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Brown v. Board and Titan Football

Athletics, a  source of pride and tension in the story of the desegregation of Alexandria City Public Schools

Sporting rivalries were not the reason behind the violent clashes across the city and in the schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but they often proved to be an outlet for long-felt frustrations. Moreover, these rivalries that frequently spilled over onto the athletic fields had the impact of steering the direction that the city ultimately chose to take on its path toward desegregation. 

While the federal government was pushing Alexandria to focus on desegregation of its elementary schools where it was most keenly felt, the violent rivalries between students at Alexandria's three high schools forced Superintendent John C. Albohm to focus elsewhere. And because the superintendent felt he had to focus on finding a solution at the high school, elementary desegregation was pushed back to another time.

This article is the second in a series that explores the impact of Brown v. Board of Education on our schools and community, highlighting important milestones and key figures who played a role in the desegregation of Alexandria’s schools. The first was The Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education - What Does it Mean for Alexandria.

1969 marked ten years since the nine African-American children crossed a police line to become the first black children to be educated at a previously all-white school. But instead of marking an end of racial tensions, the event marks the beginning of an era of violence and racial protest.

With three rival high schools in Alexandria, violence often spilled onto the athletics fields. In 1969, following the beating of a 14-year-old African-American student, a football game between Hammond and George Washington high schools resulted in firebombings and rocks being thrown by both sides. Just a few months later when an African-American T.C. Williams junior was shot and killed by a white storekeeper at a Seven Eleven, the violence erupted once again on the athletic fields of the high schools. Violence following basketball games at George Washington High School ensured the school received an official warning by the Virginia High School League — a slur on the reputation of the schools as a whole. The continuing issues at football games that season were so bad that the school division moved all Friday night games to afternoons.

By May 1971, Superintendent John Albohm was deeply worried about African-American concerns about being relegated to declining schools. He was also concerned about the level of racial tensions and violent school protests and was confident that the new integrated T.C. Williams High School would reduce rivalries and foster greater cohesion within the community. But his need to act to integrate the schools was far from altruistic. It came from a different source entirely. By 1971 the federal government demanded that Alexandria show that at least four grade levels in Alexandria City Public Schools were fully integrated — or face having a plan imposed on them and their federal funding withdrawn.

Melvin Miller, an African-American lawyer who lived in the community behind the new T.C. Williams High School off Quaker Lane, reminded Albohm that “all deliberate speed” was no longer acceptable and that if the Board did not desegregate it would have plans imposed on it within thirty of sixty days. Miller told them that it only took one plaintiff the day after the new school opened to challenge the system and they would find themselves with a plan that was not their own imposed on them.

To implement his political compromise of a 6-2-2-2 grade plan — aimed at uniting all Alexandria students under one fully integrated high school (the final 2 in the plan representing the unification of grades 11 and 12 at T.C. Williams High School) — Superintendent Albohm needed the support of the School Board.

The Board was initially not in support of the plan.

On May 19, 1971, former mayor Marshall Beverley — a cousin of Harry F. Byrd and ally of many Board members — told the School Board he questioned the necessity of the entire desegregation enterprise. “There is nothing that has come before me that says that the school system is not in compliance at this time,” he said.

To win the Board over, Superintendent Albohm used the lure of athletics. The potential for Alexandria to produce unbeatable athletic teams was one of the key arguments he used to win the School Board’s support for desegregation.

"If this plan is approved, juniors and seniors throughout this city will be blended into one great high school whose entire sports program will be second to none in Northern Virginia and comparable to the best in this state,” Director of Athletics William Blair told the School Board in spring 1971.

That summer the plan was presented, debated, and voted. By the fall, T.C. Williams was fully integrated for grades 11 and 12. That fall, the subsequent success of the T.C. Williams' football team in the Virginia state championship made the reorganization of the school system easier to accept all around. The decision to appoint an interracial coaching team in the form of Head Coach Herman Boone and Assistant Coach Bill Yoast — although not without its own tensions — fostered an atmosphere of racial respect on the team. That was strengthened at the Gettysburg pre-season training camp. To foster an atmosphere of respect at T.C. Williams, members of the football team patrolled the hallways wearing team jerseys to help minimize conflict at the school.

John Stubbins, director of secondary education, told the Washington Post:

"It’s pretty obvious there’s been a tremendous spillover into the entire system because of that team. The parents were thrilled to death to see these kids getting along and it’s really helped. A lot of minds have been changed at the dinner table.”

What we don't see in the Disney version of the story in the movie Remember the Titans, is that while T.C. Williams High School was relatively free of clashes when the plan was put in place in September 1971, Hammond and George Washington high schools — both serving ninth and tenth-grade students — continued to see fights and conflicts between students making their voices heard. While the conflicts experienced within the integration struggles in Alexandria may have been played out on the athletic fields, they did not start there and certainly did not end with the T.C. state championship win.

At Hammond High School, white students threw rocks at buses carrying African-American students from the East End of the city and numerous fights broke out between students of different colors. Four students — three white and one black — were arrested on the second day of school for disorderly conduct and carrying concealed weapons. That evening, a white parent told the School Board that he would no longer be sending his daughter to school with “black animalistic behavior.” An African-American parent in the audience at the time told the Board that evening that she was “shocked to be in an audience of people who refer to my children and race as animals.” She said many black students had suffered abuse by white students at Hammond.

The focus on resolving the violence at the high school level had another impact. All the focus had been on the high school and the desegregation of the elementary schools had barely begun. We tend to think of the story of T.C. Williams as the whole story of Alexandria's integration. But at the end of 1971 when T.C. Williams held the State Championship cup high, Alexandria's elementary schools were still almost as segregated as they always had been.