Duke University Alumni Magazine

The Secret Game
Defying The Color Line
by Scott Ellsworth

I was flabbergasted. An integrated college basketball game in the South ten years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Montgomery bus boycott?

Historical reunion: twenty-two years after the clandestine game, players Aubrey Stanley, David Hubbell, John McLendon, Jack Burgess, and Edward Boyd, from left, reconvened at the original meeting site
Photo: Ann States/Saba
t all began in Cleveland. I was on assignment for The New York Times, writing a story about the fiftieth anniversary of a black college basketball tournament. I had traveled to Ohio to interview one of the tournament's founders, an eighty-year-old retired coach named John B. McLendon Jr.

     While not well known outside basketball circles, McLendon is one of the true legends of the game. A protege of James Naismith, basketball's inventor, McLendon was a brilliant and innovative college and professional coach who won more than 600 games. During the Thirties and Forties, he had coached in Durham at the North Carolina College for Negroes--now known as North Carolina Central University.

     But it was in breaking down racial barriers where McLendon made his greatest impact. The first African-American coach to win a national collegiate championship, he was also the first black coach in the professional leagues. There were so many other "firsts," in fact, that in anticipation of our interview, Coach McLendon had prepared a brief resume listing some of these accomplishments. When he showed it to me, my eyes came to an abrupt halt at the second entry. It read: 1944 --Coached N.C. College vs. Duke Navy Medical School in a private, unpublicized, no spectators allowed, basketball game.

     I was flabbergasted. An integrated college basketball game in the South ten years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Montgomery bus boycott?

     "Say, coach," I said, "don't you mean 1954 here? Or 1964?"

     "No," he replied. "It was 1944 all right. Let me tell you about it."

     By the time I flew home that evening, I knew that I had stumbled upon a lost piece of American history. What I didn't know was whether I could bring it to life.

     Like every other Southern city during the Forties, Durham was thoroughly segregated. By law, blacks and whites lived in separate neighborhoods, attended separate (and unequal) schools, and were buried in separate cemeteries. African-American shoppers could not try on clothes in downtown department stores, or sit down for lunch in restaurants patronized by whites. The city government was all-white. So were the police.

     Transgressions of the color line were not tolerated. When a white visitor from the North ate in an all-black cafe, he had to be rushed from town to avoid arrest. When an African-American high school sophomore did not move quickly enough to the rear of a city bus one April morning in 1943, she was hauled off to jail. When a similar situation arose one year later with a black G.I., the bus driver shot and killed the soldier. An all-white jury, after twenty minutes of deliberations, exonerated the driver.

     Duke was hardly an unwilling participant in the Age of Segregation. During the Forties, there weren't any black students or professors--and there wouldn't be for another twenty years. The color line on campus, whenever it needed to be invoked, was no less rigid. As Spencie Love Ph.D. '90 recently pointed out in One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew, African-American automobile accident victims--including those in need of immediate care--could be and were turned away at Duke Hospital. When a Harvard University glee club came to perform in Duke Chapel in 1941, its one black member was asked not to participate. But, in truth, most Duke students during the war years simply didn't pay much attention to racial issues.

     Given such a climate, the idea of whites and blacks playing basketball together was not only unlikely, but dangerous. But as McLendon described the game to me--how they had kept it a secret, and how it had never been reported in the newspapers--I had no doubt that it had happened. I also knew that in order to understand it, I would have to locate one of the players from Duke.

     The place to start was the Duke University Archives. No sooner had I begun than I ran into a sizable problem--namely, that there never was a "Duke Navy Medical School." McLendon was certain that they had not faced the regular Duke varsity. Beyond that, I had little to go on. It was like looking for phantoms.

     I couldn't find any other likely candidates, either. The Navy operated a V-12 training program at Duke during World War II, but they didn't seem to have had their own basketball team. A search of the medical school archives also came up empty. Worse, there weren't any intramural records for 1944. I phoned a few former players from the Forties, without success. I was running out of places to look.

     Coach McLendon thought that a photograph of the Duke team had once run in one of the local papers. I searched through every issue of the Durham Morning Herald and the Durham Sun between 1943 and 1945--again, without success. I did, however, notice something else: From time to time, in agate type at the bottom of the sports pages, both papers ran scores from local church and recreational basketball leagues. I then went back and looked through all the 1944 issues, and found two box scores for a "Medical School" team. It wasn't much, but at least I had something to go on.

     I matched the last names in the box scores with the full names of students who had attended the medical school during the war. Then I looked up current telephone numbers in the alumni directory and started making phone calls. On my fourth call, I reached David Hubbell '43, M.D. '46, a thoracic surgeon living in St. Petersburg, Florida.

     "It seems that during the spring of 1944," I told him over the phone, "a most unusual basketball game was played between a group of Duke students and the varsity at the North Carolina College for Negroes. Were you, by chance, at that game?"

     It felt like a minute before Hubbell replied. "You know," he said, "I was."

     A few weeks later, I drove down to Florida to interview Hubbell in person. By the time I got back home, I knew that I had found a story worth telling. I also knew that I had found something that, in its own way, was leading me back full circle to my own days at Duke as well.

