Sign of the Crimes: Titans? mistruths have found their way into the historical record.
Sign of the Crimes: Titans? mistruths have found their way into the historical record. Credit: Charles Steck/File

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Barack Obama held a town-hall meeting at the T.C. Williams High School field house just before the recent Virginia primary.

In reporting on the rally, the boys on the bus repeated the history ascribed to that high school in the script of Remember the Titans. After noting that Obama schmoozed with former football coach Herman Boone, a Time campaign blogger wrote that Denzel Washington played Boone in the 2000 football movie based on “the 1971 integration of T.C. Williams High School.”

The real T.C. Williams was racially integrated when it opened in 1965. But pushing back the year when integration came to Alexandria schools helps the movie’s storyline, since that jibes with the year the Titans won their first state football championship. And it’s a fine storyline: Obama said during the rally that the film makes “men cry.”

For all its fictions, the film has been quite good for the city and school where it is set—had there been no Remember the Titans, surely the Obama campaign wouldn’t have set its biggest rally in Northern Virginia on the T.C. Williams campus. Perhaps that’s why local and school officials never ask to correct the record when inaccurate histories of the school, ones that agree with Hollywood but not reality, are presented.

“It’s like people in the city don’t care about the truth anymore,” says Terry Greene. “Even people who were there act like they weren’t there, because of the movie.”

Greene, an Alexandria native, regards this revisionism as a crime, and not a victimless one. In 1963, he was among a small group of black students to enroll in George Washington High School. He played football for the school, also. He says the Hollywoodization of his hometown’s history ignores the real foot soldiers in the battle to desegregate the city’s schools and their athletic programs.

The Supreme Court had ruled segregated schools to be unconstitutional in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954, but Virginia was among the most egregious offenders when it came to abiding by the high court’s decision. Alexandria—whose superintendent of schools at the time was a devout segregationist named, ahem, T.C. Williams—resisted all moves toward “race-mixing.”

So when it was time for Greene to go to high school in 1962, eight years after the Supreme Court ruling, Alexandria still maintained two secondary schools for whites, George Washington and Hammond, and one for blacks, Parker-Gray.

But Greene’s parents wanted him to go to an integrated school. So, beginning in eighth grade, they sent him across the river to Gordon Junior High School in D.C., where the public schools had been integrated shortly after the Brown decision was handed down. And the Greenes applied to have their boy enrolled in one of Alexandria’s white schools under what that city’s government called the Freedom of Choice plan.

That program had been put in place in Alexandria after a 1958 lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of 14 black students whose parents demanded that the children be admitted to five of the city’s white schools, including George Washington and Hammond. (One more ugly chapter in the city’s racial history: Blois Hundley, a black parent of eight kids, was fired from her job as a school cook when Williams learned she was among the parents suing the city.)

But because of the antics of Williams and his fellow anti-integrationists, the Freedom of Choice plan was little used and little known.

“I remember there were only eight of us [black students] going into GW in 1963,” says Greene. “I know I thought of it as this big experiment, and I think we all did. We were all very conscious that a lot of people were very apprehensive on both sides. We felt like we had to succeed over here if we were going to move on. And, if kids at that age can field those types of responsibilities, I think we did. It was a very big event, definitely.”

He played on the football team—Greene shows up in the 1965 program for the then traditional Thanksgiving Day game against rival Washington-Lee wearing jersey number 77. Greene’s Washington teams never won a state championship or had a movie made about them.

By his senior year, Parker-Gray closed, and its students were distributed mainly between George Washington and the brand-new T.C. Williams, with Hammond staying overwhelmingly white. George Washington and Hammond, both of which had strong athletic programs, were then shut down in 1971, and all of Alexandria’s public school students were sent to T.C. Williams.

As in the movie, Alexandria had a wave of racial violence in the early 1970s. But that had nothing to do with the school or integration. In May 1970, John Hanna, a white manager at an Alexandria 7-Eleven, shot and killed an unarmed black George Washington student, Robin Gibson, during a dispute in the store. A historic carriage house in the city was torched days later, just one of many violent acts linked to the killing. During Hanna’s trial for manslaughter, the only black juror was dismissed after admitting he couldn’t give a white man a fair trial, and a dry-cleaning operation owned by a witness for the defense was firebombed after Hanna was given a two-year sentence.

