Before integration Part 1: The N.C. High School Athletic Conference produced title teams, acclaimed coaches and NFL talent
(A series on the football, basketball and baseball exploits of African-American athletics before full integration came to North Carolina in the 1970-71 school year)
Part 2: Basketball has long been a passion for North Carolinians and that was no different in the NCHSAC, including a high-scoring champion led by a future NFL Hall of Famer, a former player who became a famous coach and administrator elsewhere and loads of future professional basketball talent, including two local performers who starred for both segregated and integrated schools.
Part 3: Baseball was considered one of the biggest passions in the African-American community for much of the 20th century. It was so big that many high schools did NOT field teams in order to allow their players to perform for the local teams. Here’s a look at some of North Carolina’s premier teams, coaches and players who attended and played for NCHSAC schools.
By Richard Walker
Before North Carolina high schools were integrated, schools and athletics for African-Americans were huge sources of community pride, even if they didn’t get the media attention their white counterparts received in local newspapers.
And like the then-all-white N.C. High School Athletic Association, an organization governed athletics for students who attend all-black schools that was called the North Carolina High School Athletic Conference.
Records for football date back as far as 1928 and last until most NCHSAC schools were closed or turned into junior highs or elementary schools. Only Durham Hillside, Fayetteville E.E. Smith, Gastonia Highland, Greensboro Dudley, West Charlotte, Winston-Salem Atkins and Winston-Salem Carver have survived the change and remain members of the N.C. High School Athletic Association. Carver and Highland were actually closed as high schools before reopening in 1987 and 2001, respectively. Also, Charlotte Second Ward, Asheville French Broad and Raleigh Ligon were brief NCHSAA members before they were no longer high schools.
When integration came, it was swift. The NCHSAC had 210 schools in the 1967-68 school year, but that number dropped to 105 in the 1968-69 school year and to less than 40 for the 1969-70 final year of the NCHSAC.
But the NCHSAC’s 42-year run crowning football champions included memorable title teams, coaches and players, among them a coach who became a cultural icon after Denzel Washington portrayed him in a Hollywood movie, a professional player who became more famous as an artist and actor and a pioneering TV figure in Buffalo.
By the time it ceased to operate after the 1969-70 school year, the NCHSAC would eventually produce 34 NFL players.
But if you asked some of the longtime NCHSAC players and coaches, that doesn’t tell the story of the athletes who never got the opportunities others received due to the times in which they played.
One such player is star running back Robert Stackston of Gastonia’s old Highland High School.
Stackston led the Rams to their 1946 state title and was such a talent that he began playing high school athletics as an eighth-grader.
High school teammate Bob Mason, who went on to play at North Carolina Central before a long coaching career at Highland, Ashley and Ashbrook high schools, had glowing praise for Stackston in 1996 when he talked to the Gaston Gazette about the team’s 50th anniversary.
“He was one of the best to ever play in this county,” Mason said of Stackston. “He could do it all – football, basketball, baseball and track.
“In football, we called him a triple threat because he ran, he passed and he punted. Whenever we got ready to play a ballgame, most of the opponents knew they had to stop him. It didn’t matter.”
Though records of his era were sketchy, Highland High’s “Tattler” school newspaper chronicled these figures from his five-year athletic career:
– In football, Stackston had a school-record 50 touchdowns with 14 more touchdown passes for a scoring responsibility of 394 points as Highland compiled a 30-13-3 record.
– In basketball, he scored a then-county record 1,451 points as the Rams had a 78-30 record.
– In baseball and track, he was all-conference in each sport though no figures are available.
The 1946 title also was the crowning achievement for longtime Highland coach E.L. Dunn, who guided his school to more than 1,000 victories in football, boys and girls basketball and baseball.
A native of Wake Forest, Dunn played football at Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University before an offer to play semipro baseball brought him to Gastonia. He was initially an assistant to Rams coach Jack Martin, then became Highland’s head coach after Martin left to begin a legendary coaching career at West Charlotte. He also coached Highland to a baseball state title and to the boys basketball state championship game.