     I first came to Durham during the summer of 1976, driving across country in an ancient Plymouth and no doubt looking the part of an incoming graduate student, which I was. I had come to Duke, in part, because of the Oral History program. Founded five years earlier by history professor Lawrence Goodwyn, who co-directed the program with history professor (and now dean of arts and sciences) William Chafe, it was the only comprehensive graduate program in oral-history research methodology in the world. It was also controversial. Strange as it may seem today--when oral histories are standard features of presidential libraries and corporate archives--twenty years ago the idea of actually talking to a living person about the past, and using what he or she said as historical evidence, was often frowned upon.

 Photo: Durham Morning Herald

Top teams: the Duke Medical School's squad, above, included Dick Thistlewaite, Homer Seiber, Dave Hubbell, Harry Wechsler, Ed Johnson, Dick Symmonds, John McCoy, and Jack Burgess, from left. North Carolina College for Negroes coach John McLendon, below left, led a team that included players Aubrey Stanley, fourth from right, and Edward Boyd, far right.

  Photo: Alex M. Riviera

     But for those of us who were students in the Oral History program, it was all quite exciting. Armed with our tape recorders and notepads, we interviewed civil-rights organizers and folk artists, preachers and mill hands. It was the age of Roots and Studs Terkel, and there was a true sense of possibility in the air, as if we could not only help give voice to forgotten Americans, but shape our very understanding of the national experience. I caught the oral-history bug immediately.

     And I've been at it ever since. During the past twenty years, ten of which were spent at the Smithsonian Institution, I've conducted something like 600 oral-history interviews. I've interviewed farmers, advertising executives, politicians, waitresses, country-music singers, film makers, writers, models, and one astronaut. I've conducted interviews in the White House and in housing projects. Once, a Ku Klux Klansman pulled a revolver on me. Another time, in a village in China, dozens of teenagers followed me about while I tried, in vain, to work. It's been a grand experience--and I've had Duke to thank for getting it all started.

     Now, it seemed like I could at least return to Duke a lost piece of its past. And the more time I spent on the phone, or digging through old records, a picture of what happened in Durham one unlikely spring morning in 1944 slowly began to emerge.

     Basketball was nowhere near as popular at Duke fifty years ago as it is today. Home games rarely sold out, and the Blue Devil starters weren't household names. During the 1943-44 academic year, the Duke varsity endured a rather difficult season, but managed to win the Southern Conference championship. They were not, however, the only talented basketball team on campus. The war had brought a number of top-notch players to Duke, most of them in military uniform. Intramural competition was intense.

     One of the best teams came out of the medical school. As an undergraduate, Dave Hubbell had played for the Duke varsity, while Dick Thistlewaite M.D. '46 had been a standout at the University of Richmond. Jack Burgess M.D. '47 had started for the University of Montana, Dick Symmonds M.D. '46 had played at Central Missouri, and Homer Sieber M.D. '46 had been a member of the freshman squad at Roanoke College. This was no ordinary outfit.

     But the best team in Durham wasn't at Duke. Since coming to town five years earlier, McLendon had transformed North Carolina College into a basketball powerhouse. Using rigorous conditioning and a dazzling fast break, he had molded the Eagles into a team that was years ahead of its time. In an era when most college teams scored only forty or so points per game, North Carolina College defeated one opponent 119-34. The Eagles may well have been the best team in America.

     Only there was no way to find out. During the Forties, neither the NCAA nor the National Invitational Tournament allowed the African-American colleges and universities to participate. Like the great Negro League teams in baseball, there was no way to know how the 1944 Eagles would have stacked up against white competition--or, at least, there should not have been. For shortly after North Carolina College ended its season with a 19-1 record, they found themselves, improbably enough, on the same court as the team from the Duke medical school.

     Precisely how this came about is still, to this day, cloaked in mystery. Coach McLendon recalls that the idea for the game was presented to him by a North Carolina College student--now deceased--who wanted to see which school had the best team in town. According to McLendon, this student had heard about the Duke medical school team, and then issued a verbal challenge over the phone.

     None of the surviving medical student players, however, share that memory. Hubbell believes that a Duke divinity school student--whom I've not been able to identify--was behind the game. None of the others has a clear memory on this matter. My own belief is that the idea for the game originated out of some very limited contact between the YMCA chapters at Duke and at North Carolina College. However the contact was made, once the decision was reached to play, the arrangements fell quickly into place.

     Since there was no practical way to sneak the Eagles onto the Duke campus, the game would have to be played in the North Carolina College gymnasium. It would be a regulation contest, complete with a referee and a game clock. And to minimize the chances of being discovered, they would play on a Sunday morning, when most of Durham--including the police--would be in church. Rather than abide by the dictates of a segregated age, a dozen young men had decided, instead, to live by some rules of their own.

     But it was still an endeavor fraught with peril--especially for McLendon. If word of what was to happen reached the newspapers, or the state legislature, he would surely lose his job. And if the police happened upon the game while it was in progress, he might lose a great deal more.

