Decades after breaking barriers, Gray's at center court
Thursday, January 6, 2011
In the early 1960s, the varsity basketball team and the fraternities at George Washington University were all-white clubs, but change was in the air.
A lanky black kid who came to GWU from the District's Dunbar High School was literally barred at the door of one fraternity but then connected with Jewish students who were ready to break the color line.
And that same black student, a fellow by the name of Vincent C. Gray who had a pretty layup, joined with other African Americans and Jews to make up an intramural basketball team that broke barriers and captured the imagination of fellow students.
On Wednesday night, Gray, now 68 and in his first week as Washington's mayor, thought he was just stopping by the GWU basketball game against La Salle for a brief "attaboy" from his alma mater. But to his surprise, Gray - GWU Class of '64 - found himself at the center of an elaborate "This Is Your Life" reunion staged by the university.
During a timeout in the first half, Gray was called onto the court, where he was met by four members of his 1964 fraternity team.
"Oh my God, what a shock," a breathless Gray said as he left the court. "I love that GW did this for me. It brings back memories of the Tin Tabernacle."
Gray hadn't seen some of the teammates, two black and two Jewish, since the days when they dominated the intramural league as the Fighting TEPs from Tau Epsilon Phi, a Jewish fraternity of which Gray was the unlikely president. The university's varsity team remained all white until 1967, and during Gray's time on campus, it was the TEPs who boasted a powerhouse lineup that packed a shabby old gym, known as the Tin Tabernacle, with rowdy fans.
"Sometimes we would draw a bigger crowd than the varsity," Gray said of his days as a forward on a team that routinely won games by 25 or 30 points. "There's no question that everybody on our team could have played varsity, but that option was not open to us."
After the surprise at center court, the old teammates retreated to a corner skybox to reminisce about a very different era at the university.
When Gray arrived at GWU, he found a tradition-bound urban campus of big sedans and Southern sensibilities. With few residence halls, fraternities provided much of the housing, fueling a robust intramural sports scene hotly covered by the campus paper.
But when Gray tried to join the Greek system, he found himself stopped at the door. "At one house, they wouldn't even let me in," Gray recalled of the formal rush process in which students were supposed to visit every fraternity. "They said: 'Stay out here. We'll sign your card.' At another one, I just sat there the whole time and was totally ignored."
But at the TEP house, he met a group of Jewish students, many from New York, who were willing to break the color barrier. Despite a clause in the group's national charter that barred black members, the GWU brothers offered Gray a spot, and he became the university's first African American fraternity member.