Fifty years ago this month, four Triangle all-black high schools accomplished something that forever etched their names in the state record books.
In 1965, Durham’s Little River, Merrick-Moore and Hillside high schools, and Wake County’s Berry O’Kelly High swept the four state basketball championships in the N.C. High School Athletic Conference.
The NCHSAC was the segregated high school association for minority students before the integration of public schools and the subsequent consolidation of the N.C. High School Athletic Association.
A panel discussion on the record-setting season was held Sunday at North Regional Library with former coaches, players and fans.
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Durham produced several dominant athletic teams during the segregation era.
Little River won its third straight 1A championship in ’65, knocking off West Southern Pines 83-66. After getting dethroned in ’66, the Busy Beavers took the title back in 1967 with an 81-76 victory over Laurel Hill Carver.
“We were expected to win,” said David Harris, who played on the Little River team. “Our conference was made up of 3A teams, so we always played up. It made us much better. Plus, while other teams had football and tennis and stuff, all we had was basketball and track.”
Method Berry O’Kelly defeated Kinston Woodington 84-65 in 1965’s 2A state championship game.
“I was in a trance (after the championship). We knew we had a lot of people depending on us,” said former O’Kelly player Lawrence Dunn, who is in the NCHSAA Hall of Fame both as a player and as a coach. “We didn’t want to disappoint anybody.
“In ’65, we needed a role model and there he (O’Kelly coach William Hooker) was. If he said jump, we said how high.”
Merrick-Moore defeated Burlington Jordan Sellars 67-55 for the 3A title. The team also won championships in ’67 and ’69.
“We lost in three overtimes the year before (to Winston-Salem Paisley), so we were ready the next year,” former Merrick-Moore point guard Ronnie Moore said. “Everybody remained friends, even to this day.”
Hillside, which was a 4A powerhouse with teams like the “Pony Express” of 1964-65, defeated another power, West Charlotte, 80-78 in overtime for their only title in the 1960s.
“It was a team effort, and we played as a team,” former player Marshall Hill said. “It’s not like today, where you single out one person. We had outstanding players, but it did not go to their heads.”
A game between Hillside and Little River to open the 1965-66 season drew a standing room only crowd.
Times were tough during those years. Hooker, the only surviving coach from O’Kelly, said it was discouraging at times to see what the other schools had, but the community supported them.
“My grandfather would buy eggs every week, and I would buy milk, and we would travel with eggs and milk,” he said. “Sometimes the cafeteria workers would save leftovers for us to take on trips, even though it was against schools rules. We had very little things, but we made do.”
The late Wiley “Army” Armstrong, executive director of the NCHSAC, is credited with preserving the history and records for black high schools from that time. His love of athletics and history was passed down the family line.
“When my dad was figuring out brackets, guess who was writing the brackets,” said daughter Dr. Brenda Armstrong, a surgeon at Duke University Medical Center and a coach with the Durham Striders track club. “Growing up, I didn’t know what constricted segregation was, because people in my neighborhood didn’t accept inferiority as an option. …When integration came, the NCHSAA knew exactly what they were getting – a gold mine.”
Unfortunately, North Carolina law prohibited state championships for girls until 1972.
“That was a shame, too, because there were some outstanding female high school players,” said Durham City Councilman Eddie Davis, who moderated the panel.