Read-In #3: The Real Story Behind "Remember the Titans"

  • “People say that it can't work, black and white; Well here we make it work every day. We have our disagreements of course. But before we reach for hate, always, always, we remember the titans.”

    In the final of our three Community Read-Ins, Prof. Reed and Kennetra Woods considered the questions: Why did we get one high school in Alexandria? Why was it necessary to merge three high schools into one?

    In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Alexandria was a city full of conflict. One evening, in the fall of 1969, ten Black teenagers playing football in the Arlandria neighborhood were approached by a police officer named Clairborn Callahan who told them to break up the game and disperse. The teenagers asked why he used the word “colored” when referring to them and asked them to use the term  “negro” or “Black’ instead.

    After the confrontation, some of the group began to drift away yet others stayed around and Callahan made chase. He grabbed one of them, a boy named Keith Strickland, who he pulled down an alleyway. The other boys returned, concerned about their friend. Feeling threatened, Callahan pulled his gun and began to pistol whip Strickland`to the point he lost consciousness.

    Strickland’s mother arrived and tried to pull him away but Callahan forced him into a police car and arrested him.

    His claims that the teenagers attacked him and the subsequent press coverage, sparked enormous protest in the Black community. About 150 black residents marched to the council chambers demanding reform.

    Then, six months later Robin Gibson, a 19 year-old student at George Washington High School, went into a 7-Eleven store where he was falsely accused of shoplifting razor blades by the store’s assistant manager, John L. Hanna.

    Hanna shot him in the neck and chest. As he lay on the floor dying, Hanna put a knife by his side and told police that Gibson had tried to attack him. That murder sparked some of the most intenese protests in our city’s history. For six nights, in an outpouring of emotion, cars  were set on fire, molotov cocktails and rocks were thrown.

    Hanna’s subsequent trial was described as a farce with a Confederate flag hanging in the courtroom. He was sentenced to six months jail time which he did not serve because of “good behavior”.

    Shortly after Gibson's funeral, there was a city election and for the first time a Black candidate was elected. 

    At a memorial service, 450 students attended and the sophomore class president stated, “the so-called christian white people who pushed the Blacks aside in the city are going straight to hell.”

    The highly-charged memorial service, the  election to the City council of the first Black candidate, Gibson’s murder and the inadequate justice that folowed, galvanized Black students in Alexandria who challenged the leadership of ACPS.

    In schools, protests became commonplace. Students were frustrated with leadership and demanded more Black teachers, more courses on Black history, and better lunches. The white leadership and parents saw this uprising as an issue of discipline, and that the schools were getting out of hand. In response,  Superintendent John C. Albohm came up with a plan to take all three high schools and merge them into one.

    The opening paragraph of a confidential memo ahead of this announcement read,

    “The schools are being held accountable for social and political changes not of the schools’ making. Budget stresses; racial conflict; resegregation; militancy on the part of white and black students; parents' concerns with the drug scene; court order involving the extension of adult civil rights to pupils in school: teacher strikes, irrelevant curriculum offerings - all interfere with the basic purpose of public education, which purpose is to provide an education in citizen=nship and an education in skills and in learning toward the end of good citizenship and the ability to make a living and contribute to American society.”

    Aware of  these stresses, Albohm developed the 6-2-2-2 plan of separate elementary, middle, junior high and high school which he argued better suited a city transitioning from suburban to urban.

    It was a plan that was sold as a way to boost the fortunes of a school system that was struggling. There were intense rivalries between the high schools and he argued that the merger would turn that energy into a benefit for all Alexandria.

    One significant dimension of this change was the taking of three athletic programs and merging them into one.

    There was a clear understanding that this would lead to a dynamic athletic program, second to none in Northern Virginia. 

    The story of the merging of these programs led to Remember the Titans, the Hollywood movie starring Denzel Washington which immortalized T.C. Williams High School’s undefeated 1971 football season.

    Like many Hollywood adaptations of true stories, not every aspect of the story reflected the reality.

    In the movie, vandals threw a brick through the window of Coach Boone’s home in an attempt to intimidate him. In reality, the brick was actually an entire toilet.

    And while linebacker Gerry Bertier was paralized in a car accident, the accident took place after the conclusion of the season and not prior to as the movie portrays.