Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of the When Marion Played Sports series. Click the link to see all the articles in the series.
By Jackie Hunt
Special to The Gazette
Long before Lillie E. Davis became a teacher and principal at Marion High School, and a prominent respected face throughout the parish, she was an athlete at Marion Industrial High School.
Many may know the legend of her pitching ace husband, Johnny Davis, or her brother, Earnest Waters, a star running back at Eastside, but may not know that Lillie E. Waters was a member of the girls’ basketball team at MIHS. She was gracious enough to join Leola and Shirley Wayne in sharing their memories of sports time for the girls at Marion. It would be grossly unfair to tell the story of Marion sports without talking about the girls. Mrs. Davis honestly admits that their squads were not as dominant as the boys often were but nonetheless had some very good athletes.
Leola Wayne takes a different perspective on her athletic exploits. Rather than talking about her jump shots or shot blocking skills, she chose to talk about the cheerleaders. As part of this “elite” group, she fondly recalls cheering for the football with a group of young ladies who knew “absolutely nothing” about football. She laughs at being admonished by a coach as she and her team-mates were in the midst of their best cheer…”Touchdown boys, touchdown. Touchdown, boys, touchdown.” The angry football coach pointed out to her and the girls that the opposing team had the ball at the time.
Shirley Wayne, sister to Eastside and Grambling College star Ralph Wayne, never got her name in the headlines either. Shirley’s most vivid memory is that her mother had forbade her from playing basketball because she was a gifted pianist who just might injure her fingers. She elected to sneak and play an intramural tournament game and promptly broke her wrist. What are you gonna do? Mamas just know. Her fingers fingers were fine, but it was the end of her hoops career.
Both ladies can cite the names of girls who were stars on the dirt court. There were family legacies such as the Wasson’s (Clarisse, Ruby, Clote and Clody) all who played during their times at Marion. There were also the Waters girls (Earnestine, Joella and Lillie) who played during the short period that MIHS existed.
Lillie Davis, though, presents the most hands-on memories of the lady hoopsters. The teacher of 50 years and first African American principal at Marion High School was a player at MIHS starting as an 8th grader and all through high school years. She taught me that the game for girls was played a little differently from today. There were six girls on the court at any time and only two positions, guards and forwards. The guards were not allowed to cross half-court and were fully responsible for defense, rebounding and getting the ball to the other three girls (the forwards). The forwards only had to score and not worry about defense. Much like James Harden so similar to today’s game.
She recalls Gloria Rivers, Louise Riley and Barbara Ann Neal as excellent forwards from her era. Interestingly, Neal was not a resident of Marion but nearby Huttig, Arkansas. It seems that students could easily cross the state line, attend MIH and legally play sports since Huttig did not have a squad.
Davis, now in her 80s, also remembers players like Joyce Lee Wayne who starred before her and a drummer, Hazel Will, who served as a one-person pep band.
Through it all though, one of her most vivid memories is of a girls’ tournament that was to be hosted by MIHS. Unfortunately, their dirt home court was compromised by pouring rain that made it unplayable. She recalls MIHS athletic director, John Q. Watley, taking a very bold move and asking the administration at Marion High School, the legacy white school, for permission to play the game in their gym. Davis remembers the request being graciously granted. “The only condition,” she laughingly recalls, “is that we could not use the restrooms.” One small step for 1950s race relations in Union Parish. Despite the restrictions she calls it a very kind human gesture by the school she later led for 16 years.
Just as the boys played and loved sports, the girls were gifted with the option to get out and play sports at Marion as well. Math, science, home economics…and basketball.