Anacostia High School opened its 2004 football season this week with conditioning workouts. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Indians’ first city championship. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the school’s integration.
The football team’s achievements in the fall of 1954, alas, were dwarfed by race-related goings-on at the Southeast campus.
The Supreme Court had issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that May, and D.C. became one of the first cities in the nation to implement integration in its schools after the decision. In the last week of September, with school already in session, more than 400 students from historically black schools were reassigned to white schools closer to their homes.
That put 42 blacks among Anacostia’s enrollment of about 1,300 students. Until that point, Anacostia, which opened in 1935, had always been an all-white school. A lot of white kids wanted to keep it that way.
On Oct. 4, 1954, a Monday, a group of white Anacostia students decided to protest integration. They called for everybody to cut class. Similarly themed walkouts occurred the same day at Eastern High School and McKinley Tech, also historically white schools. But Anacostia’s was the biggest. A crowd of students gathered on a sidewalk directly in front of the school’s main entrance that morning and shouted at classmates to join their strike.
According to news reports at the time, 500 pupils did just that.
Danny Droze, Anacostia’s star tailback and the best football player in the city that year, was among the strikers. “Everybody was shouting, ‘We don’t have to go to class!’” Droze recalls. “I really don’t think most kids knew what they were getting into that day, other than hanging around and getting out of school.”
For some in the crowd, however, this was about more than playing hooky.
Jack Boelens was 24 years old, just out of seminary school, and serving as a pastor at the all-white Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Anacostia neighborhood. His home was on the same street as the high school. He was awakened by the protesters that morning and went outside to see what the ruckus was about.
“There was an incredible amount of tension out there,” says Boelens, now retired and living in Houston. “I saw a lot of adults from the neighborhood there, agitating the situation. I stood on the street and began talking to a few of the students, telling them, ‘You have a right to strike for things—to strike for better food, strike for parking. But don’t strike against human beings.’ But violence was on the minds of a lot of the people out there. When I was talking, a group began rushing at me, yelling ‘Get the nigger-lover!’”
Boelens says a student striker talked the mob out of pounding him. But the crowd only grew larger throughout the day. A couple of hundred students tried to take their protest on the road to Eastern High School, but they were cut off by a squadron of D.C. police.
Droze, who is now an investment counselor, says he went back to class on Day 2 after an Anacostia administrator threatened to kick him off the football team. But more than 700 kids—or more than half the student body—stayed out of class that Tuesday. White students at a total of 10 high schools and junior highs were striking by then. Anacostia remained the epicenter of the disobedience, which had quickly become a national story.
The Anacostia Ministerial Association signed on to help end the strike. Their effort, however, was countered by a new hate group that suddenly appeared on the scene. An Arlington resident named Bryant W. Bowles declared himself president of something called the National Association for the Advancement of White People, and he began offering support for the Anacostia strikers and calling for students of other D.C. schools to join in the anti-integration fight.
When asked why he was getting involved with the kids, Bowles told reporters, “My daughters will never attend school with Negroes as long as there is breath in my body and gunpowder will burn.”
School administrators and more than 20 members of the neighborhood clergy organized an assembly at the Anacostia football stadium on the morning of the third day of the strike. Local TV personality Art Lamb, who hosted a kids’ music show on afternoons on WTTG, and Winky Hart, who ran a boys’ club in Southeast, were brought in to talk to the students about the error of their ways. The session didn’t go well. One student opposed to the integration of Anacostia said that D.C. schools should only be integrated one grade at a time, beginning in kindergarten. He was shouted down by others in the bleachers, who argued that anything short of perpetual segregation was too liberal.
Bigger problems started when those other than Anacostia students wanted to be heard over the speakers.
“I remember one of the members of my church at that rally yelling at me, ‘Get back in your church! If we want to hear a sermon from you, we’ll come to your church!’” says Boelens, who got death threats from local whites until leaving Anacostia three years later.
The all-white rally at the stadium went totally to hell after Bowles showed up around the same time as a group of anti-integration students from Eastern High School. Mobs broke off in every direction. Hundreds gathered at Fairlawn Park in Anacostia, where a bottle was thrown at police but nobody was hurt or arrested. About 50 white students made it to the Supreme Court building, where they held placards and shouted, “We want our rights!”
The failed assembly proved to be the last straw for school officials. School Superintendent Hobart Corning officially ordered Anacostia students to return to class after Day 4. Anybody not excused for an absence on that Friday would be banned from the school’s cadet corps, publications, athletic teams, and plays or musicals, and prohibited from holding office in any club or organization sponsored by the school. Police Chief Robert V. Murray declared that there would be strict enforcement of all truancy laws, and that anybody using a car as part of any demonstration on Anacostia’s grounds would lose driving privileges.
“From what I remember, everybody was back pretty quick after that,” says Droze. “Football season was football season.” (Bowles abandoned the D.C. offices of the NAAWP by the end of the year. In 1958, he was sentenced to life in prison in Kountze, Texas, for the shotgun murder of James Harvey, his brother-in-law.)
With everybody back in class, the Anacostia student body rallied behind the all-white Indians on their march to the Interhigh West Division title, highlighted by Droze’s school-record six touchdowns during a drubbing of Eastern. The Red and Blue took their first city championship by crushing East Division champ Wilson, 33-6, at Griffith Stadium.
“Winning the title was a big deal, since the school had never won anything before,” says Droze. “That got us all kinds of notoriety and caused other colleges to come look at us, to look at me, to see how we’d won.” The Touchdown Club, then one of the more prestigious men’s organizations on the D.C. social circuit, honored Droze as its player of the year. Droze landed a scholarship to the University of North Carolina to play for former Maryland coach Jim Tatum.
In the days of segregation, the white-public-schools champion traditionally ended the season with a game against the winner of the Catholic-schools league.
But for this inaugural post-integration year, the public schools instead fielded an integrated team of all-stars from across the city against St. John’s, an undefeated Northwest powerhouse coached by the legendary Joe Gallagher. St. John’s had beaten Anacostia, 20-7, in a regular-season game earlier that year that still burns Droze.
“St. John’s was the team everybody wanted to beat,” he says, “but they beat Anacostia every time in my years there.”
But playing alongside the best assortment of football players in the history of the city—including Willie Wood, an Armstrong QB and a future NFL Hall of Famer with the Green Bay Packers—Droze got some revenge. Trailing by a point late in the final quarter, Droze threw a touchdown pass to Dave Harris, a black kid from Cardozo, to win the game, 12-7, for the public schools. —Dave McKenna