Making the Cut: The Vanishing Legacy of Arkansas’ All-Black Sports

During illustrious high school careers, All-Americans Eddie Miles and Jackie Ridgle took center stage in nearly every game they played. In a recent Associated Press list, though, they don’t even get off the bench. 

It may be a tired truism,  but those in power determine the history which will be passed down to future generations.

Eddie Miles should be included among the state's official list of 2,000 point scorers in prep basketball.

Segregation between races was Arkansas’ status quo for 120 years before the Civil Rights movement began picking up speed in the state during during the mid-1950s.  In the state’s northeast corner, the Hoxie school district became the state’s first K-12 institution to integrate in 1955. Two years later, the Little Rock Central High crisis was broadcast to every corner of the world.

A half century later, the accomplishments of the brave pioneers in these stories are now threaded into the state’s official history – into its textbooks, holidays and cultural encyclopedia.

It took another decade, but pioneers also integrated the state’s basketball courts and football fields. I was reminded of their legacy when last week when I saw a news brief about a Newport teenager becoming the state’s fourth basketball player to score 2,000 points in a high school career. The Associated Press fired this out to multiple news outlets in a couple paragraphs, wiped its hands and was done with it. A seemingly simple milestone duly recorded for posterity, then on to the next newsmakers.

But the full story doesn’t end there.

Today’s news becomes tomorrow’s history, and if we aren’t careful to correct it, then the truth will be lost. Examine the AP’s news brief, and notice that four high school players have scored 2,000 points, only according to the Arkansas Activities Association. That body governs the state’s high school sports’ rules and regulations and tallies all-time stats and records.

But in basketball the AAA governed only all-white schools until 1967, according to “Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration,” a 2002 compilation of profiles produced by the the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.  For decades before 1967, there were outstanding achievements in all-black high school leagues, but many of them have either been forgotten or not put in print. There was no organization charged with archiving these African-Americans’ athletic legacies, and the cost – future history books telling only half the story – will be high.

Newport basketball player E.J. Tucker wasn’t the state’s fourth player to ring up 2,000 points.  He was at least the sixth player to do so. Here are two predecessors who played most of their high school careers in all-black leagues, outside of the Arkansas Activities Associations’ domain:

1. Eddie Miles –

“When small guards were the norm, Eddie Miles set standards for the position in Arkansas high school basketball. Not only could Miles, a 6-4 player from Scipio A. Jones High School in North Little Rock, shoot and handle the ball like his smaller counterparts, he also had the size and inside moves of the best centers in the state.

This rare blend of skills caused opponents fits and made Miles one of the most feared players in the state from 1955-1959. “No one had the ability to shut him down,” said William McCraw, a teammate on the 1957 and 1958 teams. “You could only hope he had an off night. And that didn’t happen very often.”

Miles led the Dragons to four consecutive state titles while averaging 29 points per game. He was named a high school All-American at the National Black Prep Tournament in his junior and senior seasons, averaging 30 and 32 points respectively.

“If there would have been a three-point line, he would have averaged 40 points a game,” said teammate James Nash, who was also a high school All-American in 1959.

From North Little Rock, Miles went on to become an All-American at the University of Seattle and first-round pick of the Detroit Pistons in the 1963 NBA Draft. He enjoyed a nine-year career in the NBA with the Pistons, Baltimore Bullets and New York Knicks.” – from Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration

2. Jackie Ridgle –

Ridgle, a 6-3 guard, took his game to heights rarely seen before in Arkansas, averaging 25 points per game his senior season [for Altheimer-Martin] and earning high school All-American honors.

UCLA Coach John Wooden and Arkansas Coach Duddy Waller battled for him before California-Berkeley Coach Jim Padgett came out of nowhere to sign him.

Ridgle, who died Aug. 26, 1998, after a long battle with lung cancer, became an All-

Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Pacific 8 Conference performer for the Golden Bears before being taken in the third round of the 1971 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“If I were to have a list of the top five high school players to ever come out of Arkansas, he would be on it,” said Charles Ripley, former Little Rock Parkview boys basketball coach, who’s seen most of the best…

Ridgle led Martin High School to its first black state basketball championship in 1966 by defeating Horace Mann High School of Little Rock in the final. However, no Martin players made the all-tournament team. Not Ridgle, not 6-8 center Clinton Smith, not guard Robert Adway. “That has always bothered me,” Nash said. “I guess all the votes were split amongst different players on our team.”

