Jennie Morris Pegram remembers her days playing high school basketball at Cary as among the best times of her life.
She later played for the famed Haines Hosiery club team that was a national power, but there were few thrills to match playing for her school and community in the old Cary High gym.
“We had huge crowds,” remembered Pegram, 79. “We’d pack the gyms. Girls’ high school basketball was really big.”
But Pegram’s Cary High teams in 1947 through 1951 never had the opportunity to play for a N.C. High School Athletic Association state title like Millbrook High did Saturday when it defeated West Forsyth at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum.
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No girls’ team had that chance until 1972, when the NCHSAA held its first girls’ basketball championship. There had been some unofficial state tournaments and Pegram’s 1951 Cary team played in one, drawing more than 6,000 fans to Reynolds for a game against Salemburg, but those events were shut down by 1953.
98th boys’, 41st girls’
This season will include the 98th annual boys’ championship, but only the 41st annual girls’ championship.
The N.C. State School Board Association adopted its first athletic code – which dealt with eligibility, grades, financial support and season limitations – in 1952. Included in the code was this statement: “There shall be no regional or State championship games for girls.”
The N.C. General Assembly passed legislation to that effect in the spring of 1953.
The legislation culminated a steady attack on girls’ interscholastic athletics by what became known as the physical education movement. Proponents of emphasizing physical education for girls instead of athletics were established in North Carolina colleges in the 1920 and 1930s, according to Pamela Grundy, a historian and author who lives in Charlotte.
The movement favored moderate exercise for females instead of competition, intramurals rather than varsity teams, and the combination of social activities with “play days,” Grundy wrote in “Learning to Win – Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolina.”
Rather than playing on athletic teams, girls were encouraged to participate in dance, etiquette classes and play days. Girls were encouraged to participate in less competitive activities, such as cheerleading. Boys basketball tournaments, including the NCHSAA’s championships, recognized girls by selecting tournament queens.
“There were two major concerns with women’s athletics,” said Donna Duffy, program director of the program for the advancement of girls and women in sport and physical activity at UNC Greensboro. “The first argument was that athletics were physically harmful to females. The belief was that being active would somehow harm a women’s reproductive organs. There were also questions about the ability of women to handle pain.”
Another argument against girls’ athletics had even less supporting evidence.
“The fear was that girls would be involved in athletics, grow big muscles and be less attractive,” Duffy said.
“If the girls are less attractive to males, they might not find husbands and would not fulfil their societal role of bearing children.
“We know now that even if girls become physically fit and healthy, they aren’t going to turn into men.”
Rural areas knew better
Nora Lynn Finch, an associate commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, remembers hearing about girls not being able to handle the mental stress of competition.
“There was a push to keep girls out,” Finch said. “A lot of schools in the cities dropped girls athletics, but in the rural areas the people knew that physical activity wasn’t harmful to girls. The girls were working in physical labor.”
Cary was a rural community in the 1950s and the school continued to field a girls’ basketball team.
“I can’t believe people thought athletics would be bad for girls,” Pegram said. “Why would they think such a thing?”
The state records from the era are filled with evidence of where the girls were playing.
Virgil Payne posted 535 girls basketball coaching wins from 1939 through 1974 at Smithfield High and later Smithfield-Selma High. The Bailey High girls won a state-record 107 straight games from 1957 through 1964 and Bunn High won 72 straight games from 1952 through 1956.
“We’d pile in our cars and go play,” said Bunn coach Jean Hinnant. “We’d play anybody. We beat the teams at Louisburg and Campbell (junior colleges). But we couldn’t play beyond the county championship. We wanted to play, but they just wouldn’t let us play.”
A different game
The girls game was very different then. There were six players, three on offense end and three on defense. Players could dribble once, although the rules were gradually amended to allow two dribbles and later three. Eventually, two of the six players were allowed to play at both ends of the court.
Initially, a technical foul was called if the ball was touched while in the possession of an opposing player, even if the player was shooting. The shooting team also retained possession of the ball after each free throw, made or missed.
The game often produced high-scoring shootouts. The single-game scoring record for girls of 107 points was set and tied twice within six years.
All but gone
Girls high school basketball in North Carolina all but disappeared in urban areas, except in the N.C. High School Athletic Conference, the association for black high schools.
Carl Easterling, who gained national attention as the coach of Durham Hillside star John Lucas, coached a Hornets girls team that won 94 of 100 games in 1951 though 1954.
But girls athletics were declining even in rural areas in the 1960s and as the decade closed, the NCHSAA offered state championships in 10 sports for boys and none for girls.
That changed very quickly. Within six years, the NCHSAA added girls golf, tennis, basketball, track, swimming, slow-pitch softball (which was phased out in favor of fast pitch softball) and volleyball.
“By the late ‘60s, I think everyone could see the benefit of state championship competition for girls,” said Charlie Adams, who was an NCHSAA assistant executive director at the time.
Schools soon had motivation to add girls teams. Title IX legislation passed in 1972 and stated: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
The legislation wasn’t intended to be an athletic catalyst, but educators quickly understood the amendment would have a huge impact on athletics.
Adams, later the executive director of the NCHSAA, once told the membership at an annual meeting, “If you give your boys basketball players a huge trophy and you give your girls basketball players nothing, or a just little something, you are in violation. Equal means equal.”
Adams said he had learned long ago just how good girls could play.
“I’d go to the gym and play on Saturday mornings,” he said. “There was one girl there that none of us could stop.”
Adams and his teammates won the state championship in 1954. Jennie Morris Pegram, the girl the boys couldn’t stop, never had that chance.