The entire back cover of the game program for last Friday’s city high-school basketball championship, played at Coolidge by teams from Cardozo and Roosevelt, was devoted to a “Notice of Non-Discrimination.”
“The District of Columbia Public Schools does not discriminate on the basis of race…” it read. “Discrimination will not be tolerated.” That sort of declaration might seem out of place at another sporting event. But this year, it couldn’t have been more appropriate.
Gary Mays brought his fourth-grade son, Garrett, and one of Garrett’s friends to the game. Mays captained the Armstrong High School squad in the city championship tournament in 1954. He was something of a legend around here in his youth, by virtue of becoming one of the best schoolboy athletes the city had ever produced despite having lost his left arm as a toddler. When asked if it seems as if 50 years had passed since his senior season, he said, “Oh, yeah. Seems like more than 50 years.”
Some changes have taken place over that time. When Mays played ball, for example, discrimination on the basis of race wasn’t just tolerated by the schools. It was mandated.
So there was no notice of nondiscrimination of any size on the programs when Mays shut down Elgin Baylor and led Armstrong to a huge upset win over Baylor’s undefeated Spingarn squad in the semifinals. The performance by Mays, who henceforth was known on local playgrounds as the One-Armed Bandit, is still talked about by local men old enough to remember it. Days later, Armstrong got beaten by Dunbar in overtime in the finals. (Mays, at 68, still fumes over a teammate who “couldn’t make a damn free throw” in the title game.)
That wasn’t the only championship in 1954. Wilson defeated McKinley Tech to win what was called Division 1 of the Interhigh League—also known as the white schools. Division 2, where Mays played, was for the colored schools.
As things turned out, that was the last year of the two-tournament format in this city. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education in May of that year exposed the unconstitutionality of the so-called separate-but-equal system used in D.C. schools and did away with such things as segregated city basketball championships.
Mays, who now lives in Fort Washington, had never been inside Coolidge before the Cardozo-Roosevelt game. He was impressed by the size of the school’s gym—with a capacity of 3,000, it’s the biggest in the city—but not totally surprised.
“This is the white school,” he says, chuckling.
In 1954, the city had nine public white schools—Coolidge, Roosevelt, McKinley Tech, Wilson, Anacostia, Bell, Chamberlain, Eastern, and Western—and five colored schools—Armstrong, Dunbar, Cardozo, Phelps, and Spingarn. A week before Mays and Armstrong played in the segregated tournament, the D.C. Board of Education released a study that aimed to show how well the separate-but-equal system was working for all students.
“The study clearly shows that Negroes have practically everything white students have and in some cases a little more,” white school-board member Robert Faulkner, who had commissioned the report, said of his findings.
Mays remembers things a little differently. “The floor inside Armstrong was asphalt,” he says, laughing at the ridiculousness of a paved school gym.
His counterparts at Cardozo didn’t have to suffer asphalt floors. Cardozo had the best facilities of all the colored schools in town. That was because in 1950, Cardozo had moved from its drab, overcrowded Rhode Island Avenue location to a massive, beautifully situated plant at 13th and Clifton Streets NW that had historically been Central High, a white school. (You can still read “Central” engraved in the cement at the school’s Clifton Street entrance.)
The takeover, in which Central was disbanded, didn’t take place without a fight. Central over the years had become perhaps the flagship of the city’s white high schools. Among its lofty alumni were Helen Hayes, J. Edgar Hoover, and Joseph Danzansky, a president of Giant Food, who brought the San Diego Padres to Washington for a few hours back in 1973. The school that is now Cardozo also became a touchstone for local white residents during the saga that ensued when Marian Anderson tried to play Constitution Hall, providing one of the more racially charged chapters in the city’s annals.
Constitution Hall, the historic theater near the White House, denied Anderson’s request to perform there on Easter Sunday in 1939 because its charter prevented colored groups from renting the room, and Howard University was sponsoring the appearance. D.C. school-board member John A. Wilson, who was black, then suggested that the Anderson concert be held instead at Central, which had the best auditorium of all the city schools. But school-board rules, much like Constitution Hall’s, forbade a colored singer from performing in a white school.
Henry Gilligan, a former school-board member and powerful attorney, led a group of white civic and religious leaders in opposition to Anderson’s use of the Central auditorium. The Anderson story had quickly become a national one, as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had voiced support for letting her perform. Gilligan railed against Roosevelt and Ickes and said that such permission would threaten the “dual school system” called for by local and federal law.
“I have no racial prejudice whatever,” Gilligan wrote in a statement to the school board. “The question with me is one of law, rules and the best interests of our colored and white people.”
Superintendent Frank Ballou sided with Gilligan, ruling not to extend an invitation to Anderson to perform at Central. Ickes subsequently invited Anderson to sing that Easter Sunday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and her show drew an integrated crowd of more than 70,000 people.
(Gilligan, showing his true colors, later became a leader of the movement to preserve the legality of so-called racial covenants, which prevented nonwhites from renting or buying property in several city neighborhoods. He handled a 1948 case that tried to enforce a covenant, covering 13th Street across from Central High School and other blocks in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, which was meant to bar blacks until the far-off year 1979. His fight in favor of racial covenants ended at the U.S. Supreme Court, where he argued for their constitutionality in another 1948 case, Shelley vs. Kraemer. Gilligan and his side got their collective ass kicked by the anti-covenant advocates, led by a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall.)
Mays had no deep allegiance to either of the schools playing in this year’s title game. As an athlete, he never faced Roosevelt. And Cardozo’s teams, for all the school’s white-boy facilities, never were a match for Armstrong during Mays’ days there.
“Man, we used to whup Cardozo’s ass,” he tells me. “At everything.”
Mays sat on the Cardozo side of the gym during the game, only because that’s where he found the first open seats, and rooted for the Clerks only because of his seating. According to survey data compiled by public broadcaster WETA, neither Cardozo nor Roosevelt currently has any white students. So the “colored” and “white” tags applied in this game only when taking jersey hue into account; Cardozo wore purple jerseys, Roosevelt white. Cardozo—which played its home games this season at Roosevelt because the bleachers in its gym have been condemned for years—won, 54-50.
Mays didn’t make his son hear tales about his title-tournament exploits during the game. He says it’s not that big a deal to have young Garrett know everything about that part of his dad’s past. Mays does, however, think all children should be made aware of the system he grew up in, a system that would have prevented Cardozo from ever playing Roosevelt, a system that would have prevented black kids from watching any basketball game at Coolidge.
During the game, Mays decided to stop by the Lincoln Memorial before heading home to Fort Washington. Not because of the Cardozo/Anderson connection, but so Garrett and his friend could see the exact spot where Martin Luther King Jr. made the speech they recently studied in school. Just before dropping me off, he told the kids that they were taking a surprise field trip.
“We’re going to ESPN Zone?” one of the boys squealed from the back seat.
“No, no, no!” Mays said, suddenly laughing as loudly as the kids. “We’re not going to the ESPN Zone!”