Divided We Fall – The Saga of the Topeka Ramblers

In honor of Black History Month, we will be releasing a story every week about a black athlete or team whose story has rarely been told.  In order to appreciate the array of sports we have today, I feel that it’s important to understand where they have come from and to sing the praises of those contributors whose stories have mostly been forgotten.  

A special request was made on Twitter for this specific article after a North Carolina student read an article on ESPN that was based off of this article.  To see that article by my friend and mentor Dr. Richard Lapchick please click HERE.

“Combine the two teams.’ It seemed like a simple request at the time but one that Topeka High School Principal Buck Weaver was hesitant to grant.  It was the fall of 1948 and Trojans player Dean Smith was relentless in petitioning Weaver for a change.1 The desire to win that would eventually make Smith an icon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was already present in this young Topeka High School basketball player.  Smith wanted to be the best; he wanted to win; and he knew that by combining both of the school’s varsity basketball teams – the Trojans and the Ramblers – Topeka High School could have the greatest basketball team in the entire state.  But Principal Weaver worried about such a move and how it would be perceived by the community.  It was true that Topeka High School did have two very talented basketball teams that, if combined, could make Topeka High a basketball power.  It was simple in theory but there was just one slight problem: the Trojans were the school’s all-white team and the Ramblers were all black.  Much like local restaurants and the high school swimming pool, Topeka High School basketball had always been segregated and, in the name of social correctness and tradition, Buck Weaver was not about to let that change.“2

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Before they decided to make headlines by naming themselves “Google, Kansas” for a month and before the band Kansas rose from being a local band to a national sensation, Topeka, Kansas became known as the place where the trail was blazed for the American Civil Rights movement.  In 1954, Topeka resident Oliver Brown (and other African-American parents) brought the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka before the United States Supreme Court to argue against the inconvenience and inequality that was created by a segregated grade school system in the state of Kansas.  The court ruled unanimously in the favor of Oliver Brown and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and overruled Plessy vs. Ferguson’s long-held doctrine of “separate but equal” in regard to public institutions of learning.  Until this point, there were segregated grade schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges/universities throughout the country.  In the state of Kansas all public schools below the high school level were kept “separate but equal”3 The policy of Kansas, as Alabama Governor George Wallace would declare in 1963, was, “segration now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever.”4

The 1944 Topeka Ramblers; Photo Courtesy of Tanner Treiber

Before the historic decision of Brown v. Board, high schools in Kansas were the only public schools that were integrated.  Topeka High School was integrated from the time it was founded in 1871.  While Topeka High met the state requirement that all high schools be open to students of all races; Topeka High was not truly integrated.5 Despite the fact that black and white students attended the same high school, had the same classes, and even ate in the same cafeteria; segregation was alive and well in the Sunflower State.  Black students could not use the school’s swimming pool and had to attend separate school dances than white students.  Blacks had less representation on the student council than white students and could not play on the same basketball team as their white classmates.2 And in 1935, when the Topeka Ramblers, Topeka High School’s all-black basketball team, was formed; the significant change that Brown vs. the Board of Education would bring seemed a lot farther than nineteen years away.6  When Oliver Brown put on that Ramblers uniform, he had no idea the number of ways that he would one day effectuate social change.7

The Topeka Ramblers were formed in 1935 as the all-black high school basketball team of Topeka High School and considered a separate team from the school’s Trojans.   Topeka High School had two high school teams from the time the all-black Cardinals had formed in 1929 before they gave way to the Ramblers.   Similar to other schools of the time that had an all-white and an all-black basketball team, Topeka High School really did not claim the Ramblers as the Trojans were clearly the school’s team.  However, the Ramblers provided the one primary opportunity that young black Topeka athletes had to play competitive high school basketball. The team was formed by a group of black students from Topeka who had a love for basketball and was tired of being excluded from the same athletic opportunities that their white counterparts had.2 

