A Courageous Act, Ahead of its Time

A secret basketball game offered a glimpse of what the Jim Crow South could be.
July 28, 2015

Dripping with sweat, Jack Burgess slowly dribbled the ball up the court, looking for an answer. For the entire first half, Burgess and his teammates from Duke had handled their opponents with ease, ripping cross-court passes, setting up give-andgo’s, snaking in lay-ups, and draining ten-foot set shots. Not any more. Now they had run into a buzz saw. What had begun so promisingly had turned against them. Lost in the moment, however, was one small detail: Everyone in the small gymnasium that day had forgotten all of their fears and anxiety about playing together. It was all game now.

And what a game it was.

An audacious, dangerous basketball contest, featuring a crackerjack team of ex-college stars enrolled in the Duke medical school against the varsity at what was then called the North Carolina College for Negroes—now North Carolina Central University—this clandestine 1944 hoops battle was the first integrated college basketball game to be held in the South. Played in a locked gymnasium on a Sunday morning more than a decade before the dawn of the civil rights movement and three years before Jackie Robinson donned his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, it wasn’t just a barrier-busting athletic milestone. It was also the tangible product of the power of ideas, including those whose time had not yet come.

Duke, of course, was rigidly segregated in those days. The faculty, student body, and administration were all white, while the only African Americans to be seen on campus were maids, cafeteria staff, and service workers. Indeed, when the Harvard Glee Club was scheduled to sing in the chapel just before Easter in 1941, officials at Duke told the Cambridge group to either leave their one African-American member at home—or not come at all. Blacks in Durham regularly avoided going anywhere near campus.

But even in those Jim Crow-choked days, there were members of the Duke community who envisioned a different kind of racial future for the country. Some dreamed of a timewhen the South’s system of racial apartheid would be erased. Others, however, had begun to act. In an apartment just off East Campus, a small number of Duke professors had begun to meet with their counterparts at the North Carolina College—that is, until the Durham Klan found out and threatened to torch the building. A handful of Duke students, members of the campus Y.M.C.A. chapter, went even further. Hiding in the backseats of their cars, they drove over to North Carolina College, where they held clandestine, racially integrated prayer meetings. It was out of these daring violations of Jim Crow that the idea for the Secret Game was hatched.

Held across town in the North Carolina College gym, the game was a gutsy, high-stakes violation of Southern ways. Crossing the color line in Jim Crow North Carolina wasn’t just dangerous. It also could be deadly. That same year, an African-American G.I. in uniform was murdered in cold blood by a white Durham bus driver after he refused to move all the way to the back of the bus. An all-white jury, after twenty minutes of deliberations, acquitted the driver. The players from Duke and North Carolina College weren’t just playing basketball. Propelled by powerful, ahead-of-their time notions of racial equality, they were also taking real chances with their careers, their freedom, perhaps even their lives.

But the basketball that they played turned out to be equally jaw-dropping. For as genuinely talented as the Duke players were, the North Carolina College team had a secret weapon in John McLendon, their visionary young coach. The last student of James Naismith— the inventor of basketball—at the University of Kansas in the 1930s, McLendon had created a new high-speed, full-court pressure defense approach to the game that was decades ahead of its time. And when the players from Duke and North Carolina College played a second game that day, mixing not only their playing philosophies but also their teams in a game of shirts and skins, the end result was nothing less than the first appearance of the modern game—fast-paced, athletic, and racially integrated.

In the end, the Secret Game changed the lives of its participants. “It had a real impact on my thinking,” remembered David S. Hubbell, who also had been a member of the Blue Devils’ 1942 Southern Conference championship team. Southern born and bred, with a family tree well-populated with slaveholders and Confederate infantrymen, Hubbell never felt the same about segregation. For another of the Duke players, the experience emboldened him to challenge Jim Crow even more ardently— even to the point of getting chased off a Durham city bus, at knifepoint, one night in front of the chapel, after he had dared to question the seating arrangements. Over at North Carolina College, meanwhile, the game also had clear repercussions. Not only was it a source of pride, but it also became a kind of ending as well. Nearly all of the North Carolina College players soon left the South.

But the greatest impact of the Secret Game, perhaps, would be in helping to seed the idea of a different kind of South. For even though the game had been deliberately kept secret, word of it leaked out here and there—and nowhere more powerfully than among those who looked one day to the end of segregation. “Before we could have a civil rights movement in the streets,” one elderly Durham activist once told me, “we had to have one in our minds.” Knowledge of the Secret Game was a part of that: It was a narrative that said that Jim Crow did not have to exist, and that whites and blacks could face each other on equal terms. It was a powerful—and persistent—idea.

“Oh, yes, I had heard about the game,” former trustee chair Dan T. Blue Jr. J.D. ’73 told me over lunch in Raleigh not long ago, “back when I was an undergraduate student at North Carolina Central in the late 1960s.” Asked what knowing about the game meant to a young civil-rights warrior like himself, Blue paused a moment. Then he said, “It meant a lot. It was a reaffirmation that, given a level playing field, African Americans could succeed just as well as anyone else.”

The Secret Game was both a civil-rights and athletic milestone. But more important, it was a courageous act that was ahead of its time, a thread in the tapestry of racial change at Duke whose powerful message of equality, seven decades later, still speaks to our time.

Ellsworth A.M. ’77, Ph.D. ’82 is the author of The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph (Little, Brown, 2015).