Glenn: Pirates' trail-blazing legacy of integrated basketball endures to the present

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GLENN: Pirates' trail-blazing legacy of integration endures to the present

Photo from the Jim Webster collection A photo of Glenn High School.

The original Wabash Valley Classic is the stuff of legend in western and southern Indiana. At its pre-consolidation-era zenith, it was the largest non-postseason tournament in the country. It was covered in-person by the state media with banner headlines not just here, but in Indianapolis too.

Bobby “Slick” Leonard – later an Indiana University NCAA champion, long-time NBA player and Indiana Pacers coaching and broadcasting legend – made his varsity debut as a junior for Terre Haute Gerstmeyer in 1949. He played in the peak era of the Classic.

"The Classic was the biggest non-state tournament in the United States. There was 116 teams. It was almost like playing the state championship right there. Every school with 60 miles of Terre Haute played in it. We didn't win it, but I loved the Wabash Valley [Classic]. It was great. I think players around the Wabash Valley area gave as much credence to winning the Wabash Valley as they did the state tournament," Leonard told the Tribune-Star on Thursday.

The importance of the Classic is illustrative because it highlights the biggest accomplishment of one of Vigo County's best-ever teams.

When you look at the list of the original Classic winners – wedged between the Clyde Lovellete-led Garfield teams of the post-World War II years and the Gerstmeyer-dominated early-to-mid 1950s, both teams justifiably famous statewide – you see humble and comparatively tiny Glenn.

The Pirates flew their flag from Vigo County’s Lost Creek Township and they were Classic winners in 1950 and 1951 as well as a semistate participant in 1951.

Glenn was the only Vigo County “township” school to win the Classic in its original iteration, much less win it twice in a row. Glenn was also one of just four Vigo County township schools to win a sectional – and the only one to win a regional.

Next to the 1951 entry in the list of original Wabash Valley Classic winners? You also see another word – vacated.

Vacated is a harsh word, especially without context. It implies that a team cheated. It’s a word that creates distrust in the accomplishments of a team that suffered the indignity of having a title stripped away from them after the fact.

In many ways, this has been Glenn’s legacy since 1951. Glenn, consolidated out of existence in 1961, has likely not shaken off the tag of “vacated” by most outside of the Glenn community who remember them.

However, Glenn’s contribution to Vigo County and Indiana's basketball history goes well beyond either being a Cinderella story footnote or being tarnished with one word that echoes years after the fact. "Vacated" has stripped away the legacy of a team that was not only was dominant on the court, but that broke barriers and faced racial prejudice every time it took the floor.

The Glenn story deserves a re-telling.

Lost Creek in the postwar era

To know Glenn is to know its people and where they came from – Lost Creek Township – on the east-central border of Vigo County.

Today, Lost Creek is a mix of farms, the Terre Haute Regional Airport, Rose-Hulman University, the commercial stretch along U.S. 40, including Seelyville, and many of the subdivisions built east of Terre Haute’s Deming Park and north of Hawthorne Park from the 1960s onward.

Lost Creek’s demographic profile was diverse in the late 1940s too, though for different reasons. Back then, the township also had a mix of rural and developed areas. It included the nascent version Hulman Field, the smaller, early Rose Polytechnic campus, and a few of the subdivisions, like Robinwood, we still know today.

GLENN: Pirates' trail-blazing legacy of integration endures to the present

Photo from the Jim Webster collection A photo from the Glenn High School yearbook of the front of the school.

However, the township was also shaped by demographic forces that no longer exist. Nearby Glenn Home, closed since the early 1980s, provided some students for Glenn High School. Several of Vigo County’s coal strip mines, which provided much of Seelyville’s population in the early 20th Century, were still active in the eastern portion of the township. Today’s LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course was a strip mine in the 1940s.

Lost Creek also included one of the largest black settlements in the county. Free black pioneers came to Vigo County in the 1820s and settled in the northern portion of Lost Creek as well as Otter Creek and Nevins Townships. However, most of the African-American families tended to farms inside Lost Creek and their children attended its schools.

