D.C. Stadium, Thanksgiving Day 1962. St. John's College High School, a Catholic team with one black player, versus Eastern High School, an all-black team, in the annual city-wide championship football game. Fifty thousand people in the stands. As the big game is ending, St. John's leads 20 to 7. A small fight starts on the field among the players. That fight is halted. But black youngsters and some adults in the stadium take after whites and the resulting fights carry on outside the stadium for hours, turning into a riot.
"The fact remains," columnist Drew Pearson was to write a few days later, "that this was the worst race riot Washington has seen since the riots immediately after the end of World War I more than 40 years ago. . . . Two Catholic priests who tried to break up some of the fights left the stadium with bloody faces."
Washington would see another race riot before the decade was out, but none in which people went at it hand-to-hand. The 1968 riot focused on the burning and looting of property. Its scars are the scars on city streets--along H Street NE and 14th and 7th streets NW--where businesses and houses have never been rebuilt and neighborhood life has never revived. But the Thanksgiving Day riot, 19 years ago, left scars on the people of Washington-- hidden scars, angry memories that can't be left behind like a burned-out neighborhood.
The D.C. Stadium riot came eight years after de jure school segregation was outlawed and whites began pulling out of Washington schools, in effect reconstituting themselves as a white majority in the suburbs where desegregation laws would not put nearly so many blacks in the schools, the restaurants or the houses next door.
The trouble at the football game cemented a "them-and-us" mentality that can still be felt. That was not the intent of the game. It was meant to keep blacks and whites coming together, competing, playing, sitting in the stands, representing the whole Washington community despite all the forces that were pulling that community apart.
"I can't tell you how much good that football game was doing for this area," says Abe Rosenfield, a former District school board member. "We had 50,000 people regularly coming out to that game. Like the Redskins, it was one thing that everybody in the area, from Maryland, Virginia or the District, identified with . . . community spirit, really, across the river, across the District Line."
Frank Bolden, former director of athletics for the District public schools, recalls the game with the same excitement: "We started playing that game in '55 or '56 right after integration. We played at Griffith Stadium and there was no trouble. As I remember it, we had the Catholic champion playing a team of all-stars from the public schools, black and white. We had great crowds. It was the event of the year for school-boy sports. . . . What happened was so awful I don't want to talk about it. It set high school athletics in the city back decades."
The riot split blacks and whites so much that the next year's game was cancelled, and schools outside the city suddenly were booked whenever a District public school team would ask to play football. And while suburban high school football leagues grew and their teams played with the best equipment on manicured green fields, District high school teams played in ugly sandlots.
In 1972, 10 years after the riot, the championship game was resumed with the help of television station WMAL (now WJLA). But the game drew only about 10,000 people; the small crowd meant there were no profits for the leagues to share. It also indicated that there was a constant tension, a fear of another riot.
The game was cancelled again.
The reason given for the second cancellation was that scheduling could not be arranged because the public schools had begun having their own championship game on Thanksgiving Day. The Catholic schools, which finished their football season the week before Thanksgiving, said they wouldn't play the game unless it was held on Thanksgiving.
"They said it was a scheduling problem," Rev. Ray Kemp, then a D.C. school board member, recalls, "but it was everything but scheduling. It was still racial. Black and white people were afraid to go to the game. It came to represent their fears of each other. And then the leagues started to find reasons not to play the game. The public schools said the Catholic schools were stealing their best players. They said the Catholic schools could recruit outside the city but they couldn't . . . everyone forgot about the kids who wanted to play the game and the good the game did for the area. The money was not that important.
"The real question though," Father Kemp adds, "is why Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George's and the District don't play more games. Why shouldn't there be bridge-building in this area? The way it is now with the three jurisdictions we have resegregated the schools in this little southern town."
The lack of a crowd for the revived championship game, 10 years after the riots, was a sign that there had not been enough time to heal the old hurts. But sufficient time has passed now. The racial animosity of the '60s has quieted to the point where reviving the championship game is a realistic notion. It would directly confront the old memories and say whites and blacks in this area can come together.
Blacks and whites go to Redskins football games at RFK without trouble, and there would not be trouble at a revived city high school football championship at RFK. Even so, there is no reason the site of the game could not be moved around the area. The basketball championship game is played at Cole Field House without any trouble.
"There are still a lot of bitter memories left from that day in 1962," says Joey Gallagher, coach of the St. John's team in the infamous game and now the school's athletic director. "The times have changed so much but people still talk about that game, they still keep it in their heads. It would be good to show everyone that times have changed, that the game can work."