|Father Ryan's Luke Dixon drives against Pearl-Cohn's Antwan Jennings during their game Monday, Jan. 5, at Municipal Auditorium in downtown Nashville. The game was part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the game at Municipal between Father Ryan and Pearl, which was the first game in Nashville between a predominantly white school and an all-black school. Pearl-Cohn won this year’s game 50-25. Photos by Andy Telli
Fifty years ago, as the nation roiled with social unrest and change, Father Ryan and Pearl high schools played a basketball game. But it was more than just a game. Teenage boys racing up and down a basketball court helped all of Nashville and Tennessee take another step toward justice.
Those boys, now men with gray hair and easing into retirement, gathered on Jan. 5 to mark the 50th anniversary of the game, the first in Nashville between a predominantly white school and an all-black segregated school.
The Nashville Sports Council hosted a panel discussion of the game featuring some of the men who played in it at its monthly luncheon at the Wildhorse Saloon. That evening, Father Ryan and Pearl-Cohn high schools played a game at Municipal Auditorium, the site of the first game between the schools on Jan. 4, 1965.
Also, the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library hosted an exhibit about the game, featuring photographs and memorabilia.
“I was there,” Howard Gentry, former Nashville vice mayor and current criminal court clerk for Metro Nashville, said during a question and answer session of the panel discussion. Gentry was 13 years old and a Pearl fan, he said. “My Dad took me. He explained to me the importance of the day. … Nashville did move forward as a result of that game. You guys had a lot to do with it.”
Father Ryan had first crossed the barrier that segregated the races in Nashville when the school enrolled its first African-American students in the fall of 1954, just months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education case that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Father Ryan became the first school in Tennessee to integrate.
Although Ryan admitted African-Americans as students, for the first 10 years they were not permitted to participate in extra-curricular activities, including athletics. That changed in 1963-64 when Msgr. James Hitchcock, then the principal at Father Ryan, decided to allow the African-American students to participate in all extra-curricular activities, including sports.
|Carolyn Ridley, the widow of legendary Pearl basketball coach Cornelius Ridley, and Bill Derrick, former coach at Father Ryan, received a plaque commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first game in Nashville between a predominantly white school and an all-black school, held Jan. 4, 1965, at Municipal Auditorium in downtown Nashville. The players and coaches of those teams were honored before the current Ryan and Pearl-Cohn teams played at Municipal Auditorium as part of the celebration of the anniversary.
Msgr. Hitchcock went ahead with the decision despite threats from other schools that they wouldn’t play an integrated team. In the end, the other schools did play Father Ryan’s team, which included its first black members, Willie Brown, a junior, and senior Jesse Porter.
The next year, Msgr. Hitchcock and Father Ryan’s basketball coach Bill Derrick started working on taking the next step, scheduling a game with Pearl High School, a national powerhouse among segregated black schools and one of the jewels of Nashville’s black community.
It was a tense and tumultuous time in the country’s history. Two months after the Ryan-Pearl game, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would lead the march from Selma to Montgomery to protest laws that denied African-Americans the right to vote. In August of that year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, and a week later race riots tore apart the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and the West Side of Chicago.
If the young players weren’t fully aware of the historical significance of the game, their teachers and coaches were. The adults in the lives of the Pearl players “helped us understand what was at stake,” said Perry Wallace, one of the stars of the Pearl team who went on to become the first black basketball player at Vanderbilt University and in the Southeastern Conference.
Wallace, who participated in the panel discussion, singled out the influence of Pearl’s legendary coach, the late Cornelius Ridley.
“He was a master. Not only was he a great coach, he was a great strategist in every way, not only about basketball,” Wallace said. “He grasped so fully the significance of the game and helped to guide us through it successfully. That’s just the way he was.”
The Ryan players were getting similar advice about how to conduct themselves from their coaches and teachers, recalled Pat Sanders, one of the starters on the Father Ryan team.
“You had two great institutions … they bring in great people with vision, foresight and courage,” Wallace said. “In one way, it shouldn’t be a surprise that two great institutions came together and said, ‘We’ve got to stop this madness.’”
It became clear that interest in the game, with Father Ryan and Pearl both fielding excellent teams, was so high neither school was large enough to hold the anticipated crowd. So the game was moved to Municipal Auditorium. A standing room only crowd of more than 8,700 attended the game, which made it the largest crowd to ever see a basketball game in Tennessee.
When Sanders stepped onto the court and saw the crowd, he thought, “My God look at all these people.” People were standing and the fire department had stopped allowing people in because it was so full, he added.
The game lived up to the hype, with the teams trading the lead throughout. Eventually, Pearl took a 51-50 lead and the game came down to a final shot for Father Ryan.
Willie Brown, who was the leading scorer in the game with 21 points and Ryan’s star, took a shot from the corner that bounced off the rim and into the hands of his teammate, Lynn Dempsey. He took a dribble to his left and arched a high shot over the hard-charging Wallace that dropped through the net as the horn sounded giving Ryan a 52-51 victory.
The Ryan team and crowd erupted in joy, while the Pearl team walked quietly off the court, determined not to lose again. The next season, the first that black schools were full members of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, Pearl was undefeated and became the first black school to win a state championship.
Father Ryan finished the 1964-65 season with a 23-2 record, one of the best in the school’s history. It’s star, Brown, went on to integrate the Middle Tennessee State University basketball team and the Ohio Valley Conference. Brown ended his college career as the school’s leading scorer.
His teammates and friends at both Father Ryan and Pearl lamented that Brown, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1975, wasn’t there to share the anniversary celebration.
“Wille was a friend of all of us,” said Wallace, who knew and played with and against Brown growing up. “We loved Willie.”
Brown talked to Wallace and helped prepare him for his experience integrating Vanderbilt and the SEC, Wallace said. “Willie was a pioneer before I was a pioneer.”
Although the game ended in defeat for the Pearl team, it was a victory for progress, Wallace said. “People living separately see each other with preconceptions. The game helped break open the preconceptions each side had,” he said.
Because of segregation, blacks and whites had to learn how to be together, Wallace said. “A special event like this can be worth four or five years of experience” in teaching those lessons. “And that’s what the game did.”