Schools were segregated up to the grade school level until the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board Of Education decision outlawed the practice. Until then, African-American children in Lost Creek attended rural District No. 2 and No. 3 schools in northern Lost Creek, but those kids attended Glenn High School once they became of age.

“You had a mix of all of these people. You had miners in Seelyville, dairy farmers in south [Lost Creek], all the blacks were in the north of [Lost Creek] and then you had doctors and lawyers in Woodridge and Robinwood. It was a super mix and we jelled. There was never a fight in school. They all got along," said Jim Webster, a Lost Creek historian and 1956 graduate of Glenn.

Enter Jack Williams.

GLENN: Pirates' trail-blazing legacy of integration endures to the present

Photo from the Jim Webster collection Members of the Glenn Pirates pose for a photo after they won the Wabash Valley Tournament in 1951.

Color-blind coach

Williams, appropriately his middle name was Glenn, was born in Parke County in 1918. He served in the U.S. Air Force as a training commander in World War II and came home to teach and coach basketball.

Williams began his coaching career at his alma mater, Otter Creek High School, just after World War II. His father was involved in Otter Creek Township politics. When the trustee in Otter Creek Township changed and had his own coach he wanted to put in charge of the Otters, Williams had to move on. He was not out of a job for long. He moved over to adjacent Glenn and took over the Pirates for the 1947-48 season.

Up until 1948, Glenn’s basketball history was very similar to that of the rest of the Vigo County township schools. Periods of ups and downs, but Glenn had never won a sectional, nor were they an annual threat in the Wabash Valley Classic. That was the reserve of the big three – Garfield, Gerstmeyer and Wiley High Schools in the city of Terre Haute.

Glenn’s fate would soon change due to a convergence of talent and the willingness of Williams to ignore the attitudes of the time.

The first factor that helped Williams was that burgeoning star Jack Stute loved playing for him. Stute had played for Williams at Otter Creek and his family was displeased that Williams was not retained. So the Stute family moved to Seelyville and Stute would suit up for the Pirates by the 1948-49 season.

Stute’s transfer did not sit well. The Glenn-Otter Creek game in 1949 reflected this. Three players on each team fouled out and three more had four fouls in a rough battle royale won by Glenn 46-41 against a still-talented Otters team. The seeds were sown for animosity in the county. Williams was considered brash by the standards of the time too which made him an easy target.

Stute was white and his move would help Glenn reach elite status, but it was the black players Williams inherited that really drew attention to Glenn.

Also eligible to play in the 1948-49 season was a talented sophomore – Charley Session. He was African-American and moved to Lost Creek from Kentucky after a stop in Terre Haute in the early 1940s. He was joined by African-American teammates Cliff Phillips and Howard Killebrew, and later, Oscar Session and Harlan Killebrew.

Williams was committed to playing the best players he had – black or white. So he suited up four black players on Glenn’s team and often played them all at once – an unheard of and radical move in 1940s Vigo County and Indiana generally. (See related story.)

“Back then there hadn’t been many black players playing around Vigo County,” Williams told Tribune-Star columnist Mike Lunsford in a 1998 story. “I told them when I came to Glenn that the best players would play, and that’s the way I started out. I said that somebody else would have to tell [his black players] they can’t play, because I wouldn’t.”

From Williams’ point of view, the idea was to mold his players through work, not the color of their skin.

“We had a coach and young men who were willing to work. It didn’t matter who scored, we wanted to get into shape to win,” said Oscar Session told the Tribune-Star this week. “He expected us to be leaders not in basketball, but in our behavor in a complete way.”

Glenn becomes elite

Glenn had a transition season under Williams in 1948, but blossomed to full-flower by 1949.

Part of the reason? Williams made sure his Pirates were in-shape. They would run from Glenn school at corner of Chamberlain Road and U.S. 40 — where today's New Life Fellowship Church stands — to the airport and back … and then have a full practice.

Williams also used a zone defense. It today’s parlance, it was close to a match-up zone, as the Pirates would collapse on the ball-handler with man-to-man principles while playing zone elsewhere. With 6-foot-5 Stute, 6-6 Charley Session and 6-3 Dick Richmond to make it work? It was often devastating.

“We played zone. We liked it, but it’s not the easiest to play, but if you work and learn it and are willing to help out? It’s very effective,” Oscar Session said.

