Acts of violence and protests resisting racial integration were features in many American communities in the 1950s and 60s. A tiny town in the coalfields of South Central West Virginia appears to have been a notable exception.
What brought kids in Mount Hope together? Some point to the diverse new football team that formed when the two high schools consolidated. In 1959, the Mustangs won the state championship.
“Athletics bridges economic differences. It bridges ethnic and racial differences,” said Kenneth Fleming, whose mother was one of the African American teachers at Mount Hope High School during those years. He was interviewed as part of a new oral history project that explores the layers of history during integration in Mount Hope.
“Game changer: Football as a Catalyst for Peaceful School Integration,” was produced by Mount Hope native Jack Spadaro and husband-and-wife team, Michael and Carrie Kline, folklorists and musicians who met in Massachusetts and now live in Elkins, West Virginia. In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll hear excerpts from their newly released audio documentary.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was against the law. The landmark civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education, overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine that underpinned legal segregation.
In the years that followed, tensions and violence intensified across the country, and some communities across Appalachia experienced incidents of unrest too. During the 1958-59 school year, a school bombing in Osage, West Virginia, outside Morgantown, and bomb threats at other schools were made that same year across the state.
Anti-integration protesters in McDowell County held signs that said “We support Little Rock.”
Even in Mount Hope, a place where natives reported fairly mild racial tension, some still existed: Although the football players integrated right away, for instance, black girls who wanted to be on the Mount Hope cheerleading squad had a different experience. One of those who was left out was cheerleader Kathleen Scott, who is black.
“We were told they had selected the cheerleaders before the school term started, and I was not a cheerleader at all when it became Mount Hope High School. That was something very dear and important to me, and it hurt,” she said.
In the ‘60s, several years after the football team integrated, Sandra Williams became the first black cheerleader for Mount Hope.
“I wonder why I was chosen,” she said. “Was it because of the color of my skin, and they wouldn’t be able to tell if I was either white or black. But they could still say that they had a black cheerleader at the time.”
Spadaro, a former member of the Mustang football team who is white, said this project was driven largely by his desire to learn whether his memories of Mount Hope were different than those of his African American classmates.
“You know, we have 500 years of oppression of black people to overcome in this country, and I can't believe that we're still having to deal with that kind of hatred at this time. And I want to do something to counter that,” he said.
We’d like to hear your stories about racial integration from your hometown. Mail us your story to 600 Capitol Street, Charleston, West Virginia 25301. Or send an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.
This episode was produced with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Music in this episode is by Dinosaur Burps, Jake Schepps, Kaia Kater, Dan Frechette and Laurel Thompson.
Inside Appalachia is produced by Roxy Todd and Jessica Lilly. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. Our audio mixer this week is Zander Aloi. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.