     By now, I had a pretty good idea what the stakes were that Sunday morning in 1944. But I still had a nagging problem: I did not know which Sunday it was. Neither McLendon nor any of the players could remember. And after nine months of off-and-on research, I did not know how to find out.

     Jack Burgess had been the newest member of the medical school basketball team. Unlike his teammates, however, he had played against black players before, and had even had an African-American teammate at the University of Montana. When the idea for the game against North Carolina College first arose, Burgess had been in favor from the beginning. I had spoken to Burgess over the phone about the game. Then, last October, I decided to go to Montana and interview him in person.

     "I forgot to tell you over the phone," he said, greeting me a the door to his apartment in Helena, "that I found a letter I had written to my folks about that game." He disappeared down the hall, and re-emerged with a battered cardboard box. Inside were all 226 letters he had written home during his four years at Duke. At last, it seemed, I could determine when the game was played.

     Only there was a problem. Burgess never dated any of his letters, and his mother had thrown away all the envelopes--which, of course, carried dated postmarks. But as I thumbed through the letters, my hopes began to climb. Mrs. Burgess had kept the letters in the order in which she had received them--that is, chronologically--something verified by an occasional postmark-bearing piece of V-mail. I then had one more stroke of luck. In the letter where he briefly described the game, Burgess mentioned attending a concert by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra on campus the night before. With that benchmark, I could now date the game. What's more, I believed I could now tell what happened.

     In brief, here's what did. On Sunday morning, March 12, 1944, as eleven o'clock church services were getting under way all over Durham, the members of the medical school basketball team piled into a couple of borrowed cars and headed across town. Everyone was nervous. They weren't the only ones. Inside the North Carolina College gymnasium, Aubrey Stanley struggled to keep calm. The youngest player for the Eagles, the sixteen-year-old guard, worried what might happen if there were a hard foul, or if a fight broke out. In Beaufort, North Carolina, where he had grown up, you were taught to avert your eyes if a white person walked by. Now, for the first time in his life, he would be guarding one.

     Once under way, the game opened with a stutter. Both teams flubbed passes and missed easy shots. At first, it was all just too eerie. Even though they had a referee, aside from McLendon and his team manager, the stands were empty. And the Duke players were a little thrown off by the floor of the gym, which was painted black with white lines.

     Soon it did not matter. As the players started to heat up, the Eagles literally took off--running their high-speed break, pressing on defense, and finding the basket. As the score mounted in favor of North Carolina College, Aubrey Stanley experienced an epiphany. "Suddenly, it occurred to me," he later told me near his home outside New York City, "that these weren't supermen. They were just men. And we could beat them."

     They did just that. While the halftime score has vanished from memory, the final would not be forgotten: North Carolina College 88, Duke Medical School 44.

     While the game was in progress, word had filtered across the North Carolina College campus that something was going on in the gym. McLendon had locked the doors from the inside, but a handful of enterprising students climbed up to the high outside windows. Looking through the glass, they saw something then unthinkable in the South--blacks and whites competing as equals.

     But what they witnessed next was some-how even more unfathomable. After a short breather, the two teams then mixed their squads and played a second game--this time as skins and shirts. Following the second con- test, the two teams retired to the men's dormitory for refreshments and a bull session. A couple of hours later, the medical students got back into their cars and drove back to Duke.

     The Durham police never found out about the game. Nor did the Durham Morning Herald or the Durham Sun. A reporter for the Carolina Times, Durham's black weekly, caught wind of what happened. To protect McLendon, though, he agreed not to publish anything. The two teams had played the first racially integrated college-level basketball game in the South. But no one would know. According to the official record books, the game never happened at all.

     The secret got out last spring. On March 31, I published a brief article about the game in The New York Times Magazine. I had also given an interview on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." The next day, my phone started ringing off the hook--the story had struck a nerve in Hollywood--and I've been busy ever since. What, if anything, will happen next is anybody's guess. Suffice it to say that I've already experienced more than a few unforgettable moments with the lost ballplayers of March 12, 1944.

     One moment, perhaps, stands out more than the others. To accompany my original story, I had arranged for a reunion of some of the surviving players in Durham, where we would take a group photograph in the gymnasium where they had made history. It was the first time that the two teams--and Coach McLendon--had seen each other in fifty-two years. As they walked out onto the gymnasium floor, I got shivers up my spine.

     This time, I was the nervous one. It was a warm day, and the building, which had stood vacant for years, had no air conditioning. A water main had broken a few months earlier and flooded the floor, which was beginning to buckle. To top it off, there wasn't enough power for the photographer's lights, so we had to run extension cords from gasoline-powered generators. The heat and noise were considerable, and I was worried about how the men, now in their seventies and eighties, would hold up.

     They could not have cared less. As the photo session ran on--first one hour, then another--they were off in their own universe, telling stories and swapping tales from a lost morning a half-century earlier. They were no longer two teams, but one. And as I looked out across that ragged old gym floor, I knew just what to call them.

Ellsworth A.M. '77, Ph.D. '82 is a writer and historian living in Portland, Oregon. He invites readers with additional information about the game to contact him at 2187 S.W. Main Street, Portland, Oregon 97205, (503) 224-7184.

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