The impetus behind integration in the public school system was, of course, equality in the classroom. That's what Oliver Brown had in mind for his little girl. That's what the Supreme Court had in mind when it ruled in Brown v. the Board of Education.


Walter Bowser, right, and two unidentified members of the Huntington High School football team circa 1967.

But life goes beyond the classroom, especially in the formative years of life. There are after-school activities ranging from the varsity football team, which draws thousands of fans on Friday nights, to clubs that meet in relative anonymity. African-American athletes had their status to help gain acceptance in predominantly white atmospheres. Not so with members of the Latin Club.

The first sign of integration in high school athletics wasn't seen until the early 1960s, almost a full decade after the Brown decision. Five years later, the changing times were evident on the playing fields and courts across the Peninsula. Into the 1970s, seeing blacks and whites competing with and against each other had become commonplace.

Yet progress was slower for other activities. The cheerleading squad at Suffolk's John Yeates High was all-white until 1969, and it took pressure from the NAACP to break that color barrier. Integration led some schools to cancel their proms, others to stop ranking graduating seniors.

But change was in the air.

By Dave Johnson

When he became the first African-American student at Newport News High in 1963, only a year after JFK had dispatched federal troops to enforce integration at the University of Mississippi, Eric Burden found surprisingly quick acceptance. Then again, he was a gifted football player who had become friends with the team captains.

Legendary coaches Thad Madden of Huntington and Charlie Nuttycombe of Newport News - one black, the other white - were close friends for decades. By no coincidence, their two schools - one all black, the other predominantly white - enjoyed a strong relationship.

And when court-ordered busing led to tension in 1971, the football team at Ferguson and basketball team at Warwick helped unify their schools and maybe even their city with championship seasons.

Sports, it has been said, offers a reflection of society. But sports also can affect society, or at least nudge it along.

"It was all about athletics bringing everybody together," said Ted BaCote, an assistant under Madden from 1961-71. "I think athletics changed integration."

Ten years after the Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal, high school athletics on the Peninsula was separated by race. There were the Group 1-A white schools - Newport News, Hampton, Ferguson, Warwick, Kecoughtan and York. And there were the black schools - Huntington, Carver and Phenix.

Officially, students were given the option of choosing their school - "freedom of choice," it was called. But integration, both in the classroom and on the playing fields, remained a dream.

"It was a very emotional time," said Victor Hundley, who became the first black to enroll and play football at Ferguson in 1963. "The city at that time, even though life revolved around the shipyard where blacks and whites worked together, was a different place."

Change was gradual, and three school years were particularly instrumental.

1964-65 - A color barrier broken

Today, approximately 85 percent of the Peninsula District's football players are African-American. Time was when that must have seemed as likely as a man walking on the moon. In the fall of 1962, more than 200 young men suited up for the six teams on the 1-A level - the equivalent of Group AAA today. Every one of them was white.