If former Arkansas Gazette sportswriter Wadie Moore would have had a vote, Ridgle would have been his MVP. “He was by far the best player I ever saw,” said Moore, who covered some of Martin’s games. “Altheimer was very small, but he wore Horace Mann out. He pretty much beat Mann by himself. Every time Altheimer came to Little Rock, they played at Central and it was packed. He was unbelievable.”

Former Horace Mann Coach Oliver Elders said Ridgle was in a class of his own.
“He could score 30 or 40 points a game easily,” said Elders, who later coached Sidney Moncrief at Little Rock Hall. “He was an amazing jumper. You talk about those guys with 36-inch vertical jumps and he easily had that.”

Many other teams would find out just how good Ridgle was the next season, when Martin High School joined the previously all-white Arkansas Activities Association.
When it came time for the state tournament at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, Ridgle drew quite a response.

“Every college basketball coach was there to meet him and shake hands,” former Gazette sportswriter Jim Bailey said. “A bunch of longtime old, white [Arkansas] Razorback boosters were there to shake hands, too.”

Ridgle, who scored 35 points against defending state champion White Hall in the district final, was an instant fan and media favorite.
“He was flashy without trying to be,” Nash said. Gazette sportswriter Dick Allen called him “a tremendous jumper who makes a Super Ball look like a mere balloon.”

Behind 24 points from Ridgle, Martin defeated Hamburg 65-62 in the first round, marking the first time an all-black basketball team had defeated an all-white team in an Arkansas state tournament. – from Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration

Keepers of the Flame?

  It would be nice if Arkansas Activities Association could track down more records from the all-black leagues in which Miles and Ridgle. One of its leaders, Wadie Moore, has already tried.

The assistant executive director told me years ago he had tried to track down more memorabilia – record books, game programs, local articles, etc. -for the all-black state tournaments often held at Pine Bluff’s Merrill High School. Unfortunately, he kept running into dead ends. Kudos for the effort, though. And kudos to Darren Ivy, Jim Bailey, Pete Perkins and the other Democrat-Gazette sportswriters who wrote articles in Untold Stories.  By interviewing survivors, they helped preserve the tip of the iceberg for posterity when it comes to the history of Arkansas’ all-black prep sports.

Others, though, will have to step forward before the rest melts away forever. Please leave a comment or contact me if you know of other stories to be told.

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  1. Really great piece. My late uncle, Donnie Wilson, was a 6 foot 6 inch all-star forward on Pine Bluff Merrill High School’s basketball team at the time (he also earned high school All-America honors). Upon graduation in 1968, he went to the University of Nebraska on a basketball scholarship. I often heard he and my father talk about his high school games and the 1966 and 1967 seasons in particular (and some of the talented players and scoring battles that happened during that period). I also recall talk about tournaments, all-star games, Barton Coliseum, etc. I’ll need to do a bit of digging to see if I can locate any documentation. In his later years as the County Attorney of Shelby County, Tennessee (Memphis), he interestingly enough played a role in negotiating the transfer of the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies (now Memphis Grizzlies) to Memphis, TN.

  2. Will do, Evin. Thanks for the link to your Slate article. Another great piece! It’s very encouraging to read the information that you uncovered and to learn of the willingness to update the Arkansas record books and record books of other states in the South.

  3. in 1962 the mighty lions of wonder high school of west memphis,ar won the arkansas state championship at pine bluff.there can only be one first and this team became the first to bring the number one trophy to eastern ar.subsequently west memphis produced other champions with cage and lee and they have received recognitions. our achivements seems to have gotten lost in the transition from a segregated school system to the current one and i hope that i can change that.the achievement of the late coach franklin and his championship team should not be lost.this team went undefeated in the state and lost only one very closely contested game to the booker t.washington of memphis,tn who won the national negro tournament in nashville,tn in 1962. there were not many articles written in the evening times about black sports in west memphis in those times,but we could not be was not widely know but there were white professionals who came to one of our games and that my friend was real news. i have an article about this championship team.please let me know if you would like to see it.

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