With athletics, integration had mostly positive effect

May 16, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

JOHN NASH PLAYED at Dunbar High in Baltimore before the Supreme Court ordered racial integration of the public schools 50 years ago, and he coached at nearby Douglass High shortly after the decision. He remembers the bus rides when his players were heckled by fans, and he remembers when players were discriminated against by officials on the courts and fields.

But Nash, now retired, wouldn't trade the past for the present. One of the premises behind integration - diverse neighborhoods - never really materialized. Baltimore still has its segregated communities of African-Americans, Greeks, Hispanics and Italians. Most of the city public schools are predominantly black and still lack resources, while most schools in the outlying counties are predominantly white.

On the other hand, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, brought African-American athletes invaluable exposure and opportunities.

"I grew up in Baltimore," said Nash, a former standout track coach. "Back in the day, black schools could only play other black schools, and sometimes we had to travel to Virginia or Washington because we had no other choices.

"But integration allowed us to play the white schools. It gave our people a chance to show off their skills, and show that we could compete even though we had fewer resources and coaches. Scouts, who wouldn't come to our schools before, began watching our athletes. A lot more opportunities were opened than closed because of integration."

Integration of sports changed the cycle of life for a lot of people. While scholars debate the merits of it on education, there was a positive effect on sports. Integration served as an equalizer, according to some area coaches and administrators.

They tell stories about the uneasiness of the races coming together, of fans and officials who couldn't put away longtime biases. They tell stories of how integration pushed whites out of Baltimore and into the surrounding suburbs, and caused the decline of football programs at black colleges like Morgan State and UMES because large, white universities like Alabama started recruiting black athletes.

But overall, integration created options, hope and a new meaning to the words "team concept."

Ron Belinko, Baltimore County's coordinator of athletics, was a student at all-white Southern High when black students were admitted. He felt the impact immediately, leaving the all-white world he had enjoyed as a pre-teen to venture into the black community.

"It was uncomfortable at first," Belinko said. "But once you started practicing, sweating, playing games, showering together, color didn't matter. If you were a mixed group of regular students, you might get second looks from other people. But ... it didn't matter to us because we were a team; we were used to being together. This was our first experience learning about each other. I went to places like the Monroe Street Coliseum, and the record shop on Gay Street, places I normally wouldn't go.

"As I look back on it now, it was a great time to be in school," said Belinko, who said what he learned helped shape his values. "And values are an important part of education. I still maintain some of the friendships with people I met through integration."

Roger Wrenn, coach and athletic director at Patterson the past 30 years, grew up near Washington and played against different African-American teams. One of his first teaching assignments was in Howard County, which was slow to integrate.

When he first came to Patterson, there were few black coaches or officials. It was an issue then, but not now.

"The other day, I was asking a coach what was the name of that lacrosse official, and he was an African-American fellow," Wrenn said. "Twenty years ago, you never heard of such a thing in lacrosse. There are more officials of color now that it's no longer an issue. Coaching is as fully integrated as it's ever been, and you no longer blink an eye anymore if you have a black or white coach or a coach of any nationality."

Longtime Edmondson football coach and athletic director Pete Pompey took note of the growing diversity of coaches and officials as a result of integration.

"In a lot of situations, athletics have allowed players to hone skills and move on to the next level as far as education," said Pompey, who graduated from Douglass in 1959. "Maybe they couldn't play on the college level, but they wanted to stay close to the game, so they went into officiating, or coaching. I've seen a lot of those guys around still connected with sports, and told them, `If it weren't for you guys, we wouldn't have what we have now.' When I graduated, I basically had only one place to go, Morgan State College."

There are critics who point to how African-American athletes are exploited to bring millions of dollars to predominantly white universities and to a lack of interest in black athletes graduating.

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