By Neil Beldock
“The situation was unique. I don’t want to take the credit because it was during the civil rights era. It was at a time when not only me, but a lot of people were making sacrifices so that we could really break barriers that were there. I was an instrument and happened to be the person at that time that was allowed to try to do something, and I felt it was my responsibility as a black individual at that time to, if I was given the opportunity, help make a change.” – Charlie Scott.
The situation was indeed unique, a situation in which Charlie Scott would show a unique level of bravery in an attempt to combat racism, bigotry and segregation in the deep south.
Charlie Scott’s professional career spanned 10 years in both the ABA and NBA (1970 through 1980). As a 6 foot 5 inch guard, he was a superlative talent who posted career numbers of 20.7 points, 4.9 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game playing professional basketball.
Basketball fans of that era will have no problem remembering that Charlie Scott was a very special player on the court. But it was what he accomplished by getting on the court which, if not remembered, most definitely should be!!
When discussions turn to the subject of racism, integration, breaking racial barriers and bravery within that mission, you rarely hear the name “Charlie Scott” mentioned.
But truth be told, Charlie Scott played an important role in breaking down racial barriers at a time when racial tensions were reaching new heights across America, and particularly in the South.
The year is 1966. Charlie Scott is the very first African-American to receive an athletic scholarship at the University of North Carolina. And this at a time when the South was not openly accepting of the strides being made by African Americans within the active, growing and sometimes violent civil rights movement.
Says Scott: “To look at the history of North Carolina, and all of the players who have come out of there, it is very gratifying to know that I had an instrumental part in the black athlete in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference). I have a legacy that my kids can be proud of”.
Scott did establish a legacy at the University of North Carolina by being the first black athlete to receive an athletic scholarship and thus break the color barrier, but it would not be a legacy easily engraved.
Explained Scott: “At the time, no matter how comfortable I felt with my teammates, they still had to deal with the fact that they had never been around black people. I couldn’t go anywhere with their friends because their friends were brought up in a South that was very separate”.
Scott continued: “There was a lot of loneliness on my part and a lot of times I questioned myself why I was there”.
Transitioning to living life in a segregated environment would not be easy for Scott, although he did receive a lot support from both his teammates and coach, the legendary Dean Smith.
Said Scott of Coach Smith: “He believed racism should not be involved in anything”.
(Coach Dean Smith with Charlie Scott)
Dean Smith believed in that so much that he chose to take Scott to a restaurant where blacks were not served.
Remembering this episode, Scott recalls: “Coach Smith took me to a restaurant where they never had blacks eating there before. He did it not trying to prove a point. He felt it was one of the best restaurants, and he wanted me to go eat with him”.
Scott was not without reservations about this excursion: “I was apprehensive. But being the first black you are apprehensive about everything you were doing at that point and time. This was back in the 1960’s and Jim Crow (laws) was very strong”.
So how was it that Charlie Scott wound up accepting an athletic scholarship to the University of North Carolina? Even he was initially very hesitant.
Before making his final decision to attend North Carolina, Scott sought advice from wherever he could find feedback.
Said Scott: “I just finished talking to a guy who told me of a young (black) man named Claudius Claiborne who had gone to Duke at the same time he had. He told me Claudius told him it was probably the worst mistake he ever made in his life”.
So how and why did Scott decide to attend North Carolina?
Charlie Scott was born on December 15, 1948 in New York City and was raised in Harlem. He grew up learning how to play basketball on the concrete courts of the legendary Rucker Park.
When he reached high school age, Scott enrolled at Stuyvesant High School, one of the better academic high schools in New York City.
Always an excellent student, Scott did so well academically that, after just one year at Stuyvesant, the opportunity presented itself, based upon his academic performance, to enroll at Laurinburg Institute in Laurinburg, North Carolina.
Laurinburg Institute, at that time, was a highly acclaimed prep school founded in 1904 at the request of and with the backing of Booker T. Washington. Washington wanted to establish a prep school for young African American students in order to enhance their chances and opportunities to enroll at top-flight colleges and universities.
Scott recognized that attending such a prestigious school such as Laurinburg, who’s alumni included jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie and Boston Celtics great Sam Jones, could enhance his opportunities when it came to enrolling in college and seized upon the opportunity once it was presented.
And once at Laurinburg, Scott excelled academically to the point where he was his senior class valedictorian.
His excellence was not limited to the classroom. Scott was “tearing up” the competition on the basketball court as well, but colleges in and around both North and South Carolina were not taking notice, not at all interested in a black athlete inhabiting their campuses.
There was one exception……..
Early on, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Scott would play his collegiate basketball at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, who was coached by the future University of Maryland coach Left Driesell.
Says Scott: “Lefty was the first guy to recruit me. If there was no Lefty, there would be no Charlie Scott”.
As information began to leak out that Davidson College and Left Driesell had a black athlete all lined up to come play for them, other schools in the South began to take notice, especially when it became public knowledge that Scott could meet all academic entrance requirements.
Dean Smith learned about Charlie Scott from the radio voice of the Tar Heels, Bill Currie.
Currie was friends with Frank McDuffie who was both the Headmaster and basketball coach at Laurinburg Institute. McDuffie was a regular attendee at North Carolina basketball games, usually attending the games with another high school coach by the name of Harvey Reid.
