The history of racial integration in college sports is somewhat murky. In the 1920s thousands of African Americans played basketball in sandlots, high schools and colleges but most all teams were segregated. By 1928 there were four All-Black regional conferences. With rare exceptions, it was not until the 1950s that many colleges integrated their sports teams. The South was very slow to allow African Americans in. Texas Western integrated their basketball team in 1956, but it wasn’t until years later that they were allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. In 1965-66 they defeated Kentucky for the national championship. In 1963 Mississippi State had a great basketball team and wanted to play in the NCAA Tourney. They wanted it so badly that they bucked state law, crept out of the state, and played Loyola University, which boasted several fine Black players.
The ACC was also slow to allow Blacks into their sports programs. The first African American to play ACC basketball was Bill Jones who played for the Maryland Terrapins in 1965. Duke’s first Black basketball player was C.B. Claiborne in 1966.
It took much longer for White programs to hire Black coaches. However, there were some well-trained African American coaches during this period. One of these was Coach John McLendon, who coached from 1941-52 for what was then known as North Carolina College for Negroes (later, NC Central). The story I’m retelling was first broken in 1996 by reporter, Scott Ellsworth. During McLendon’s career in Carolina, not only did ACC teams not recruit Black players, they didn’t play against Black teams.
Of course, that didn’t mean that Duke students or Duke players felt the same way. In 1944, the North Carolina College for Negroes had an exceptional basketball team. In fact, they were coming off a 26-1 season. McLendon definitely knew the game of basketball. In fact, he had spent several years at the University of Kansas and had learned from none other than Dr. James Naismith.
Meanwhile, Jack Burgess, a student at Duke’s medical school, despised the Jim Crow laws in Carolina. The YMCA chapters at Duke and North Carolina College began covert meetings. To reach these meetings Duke students had to lie on the floorboards of their cars. At one of the meetings a Black student heard someone brag on the Duke Medical School basketball team. Though the official Duke team had won the Southern Conference title that year, this group of medical school students was probably better. It consisted of Jack Burgess, who’d started for the University of Montana, Homer Sieber who’d played at Roanoke College, Dick Symmonds who excelled at Central Methodist in Missouri, David Hubbell, a forward who’d played for Duke’s varsity, and Dick Thistlethwaite, a former star at University of Richmond.
In any case, the Black student who heard the idle boast challenged the Duke group to play the North Carolina Eagles team. Coach McLendon, who had been refused participation in segregated post-season tournaments, decided to endorse the idea. The Duke team was reticent, knowing the probable costs if they were discovered, but they really thought they could beat this team. It was too enticing to pass up.
While most of Durham was either at church or sleeping in on Sunday morning, March 12, 1944, this Duke team took a long winding route with jackets over their heads to the small North Carolina College gym to throw off any who might have caught wind of the contest. After Duke arrived, McLendon locked and bolted the gym doors. When the teams met inside, introductions were a bit awkward. Some stars on the Black team were Aubrey Stanley, Floyd (Cootie) Brown, James (Boogie-Woogie) Hardy, Henry (Big Dog) Thomas, and George Parks. The Duke guys had no uniforms but the Eagle team was all dressed out, from their shiny satin shorts to their striped wool socks.
The game started out somewhat tentatively. Guys weren’t sure about either the ability or the temperaments of opposing players. Of course, neither team wanted the contest to end in accusations, name-calling or violence. Both teams started out edgy—missing their shots. But as they warmed up, shots started falling. Duke led in scoring during the early minutes. The Black center, Big Dog Thomas, was at least 3-4 inches taller than the Duke center, so that gave them an advantage in rebounding. They also had a wide body named George Parks who claimed a swath of property under the basket. It wasn’t that Duke was playing poorly. They were playing their hearts out. They had simply never encountered such a wide open style of basketball. The Eagle team was slick and quick and were fast breaking on every play possible. Partway through the half the Blacks seemed to light up—they were thinking “these guys aren’t supermen, they’re guys just like us.” The final score was 88-44.
It was a lopsided loss for the Duke players, but they accepted it as a fair refereed game. Duke didn’t stalk off in a huff. They suggested playing a mixed race game of shirts and skins. It was a blast. Things went so well that after the game the players went back to one of the dorms to kick back and relax together for a couple of hours. McLendon called the guys together and underlined the importance of confidentiality regarding what had just occurred. The area police never found out, the one Black journalist who knew never wrote a column about it, and the few Black students whose faces were pressed against the gym windows apparently didn’t spread the word. In fact, for over fifty years, only a select few knew what happened on that memorable blustery Sunday in March, 1944. But it was one small blow for civil rights.