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  • "With All Deliberate Speed":High School Sport, Race, and Brown v. Board of Education
  • David K. Wiggins

The landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 decision, sandwiched between the changes resulting from World War II and civil rights legislation of the 1960s, marked a turning point in the history of race relations in the United States. By a unanimous decision the Supreme Court determined that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and therefore unconstitutional. This decision marked the end of the legally approved "separate but equal" precedent established by the Supreme Court some sixty years earlier and served as a catalyst in the struggle for equal rights of all citizens in this country.1 To understand the effects of Brown v. Board of Education on interscholastic sport, it is important to examine first the participation patterns of African Americans in high school athletics prior to 1954 and what that participation meant to the African-American community. A significant fact to remember is that prior to the historic decision in 1954 a select number of outstanding African-American athletes outside the South would find their initial success in integrated high school sport and then continue that success in some of the most prestigious [End Page 329] predominantly white colleges in the country. Some of these athletes would even realize international acclaim for their great athletic performances. Paul Robeson, the great singer, actor, athlete, and civil rights activist, was one of fewer than a dozen African Americans among the approximately 200 students at New Jersey's Somerville High School where he starred in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. After Somerville, Robeson enrolled at Rutgers University where he was a two-time member of Walter Camp's All American football teams in 1917 and 1918. Fritz Pollard starred in several sports at integrated Lane Technical High School in Chicago before eventually becoming a student at Brown University where he was selected to Walter Camp's All American football team in 1916. Archie Williams, who captured the gold medal in the 400-meter run at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, attended integrated University High School in Oakland prior to enrolling at San Mateo Junior College and then later at the University of California, Berkeley. Jimmy LuValle, who won three bronze medals in the 1936 Olympic games, graduated from integrated Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles before finding his way to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Jesse Owens, the hero of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, starred at racially mixed East Technical High School in Cleveland before taking his talents to The Ohio State University. Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, the UCLA stars who integrated the National Football League (NFL) with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, attended racially mixed high schools in Los Angeles—Strode attending Jefferson High School and Washington, Lincoln High School. Finally, Jackie Robinson starred in several sports at Pasadena's racially mixed John Muir Technical High School in the mid 1930s before moving on to UCLA.2

The fact that these athletes attended integrated high schools did not guarantee them equitable treatment or shield them from the racial realities of Jim Crow America or ensure that they would receive a quality education and realize academic success. The academic performances of the above mentioned African-American athletes, and other African-American athletes during the first half of the twentieth century for that matter, were a mixed bag. Although statistics are not available on graduation rates for this period, it is apparent that prior to 1954 some of these African-American athletes floundered academically while others realized great success in the classroom at both the interscholastic and collegiate levels. For instance, Pollard was a C-plus student at Lane Technical High School before becoming what his biographer, John Carroll, referred to as a "tramp athlete" and making stops at Northwestern, Dartmouth, and Bates before finding his way to Brown. His academic performance at Brown did not match his success on the football field, and he eventually dropped out of the university with several failing grades dotting his transcript. Jesse Owens was no...


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