The Pirates rolled to a 26-2 record in 1949 and began to get notice statewide. They advanced to the Wabash Valley Classic championship game, losing to Attica 33-32. The Pirates were knocked off by a strong State High team in the 1949 Terre Haute Sectional title game 56-53, but everyone of consequence was back for the 1950 season.

Glenn made an immediate impression on Leonard.

“They were good. Charley Session was a really good player. They had a really good team and you knew if you were going to win anything, you had to get past them,” Leonard said.

GLENN: Pirates' trail-blazing legacy of integration endures to the present

Photo from the Jim Webster collection Photo from the Glenn High School yearbook of Jack Stute and Charley Session.

In 1950, Glenn was once-beaten as they rolled into the Wabash Valley Classic. The Pirates lifted their first Classic championship, smashing fellow once-beaten Frichton 53-24 in the title game — as racial abuse reigned down from some of the crowd. The Pirates won 16 in a row before bowing to Leonard and Gerstmeyer 45-41 in a Terre Haute Sectional semifinal upset. The Pirates were 26-2 again in 1950.

Stute, who provided power in the middle, graduated, but the Pirates still had a year left with Session, who averaged 19.2 points in 1950, to reach greater heights.

“Charley was the team leader. He worked hard. He might not have been the person with the most skills, but he probably had the greatest determination in terms of how he played of anyone in the Valley,” his brother Oscar Session said.

By now, Glenn was known across the state. Session was getting preseason All-State notice by several state newspapers and the Pirates were ranked in the top 10 to start the 1951 season.

Glenn didn’t disappoint. The Pirates reeled off 30 straight wins, Session averaged 21 points, and Glenn won the Wabash Valley Classic again with a 48-40 win over Ellettsville. Postseason success had escaped Glenn up until this point, but in 1951 the Pirates weren’t denied. They beat Garfield and Gerstmeyer on the same day in 1951 to earn their first-ever sectional championship.

The regional was not particularly close, but was contentious. Glenn dispatched Linton in the semifinal by 17 and faced host Bloomington in the regional championship. Glenn easily pushed past the Panthers 52-43, which didn’t sit well with the home fans.

Glenn’s regional-title winning celebrations set off a near-riot. There was trouble in the gym after the game and tear gas was used to break up fracases in downtown Bloomington. The incident made statewide news.

By then, however, rumors that had been circulating around Vigo County were to send the Pirates reeling.

Session’s age

Glenn was hampered going into the semistate. Session, Phillips and Richmond were all stricken by the flu. All three played against Evansville Reitz, but the Pirates were downed by eventual state finalist Panthers 56-46 in the semistate semifinal.

However, Glenn was starting to feel the pressure of questions about Charley Session's true age.

In 1951, the age rule to be eligible to play high school basketball in Indiana was that a player could not be over 20 years old. It seems simple enough, but the times must be kept in-mind. During World War II, the postwar years, and the Korean War, which was raging by this point in 1951, 18-year-olds sometimes did military service and then returned to finish school. Accounts of the time mention players at schools who returned to their high school teams after a spell of military service.

This was not the case for Session, but it informs the ambiguity that existed in player’s ages in late 1940s-early 1950s high school basketball. It’s likely that many teams were fielding over-age players, many without knowing it.

Webster said that Williams said he went to Kentucky to try to find a birth record on Session, but was told by officials there that they didn't keep records on blacks — only the n-word slur was used in place of "blacks".

"They were investigating him even back in 1950. Most fans never heard about it, but the players knew what was going on. The IHSAA Board Of Control could have got involved and demanded something," Webster said.

Session’s mother, Fannie, had reported in various documents that Session was born in either July 1951 or 1952, which made him eligible for the 1950-51 season. A birth certificate was uncovered which revealed that Session was born in 1930. That made Session ineligible for the entire 1950-51 season.

Williams found out Session was ineligible after the 1951 season when Session visited Selective Service. Crucially, he and principal George Bibich didn’t self-report that Session was over-age.

