“If they had just left us alone,” said Vaughan. “My mother and father, their mother and father. We would have worked it out. It would have been all right. Even back in the ’60s.”
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