A microcosm in basketball


TOPEKA, Kansas - Jack Alexander and Dean Smith played basketball for Topeka High School in 1949, but they played in different gymnasiums against different opponents, and they never went one-on-one against each other.

Alexander and Smith were seniors the last year Topeka High had racially segregated basketball teams. Alexander played for the Ramblers, the all-black team, and Smith played for the Trojans, the all-white squad.

Smith went on to a 36-year career as coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels that included an 879-254 win-loss record, two national championships, 13 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championships and 11 Final Four appearances. He also coached Michael Jordan, who moved on to the National Basketball Association, where he is widely acclaimed as the top player in the game's history.

Alexander became Topeka's water commissioner in 1973, the first black elected to a post in a citywide election. He held the job for 12 years.

Both men are 70 now, and their play for the Ramblers and the Trojans provides a snapshot of the city's complex racial history and helps explain why in 1951, 13 black parents challenged school segregation in what became a landmark federal lawsuit.

"Dean is a dear friend," Alexander says as he reaches for the 1949 edition of The Sunflower, Topeka High's yearbook. He flips to page 59 and points to a photo of Smith holding a basketball in a Trojan uniform, then he thumbs to the team photo of the Ramblers on page 62. "I don't remember ever seeing the Trojans play," he says.

Smith says that in the fall of 1948 he asked Topeka High's principal to combine the two teams, but the principal declined, explaining that a dance followed the Trojan games. Presumably, the principal did not want blacks and whites socializing at the dance.

"It's embarrassing," Smith says as he reflects on the segregated teams. "I was taught that we're all human."

Alexander says Topeka had segregated movie theaters and public accommodations, but unlike the South, blacks were not restricted to segregated neighborhoods. Whites, blacks and Hispanics lived in Alexander's old neighborhood. But black children could not go to elementary schools with whites; instead, they attended four all-black grade schools. Alexander says he walked three blocks to an all-black elementary school when an all-white school was a half-block from his house.

After elementary school, blacks sat in the same classrooms with whites. Alexander remembers playing on integrated softball, football and basketball teams in junior high. When he entered Topeka High, the classrooms were integrated, but blacks and whites did not attend social functions together, and some sports and extracurricular activities were split along racial lines.

For example, Topeka High had a whites-only prom and a blacks-only spring dance. And there were separate student government bodies with black officers and white officers.

Topeka High is a magnificent Gothic structure completed in 1932 at a cost of $1.75 million. Chimes ring from its 165-foot tower. It has a 4,000 seat gymnasium and a 2,300-seat auditorium lighted by 10 chandeliers.

The Trojans played home games in the huge gym before virtually all-white crowds. But the Ramblers played in a junior high school gym before mostly black fans. Their opponents were other all-black teams from Kansas and neighboring states. And when the Ramblers traveled out of town, team members stayed with black families or the school system paid to put them up in all-black hotels.

Alexander says there was no tension between black and white students because everyone accepted the system. "Sounds unreal, doesn't it?" Alexander says with hindsight.

The Ramblers disbanded after the 1949 season, leaving Topeka High with just one basketball team in 1950, the Trojans.

An 1879 Kansas law allowed cities with populations of 15,000 or more, such as Topeka, to operate segregated elementary schools, if they chose to.

Smith says he attended an integrated elementary school in Emporia, Kansas, a town of 14,000. His father was a basketball coach, and in 1934, he was threatened with expulsion from the coaches' association because he had a black player on his team. The black player was not allowed to play in the state tournament, Smith recalls.

Smith moved to Topeka when he was in high school. He says he played quarterback on Topeka High's integrated football team and he recalls that blacks were members of the track team.

Alexander recalls that there was integration on the gridiron, but it ended when the game was over. White players gathered in the cafeteria, and black players met on the school's second floor in the music room.

"We didn't even know about the swimming team or the golf and tennis teams," Alexander says, adding that white coaches never asked blacks to participate in those sports.

Smith concedes that he was guided by a desire to win rather than social justice when he asked the principal to combine the Ramblers and the Trojans. An integrated Trojan team could have won the state basketball championship in 1949, he says.

Smith says once he understood the insidious nature of racism, he did what he could to fight it, especially as a coach at the University of North Carolina. "I've done what I could over the years," he says.

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