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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Steve Cherry, February 19, 1999. Interview K-0430. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

An early white vs. black basketball game provides a unique interracial experience

Cherry recalls coaching the first integrated basketball game (a white team vs. a black team) ever played in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. In 1965 or 1966 he took his white Quail Hollow Junior High School team to the all-black Northwest Junior High School. He remembers that the black crowd behaved differently than the white ones he was accustomed to, chanting and singing. It was Cherry's first encounter with a black crowd, and it was his players' first contact with black people.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Steve Cherry, February 19, 1999. Interview K-0430. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MARK JONES:
Now, you said that you coached for a few years in Charlotte-Meck. Was that before you came here?
STEVE CHERRY:
That was before I came here. I graduated from Western Carolina in 1964 and did my student teaching at Spaugh Junior High School in Charlotte. And it was still segregated at that time. I then took a job, my first teaching job was at Spaugh and then I transferred to Quail Hollow Junior High School. And coached there for two years. Had Bobby Jones and Skeet Harris - played linebacker at Duke - and Walter Davis were all athletes of mine that I coached.
MARK JONES:
Were these white athletes?
STEVE CHERRY:
Bobby Jones was white and Skeet Harris was white. Walt Davis who played Carolina, he was black. Now he came the last year that I was there.
MARK JONES:
Was that the first year of integration?
STEVE CHERRY:
That was the first year of integration. I coached the first integrated basketball game in Charlotte-Mecklenberg school system. The junior high, the junior high school and the junior high season started one day before the high school season and everybody was on pins and needles. There were fifteen, counting the trainer and my wife and myself and twelve ball players, there were fifteen white people that I took to Northwest Junior High School. That's right adjacent to Johnson C. Smith University. And we were the only white people in the building. It was sort of… very intimidating. It was funny when you think about it now. They wanted to make a very good impression and wanted to keep everything on even terms and I'm not sure whether you know what Hiltone (sp?) is. Hiltone is the floor covering- it's almost like a wax, a polish that you put on the gym floors to keep it shiny and take the dust off. They had put so much Hiltone on the floor that when we came out to warm up, that you couldn't stand up. And everybody was slippin' and slidin' and fallin' down and we had to get the people to come down out of the stands and walk back and forth across the floor with the grit on their feet to get the Hiltone up so as we could play the basketball game.
MARK JONES:
Wow.
STEVE CHERRY:
It was a weird experience. I guess you would say. In the gym with the noise we had not been used to that type cheering. The stands …
MARK JONES:
What do you mean when you say that? Like loud, or …
STEVE CHERRY:
I had - well, not actually, loud but more of a chanting type. Everybody involved kind of, kind of cheering as opposed to the white cheerleaders going out and saying a cheer and then everybody calming down and maybe yelling occasionally at a referee or something of that nature. This was almost constant throughout the game, the singing and chanting and - it was very intimidating. Had I not had some very good ballplayers we probably would have lost the ballgame. That was… that was an experience.
MARK JONES:
Now do you remember before the game, in preparation, what you told the team and what their reaction was?
STEVE CHERRY:
Their reaction- they were ninth graders and really didn't have a reaction other than believing what I told them. And I just told them that we were going to be on our best behavior and that we were going to have to play hard and that we were going into a strange situation - a situation that none of us had ever been in before and if anything happened on the floor they were to bite their tongue, keep their mouth shut and be on their best manners. Otherwise they'd be getting . [Laughter] And, we had no problems. It was a good experience, but, like I say, it was a test. Most of these kids we're talking about coming out of South Charlotte. From the Myers Park south.
MARK JONES:
Very white area?
STEVE CHERRY:
Very upper crust white kids. And going into that environment, it was a totally new experience for them. I won't call the player's name because he ended up and became a very famous player but after the ballgame when we got back, I asked him how it was playing against their center. He was about 6′4″ at the time and their center was about 6′;4″ at the time at Northwest. He said, "I did okay but I couldn't stand to get close to him. When you touch him, his head felt like a brillo pad." [Laughter] And that was his first experience with a black athlete. He'd never been anywhere around a black athlete before.
MARK JONES:
Do you think that was true for most of the kids on your team …
STEVE CHERRY:
For all of the kids on my team. Because …
MARK JONES:
There wasn't any of the informal …
STEVE CHERRY:
No, they were from South Charlotte, South Park, Park Road area. And a lot of them had never come in contact with any blacks at all.
MARK JONES:
And now, you mentioned previously that the cheering was different. Did you find it to be more- like a tougher environment to play in because of personal assaults or ?
STEVE CHERRY:
No, it was just a different type. They weren't basing it toward us. They were pulling for their team. But we had just not been used to that kind of cheering from the very opening gun to the final buzzer. A lot of times, you know, even during timeouts when nothing was going on on the floor they were still- it was almost like a chanting… a singing… more like a party to them than it was like a ballgame to what we were used to… It was… it was strange.