Glenn: Pirates were subject to overt racism, but dealt with it by winning

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GLENN: Pirates were subject to overt racism, but dealt with it by winning

Photo from the Jim Webster collection A photo of the Glenn Pirates in a team huddle.

Indiana never had official segregation on the order of the Jim Crow laws that were a way of life in the South in the first 65 years of the 20th Century, but Indiana in the late 1940s and early 1950s was hardly an oasis of racial enlightenment.

The Ku Klux Klan famously rose to the governorship and control of the statehouse in the 1920s, and though it was greatly diminished in official membership numbers by the late 1940s, its unofficial presence and its sentiments were still shared by many of Indiana’s white residents. The last lynching in Indiana, which took place in Marion in 1930, was less than 20 years removed and well within the living memory of the majority in both races.

Segregation, while not legally protected in Indiana, was practiced and went unpunished. African-Americans were routinely denied service in stores and restaurants or told that they had to enter the facility via a back door.

That’s to say nothing of the overt racism practiced by individuals. Slurs that would be considered wildly inappropriate by today’s standards were stated without much hesitation in this period.

Even at Glenn, there was day-to-day imagery used by a white majority that was oblivious to the racism it represented.

“You look back and we had a school paper called the Glenn Echo. They always had the junior and senior plays and they would have caricatures drawn of all of the cast players. They would have the knotty hair and big lips [for the African-American students]. I think it was unintentional racism, but you wonder what did those [black] kids think when they saw it?" said Jim Webster, Lost Creek historian and 1956 graduate of Glenn. 

As far as athletics were concerned, African-Americans were often stymied by limited opportunities, born out of racist practices. If teams had African-American players at all, many would limit participation to no more than one player at a time or one black player on a roster at a time. The IHSAA had only allowed all-black, segregated schools to enter the association after a 1942 court order.

This was the climate that Glenn coach Jack Williams confronted in the late 1940s – and that he helped to try to break down.

“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.”

Williams put his all-for-one, one-for-all attitude into practice in all ways. When he found out Session was walking several miles back to his home in northern Lost Creek Township? Williams gave him and his black teammates rides home after practice. He would do the same for white players.

“Coach was concerned with more about us than just ball. He became interested in us and acted as another parent. Not just myself, but the whole team,” Oscar Session said in an interview with the Tribune-Star this week.

Williams started four black players at a time on occasion, a radical move in the racial climate of the time. There was resistance among Glenn’s Lost Creek Township home fans at first to the integrated Pirates. Winning has a way to make people color-blind and so it was for Glenn fans who were uncomfortable with the racial makeup of the team.

“I remember one guy told me that the fans would get up and walk out if I used too many [blacks]. But you know? We eventually had to rent the college gym because we had such a good following. The fire marshal had to lock the doors and turn [fans] away,” Williams told Lunsford in 1998.

Indeed, Glenn often played games at Indiana State at the height of their powers.

That doesn’t mean the racial persecution stopped. In many ways, it was as entrenched as ever. Fans tried to needle the Pirates into mistakes or fouls. Officials often turned a blind eye. Road games were often a battle against the crowd as much as it was against the opponent.

“When I talk to youngsters in this day and age, and they talk about the way they are treated, they really don’t go through the racism we went through,” Session said. “We played in schools where, after we won the game, they threatened to fight us. They'd say, 'You might beat us playing basketball, but we can beat you fighting.'”

The racism was unrelenting.

“They called us everything. One year we went to Fontanet. One of their fans would sit right above us and rub his shoes against us all game," Session said. "We felt it had a spirit that we felt they could do what they want, they were trying to do anything they could to put us out. The more the fans did that? The harder we played. We got strong enough to where he just ignored it."

The racial prejudice didn’t stop outside the gym. The Pirates’ black players were denied entry at restaurants. After one incident in which Williams hastily agreed to have Glenn’s black players enter through the back door with the team in a pinch, he finally had enough and said none of the Pirates would patronize any restaurant that didn’t treat all of his players equally.

This policy was applied without exception. Bob Stephens, who grew up in Swalls and whose family ran a grocery store where Indiana 42 forks off at Swalls Drive, relayed one example.

Glenn sought to have its postseason banquet at one of two prominent, long-time Terre Haute restaurants. Both agreed, but both said Glenn’s black players would have to enter through the back of the restaurant. Williams wasn’t having it. So he went somewhere who would have the Pirates and welcome them all as a team.

“My dad [who sponsored the Glenn schedule at the time] told Jack he'd find them a place. He ends up going to Spencer to the Hilltop Inn. Owen County was where the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan lived at the time and that's where Glenn had its banquet. They said they didn't care. Bring 'em on out," Stephens said.

That provided some rare levity for the Pirates at the time. The racism Glenn endured was not long for the world, but it didn’t end because of their success either. The phenomenal success of Crispus Attucks in the mid-1950s helped break down barriers on the court. Off-the-court? It took a lot more time.

The racism that Glenn endured didn’t soften until all teams started using black players with regularity in the 1960s and 1970s, once society collectively concluded that overt racism was wrong. Glenn’s players paid a heavy price in blazing a trail to make the atmosphere better for the African-American athletes who came after them.

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