Dunn coached several future coaching legends, among them Mason, Columbia, S.C., Booker T. Washington, High and Benedict College basketball coach William Partlow, Charlotte Second Ward coach Albert Montgomery, Charlotte York Road coach Claude “Doc” Saunders and Gaston County junior high basketball coach Joe Robinson.
Highland had first played in the state title football game under another legendary baseball player and coach in Clarence Moore. Moore, who left Highland for a long career at Asheville’s Stephens-Lee High School, led the Rams to a 1931 runner-up finish. With Dunn as an assistant or head coach, Highland played in four more title games.
The team Highland played in four of its title games, including the 7-6 Highland win in 1946, is the all-time NCHSAC state title winner.
Raleigh’s Washington High, which was renamed Ligon in 1953, played in 10 championship games from 1929 to 1963. Nicknamed the “Little Blues,” the Raleigh team won six state championships – in 1929, 1930, 1935, 1945, 1949 and 1950.
The NCHSAC held an open classification football state title game from 1929 to 1949, with championships played for two classifications from 1950 to 1962 and three classifications from 1963 to 1968. The final year of NCHSAC football was 1969 when integration had lessened the membership enough that a playoff was held for just one classification. Also, there were years in which a six-man football state champion was crowned.
And there were other perennial powers.
Chapel Hill Lincoln played in seven championship games, winning titles in 1956, 1957, 1960 and 1961. The 1961 team outscored its 11 opponents by a staggering 440-0 margin.
Lexington Dunbar played in seven title games, winning titles in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1963.
Durham Hillside played in six state championship games, winning titles in 1943 and 1944. The 1943 Hornets also claimed a national title after outscoring their eight opponents by a 319-0 margin, including a 40-0 win over Virginia champion Roanoke Addison on Thanksgiving Day.
Hickory Ridgeview played in six state championship games with titles in 1950, 1962 and 1964
Winston-Salem Carver played in six state championship games with a title in 1962.
The former NCHSAC football coach who has gained the most acclaim has to be Herman Boone, whose tenure as the first African-American coach at newly-integrated T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., in 1971 has been immortalized by award-winning actor Denzel Washington in the blockbuster Hollywood movie “Remember the Titans.”
Before Boone took the job in Alexandria, he guided Williamston Hayes to a 99-8 record in nine seasons from 1961 to 1969 while guiding the school to state titles in 1966 and 1968. His 1966 team featured quarterback and future racial pioneer Ricky Lanier; In 1967, Lanier became the first African-American scholarship football player at the University of North Carolina.
But when Boone was offered an assistant coaching job at Williamston High School after the Martin County school had fully integrated, Boone looked elsewhere.
In Alexandria, he was first hired as an assistant and later became the first African-American coach of a previously all-white school in Virginia when T.C. Williams added students from two schools that were being turned into junior highs. Williams went 13-0 in Boone’s first season and routed Andrew Lewis 27-0 in the Virginia Class 3A state championship game in Roanoke for its ninth shutout of the season.
Boone wasn’t the only pioneer among NCHSAC alumni.
In fact, New Bern’s Bob Mann was a two-time pioneer.
A 1942 graduate of New Bern Barber High School, Mann played collegiately at Hampton and the University of Michigan before becoming the first African-American player for both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.
A record-setting All-American receiver at Michigan, Mann was undrafted out of college in 1948 before becoming the first NCHSAC product to play in the NFL in the 1948 season. In his second season, Mann led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,014.
Mann finished his career catching 109 passes for 1,629 yards and 17 touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers from 1950 to 1954; In 1988, he was inducted into that legendary franchise’s Hall of Fame.
Hickory’s Ernie Warlick was a pioneer of a different sort after his playing career ended.
A 1949 graduate of Hickory Ridgeview High, Warlick was a two-time All-CIAA football selection at North Carolina Central who also played basketball for the school’s legendary coach John McLendon. After serving in the Air Force, Warlick played football in the Canadian Football League for four seasons before starting what would become a Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame career with the Buffalo Bills of the AFL.
A top pass-catcher and blocker for the Bills from 1962 to 1965, Warlick was a key member of the Bills’ 1964 and 1965 AFL championship teams, catching a touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Kemp in the 1965 title game.
