- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

Some 1,800 fans in McKinley Tech’s gym stomped and hollered as the players walked onto the court and shook hands. Then the referee tossed the basketball in the air, and athletic history was made in the nation’s capital.

The date was Jan.7, 1955, and for the first time predominantly white schools were playing predominantly black schools in the District’s public school Interhigh League: White Tech vs. black Armstrong, white Anacostia vs. black Phelps Vocational in a doubleheader.

Both games were close — Armstrong 58, McKinley 57 in overtime; Anacostia 41, Phelps 36 — but no problems arose among athletes or audience. Memory suggests that more police officers than usual were on hand, but all they did was watch the games.

Many of the players already had participated in integrated pickup games, so from a social standpoint playing opponents of a different race was no big deal. But from a competitive standpoint, of course it was.

For decades, the nine white schools in the Interhigh’s Division I and the five black schools in Division II had been as widely separated as nearly everything else in Washington. That was all changed — along with so much else throughout the nation — by the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision May17, 1954, striking down enforced public school segregation.

Although the District began to integrate its schools that fall, athletic officials decided not to schedule football games between predominantly white and predominantly black schools, perhaps feeling the sport’s inherent violence increased the chances of problems among players and/or spectators. Thus it was that the big change took effect on that cold Friday afternoon in January at Tech’s gym — by far the city’s largest high school basketball facility — at Second and T streets NE.

One of the Armstrong players, three-sport standout Willie Wood, went on to play quarterback at Southern Cal and became a Pro Football Hall of Fame free safety for Vince Lombardi’s dynastic Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. But on this day in 1955, Wood’s focus was strictly on running his team’s offense as point guard and contributing clutch baskets against Tech.

“Sure it was a big game,” said Wood, now 67, from his home in Northwest Washington last week. “The white schools had all the money and all the facilities, and we knew the basketball reputation of the black schools was at stake. We couldn’t afford to lose.”

Spingarn’s Elgin Baylor, a future Basketball Hall of Famer and longtime general manager of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, had been the biggest star in Division II before his graduation the previous June. During that 1953-54 season, a cub reporter for the old Washington Daily News returned to the office in a state of high excitement after watching Woodrow Wilson’s Lew Luce apparently set an Interhigh record by scoring 40 points in a Division I game. The next morning, the cub awoke to learn that his big story had become an afterthought. Baylor, the spoilsport, had scored 62 for Spingarn in a Division II game the same night.

Armstrong’s coach was Charles Baltimore, a soft-spoken man (“unless you broke down a play,” Wood said) who would direct his team to the Interhigh championship in 1955 and then retire.

“At the start of the season, we thought we had a pretty good team, but we had to prove it against the white schools,” Wood said. “We were sort of pointing for Anacostia, which was supposed to be the best white team, but because of the schedule we had to deal with McKinley first. We knew the white schools would be very well coached and we couldn’t have any breakdowns.”

Tech had been a Division I power for years. In the early 1950s, its starters were so good they were known (and remain known to those who saw them) as the Fabulous Five. But their successors were not as fabulous, though Tech remained strong.

“Coach Baltimore didn’t say anything to us about [the possibility of] fighting during the game,” Wood said. “Playing against whites was nothing new for most of us. At recreation centers, you didn’t have white teams playing black teams — but when the doors closed, we’d all play together [on the blacktop].”

Wood is hazy on details of that Armstrong-Tech game, which seems reasonable after 49 years. He does remember, however, that the Washington Post and Washington Star both called him “Woods” — something, he said, that “happened all the time” in newspapers.

Perhaps nervous at the outset, Armstrong trailed 10-0 after 2 minutes and was behind by nine as the fourth quarter began. The team didn’t pull even until Wood drove for a layup to tie the score 53-53 with 1:45 to play. There were no more points in regulation, but Armstrong scored five in the first 75 seconds of overtime — including another layup by Wood — and held on as Tech got the game’s final four.

In the other game, unbeaten Anacostia, which usually played deliberately under coach Russ Lombardy, trailed Phelps 5-4 after a first quarter that must have induced slumber among some spectators. Anacostia spurted, if that’s the word, for seven points early in the second quarter to take command against a Phelps team that scored just 18 points through three quarters.

In the long view, of course, it didn’t matter who won the first two integrated games — only that they were played. And so Washington — widely regarded as a sleepy, Southern town before World War II — took one more step away from its segregated past.

“You know, I don’t think anybody expected trouble at those first games between white schools and black schools,” said Frank Bolden, then basketball coach at Cardozo and later the Interhigh’s director of physical education and health. “I know I wasn’t concerned about it when my team played a white team. I don’t think people started to think that way until the 1963 riot [during the City Championship football game between predominantly black Eastern and predominantly white St. John’s before 50,000 at D.C. Stadium].”

Wood wound up that 1954-55 season on the All-Interhigh team, but playing basketball and baseball were merely diversions along his path to greater gridiron glory in the NFL. Said Wood, who was 5-feet-10 and 190 pounds, “I knew if I was going to play any pro sport, it would have to be football.”

So it was, although he had to make the Packers as a free agent after not being drafted. And along with his memories of five NFL championship seasons, two Super Bowl triumphs, eight Pro Bowl trips and 48 interceptions in 12 seasons (1960-71) with the Packers, Willie Wood can be proud of the day he and other teenage athletes helped equality and reason gain ground in his hometown.

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