The Ramblers were kept separate from the Topeka High School Trojans and were restricted from practicing or playing games in “the Dungeon” – the school’s gymnasium.  As former Ramblers player Jack Alexander recalled, “We had no connection with ‘the Dungeon” relative to basketball.”2 The Ramblers were, instead, forced to play their games and hold their practices at East Topeka Junior High.  The Ramblers also had an all-black cheerleading squad that was kept separate from the Trojans cheerleaders.   The Ramblers only had two balls to their name, one for games and one for practice, and except for the very rare occasion when a teammate had their own ball and allowed the team to use it; basketball practices were held using only one ball.6

However, to Topeka High School’s credit, though the Ramblers were kept separate from the school they represented, they were treated better by Topeka High than other all-black high school teams of the time (though this treatment was still far below what the white teams received).   Topeka High School provided the Ramblers with their uniforms and was unprecedented in providing the Ramblers players, coaching staff, and cheerleaders with buses for road games; most other black teams of that era relied on public transportation to play away from their home court. 6

The Ramblers traveled all over the state of Kansas and western Missouri to play their conference rivals.  They played local teams such as the Lawrence High School Promoters and Leavenworth High School.  They also routinely traveled to the Kansas City area (nearly 75 miles away) to play teams like R.T. Coles High School in Kansas City, Missouri and Bartlett High School in St. Joseph, Missouri.2  This geographically widespread all-black conference was often referred to as the “Chitlin’ Circuit” (the name given to the collection of concert halls and venues that black musicians were permitted to perform at in the South8) by many of the players.6   The team also played a non-conference schedule that included traveling to Independence, Missouri (nearly 85 miles), Fort Scott, Kansas (nearly 150 miles), and Parsons, Kansas (nearly 200 miles) on an annual basis.  The Ramblers were very successful and talented and always found ways to win.  While Topeka High School provided the travel and uniforms, Ramblers players had to still deal with the hardships at home and on the road of playing in a segregated era.2

Though Topeka High School was integrated, hardly anything else in Topeka was.  The local theater forced blacks to sit on the right side and whites on the left.  Restaurants, swimming pools, and other public places were segregated – the road was no different.  When the Ramblers played on the road they would eat simple meals in churches or gymnasiums with the food being provided by the families of the opposing teams.  Former Ramblers player, Donald Redmon, remarked about the food they ate that, “It [eating rabbit on road trips] wasn’t exactly what I would call first class.”3 When the Ramblers went on extended road trips to Fort Scott or Parsons, the team, cheerleaders, and coaches would stay with local black families.  Meanwhile the Trojans were afforded the relative luxury of being able to eat at restaurants and stay in hotels due to nothing more than the color of their skin.2

As time marched on, change slowly but surely came to Topeka, Kansas and the rest of the country.  In 1936, a year after the Ramblers began to play, Jesse Owens, a black track athlete, shone at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany.   In the 1940’s, it became common in Kansas for school’s to have integrated high school football teams, baseball teams, and track teams.  In 1947, Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the National and American Leagues respectively.  However, in Topeka, even though these young men routinely played basketball against each other in their gym classes, the high school continued to have two teams and kept the Ramblers and the Trojans separate.6  Both teams were extremely talented.  In 1948, the Ramblers placed third in the state tournament.  Bill Bunten, a former Trojans player, recalled that, if the teams had been combined that year, Topeka High School could have been state champions.2  The following year, after nearly twenty years of segregated basketball in Topeka, change seemed to be on the horizon when a young Trojans player approached the principal, Buck Weaver, and asked him to combine the two teams.1

GETTY IMAGES Dean Smith is one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history. It was while a student at Topeka he learned the importance of equality

