Eugene Cook’s high school football segregation fit

Most basic American history books point to a handful of big cases involving the rights of African-Americans.

There’s the Dred Scott decision. Voting rights established in the Constitution and the couple of Supreme Court cases where you can actually remember both sides: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. (1954).

Plessy v. Ferguson is commonly attributed as being the court case that established “separate but equal.” The latter, the Brown case, is supposed to have ended segregation entirely.

Of course, history is not as plain as that or as easy to enforce. Georgia fought long and hard for school segregation, with the University of Georgia integrating in January 1961 and four Atlanta public schools doing so in late August 1961. Several school districts integrated after 1965 and only under federal pressure.

Schools were not the only thing to desegregate years after the Brown decision. Macon integrated lunch counters in October 1961. The Wilcox County library was whites-only until July 1965.

Likewise, Plessy v. Ferguson did not guarantee that separate but equal would actually be equal. Lawsuits were filed in a handful of Georgia counties after World War II, including Irwin and Camden, asking for the equalization of school systems.

But even the supposed defeat of segregation in Brown v. Board in 1954 was not enough for Georgia Attorney General Eugene Cook to deny what was supposed to be set up by Plessy in 1896.

Cook outlawed a football game in 1956 on separate but equal grounds when equal grounds did not exist.

Hill High, an African-American institution of LaFayette, had been slated to meet Summerville High (usually called Summerville Negro is newspaper articles; Summerville’s black school was later named A.C. Carter) November 29, 1956, which was to take place at Sturdivant Stadium in Summerville.

Sturdivant Stadium was the home of the white Summerville High.

This enraged Cook, who ordered the game cancelled November 28.

The Savannah Morning News reported, “Cook said he told the officials Georgia’s segregation laws provide for separate facilities in the classroom and auditoriums as well as in the gymnasiums and football stadiums.”

There was a huge problem with this ruling.

Summerville’s black high school did not have a football field. Nor did Hill, which shared fields with LaFayette High at Patton Stadium.

The Ku Klux Klan protested the game, which was enough to get Chattooga County Schools to jump. They feared the wrath of Cook and worried that it might cost them state funds if the game was held.

Chattooga Countians were not thrilled with the decision. An estimated 1,500 of them cheered at a Jaycees meeting in Summerville when Cook was criticized for the move.

State Senator-elect Bobby Lee Cook, a Summerville-based attorney, was equally mad with the attorney general and promised to let him have it for two hours once Bobby Lee Cook took his seat in the Senate in January 1957.

The two black high schools were not even getting much out of it for themselves. Proceeds of the game, said the December 1956 edition of Southern School News, would have benefited the band of the white Summerville High.

Jaycees president Charles Farrar said $500 had been spent to promote the game. The group had hoped to make $2,500. Segregated seating had been planned.

Farrar promised that if necessary, the game would be held in a cow pasture. There were no follow-ups following the Southern School News article in December. Neither Summerville nor LaFayette newspapers seemingly ever even mentioned the game. (Rome News-Tribune editions from the end of 1956 are not included with Google’s scans of the paper’s archives, limiting spur of the moment research.)

Eugene Cook’s and the Klan’s interest in the game are a bit strange.

Separate but equal facilities were routinely overlooked in the land of high school football, where most white and black football-playing schools had agreements about use of the white field.

Rome’s Main High played at Barron Stadium. Fairmont High in Griffin played at Memorial Stadium, before and after a money-losing attempt at hosting their own games. Cleveland Field was home to Dasher and later Pinevale in Valdosta. Athens High and Industrial (later known as Burney Harris) even played at least a handful of games at Sanford Stadium.

Eugene Cook had dozens of examples to choose from every week on the high school gridiron of a black school playing at a playing field used by white players at all other times. He picked on a benefit game between two very small high schools and in two areas with a small black population.

Earlier in 1956, Eugene Cook turned down another attempt at venue-sharing between a white high school and a black high school that lacked facilities.

Dallas High was considering allowing Matthews High to use the gym one night per week.

There was much hesitancy to this on the part of Dallas residents and Paulding County Superintendent J.C. Scoggins asked for Eugene Cook’s opinion.

Not surprisingly, Cook shot down the idea on the grounds that it violated Georgia’s “social customs and traditions.”

Postscript: Some idea of how Sturdivant Stadium looked can be gleaned from the backgrounds of some sporting images at Chattooga Photo History. Located on Summerville High’s land (and Chattooga High’s after consolidation), Sturdivant Stadium was used by Chattooga High through the 1965 season.

Sources: Camden County Tribune – March 9, 1951; The Daily Tifton Gazette – Nov. 30, 1956; The Lanier County News – Nov. 3, 1949; Rome News-Tribune – Nov. 1, 1961; The Savannah Morning News – Nov. 29, 1956; Southern School News – March 1956, December 1956; The Wilcox County Chronicle – June 17, 1965

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