EH: Archie, when you played teams like North Side, I understand you all were sometimes called names.
AS: Yes, we were called names but the thing is as I think about it, some of them meant it. But, some called us names to see if they could provoke us by trying to get us out of our game. All they wanted us to do was retaliate. If we fell in and played their mind games, we would’ve lost. We’re not going to be at our best. They did this and I know some of the coaches put them up to this. But like I said, some were doing it because it was their belief. We had to go out, play our game and do the best we could. We had to overlook the insults and name calling. Like my parents told me, “Someday someone will call you out of your name and you had better be prepared and know how you’re going to handle it.”
We’ve always been aware that everything was fair in love and war. But we athletes didn’t know that was also true for basketball. Competition was always keen amongst us, but we didn’t know they would do anything to win the game. The racial overtones during the games, we just didn’t expect. We went out to play and compete. But at the same time for many years even before us, blacks always knew when they got out on the basketball court; it was always seven against five. The seven refers to the five opponents plus the two referees. We found that to be true about most places where we played. The only time we played an all black team was when we played Crispus Attucks out of Indianapolis. That was probably the best game where both teams were challenged and you saw some basketball at its best.
EH: Velvet, 50 years ago both gentlemen sitting beside you were involved in a 1963 Sectional basketball game fight with North Side. Did you have a gut instinct that something may explode?
VB: I did and it was really kind of scary because I had never been in a situation like that.
EH: A situation like what?
VB: When people are in front of you, you can see them. But, when people are hollering at you from the back and all kind of words are flaring…
EH: Like what?
VB: All kinds of words that are not becoming to blacks. It was ugly.
EH: Did the crowd have as much to do with the fight as the athletes themselves?
VB: I think it was equal in fault. Sometimes the players can control their emotions but when the crowd starts hollering, saying things, cursing and throwing things from behind you that are going everywhere, tempers start to flare. Now you have innocent people involved in something they should not have been.
EH: As people were hollering jeers at the basketball players, none were meant for the black spectators were they?
VB: I think it was aimed at every black that was there, not just the ball players. Once the crowd had gotten angry, things would come out like I don’t think they would really mean. But, you’re saying these things to get a point across and meanness. Now the players are all upset, the crowd is upset and everyone everywhere is all out of context. You’re now getting to close in people’s faces, now you have pushing and shoving going on and it carried on outside. When you get outside, you think you can get in your car and go home. You’re not saying anything and there’s people hollering at you as too many tempers were flaring up as feelings were involved. Everyone wants to win in sports, but someone has to lose and they couldn’t accept that. It was a bad time in a bad era.
EH: Archie, you were right there in the middle of things. When did you realize you were playing the referees and the crowd too?
AS: After the fourth or fifth technical. We knew right then that nothing was going right. I walked over and talked to one of the officials because I’m the captain and I’m supposed to be able to talk with these people. I told them they need to get a hold of this situation out here because something is going to happen. They didn’t listen and I don’t think they cared. And, things got out of hand. You could tell that it was going to get ugly and you knew it.
EH: The technical fouls were the first domino to fall. What happened next?
AS: Well, there were a couple hard fouls. When you get a hard foul, that really stirs up the crowd. One of the North Side players was coming in for a lay-up and one of our guys body blocked him and knocked him down onto the ice. The refs called a foul, then they called a technical foul. The fans and the players from the other side were upset. We were upset. Finally, one of the players came over to me and said, after this game it’s over with. They had taken the game from us. After the game, pick a man and hit him. That’s how ugly it had gotten.
EH: Rick, I wasn’t there at the basketball game. At the time I was eight years old. Today, people who are 10 years younger than I am, said they were at the game. The game still lives on. What was Cletus’ involvement in this fight?
