Sixty years ago this week, two Marion County Schools - Dunbar High School and Fairmont Senior High School - met for the first – and last – time on the football field. Local historians say it was the first gridiron meeting in West Virginia of an all-black school and an all-white school. It came amid the tensions surrounding that year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on school segregation.
It’s been sixty years since the game, but local historian D. D. Meighen says the event continues to resonate and offer lessons for today. He and a group of others rediscovered the story of the game a few years ago while researching how to handle an uptick in racial tension.
“This football game in 1954 seemed to be the answer,” says Meighen. “Where in the midst of a week full of very high tension where parents were protesting the integration of schools, a school outside of Fairmont – that this first football game between a black and a white school was being played. We were interested as to how that worked out.”
The game was played on September 30th 1954…just a few months after the Supreme Court told schools in America they would have to integrate. The court granted schools time to comply. Dunbar and Fairmont Senior High Schools were to be integrated the following year. The two school principals agreed that, although they had never played each other before, they would compete in this final year before the two schools went together.
But just days before the game, tensions in the county were running high. The Marion County Board of Education had started the integration process that fall – a move that was met with protests, pickets, boycotts and threats at one small school.
A local judge denounced the actions as “rebellion against the government” and issued an injunction against protestors.
With that as a backdrop, the two teams prepared to meet for the first – and last – time. Local law enforcement was on high alert and out in force.
But Meighen says the event ran smoothly. And he credits the fact that, although they attended different schools, the players all knew each other.
“The surprising thing was, and people didn’t realize, was that these young men had played against each other in sandlot ball and even lived next to each other,” says Meighen. “And so there was absolutely no violence and no trouble that evening and there were only three penalties called.”
Meighen says that familiarity, and an ability to enjoy friendly competition, were the keys then…and are the keys now…to easing racial tensions and fostering healthy communities. As America refocuses on these tensions in light of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere, Meighen believes a football game, played sixty years ago, offers lessons and hope.
Lesson number one: opportunities to live, work and play together are key.
“And I think a secondary lesson is that we need to utilize sports in a better way,” says Meighen. “When people talk about this game sixty years ago, they don’t talk about really who won… or who lost. The score was incidental except to the players and they still debate as to how they could have won and you know what could have happened that would have made the game different. But it was a great game – 7-6 was the final score by the way. But I think we need to fashion sports in a way in which we don’t have such a high level of competition but a lot of you know cooperation. “
Q: But that seems the opposite of where we’ve headed with sports.
“ Yeah, it seems to be and with the high salaries and everything and the premium placed on children competing at a high level and getting involved in intensive training even as early as pre-school – it kind of takes the joy out of just sharing the athleticism on the field or wherever it may be.”
Q: So – 7 to 6, who won?
“ Uh you’ll have to ask them…(laughter) Fairmont Senior won…but the person from Dunbar, who represents Dunbar, said they could have won if they had run the play that he wanted to run. “
The Dunbar/Fairmont Senior football game of 1954 is now firmly back in the community’s shared memory – and commemorated with a special plaque at East-West Stadium where it was played sixty years ago.
The plaque commemorating the Dunbar versus Fairmont Senior game of 1954 will be dedicated Friday, September 26, 2014 during a pre-game ceremony at East-West Stadium in Fairmont.