On March 19, 1925, basketball teams from 11 of West Virginia’s 24 African-American high schools took the court at West Virginia State College (now University) in Institute for the first West Virginia Athletic Union (WVAU) state basketball tournament. Lincoln High School of Wheeling defeated Kimball, 25-24, in the final game to win the championship.
The tournament grew as the number of black high schools grew. Twenty-two teams played in 1930, but by 1938 the state was divided into four regions and the winners and runners-up from each region advanced to the eight-team, single-elimination WVAU state tournament. During the early years teams from the southern part of the state, such as McDowell County’s Kimball, Gary District, and Excelsior (War), and Genoa (Beckley), were dominant. That was where the heaviest concentration of black West Virginians lived.
By the 1930s and 1940s, the tournament had become the traditional end-of-the season event. The site rotated among West Virginia State College, Charleston’s Garnet High School, and the Carmichael Auditorium in Clarksburg. By this time the ‘‘Midnight Classic,’’ an informal series of games played among the players of the eliminated teams for fun and bragging rights had become a tradition, along with introduction of the ‘‘Miss’’ representative from each of the participating schools.
Clarksburg’s Kelly Miller High School dominated the tournament from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, winning five championships. Kelly Miller was coached by the legendary Mark Cardwell until 1945, when he was hired to coach at West Virginia State College. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, Charleston’s Garnet and Huntington’s Douglass dominated the tournament. They played in the championship game nine times from 1949 to 1955, and one or the other was champion six of the seven years.
Segregation created a tight bond among players, coaches, and fans. Few hotels or restaurants would accept African-American customers, so when the teams traveled they would eat in the school cafeterias and stay in the other players’ homes. ‘‘The closeness and the friendships at the tournament was what made everything so nice,’’ said Ruth Jarrett, a student at Garnet in the 1930s and later the wife of Garnet coach Jim Jarrett.
Things changed following integration of the public schools. Uncertainty prevailed at the 1955 tournament, because no one knew how quickly integration would happen or what form it would take. In fact, the WVAU tournament continued until 1957, when Bluefield Park Central beat Byrd Prillerman 62-54 in the final game. The remaining African-American high schools played in the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission tournament (the formerly all-white high school tournament) against an increasing number of integrated schools. In 1966, Gary District became the first black high school to win the WVSSAC state championship. Williamson Liberty was the last of the African-American schools to play in the WVSSAC tournament, losing the 1966 state championship game 58-55 to an integrated Piedmont High School team.
This Article was written by C. Robert Barnett
Last Revised on November 12, 2010
Barnett, C. Robert. The Finals: West Virginia's Black Basketball Tournament, 1925-1957. Goldenseal, (Summer 1983).
Barnett, C. Robert & David Helmer. The Champs. River Cities Monthly, (Mar. 1980).