Competitive sports, unsurprisingly, were central to the historic desegregation of Arlington schools.
On Oct. 11, a roster of players from both realms of that 1960s drama reunited to blend glory-days of athletic feats with sometimes-painful memories of tough social change.
I heard humor, camaraderie and confessions at the panel arranged by the Arlington Historical Society, the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington and Marymount University.
“Segregation is law, integration is in your heart,” said emcee Reggie Harrison (Washington-Lee High School ’69), the former Pittsburgh Steeler Superbowl hero now called Kamal Salaam El.
Harrison had his own take on the first-in-the-state 1959 integration of Stratford Junior High. (One of that episode’s four pioneer students, Lance Newman, died the night before the discussion.) Harrison, as a former Stratford and W-L running back and track star (but “never a captain”), said he was too young to know “there was a court case” that prompted desegregation. While another attendee was “a scholar, I was just a dumb jock,” he joked.
But Harrison’s memories of progressive Stratford Principal Claude Richmond included receiving a three-day suspension. The principal, he said, kept a paddle in his office, which prompted Harrison to mouth off about how the educator wouldn’t dare use it on him.
Ed Hummer (W-L ’63) who, like his brother John (’66), went on to star in basketball at Princeton University, confessed he considered himself an “oblivious doofus” for growing up “unaware that blacks weren’t allowed at Hot Shoppes. “It was still Harry Byrd’s Virginia,” Hummer said, but massive resistance “was an adult problem – the kids were fine.”
Speaking via Skype was Morris “Mo” Levin, W-L’s legendary basketball coach whose deep impact included counseling black players not to retaliate against racists taunts. All of his players “were winners,” he said. He’d told them to show up to practice five minutes early, but “most came 10 minutes early,” said Levin, who won three state titles.
There was one interracial fist fight on the ’66 champion hoops team, several recalled, and others described how faculty discouraged interracial dating. Three-sport superstar Tyrone Epperson (W-L ’67) recalled as a Swanson student struggling for help in English class while an unsympathetic teacher embarrassed him daily.
The few participants from Wakefield and Yorktown spoke, as did the female athletes. Wakefield football and hoops player Clayton Powell recalled how the football coach knew that ability mattered more than color. But when the Wakefield basketball team played the state tourney in 1965, black players couldn’t stay at Richmond hotels.
“Integration meant a class of one black and 29 whites,” said Winnie Owens, president of the Girls Athletic Association 1966-67. She recalled white Stratford classmates refusing to have their photo taken alongside her, and how some on the W-L swim team refused (at first) to get in the water with her.
Bernetta Vaughan (Yorktown ’82) recalled as a Swanson student being told she was “too dark” for the cheerleading squad. But as a high school senior she became captain.
“Because of sports, the integration part was much easier,” said Helen Chung Vasiliadis, the first Asian cheerleader at Wakefield.
Ed Hummer said he was “pleased to hear the good stories, so distraught over the negative stories.” He praised teamwork in sports as the best experience in life.
Added Harrison, “I would rather be raised in Arlington than anywhere else in the country.”
Though retired as Arlington County treasurer, Frank O’Leary continues his famed analyses of voter turnout — which inspire some to predict results coming Nov. 6.
This month he wrote of an “onslaught of the Registrar’s Office that, as of Oct. 23, brought 8,280 absentee votes, versus only 1,869 for the 2014 midterms (also a senatorial year). If this continues, this year’s probable turnout would match presidential-year dimensions above 100,000.
In the nail-biter county board race, incumbent independent John Vihstadt starts with a proven base of 35,000, versus 27,500 for Democrat Matt de Ferranti, O’Leary writes. But if a “blue tide” total turnout tops 88,000, de Ferranti is likely to win, quoth he.