12 Apr

Arkansas’s “White” Newspaper Chose All-Star Teams for State’s All-Black Schools

Pine Bluff Merrill football

Throughout much of the 20th century, the  Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat lorded over all other in-state publications as Arkansas’s most comprehensive and in-depth news sources. But when it came to thorough coverage of the state’s African-American communities, these newspapers—owned and staffed only by whites until mid-century—did not offer very deep coverage.

This, of course, is no surprise given much of society was then segregated and the African-American population was significantly smaller statewide (although larger in Little Rock where the Gazette and Democrat were based).

All the same, the Gazette did occasionally run news briefs about the all-black schools’ athletics or allow stringers from the black communities to publish updates in its pages. Far less known is that in the mid-1930s the Gazette published its own all-black schools all-state football team for both the high school and college ranks.

It’s unknown who actually compiled the list below, or how long the Gazette did this. We just know they tried it at least once in 1935. In later decades, it was commonplace for the Gazette to use stringers (e.g. Ozell Sutton) to cover all-black sports events, according to Wadie Moore, the Gazette’s first black sportswriter and longtime officer in the Arkansas Activities Association. I also know that in the 1940s, at least, the Gazette would run updates written by the all-black activities association itself.

My best guess is the following selections were made with heavy input from the coaches of the black schools themselves. Regardless of who wrote it, and the method by which these players were chosen, it’s notable that a “white” paper in 1930s segegrated South chose to pay tribute to all-black schools like this. It  speaks to how football-crazed Arkansas was/is, to the point where that passion seemingly superseded Jim Crow laws. It also speaks to the possibility that even white Arkansans were proud of the fact that Pine Bluff Merrill High was coming off back-to-back national championship seasons in 1933 and 1934.

December 8, 1935:

With all the outstanding schools represented, the Gazette, for the first time in its history, names an All-State Negro high school and college team today. The team was selected by vote of the coaches who co-operated in making the undertaking possible.

On the high school selection, Merrill of Pine Bluff, state champions and recognized by many as the national champions, lead the parade, placing three men on the first team, and three on the second. Dunbar of Little Rock and Scipio A. Jones of North Little Rock placed two men each and the other positions went to Washington High of Texarkana; Washington High of Texarkana; Washington High of El Dorado; Langston High of Hot Springs, and Arkansas State High of Pine Bluff.

Arkansas A. M. & N. of Pine Bluff, state champions for the past two years, was allotted five places on the college selection while Shorter of North Little Rock and Philander Smith of Little Rock placed three each.

Allen, Merrill’s sensational quarterback, was selected as captain of the high school team. Mitchell of North Little Rock fell only a few votes short of obtaining this honor. Robinson, Arkansas A. M. & N. end, was an unanimous choice for the captain’s berth on the college eleven.

Below are the names of the Gazette’s all-state selections. Unfortunately, the quality of the the scan or microfilming is bad, so only a few names are legible. (Better quality microfilm copies, and the original paper itself, are available off-line elsewhere.)

Arkansas black college football

Obviously, Pine Bluff Merrill High’s “Allen” was a big deal. Lamar ‘Buddy’ Allen might have been the 1930s version of Basil Shabazz, who in the 1980s became Arkansas’s most legendary multi-sport prep star.

In 1932, Allen was a 5-10, 170 pound, 18-year-old Merrill High freshman who was said to be able to throw a football 50 yards while in the air, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette‘s Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration. He started at back, helping the Merrill Tigers go undefeated and at last dethrone Dunbar, which hadn’t been defeated in four years. Merrill again went undefeated in the 1933 regular season and claimed a national championship despite a Christmas Day loss to Ardmore, Oklahoma. Merrill repeated as national champions the following season.

Throughout high school, Allen also played for the Pine Bluff Boosters, a semipro team which played in Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana, as well as Piney Wood, Mississippi and Dumas and McGehee, according to former Democrat-Gazette reporter Darren Ivy.  Also, one summer, he joined a gaggle of Arkadelphia natives to play semipro ball in Butte, Montana of all places. [I write more about that team, and the reason for the Arkansas-Montana talent “pipeline,” in my upcoming book on the history of African-American athletes in Arkansas.]

For at least two seasons around 1940 Allen also played third base for the Birmingham Black Barons of the American Negro League. “He had a strong arm and stayed close to .300  hitting in the Negro leagues,” his brother George Allen told Ivy. “He also was a long ball hitter.”


PS: The image above is of “Buddy” Allen. It was donated to the book Untold Stories by Allen’s daughter LaFaye Campbell, and republished courtesy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.