Race in the early 1950’s

It must have been 1953 or 54. I remember one Sunday, the “Colored” boys got together and played a basketball game on the playground of the Central Elementary School in downtown St. Albans. This was a first.

I was the only spectator. Shouts of instructions, encouragement, challenges and put downs was a constant banter that filled the maple tree limbs hanging out over the court. They were in dress pants with belts and no shirts. Most were playing in street shoes. Converse, the first choice in white teenage foot dress, cost five dollars a pair and Keds were three dollars. That was a lot of money back then.

Calling “them” boys didn’t have a Deep South connotation. I was a boy and they were boys near my age. They were several blocks from their home area but “Sugar” Cane was with them.  Sugar was built like Joe Lewis and looked mean to white people.  No white man or any small group of white males would think of taking him on. Up to a certain point, the fearsome Sugar could have done just about anything he wanted. As a matter of fact he did what he wanted, he married our homecoming queen! Imagine that in 1955.    

 

Cubert Smith grew up in Amandaville and is probably as much Caucasian as African. He told me that, “My father was very light skinned and that caused some problems.” I admired Cubert, he was a very good baseball pitcher and with his brother played minor league baseball in the Detroit Tigers organization. Cubert made all-state in both baseball and football at Garnet High School in Charleston. 

Long before Whites were bused to bring about integration, Cubert and the other “A” Street and Amandaville “colored” boys were bused thirty miles round trip to Charleston’s Garnet High School to bring about segregation. Those boys helped Garnet to the state Colored school championships in football, basketball, and baseball. If those boys had been on our St. Albans High School teams we would have had a shot at state championships.

I wonder now why I didn’t know that Garnet had won the state championships and why I didn’t know that Cubert had made all-state. And I wonder why I exclaimed, “Those stupid sons-of-bitches it will never work here,” upon reading, in the Spring of 1954,the headline story in the Charleston Gazette about the Supreme Court ruling to integrate schools. I think I was showing off to my fellow white students at the Terrace Tower, our hangout. I don’t know where that emotional exclamation came from. I didn’t know of any strong feelings I had against “colored” people. But I was a little afraid of “them” and had trouble accepting inter-racial marriage.

And then came Arch Rich.

While a freshman student at West Virginia University, I attended a YMCA national convention at the University of Kansas. A student from Kansas State University extended his hand and said “I’m Arch Rich.” I don’t know if my hesitation was noticeable but for the first time in my life I shook hands with an African-American. Arch and I became buddies and hung out together for the rest of the conference.

 

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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