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A Rigid Line to Cross

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NCCU's 1944 basketball team

Until the late 1940s, collegiate basketball teams were predominately segregated. Except for the occasional daring athlete, athletic teams reflected the “separate but equal” segregationist policy instituted by the 1886 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. In 1944, an all-white basketball team from Duke Medical School played a game against North Carolina Central University for Negroes. The game took place in secrecy, inside a locked gym with no spectators. The event came to be known as one of the first integrated sporting events in the South, although it was not uncovered or publicized at the time. Within the next decade, teams, tournaments and conferences would begin to integrate.

Conferences were segregated, which it made it more challenging for teams to integrate. This also meant that black and white teams rarely, if ever, played against each other until the late 1950s. Neither the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB), nor the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) admitted historically black institutions. Both organizations hosted post-season tournaments in which they also practiced racial exclusion. Even after integration began in collegiate programs, black players would be banned from playing with their team if they made it to the tournament. This policy was not challenged until the 1947-48 season when John Wooden and his Indiana State Teacher’s College refused an invitation to the NAIB tournament. Wooden’s team had one black player, Clarence Walker, who would have been forced to stay at home. Several other schools followed suit, refusing to participate in the tournament. Eventually, the NAIB decided to repeal their ban on African Americans. By March 1952, the organization began to freely admit black universities. The NCAA followed suit beginning in the late 1950s.

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Coach John Wooden and Clarence Walker

Even after teams began desegregating, an unspoken, yet widespread, “gentlemen’s agreement” existed between coaches. Under this rule, a coach would not start more than three black players at one time. Integrated basketball programs remained regionally divided. Southern schools still continued to fight against interracial athletic competition. Member institutions of the Southeastern Conference maintained a structure where schools rarely faced teams from the North, thus avoiding games with integrated teams. Nine of the twelve schools in the conference were located in the Deep South region, which remained inundated with profound racial tension. All SEC athletes were white, and many school officials and political leaders sought to keep it that way. It was not until the 1967-68 season that a black student competed on a varsity SEC school team.