Combine the two teams.  It seemed like a simple request at the time but one that Topeka High School Principal Buck Weaver was hesitant to grant.  It was the fall of 1948 and Trojans player Dean Smith was relentless in petitioning Weaver for a change.1 The desire to win that would eventually make Smith an icon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was already present in this young Topeka High School basketball player.  Smith wanted to be the best; he wanted to win; and he knew that by combining both of the school’s varsity basketball teams – the Trojans and the Ramblers – Topeka High School could have the greatest basketball team in the entire state.  But Principal Weaver worried about such a move and how it would be perceived by the community.  It was true that Topeka High School did have two very talented basketball teams that, if combined, could make Topeka High a basketball power.  It was simple in theory but there was just one slight problem: the Trojans were the school’s all-white team and the Ramblers were all black.  Much like local restaurants and the high school swimming pool, Topeka High School basketball had always been segregated and in the name of social correctness and tradition, Buck Weaver was not about to let that change.2

Weaver was primarily worried about events like school dances (two separate school dances were already held at the school for blacks and whites after football games) and how the integration of the Ramblers and Trojans would be received in Topeka.   While the school’s football, track, and baseball teams were integrated, blacks and whites playing on the same basketball team was still virtually unheard of in the state of Kansas.   Blacks and whites had always been separated on the court but as Ramblers center Richard Ridley once said that, “any time that separate is not equal, there’s chicanery.”2 Though players of the day recall that there was never any documented ruling that blacks and whites could not play together, segregation on the court was enforced by simple tradition.  Black players had always expected to play on the Ramblers and white players had always expected to play on the Trojans.  While some young black players dreamed of playing on the Trojans and were disappointed when this was not the case, most did not give it a second thought because of the fact that it had “always been that way”.2 A young Dean Smith, however, was one of many who realized that it was not right and that it was not in the best interest of the school to segregate.  Weaver maintained that it was not in Topeka High’s best interest to have blacks and whites socializing at the same school dance and thus, the teams should be kept separate.1

Nonetheless, progress was coming to Topeka and not even Principal Weaver could stand in its path.  After the 1948 – 1949 season, Smith got his wish and Topeka High School’s basketball teams were integrated and the Ramblers disbanded.   Three black players joined the Trojans junior varsity squad in 1950 and during the 1951 season, Bill Petersen became the first black Trojans varsity player in school history.2  After the integration of the two teams, several of the Rambler alumni went on to play important roles in the city of Topeka and elsewhere.   Former Rambler Joe Douglas became Topeka’s first black fire chief, Jack Alexander became the town’s water commissioner, and Richard Ridley made a name for himself in real estate.  Coach Merle Ross became an administrator for the city’s elementary schools and Ira Hutchinson became the Deputy Director of the National Park Service (NPS).   Former Ramblers players Oliver Brown and Charles Scott put Topeka, Kansas on the map and scored the first major victory for racial equality in the United States when they won the landmark Supreme Court Case Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.   Today, Topeka High School has one of the most racially diverse high school athletic programs in the state of Kansas.6

And what of the young Trojans player who first asked Buck Weaver to integrate Topeka High School’s teams?  Dean Smith went on to play at the University of Kansas under the legendary Forrest C. “Phog” Allen where he won a national championship in 1952.   He then served as an assistant coach with the University of Kansas and the University of North Carolina (UNC) – Chapel Hill and in 1961, was named the head coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team.  Smith coached the team for thirty six years and when he stepped down in 1997, he had coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal, had made eleven Final Four appearances, won two national championships as a coach at UNC, and had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.  At the time of his retirement, his 879 career wins were the most all time among college coaches.10 But more importantly was the fact that the Trojans player who asked his principal to integrate the Ramblers and Trojans in 1948 never stopped fighting for equality.11 Smith once commented that, “It’s embarrassing [the segregation of basketball teams at Topeka High School]; I was taught that we’re all human.”1 Smith took these life lessons and applied them throughout his coaching career. In 1966, Smith successfully recruited Charlie Scott, UNC-Chapel Hill’s first African American scholarship player and one of the first in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  He used this recruitment as a stepping stone to use his influence to fight for desegregation in Chapel Hill and the rest of the state of North Carolina.11

In 1966, Charles Scott became the first black scholarship athlete at UNC. Dean Smith recruited him. Dean Smith's father also successfully integrated the Division II Basketball team at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas. PHOTO CREDIT - UNC ATHLETICS

