By Jackie Hunt
Editor’s Note: This is the eighth installment of the When Marion Played Sports series. Click the link to see all the articles in the series.
The seniors and juniors of Eastside were not happy with the move to the local white schools for the second semester of the 1969-70 school year.
The seniors had been looking forward to their upcoming graduation, some making plans for college and others to work or joining the military. The school year up to that point had been a fun time filled with nothing but success on the athletic front. Now the word had come that it was time for “desegregation”. The Eastside students did not like it and it was apparent the receiving schools weren’t happy either, as the influx of students was met with an exodus of white students heading to the local private schools. In Marion the private school was East Union Academy.
While there were no major incidents or confrontations with the new student’s arrival, the situation could hardly be called integration. It became a matter of the new black students and the remaining white high schoolers co-existing. While a few of the white student were genuinely friendly and approachable (Greg Kennedy and Randy Cross comes to mind) the overall atmosphere was tense and guarded on both sides, despite the black freshmen and sophomores having been there a full semester. That group had been joined by another small group of juniors and seniors who had made the decision to enroll themselves in Marion at the start of the year. Willie Roy Lewis, his sister Joyce Ann Lewis and Charles Ray Pearson were already there to greet their 11th and 12th grade peers.
Symbolic of how divided the school really was, the white students held their own graduation ceremony, while the frustrated blacks simply finished the year, picked up their diplomas and went on with their lives. They would organize and conduct a ceremony 32 years later in 1992. The graduation ceremony, which was covered by media from Monroe, El Dorado, Ark, Dallas, Tx and Las Vegas, Nv brought closure for the class of 1970.
By then sports had already erased much of the racial distrust at the school as black and white students had grown used to playing and interacting for years. The first black student to play for Marion was James Lee Bright. He along with Johnny Smith and myself (all members of the 1970 class) were in uniform for an early round play-off game shortly after arriving in January. Only Bright played, scoring 16 points in the Marion loss.
As is often the case, sports became the glue thar held people together. Coaches Malcom George and C. W. Wheeler went about building winning boys’ and girls’ squads, with their black athletes becoming integral parts of both. When the 1971 school year rolled around, all the sports teams were fully integrated and playing well. James Douglas had started the long-standing Douglas family legacy by being named a captain on the basketball team, while Jackie Moore earned the same honor for the girl’s squad.
Both basketball teams had five black players. Fred Jaggers, Jimmy Don Warren, Rob Pearson and Frankie Traylor joined Douglas. In addition to Moore, Diane Traylor, Marian Andrews, Patricia Wayne and Velma George were on the girl’s roster. These numbers would only grow as the years passed.
That spring the baseball team looked much like it would for the rest of the schools’ years of existence. In stark contrast to the 1970 team photo showing Coach George and an all-white group of athletes, the 1971 team picture featured 13 blacks on the 20-player roster. The photo used in the 1970 yearbook, the Echo was apparently taken early in the school year to speed up publication. It shows returnees from the 1969 team, most of whom had transferred from Marion by the 1970 baseball season.
Marion High stayed officially open until July 29, 2013. Over the 43 years of integration, Marion, with George and Wheeler coaching many of them, produced quality athletic teams and represented the small town very well.