The year 1963 was a defining one in the civil rights movement. It was highlighted by Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C., where about 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the March on Washington. It came after major unrest over segregation erupted in Birmingham, Ala., and spread across the South.
Now, 50 years later the United States Sports Academy in conjunction with alumni of the Mobile County Training School, an all-black school dating back to the 1880s, have begun an oral history project to capture and preserve the experiences of well-known black athletes from Mobile, Ala., during that tumultuous era of segregation beginning in the 1950s.
Despite the landmark, unanimous Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., declaring that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, change came slowly to Mobile and the South.
Players attended all-black schools, played on all-black teams and competed for state championships from the Alabama Interscholastic Athletic Association, the black counterpart of the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
The oral history project is led by Brandon Spradley, a doctoral teaching assistant at the Academy, and Anderson Flen, a MCTS alumnus who was a star quarterback at the high school. They have lined up 15 black athletes for interviews who were notable in the black community but rarely gained acclaim across racial lines. The Academy, the only freestanding university of sport education in America, plans to make their stories available to the public through its website later this fall.
So far, the team has interviewed eight men. They include:
• Rev. Julius Ceasar Hope, a star high school quarterback, runner-up in the middleweight division in the Golden Gloves program and a one-time San Francisco Giants prospect;
• Washington Taylor, a standout football player;
• Gabe Coleman, a top wide receiver on County’s 1966 state championship team;
• Theodore Spradley III, a three-sport start in basketball, football and track and field who went on to coach Blount High School to six state championships;
• Larry Shears, one of the top running backs in the state at County who went onto play in the NFL and former World Football League;
• Bill Kidd, a baseball player and coach for the all-black Plateau Bay Bears;
• Charles Hope, a defensive wizard at second base who went on to play in the Chicago Cubs organization; and
• Norman Hill and A.C. Mosley, the first two black baseball players to play on a historically all-white area team in 1969.
Those athletes had to cobble together used equipment, such as cleats and broken baseball bats held together with tape and nails. They played in second-rate facilities and sometimes even on makeshift fields on cow pastures.
Despite poor playing conditions, Mobile County Training School teacher Valena McCants and head football coach Charles Rhodes wrote a letter in 1967 to then University of Alabama coach Paul Bear Bryant about recruiting Shears and Coleman, who were considered elite high school players in the state. As the story goes, Bryant wrote back that the South just wasn’t ready for black athletes yet. It would be 1971 before the university had its first black football players.
Shears and the others have emphasized that they played for the love of the games. They said sports taught them many lessons, such as hard work, determination and how to deal with adversity, which helped prepare them for success later in life.
Shears recalled that he and his teammates in eighth grade had to run through a white neighborhood in Prichard, Ala., to get to their football games and to return home.
“As soon as we finished playing, we had to gather all our stuff, and we had to run from Prichard Park all the way to about Larry’s Drive-In,” Shears said. “You couldn’t stop. You had to keep going. It was an experience that taught me if you wanted to do something, sometimes you have to take chances. I don’t know what would have happened if we had gotten caught, but I wasn’t worried about getting caught. My main objective was getting back to the house, and I did.
“That was one of the things that really kind of made me understand that athletics is more than just getting out there on the field. Sometimes you have to go through other stuff just to even get an opportunity to play. A lot of times, you have to deal with things you don’t want to.”
Because many of their exploits were ignored by the white mainstream newspapers and rarely gained coverage elsewhere, the Academy’s preservation of this history is seen as important in a community rich in sports tradition. Plus, many of the athletes are in their 60s, 70s and 80s and want to educate future generations about their playing days during a period of rampant inequality.
“As a former student-athlete, I didn’t have to deal with a lot of the racism, as they did,” said Spradley, a former Alabama track star. “We need to know that, and we need to be appreciative of the things that our grandparents and parents went through, so we can be appreciative of playing competitive sports.”
Flen, who is helping conduct the project’s interviews of athletes, added that he has learned a lot already that he didn’t know.
“I have a real strong interest in preserving this history and talking about the legacy of sports in Mobile, but in the African-American community in particular, especially the phenomenal athletes who played sports in the Africatown community,” Flen said.
For more information about the oral history project, you can read two stories about it that appeared Aug. 10 on AL.com: “U.S. Sports Academy oral-history project preserving experiences of Mobile’s black athletes,” and “Larry Shears: A Mobile sports star lifts back the curtain of segregation.”