Remembering an iconic high school football series: Second Ward-West Charlotte rivalry was intense, drew large crowds and produced NFL players

By Richard Walker

Before N.C. high schools were integrated completely in the 1960s and 1970s, many African-American high schools were somewhat ignored in many areas.

Longtime West Charlotte coach Jack Martin with two of his 1952 West Charlotte football player started his coaching career at Gastonia’s Highland High School in the 1930s.

That certainly was not the case in Charlotte where the hottest ticket in town for high school football for many years was the Second Ward-West Charlotte rivalry called “The Queen City Classic” and played at the city’s 14,000-seat Legion Memorial Stadium.

Second Ward, which was located where the current Mecklenburg Aquatic Center is between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Stonewall Street in downtown Charlotte, opened as Charlotte’s first public school for African-American Students in 1923.

West Charlotte, which is still located on Beatties Ford Road, opened in 1938.

And the rivalry has some significant ties to Gastonia.

When integration came to N.C. public schools, Second Ward was torn down in 1969 as part of urban renewal while West Charlotte became one of only three former all-African-American high schools to remain open; Durham Hillside and Greensboro Dudley were the others though formerly all-African-American schools like Gastonia’s Highland and Winston-Salem’s Atkins and Carver high schools were initially closed and later re-opened as high schools.

The Second Ward-West Charlotte football rivalry between the schools was so intense it was discontinued for one season before the series was moved to Charlotte’s biggest stadium and billed as a fundraiser for the athletic departments of the two schools.

How successful was it?

For the last 22 years of the rivalry from 1947 to 1968, the game had an average attendance of 6,618 and twice drew more than 10,000 fans.

On the field, West Charlotte got the better of the rivalry with 16 victories against eight defeats and two ties.

During the series, each team won a state title and produced future NFL players.

A 1948 Charlotte News advertisement for the iconic rivalry

West Charlotte won the first four matchups from 1942 to 1945 before the series was discontinued in 1946.

In 1947, Charlotte city school officials tried to get financial support for the two schools in a move that seems to be an admittance of what the U.S. Supreme Court would later rule up upon 6 1-2 years later. That’s when, on May 17, 1954, the court ruled that “separate but equal was inherently inequal” and led eventually to the integration of all U.S. public schools.

Two days before the Nov. 4, 1947 game, The Charlotte Observer reported this about the moving of the game to Memorial Stadium, which had opened in 1936 with then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt a part of the opening ceremonies: “It’s a community project, backed by both white and Negro Charlotteans. The two Negro institutions to be represented on the field, Second Ward and West Charlotte, are each in desperate need for athletic equipment and facilities.”

At that time and for many years that followed, Second Ward’s “Tigers” wore blue and white hand-me-down uniforms from the all-white Central High Wildcats’ football team while West Charlotte’s “Lions” wore maroon and gold hand-me-downs from Harding High Rams’ teams.

But starting in 1947, fans flocked to the game that traditionally was played on a Thursday in late October.

The event was much more than just the football game as a parade was held down McDowell Street and a halftime “Battle of the Bands” was held.

West Charlotte made it five straight wins over its rival in 1947 with a 13-0 win in front of 6,000 fans as Lions’ quarterback Cletus Horton threw two touchdown passes in the inaugural “Queen City Classic.”

After the Lions won again in 1948, 2-0, the teams tied in the 1949 and 1951 games sandwiched around Second Ward’s first win in the series in 1950.

The 1948 game was the first of three contests in the 22-year history to be postponed by rainy weather; It was moved from Friday to Monday.

Former Gastonia Highland and N.C. Central Al Montgomery is shown in The Charlotte News with some of his 1961 Second Ward football players, among them future NFL player Randy Staten (66).

In 1954, the second weather postponement came a result of rainfall from the infamous Hurricane Hazel that devastated Eastern N.C.

Later in the fall of 1954 – and five weeks after its 37-19 win over Second Ward – West Charlotte won its first state title; The Lions knocked off Kinston Adkin 14-6 for the Class 3A state title of the old N.C. High School Athletic Conference for the state’s African-American high schools.

The Lions were in the midst of the 31-year head coaching tenure of Thomas “Jack” Martin, who came to West Charlotte when the school opened in 1938 after spending three years as head football coach at Gastonia’s Highland High School. (Perhaps Martin’s biggest contribution to Highland came when he hired Eugene Dunn as his assistant coach; Dunn would coach at Highland the remainder of his career and guided Rams’ teams to championships in football, basketball and baseball.)

In the 1957 game won 13-0 by West Charlotte, eventual NFL players were on both sides of the rivalry; Lions end Pettis Norman played at Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University before a 12-year NFL career playing receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers and Tigers halfback Dick Westmoreland played at Greensboro’s North Carolina A&T State University before a seven-year NFL career playing defensive back for the Chargers and Miami Dolphins.

The third NFL player, Second Ward’s Randy Staten, was a two-way lineman for Second Ward in the early 1960s before playing at the University of Minnesota. Staten would play one NFL season as a defensive lineman for the New York Giants and later became a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1981 to 1987.

In 1963 and 1964, one of the most outstanding athletes to play in the game, Second Ward halfback Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, led Second Ward to 30-12 and 58-0 wins over West Charlotte in front of the two largest crowds in the event’s history.

(Kirkpatrick transferred to Charlotte’s previously all-white Myers Park High in 1965, would play collegiately at Purdue and his legacy is the legal battle that ensued when he was not selected to the 1965 Shrine Bowl game that force the game to integrate in 1966. Earlier this month, The
The Charlotte Sports Foundation the creation of The Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick Award that will be given annually to a senior football player from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools who displays talent both on the field and a passion for their community.)

In 1963, a record 10,115 fans watched the eventual NCHSAC Class 4A champion Tigers win. And in 1964, Kirkpatrick scored five touchdowns with 10,019 fans in attendance.

From 1961 to 1967, Second Ward teams were coached by Gastonia’s Robert “Albert” Montgomery, who guided Highland to a combined 5-2-1 record in his four-year high school career against Second Ward and West Charlotte. An All-CIAA quarterback at North Carolina Central, Montgomery helped the Eagles win three CIAA titles and the 1954 national championship for HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).

In 1966, both schools left the N.C. High School Athletic Association as some of the first schools to continue to integrate the longtime all-white N.C. High School Athletic Association.

And in 1967 and 1968, the series ended with back-to-back Second Ward victories. In the 1968 finale attended by a Queen City Classic-low of 3,843 fans, Melvin Bell threw three touchdown passes in the 26-12 Tigers’ victory.