Another thing the movie doesn’t tell viewers: The consolidation of three high schools, all of which were majority-white and integrated, into one school effectively tripled T.C. Williams’ enrollment of 11th- and 12th-graders. And though the racial makeup wasn’t changed radically, T.C. Williams became by far the biggest high school in Virginia, which meant it also had by far the biggest football talent pool in the state. The Washington Post didn’t mention integration when it predicted greatness for the team in its 1971 preseason poll, and nobody was surprised when the Titans crushed all opponents and won the state championship.

Greene saw Remember the Titans during its initial theatrical release in 2000 and remembers being pretty perturbed by the level of artistic license. The race-based taunting and cheap-shotting from opponents rang very true, he says, as did the bonding with white classmates and teammates. But the chronology bothered him.

“I know I spent quite a bit of time in the theater saying, ‘This isn’t how it happened! This isn’t how it happened!’” Greene, who now lives in Clinton, Md., says with a laugh.

But after leaving the theater, Greene kept his misgivings to himself. That’s Hollywood, he figured.

But his attitude changed last year when he read a story in the Alexandria Gazette Packet, a community newspaper, about local legend Ferdinand Day. In July 1964, Day became the first black member of the Alexandria school board. In 1971, he was named the first black chairman of that body. But while reading this recounting of Day’s amazing career, and reading another former board member say that no “meaningful integration” took place before the 1971 influx of students at T.C. Williams “as shown in the film, Remember the Titans,” Greene realized that city leaders and even Day had adopted the movie as Alexandria’s official historical record.

So Greene wrote the Gazette Packet and blasted “public officials in and around Alexandria” for being “taken in by the success of the film.”He recounted his own experiences as an integrator at GW from 1963 to 1966, and some of “the moral victories many of us played a part in, both black and white, on a daily basis,” and wrote that ignoring the real history “does a disservice to my classmates at George Washington High School, the School Board, and the city of Alexandria.”

“As black students we joined the debating team, foreign language clubs, and thespian clubs,” he wrote. “We played in the bands, marched in parades, competed in state and regional competitions. We chaired committees and successfully ran for class offices. We were cheerleaders and team managers. We played football, basketball, baseball, and wrestled and it is within this context that there are direct and accurate parallels to the movie…[L]et the record correctly reflect, we, the members of George Washington High School were victorious in fighting racism in Northern Virginia well before there were T.C. Williams Titans.”

His letter to the editor made the rounds. Greene heard from several classmates, including Skeeter Swift, a white basketball and football star at GW in the early 1960s who went on to play hoops in the ABA and was perhaps the greatest athlete the school ever produced.

“I thanked Mr. Greene for telling the truth,” says Swift, who now lives in Kingsport, Tenn.

He did not hear from Day, who has been a friend of the family since Greene was a child. But Day, 89 and still very feisty, read Greene’s letter in the Gazette Packet, and still isn’t happy about what was written. Day, an Alexandria native who went to high school in D.C. because his town had no secondary school for blacks in the 1920s, dismisses the Freedom of Choice program as “subterfuge” used by segregationists to stall wholesale integration.

“This was a full [nine] years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation, but when Terry [went to GW], the city simply was still not ready for desegregation,” says Day. “I don’t know why Terry wants to discuss this now. It’s 40 years later. That doesn’t feel useful at all.

“But if he says that eight guys or whatever were sent to George Washington and weren’t treated especially badly, well, that’s fine, but I don’t think that was especially heroic. It was merely an attempt on the part of the system to placate the people who were protesting the all-white schools.”

Day has no such qualms talking about Remember the Titans, however, a film he calls “fundamentally accurate.”

“I have no problem at all of discussing the merits of those young men from 1971,” Day says. “They are in my book the courageous heroes. That’s what the movie tells, a group of young men got together on a football team and learned from each other and stopped the outcry that was in this city. That’s a great story.”