Though Smith had 879 victories to speak of when he stepped down in October of 1997, perhaps his greatest victories were the ones that were not tallied.  Perhaps his utmost wins came off of the court.  Recruiting Charlie Scott, fighting for racial equality in North Carolina, and having the courage as a young man to ask his high school principal to desegregate the school’s basketball teams in spite of societal norms are much more significant than what a scoreboard read at the end of a basketball game.  Dean Smith saw through the lies that Topeka High School and society were telling him and knew Topeka High School needed to be unified.   He knew that in order to win, on and off the court, that the teams could no longer be divided on the basis of race.

In 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren would tell the Topeka Board of Education that Plessy vs. Ferguson no longer applied to public schools.  He would explain to them that a young girl should not have to ride a bus to an all-black school when she can walk the seven blocks to a school that had been all-white.  He would explain that separate is never equal.5 Brown v. Board helped to dispel one of the greatest lies American society has ever told.

In 1858, President Abraham Lincoln declared that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”12 A high school cannot have two separate varsity teams divided on the basis of race and consider themselves an integrated high school.  A school cannot neglect to claim one team and force them to play and practice with less equipment and in a separate facility and call it equal.   One team cannot eat in restaurants on the road while the other is eating rabbit in churches. Yet from 1871 – 1949, Topeka High School did just that and claimed to be integrated when that really was not the case.   The Ramblers and Trojans were both conditioned to believe that exclusion and disconnection were in the best interest of all parties involved and that both were given equal opportunities.  Topeka High School had two talented basketball teams but to ensure “equality” kept them apart.  If only Topeka High School had one team instead of two, the great teams that could have been.   If only.

If only the Trojans and Ramblers had been allowed to play as one, united; Topeka High School could have multiple championships to their name.  But unfortunately, they were forced to play as two, divided.  In the name of societal interest they fell divided, with only tradition and “best interest” to blame.

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1 Mike Adams, “A Microcosm in Basketball”, The Baltimore Sun, January 6, 2002, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2002-01-06/news/0201060203_1_topeka-jack-alexander-blacks-and-whites.

2 Steve Fry, “’49 Basketball Teams Segregated”, The Topeka Capital-Journal, October 10, 2009, http://cjonline.com/news/local/2009-10-10/49_basketball_teams_segregated.

3 Lisa Cozzens, “Brown v. Board of Education”, African American History, May 25, 1998, http://www.watson.org/~lisa/blackhistory/early-civilrights/brown.html.

4 George C. Wallace, “1963 Inaugural Address”, January 14, 1963.

5 “Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka Information Release”, The Topeka Capital-Journal, February 28, 2002, http://cjonline.com/stories/022802/ksb_release.shtml.

6 Topeka Public Schools, “Famous Topeka Athletes: Black Pioneers Slam-Dunk Segregation!”, Sports Gazette, Accessed June 7, 2010, http://www.hummersportspark.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=41&Itemid=46&limit=1&limitstart=7.

7 Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, “In the Paint”, Accessed June 8, 2010,  http://www.tscpl.org/programs/comments/in_the_paint/.

8 Mississippi Blues Commission, “Club Ebony,” Accessed June 10, 2010, http://www.msbluestrail.org/_webapp_2179154/Club_Ebony.

Steve Fry, “Ramblers, Trojans Talk Basketball”, The Topeka Capital-Journal, October 15, 2009, http://cjonline.com/news/local/2009-10-15/ramblers_trojans_talk_basketball.

10 Phil Ponce and John Feinstein, End of an Era”, Newshour, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), October 9, 1997, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/sports/july-dec97/dean_10-9.html.

11 Elizabeth Hull, “Black History at UNC: Charles Scott”, UNC Library, February 6, 2009, http://www.lib.unc.edu/blogs/morton/index.php/2009/02/black-history-at-unc-charles-scott/.

12 Abraham Lincoln, “House Divided Speech”, June 16,1858.

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