by Ben Moffett
ON MARTIN LUTHER KING’S BIRTHDAY,
REMEMBERING THE END OF SCHOOL
SEGREGATION IN HOBBS AND NM, 1954
Following is an excerpt of a chapter from Ben Moffett’s forthcoming book on the history of basketball in New Mexico. It outlines the end of school integration in the state, brought on by the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, just six decades ago this year. The last school to integrate was Booker T. Washington in Hobbs, and its merger with Hobbs High created the longest big school basketball dynasty in New Mexico, a legendary NBA player, Bill Bridges, and better basketball throughout the state. This segment of the chapter includes the names of the members of the last segregated team.
New Mexico and Hobbs were well ahead of Texas in responding to the Brown v. Board decision, and had made changes much earlier in anticipation of it. In 1953-54, Booker T. Washington and the segregated Lincoln-Jackson High of Clovis were allowed to compete against white schools in regular and post season basketball. Before 1953-54, the black schools were members of a Segregated Schools League in New Mexico. They played an abbreviated schedule brought about by tight budgets and the limited number of segregated prep schools in New Mexico and across the sparsely populated state line in Texas.
The performances of Booker T. Washington in the 1953-54 season-ending district tournament gave some indication of the black talent base. A tiny school in numbers, it compiled a 13-9 season record in the small school division, with three of those wins in the district tournament. Coached by Arlee Jackson and assistant Freddie H. Sewell, the school lost its tourney opener to Eunice, 41-40, but bounced back with consolation wins over St. Peter’s of Roswell, 48-47, Hagerman, 55-30, and Jal, 47-38. The team consisted of James Atkinson, Curtis Battles, Londell Butler, Thomas Clay, Preston Davis, Harvey Edwards, Willie Lee Evans, Cornelius Patterson, Aaron Williams, Harold Jackson, Louis Owens, and student trainer J.C. Gambles.
In 1954-55, the first season after integration, Hobbs became a team to be reckoned with in state basketball circles. Aided by a black player, sophomore guard Ray Clay, for the first time, and with but one returning letterman, Ed Bryson, the Eagles stunned their neighbor and district rival, defending state champion Carlsbad, during the regular season. Although Carlsbad, which had integrated earlier, would win a second straight title that season, the totally rebuilt Eagles just missed out on a state finals rematch. They fell in the semifinals, 65-63 in overtime, to Los Alamos.
Carlsbad, coached by Ralph Bowyer who played at Albuquerque High and the University of New Mexico, won its second straight title by defeating Los Alamos, coached by Bob Cox, 58-51. The Cavemen had two black starters, John Wooten and Joe Kelly, both of whom were on the all-tournament first team. Wooten would go on to become a football all-America at the University of Colorado, a guard in the National Football League (Cleveland and Washington) for nine and a half years, and a fixture in NFL front offices before retiring in 1997. Kelly competed in four sports at NMSU, most notably as a quarterback, and was inducted into the school’s hall of honor.
Wooten said he was “blessed” by the early integration of Carlsbad. “We didn’t have enough people at the Carver School, grades 1 to 12, to field a football team,” he said. “I’m only half joking when I tell people I might have wound up picking up trash for the city, like my father did, or working as a laborer. He attributes early integration at Carlsbad to enlightened leadership including head football and basketball coach Ralph Bowyer, Carlsbad principal Guy Wade, former principal and school superintendent Tom Hansen, and black community leader Emmitt Smith.
As the 1955-56 season got underway, Carlsbad seemed on its way to an unprecedented third straight state title despite the graduation of Wooten and Kelly. But by then, Hobbs was loaded with lettermen. In its second year of integration, the Eagles, who since 1949-50 had been guided by a kind and caring coach named Ralph Tasker, had an awesome scorer in senior Kim Nash, soon to be a fixture at Southern Methodist University, tournament-tested point guard Clay, and junior Aubrey Linne, a 6-7 inside man who would play college football at Texas Christian and in the Canadian Football League.
Finally, they had Bill Bridges, a fast-developing African-American up from the junior varsity, who was about to become a legend.
Bridges, like Wooten, stands as an exquisite example of the value of diversity and the flaws of the “separate but equal” concept. Had he stayed at Booker T. Washington, strapped with a short schedule against small schools and with virtually no media coverage, it is unlikely that he would have become a famous and well-paid professional player.
It is equally unlikely that Hobbs would have won a state title. Thanks in large part to integration, Hobbs won the championship in Bridges’ initial varsity season (1955-56) for the first time in school history. “Hobbs, defeating Carlsbad for the fourth time this year…took the lead, 79-77, with three minutes to play on a follow-up shot by Bill Bridges in a hair-raising finale,” wrote Hobbs Sun-News sports editor Art Gatts. The final score: Hobbs 89, Carlsbad 82. Bridges’ rebound and put-back was surely one of the most important plays in his young career, spotlighting the Eagles rise from obscurity to statewide dominance.
The information here came from a variety of sources. It is difficult to keep the footnotes in place here, but a big contributor was The Rev. Dr. Charles E. Becknell, Sr., who played for Hobbs just after Bill Bridges left, and wrote a book, “No Challenge, No Change: Growing Up Black in New Mexico,” 2003, Jubilee Publications, Kearney