After retiring from football, Warlick became the first African-American sportscaster in Western New York while working for Buffalo’s WGRZ-Channel 2. Inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1998, Warlick also owned a Henry’s Hamburger franchise and became an active member in the Buffalo Bills Alumni Association. Warlick was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2014, which came two years after his death at 80 years old.
Nine NCHSAC products played 10 or more years in the NFL, including three eventual Hall of Famers who followed a similar path to the pros.
Bobby Bell, Carl Eller and Charlie Sanders all shined in North Carolina before Southern colleges and universities were integrated, so each left the area to play in the Big Ten Conference at the University of Minnesota.
Bell, who attended Shelby’s Cleveland Training School, was the first to head north after playing quarterback for his high school’s six-man team. Bell scored two touchdowns in a 34-6 win over Aberdeen in the 1956 title game played at Shelby’s old Sumter Street Park and he accounted for all seven touchdowns – scoring five himself and passing for two others – in a 44-6 win at Badin in the 1957 championship game.
At Minnesota, Bell was moved to defensive tackle where he would become a national champion and an Outland Trophy winner before playing 12 seasons at linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1963 to 1974. Bell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
Eller, who helped Winston-Salem Atkins win the 1959 Class 3A state title, was a year after Bell and he also starred for Minnesota as a defensive lineman before playing 16 seasons, including 15 of them for the Minnesota Vikings. Eller was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
Sanders, who played for Greensboro Dudley, was a standout tight end for both Minnesota and for the Detroit Lions in a 10-year NFL career. Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
The other six who played 10 or more years in the NFL are John Baker (Raleigh Ligon), Pettis Norman (West Charlotte), Mel Phillips (Shelby Cleveland Training School), Jethro Pugh (Windsor Etheridge), Doug Wilkerson (Fayetteville E.E. Smith) and Ike Lassiter (Wilson Darden).
Baker went on to greater fame after his pro football career ended; When elected Wake County Sheriff in 1978, he became the first African-American sheriff in North Carolina since the Reconstruction era. He held the position for 24 years.
Like Baker, Durham Hillside’s Ernie Barnes became far more famous for what he did after playing football.
A 1956 Hillside graduate, Barnes played at North Carolina Central before spending five seasons in the AFL and NFL playing for the Baltimore Colts, New York Titans (later renamed Jets), San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos from 1960 to 1964 as an offensive lineman.
Always interested in artwork and painting, Barnes’ career path started changing when he was interviewed in 1962 by San Diego’s KGTV personality Regis Philbin on Philbin’s first of many talk shows.
Shortly after his playing career ended, Barnes was hired by New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin for his artistic abilities. His paintings on inner city life became popular iconic figures on TV shows like “Good Times” and on the covers of albums by Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and B.B. King among others.
In 1984, Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee president Peter Ueberoth commissioned Barnes as “Sports Artist of the 1984 Olympic Games.”
In 1996, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson – who was Barnes’ teammate in 1960 – commissioned Barnes to do a painting that hung in the owner’s box at Bank of America Stadium. Team owners for the New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders and Boston Patriots also commissioned Barnes to do paintings for them.
Barnes also appeared in TV and movies, even securing brief roles in the 1974 to 1979 “Good Times” series in which most of the paintings by the character J.J. were by Barnes, including the “Sugar Shack” painting that frequently appeared in the opening and closing credits of the show.
His artwork also is used in TV shows like Columbo, The White Shadow, The Hughleys, The Wayans Bros., Wife Swap and in the movies Drumline and Boyz n the Hood.
In 1981, Barnes portrayed Hall of Fame baseball catcher Josh Gibson in the television movie “Don’t Look Back: The Story of Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige with Lou Gossett, Jr., playing the lead role of Paige.
The longest professional football tenure of the NCHSAC alumni belongs to Mel Phillips.
After being a standout halfback at Cleveland Training School, Phillips starred at North Carolina A&T before being drafted as a defensive back by the San Francisco 49ers in 1966. After a 12-year playing career, Phillips was a NFL assistant coach for the Detroit Lions (1980-84) and Miami Dolphins (1985-2007) to give him a combined 40 years of service to the NFL as a player or coach.