Sometimes it is good to jump in the car and just hit the road to discover more about the place you live. In the Triangle, you don’t have to go far to learn new things about the history of sports in the area. Between Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill and all the other towns off I-40 and 85, you are bound to discover a Tobacco Road story that reinforces the special heritage of this place.
Our first stop is Durham. With a population of more than 265,000, popular sports here include basketball and track and field.
THE STANDARD BEARERS
During the 1940s and ’50s, Durham, like other southern towns, was under Jim Crow laws and required segregation in public spaces. But unique to Durham was its local sports community. Led by principled coaches from Duke and North Carolina Central University (NCCU), these social activists defied the status quo of the day by providing spaces for integration, gender equality and engagement between races through sports.
Durham’s story of sports heritage is filled with individuals who have impacted the movement of social justice and race relations in America forward without much press or fanfare. The personal and professional relationship that developed between the Duke and NCCU track coaches at the time is just one example of the unique engagement that existed in Durham. Duke Hall of Fame coach Al Buehler, who was white, and NCCU Hall of Fame coach Leroy T. Walker, an African American, looked beyond racial barriers and showed by example that competition and friendship are color blind.
In the 1930s, John B. McClendon, also known as Coach Mac, was a young African-American man with an impres- sive, if unheralded, basketball pedigree. He was a student of the sport’s founder, James Naismith, and was mentored by the father of basketball coaches, Forrest “Phog” Allen, at the University of Kansas. Coach Mac came to Durham in 1937 at the age of 22.
Coach Mac was hired by his former classmate as the basketball coach and physical education teacher for North Carolina College for Negroes, which now is NCCU. Coach Mac has been twice enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and once in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. He was the first African-American head coach in any professional sport.
“The Secret Game of 1944” took place 10 years before Brown v. Board of Education. It was an illegal basketball game played between the Duke Medical School team, made up of former college players, and the Eagles of NCCU.
Jackie Robinson had not yet broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but in Durham on a Sunday afternoon, while most of the residents were in segregated worship services, two local college basketball teams were playing the first integrated game in America. That helped establish Durham’s special place in sports history.