The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black high school baseball team won a championship in 1969. Their hometown waited 50 years to celebrate.

Former Brookvale High School principal Elton Smith, center left, greets members of the 1969 baseball team before a ceremony to honor their championship season at Dream Fields in Kilmarnock, Va., on April 17.
Former Brookvale High School principal Elton Smith, center left, greets members of the 1969 baseball team before a ceremony to honor their championship season at Dream Fields in Kilmarnock, Va., on April 17. (Parker Michels-Boyce/For The Washington Post)
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KILMARNOCK, Va. — The old-timers stood along the first-base dugout Saturday on Little League opening day. The base lines were crisp, grass and dirt perfectly groomed, home plate glowing white.

Most of these men, squinting under the brims of blue Brookvale High School caps, had never been on this field before. When they played more than half a century ago, Black people weren’t allowed through the gates.

And when they won their big state championship game on May 21, 1969, down in Petersburg, they returned home to . . . nothing. No celebration, no commendation from Lancaster County, which they had represented in a decisive 11-5 victory over a team from outside Richmond.

On Saturday, this rural county aimed to make amends.

Before hundreds of cheering spectators, Black and White, the surviving members of the Fighting Warriors trotted — or, in some cases, tottered — across the infield as the announcer called their names. At the pitcher’s mound, members of the county government gave them what a previous generation had denied them: championship rings.

“In the words of the late, great Sam Cooke,” county supervisor Bill Lee told the crowd, Little League teams arrayed in the outfield in bright uniforms, “it’s been a long time coming.”

The process of recognizing the 1969 Brookvale team took more than a year to put together but crossed an enormous cultural divide. Most people in the rural county on the creeks and marshes at the tip of Virginia’s Northern Neck had no clue about the players’ accomplishments.

Home to a little more than 10,000 people, Lancaster is about 69 percent White and 28 percent Black, according to U.S. Census data. This is a land of watermen and farmers, with Colonial-era plantation houses tucked along the waterways. Both George Washington and Robert E. Lee have roots nearby.

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And yet in recent years the county has evolved. Two of the county’s five supervisors are Black. And while the hallways of the old courthouse are lined with paintings of old Confederates, there is an effort to pair them with signs that provide historical context, said Bill Lee, 70, who is Black and has served as the county chairman.

Lee recalls a different time, when segregation reigned in the region and statues and symbols of division “were things you didn’t really think about.”

The year the team won — 1969 — was the last year Lancaster County had separate schools for White and Black students. Many of the Brookvale Fighting Warriors who won the Group II championship in the state league for Black schools had to play the following year for the majority-White Lancaster High. No one there knew what they had accomplished.

“Brookvale was more like family for us, the teachers looked after us, we felt they loved us, knew us. Lancaster High was a whole different environment,” said William Lee, 69, one of the team’s star pitchers (and no relation to the county supervisor). “It felt like being a visitor, but in many ways an unwanted visitor, in somebody else’s house.”

Lee went on to college, and then a career as a minister in Roanoke. Many of the other teammates stayed in Lancaster — all but three from the 1969 roster and coaching staff are still living.

Over the years, they’d see each other at church or around town and might reminisce about the big game, several of them said. And they made sure their families knew about it.

“What they accomplished is amazing,” said Shawn Owens-Carter, 52, whose father, Frank Carter, had a .400 batting average and was so fast, she said, “he could run around the bases twice and nobody could catch him.”

Carter was just 18 when he drowned in a swimming accident in the Rappahannock River, Owens-Carter said. She was an infant at the time, but grew up hearing tales of the team from her mother. On Saturday, she wore a T-shirt with her father’s picture and accepted the championship ring on his behalf.

Stanley Gaskins, 68, pitched the championship game and earlier in the tournament threw 15 strikeouts in one game. Growing up, he practiced throwing to a cousin against a family smokehouse.

He had dreams of turning pro, he said, and even went to a tryout for the Baltimore Orioles while still in high school. But then he fathered a child his senior year, and his father told him to come work with him on a fishing boat.

“I went on fishing with him, and then I got too old to play ball,” Gaskins said.

But he never forgot the thrill of that championship tournament. He and the other players rode in cars driven by coaches and someone’s relative down to Petersburg to the campus of Virginia State University, where the games were played.

The night before, William Lee said, Brookvale’s principal noticed that the team lacked equipment, so he went into town and bought a baseball and a bat for them. The county provided nothing. The team members had bought mismatching uniforms through candy sales and fundraisers. Lee got his pitching shoes from his head coach, Maurice Savoy — the first leather shoes he had ever owned.

Looking back, Lee said he realizes the coaches must have paid most of the tournament expenses out of their own pockets.

“We ate breakfast in the cafeteria — I don’t know how that got paid,” he said. “The night before the game we went to Whataburger, got hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, milkshakes. I’m assuming the coaches paid. . . . I just think about how much they invested in us and we didn’t know it. I just wish we could’ve collectively thought about that.”

After they won the final against a school from New Kent County, the team whooped it up for a few minutes, then got back in the cars and drove home.

They didn’t even call their families to let them know.

“It was 1969,” William Lee said. “A lot of Black people had no telephones.”

The next day at school, no one knew until the principal made an announcement. And that was it, except for teammates running into each other over the years and swapping memories.

The Rev. Ulysses Turner, 52, heard the stories at church and around town and eventually resolved to do something about it. He gathered newspaper clippings, found the trophy the team had brought home and took them to the Virginia High School League, which certifies state athletic records.

While the VHSL assured him that the evidence was sound, association spokesman Mike McCall said in an interview that there is no way to completely certify the championship. Virginia school systems just didn’t keep records of Black achievements.

“It’s a sad part of Virginia’s history of segregation,” McCall said. “I look at it as one of those casualties of a very bad period in Virginia’s history and America’s history.”

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Last September, the Lancaster Board of Supervisors approved a resolution honoring the team and authorized signs for major roadways into the county, proclaiming their accomplishment.

Since then, county officials have been working toward Saturday’s ceremony. Family members traveled from all over Virginia, making the usual Little League opening-day crowd massive. Cars filled the gravel lots and roadsides all around the county’s baseball complex, called the Dream Fields.

Fifty years ago, Lee — the pitcher — said he could only sit on a car hood and watch the baseball lights from a distance. Now, on the mound for the first time, he addressed the crowd.

“What a day,” he said. Invoking the book “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lee asked the audience to imagine the “world that was between us” in 1969. “It was a divided world. We accepted that,” he said. “We were kids playing the game we loved.”

The long overdue recognition from the county, he said, “is going to bring that world between us closer together.”

But he cautioned that it was wrong to think the one gesture was enough. In his hand, he said, he held the baseball his principal had bought them before the game. It was signed by teachers and players from Brookvale.

Lee turned, and in the back of the group of teammates spied his former principal, Elton Smith, now 94, who had gone on to become the first Black school superintendent in Virginia history.

Lee walked over and gave him the ball.

“The names are fading,” he said, turning back to the crowd, “and after a while you will not see a name on it because the ink is not indelible.”

He asked the county to right one more wrong. The team won its game, he said, but the members lost their school. Today the old Brookvale building houses Lancaster Primary School.

“If you really want things to be better and wonderful and pull worlds closer together, find a way to put Brookvale’s name somewhere,” he said, to rising applause and cheers, “so that the kids will know Brookvale High School produced mighty warriors.”