RS: First of all you have to remember that I’m 67 years old now and I can remember generally, but I can say this. I have been told by close friends that Cletus fouled someone kind of hard and North Side took offense to that. But, I have to predicate that on it was just time for things to blow-up. It goes back to earlier North Side and Central games and how it was in the locker room before the game. North Side administrators allowed students to have signs up saying “Cletus, you’re nothing. Archie, you’re a jungle rat. Stevenson, why don’t you go sell popcorn for Tarzan.” Comments posted like that posted all around the locker room. We know if students did that, some faculty member allowed it to happen. It was prevalent and at a boiling point with the players as well as with the fans. The fans also knew they had a lot of prejudice activities that they had to live with. The day had come where MLK was on the scene and Blacks were standing up saying it was wrong and enough was enough. I think it was at that point that riots were going on in Los Angeles, things were burning in Detroit and people were saying, “Things have got to change.” A change has to occur and if it doesn’t, it won’t be a good scene and Fort Wayne was just ripe for it.
About two years later, I was working for the War on Poverty and I was going to Washington, DC. As I was just getting on the train, I heard a White lady telling one of the people with her, “This place here is Fort Wayne. It’s a real nice place, but they have so many racial problems here.” I felt kind of bad about that because they were talking about my home town, but in the perspective that it was the blacks who were responsible for the problems. They never saw themselves as keeping minorities down and trying to keep them in place, but suggesting that we should feel fortunate for having the opportunity to live in this “so called” great America.
EH: Archie, was there tension building between Cletus and the guy he fouled?
AS: He and Cletus had been having problems from previous games going back to Harmar School. This had been something that had been ongoing. He had been calling Cletus names and kept messing with him. When you’re underneath the basket, we couldn’t see what was going on and sometimes the officials couldn’t see a player doing and saying things to you. They didn’t hear what’s being said and if they did, they turned a deaf ear to it. But, this guy had been picking with Cletus the whole game and he just had enough. And the way things were going with the game, it wasn’t going in our favor because they were taking it from us. We felt like, they’re calling all these technicals on us, there’s nothing we can do. It’s out of our hands now.
EH: Velvet, when the fight broke out, how did you react in the stands?
VB: Well, I didn’t get involved in that. As soon as my girlfriend Norma Hides and I got to my car we left. But, I could see things being thrown at cars. But I didn’t stay. I got out of there. There comes a time when you’ve had enough. As Archie said, we couldn’t hear everything that was being said on the basketball court. So I’m thinking it was the time to fight back, strike back, say and do what’s necessary.
RS: Your brother Cletus was not only an outstanding athlete; he was a big outstanding athlete. Back in the day, if you were a tall, big brute, you were expected to be dumb and stupid. But, that was the opposite of your brother. He was very articulate. He was an outstanding student and he could express himself very well. Back in that day, white folks did not like black folks who could speak and defend themselves verbally and Cletus could do that. So there was a built-in animosity from Harmar Junior High School until after he went into politics and other things. But that was the whole thing in a nutshell. That’s why I’m so glad things have progressed for the better because we have moved in the direction to where we now have a black president and you can be what you want to be. I didn’t say it would be easy, it will be difficult. But, you can still set your goals high and be what you want to be and things are much different from back in the 1950s.
I’m glad things have improved and we’re all a part of the great Summit City. And when each of us can be the best that we can be, it makes our Summit City that much grander.
EH: Velvet, as you look back over the past 50 years, what key lesson have you learned that you can instill in others today?
VB: If I had to sum up my thoughts in a few words I would say, I know how to act. All of us know how to act. We can act a fool, act right, or act wrong. But, we have to learn how to react to all situations.
EH: Archie, the last word is yours.
AS: I have learned that when people are down on you, calling you names, you can’t change that. You just hold your head up, go on and do the best you can. There’s always going to be someone who will try to put you down, no matter what you do. I tell kids today, we’ve come a long way from where we were, but we still have a long way to get to where we’re going and you’re not going to get there without an education.
Eric Hackley is a veteran independent journalist, television show host and producer focusing largely on history, particularly family history in the black community. His award-winning public access television shows have featured a host of local and national icons. Hackley recently produced two historic calendars. “The purpose of the ‘2012 Fort Wayne Blacks Declare War on Willie Lynch Slave Mentality Calendar’ and ‘2013 Fort Wayne HIS-Story Reform Calendar’ is to stimulate local interest, debate and action to correct the American History lies and distortions used to brainwash blacks and retard the literacy and relevance of Fort Wayne History,” explained Hackley. Both calendar documents are for sale at the Fort Wayne Urban League. Hackley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.