In the 1950s, mandated integration began transforming Arkansas sports forever. Four African-Americans paved the way at the high school level in 1955 when they joined the football team at Fayetteville High School, making it the first integrated high school sports team in state history.
Two years later, a young man named Harold Hayes joined Fayetteville High’s junior varsity basketball team to become the state’s first black athlete to play against all-white high school competition in that sport, according to the Arkansas Activities Association, the state’s governing body for high school athletics. Earlier that year, Hoxie High School had integrated its varsity track team. But while desegregation in sports happened here and there across Arkansas’ northwest and northeast parts, it would take longer for it to take effect in the state’s most populous region.
On this specific front, central Arkansas lagged behind the more northern towns. This gap appeared to widen when cameras from all over the world descended onto downtown Little Rock in 1957 to capture the hate and vitriol of all-white crowds protesting the entry of nine black students into Central High School. Despite much resistance, the students attended Central that year, but it would not be until 1962 that Kenneth Robinson—uncle to NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson—finally integrated Tiger athletics by joining the basketball team.
Across the nation, tides shifted. Integration happened, of course, through landmark events that have been chronicled and whose stories have been passed down through history books and official accounts. But so many of the acts sending pulses through the walls long dividing our nation’s people were never recorded. In many cases, they were small, everyday encounters in shared spaces no administrator could fully control—perhaps at a swimming pool, or a park or a field. In Little Rock, this kind of mixing rarely happened, but in the 1940s and 1950s, more and more young African-Americans began venturing into public arenas previously closed to them. Love of competition—whether baseball, basketball or football—often prompted these forays. Segregation’s crumbling didn’t always happen this way, though.
The ball, as it were, sometimes bounced the other way. Or so I discovered in researching and reporting the following story – which published in a recent edition of Arkansas Life magazine.
Skin color didn’t matter to Dave McPherson. He had grown up in the 1940s in what is now downtown Little Rock and attended what was then an all-white Central High. Growing to 6-1 and 198 pounds, he was especially smitten with basketball, honing his skills against top local talent—including a few Razorback basketball players, he says—at MacArthur Park and a court near War Memorial Stadium.
He says he had no issue with African-Americans then, but like many other whites of this segregated era, he had limited reason to interact with them. Korean War service changed that, as did an early 1950s stint in Orleans, France. On a U.S. Army base there, and elsewhere across France, he played basketball with blacks and whites alike. “I was assigned to detached service and just played ball,” he says. McPherson even spent time off base playing with top French players of the era, including Fernand Guillou, a member of Frances’ Silver Medal-winning 1948 Olympic team. On the whole, the U.S. military was more inclusive of African-Americans than the segregated society he found upon returning to Little Rock.
The line that Jim-Crow era laws had drawn between the races was beginning to blur, though, especially among that generation’s young adults involved in recreational pursuits. One day in the late 1950s, when McPherson was in his mid-20s, he was shooting hoops outside East Side Junior High School when he saw a young black man across the court doing the same. McPherson introduced himself and said he’d like to scrimmage. Chester Lane, a former Arkansas Baptist College player three years McPherson’s senior, was ready. The two men got it rolling with a 1-on-1 “slugfest” that lasted 2 1/2 hours and ended in a draw, McPherson recalled. Each athlete had made the other better.
From that day forward, McPherson and Lane became fast friends, developing a lifelong relationship built on love of competition. They often spoke on the phone, played chess and kept shooting around at East Side, a few blocks from Little Rock’s South Main Street, or other hot spots such as MacArthur Park and the Dunbar Community Center. They brought friends along, as well. Both black and white, the new additions had varying levels of basketball expertise, but they all had some serious bona fides.
More than a decade before interracial basketball competition in Arkansas’ colleges became a common sight, McPherson, Lane and their friends were regularly playing pickup ball at MacArthur Park, which, in the late 1950s, was located in a primarily white neighborhood (though not quite as segregated as those all-white public parks that were farther west of central Little Rock). Tommy Staggers, one of the African-Americans who played at MacArthur, didn’t recall anyone making a fuss over who used the park: “I don’t think that bothered us—as far as what society had struck on.” The gym in the Dunbar Community Center had been created to serve a primarily black community, but a few whites like McPherson also began playing there. “To us, [color] really didn’t matter,” Lane says. “We just wanted somebody to play.”
McPherson, now 81 years old, became one of a handful of whites who regularly scrimmaged in 3-on-3 half-court games at the historically black Philander Smith College. Other whites included McPherson’s friend Ray Paladino; John Robinson, a former University of Central Arkansas player; and Wayne Yates, a North Little Rock native who later played for the Los Angeles Lakers. Opponents included former and current college players, such as the varsity Philander Smith team members, and Harlem Globetrotters star Geese Ausbie—a Philander Smith alumnus—who while home from tours would drop in to scrimmage, too.
The long days at local parks and gyms sparked chemistry and the idea for a new traveling team. Over time, McPherson, Lane and some of their friends developed into the nucleus of a squad that was good enough to play some of the best former high school and college players of surrounding towns.
Inspired by the likes of the Harlem Magicians, a Globetrotters spinoff, Lane created his own traveling team in the early 1960s and named it the Hilarious Jesters.
“We wanted to be different,” he says. “We wanted to have a name that people would remember.”