The IHSAA caught wind of Session’s age problem too by the time the 1951 postseason began, though no official inquiry was launched until after the season was completed. The IHSAA confirmed it knew of Session’s age problem, but couldn’t do anything about it unless other schools initiated an inquiry. That happened in May 1951 when seven Vigo County schools sent a letter requesting an investigation.

GLENN: Pirates' trail-blazing legacy of integration endures to the present

Photo from the Jim Webster collection A copy of the front page of the June 3, 1951 Terre Haute Tribune-Star with a story about the Glenn Pirates.

Glenn punished and investigated further

The case against Glenn was taken by the IHSAA in the spring of 1951 (see related story) and the punishment for Session being over-age was significant. Glenn was barred from IHSAA membership for the remainder of the 1951 calendar, all of its 1951 regular season games, including the Wabash Valley Classic, were forfeited. The postseason games stayed on the books due to an IHSAA rule that prevented postseason forfeiture.

Glenn was also banned from defending its Wabash Valley Classic championship in 1952 and could not start its 1951-52 season until January with a 10-game schedule.

No team had ever been punished so harshly by IHSAA. Many are convinced it was because Session was black and because of the racial makeup of the Glenn team generally.

“If you were a small, county school, they looked for everything they could. We knew the people in the schools who were involved in the research in things they could bring up against us, but it didn’t bother us. They took back one of the Wabash Valley Championships, but we knew we won it [on the court]. It was hurtful, but it was not important to us, we were able to accept it and go ahead,” Oscar Session said.

Though Charley Session was done playing after the 1951 season, Glenn still had a good team led, in-part, by his brother, Oscar. Glenn only played a 10-game regular season, and were beaten by Garfield in the sectional, this after once again beating Gerstmeyer along the way. The Pirates finished 10-4.

However, the IHSAA wasn’t done with the Session family. Oscar was investigated too after the 1952 season too. He was eventually cleared and allowed to play in 1952-53, though he missed games while the process played out. Glenn lost four times in 1953, but were beaten by Concannon in the 1953 sectional. That proved to be the end of an era for the Pirates.

Legacy endures

Along with the majority of Vigo County’s other township schools, Glenn was closed in 1961 as part of Vigo County’s original consolidation process to pare its public high schools down to five. Glenn students were sent to Gerstmeyer, a bitter rival on and off-court as it was believed Gerstmeyer coach Howard Sharpe played a role in the Session investigation.

Williams left coaching in the mid-1950s and eventually became principal at Glenn. Williams later worked for the Vigo County School Corporation and was principal at Rosedale High School and an administrator for Southwest Parke Schools.

He was influential.in the lives of both Session brothers. Charley Session played briefly at Michigan State (Leonard played against him at Indiana) and later Eastern Illinois before he became a postman in Terre Haute. Oscar was convinced by Williams to attend Michigan State and lived in Detroit for much of his adult life. He became a school principal himself before retiring to Terre Haute. Session is still involved with the local NAACP.

Late in Williams’ life, Session and Phillips – Glenn’s point guard, who played at Indiana State until a knee injury prematurely ended his career – were caregivers for Williams and his wife Marie. According to a 2005 Mike Lunsford column, after Williams was felled by a stroke and Marie by macular degeneration, Session and Phillips ran errands, took care of their house and kept their bills paid up.

“He was very important back then in my life. Once I got out of high school, he insisted on me going to college and we kept in contact throughout our lives. When we came home, we’d always get together,” Oscar Session said.

Most of the Glenn players from that era have passed on. Charley Session died in 1993. Williams in 2004. Cliff Phillips in 2007. Stute in 2019. The majority of the players they played against are gone too.

However, their legacy lives on and is stronger than ever. Since Glenn’s glory days, Vigo County teams comprised of African-American players have thrived. Vigo County’s best teams since the 1970s have all had great black players.

Their trail was blazed by Glenn. They endured the worst racial abuse their era had to offer and arguably suffered questionable institutional and governance decision-making as well.  They won and thrived anyway.

Session, now 86, knows Glenn represents a legacy that goes far beyond having “vacated” listed next to their name without context. 

“I’m proud of what we did. It’s funny what sports will do if you win and if you take part in things. It helped prepare for life beyond school,” Session said. 

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