Harvey Reid was a close friend of Dean Smith. In fact, Smith, with a keen read on the political environment permeating the nation, and eyeing potential and eventual integration, had asked Reid to keep an eye out for a black athlete who could not only compete athletically at North Carolina, but who could also meet the academic entrance requirements.
But it was Currie who advised Smith about Scott when he whispered in Smith’s ear :”Ol’ Lefty’s got himself a black player coming in next year. He’s visiting Duke this weekend”.
Smith responded by looking at Currie and saying: “If he’s going to visit Duke, he must not be all set for Davidson”.
Smith then placed a call to McDuffie and was advised that Scott would be visiting both Duke and West Virginia, and in fact had not made a final decision yet as to where he would attend college.
McDuffie also advised Smith that grades were not a problem or hindrance for academic acceptance. McDuffie, a big North Carolina fan, encouraged Smith to come to Laurinburg’s next game to see Scott play for himself. Scott was averaging 30 points and 12 assists per game.
Smith took McDuffie up on his offer and, after seeing Scott play, Smith could see that Scott’s athletic ability combined with his academic standing made him the best candidate he had come across to break the color barrier at North Carolina.
After the game, Smith met Scott at the McDuffie residence. Mrs. McDuffie, who was the Dean of Students at Laurinburg, confirmed that Scott’s grades were more than sufficient to allow him to gain entry at UNC. And Frank McDuffie confirmed that his recruitment was still open, and although he was leaning towards Davidson College, no final decision had been made.
Scott however, knowing he had sufficient grades, and never doubting his ability to play at North Carolina had other things on his mind.
Said Dean Smith of the meeting at The McDuffie’s residence: “Most of the 90 minutes were spent discussing black-white relations at the University and Chapel Hill (where UNC is located)”.
Much of the talk centered around the “Pearsall Plan” of 1956 which was passed by the North Carolina legislation to slow the pace of desegregation in the state.
Many believe the law was passed as a means of quieting the growing move towards desegregation, and it was secretly hoped that the plan would fail, ultimately laying to rest any thoughts of desegregation in North Carolina.
The Pearsall Plan, also known as the “Freedom of Choice” plan allowed families who wanted their children to attend school(s) with the opposite race, to apply to the school board for approval. The first request was submitted in 1957 by Preston Weaver who favored a white elementary school for his black children, citing it’s superior facilities and instruction.
Mr. Weaver’s application and request were denied.
The law would remain ineffective and dormant until 1961 when it was decided that first-graders of the opposite race, if able to walk to school, could in fact initiate integration.
Over the next 2 years 80 black students and 70 white students took advantage of the law which provided a new-found freedom of choice. But junior high schools and senior high schools remained segregated.
Those of a more liberal and progressive mindset remained skeptical. Wrote Jim Shumaker of the Chapel Hill Weekly in an editorial piece written in 1965: “Since the desegregation ruling, Chapel Hill has accomplished no more than legal window dressing. The official policy has been one of legal compliance, while the School Board’s official acts have served to perpetuate segregation”.
Desegregation and integration were slow to receive acceptance throughout Chapel Hill. But after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, the town of Chapel Hill seemed to relent and take on a more conciliatory approach.
This sentiment seemed to be evident in the voice of LeRoy Merritt who owned a local restaurant known as the Pines, and who had fought all efforts of desegregation by not serving black people, when he said “We’re not going to disobey the laws of the U.S. government. If colored people come in, they’ll be treated just like everyone else”.
Over the school year of 1965-66, the town of Chapel Hill and the school itself were making strides to create a more equitable town. All local organizations which had fought passionately against desegregation were disbanded by the mayor Sandy McLamroch.
So, throughout their 90 minute meeting at the McDuffie’s, Smith was painting a picture for Scott of a town and campus displaying and initiating progressive attitudes and actions as it related to race relations. This caught Scott’s attention in a positive way.
What Smith wasn’t aware of was a visit Scott and McDuffie had with Lefty Driesell in the town of Davidson just weeks earlier, an occurrence that would permanently alter Scott’s thinking.
Explains Scott: “We (Scott & Coach McDuffie) had gone to Charlotte and Coach McDuffie said lets go up and see Lefty because Davidson was only 30 miles away. Lefty was down at a restaurant eating and we met him there. Lefty said to sit down and order something to eat. So we sat down and the waitress took the order. Five or ten minutes later the owner of the restaurant came over and said to Lefty ‘Coach, I’m sorry but my wife and I don’t serve niggers'”.
As his senior year at Laurinburg was winding to a close, Scott had to decide where he would attend college. He was being actively recruited by UCLA, Villanova and Purdue, all located in areas far more accepting of black athletes than North Carolina, and locations which could present a more welcoming environment for a young and intelligent black man with a progressive mind and attitude.
Nevertheless, Scott chose to attend the University of North Carolina.
Scott had not only seen but experienced bigotry, racism and segregation up close during his high school years in North Carolina and the South. Still, the idea of being the first African-American athlete to receive a scholarship from the University of North Carolina, and perhaps advancing the numerous civil rights activities sweeping the country, proved to be very appealing to this highly intelligent young man.
Said Scott of his decision to attend North Carolina and the more liberal approach to race relations he experienced during a weekend visit to the school: “The campus is beautiful and I think I will fit in with the student body. I don’t want to be just a basketball player. I want to be part of student life. Chapel Hill is cosmopolitan, at least from what I’ve seen. There is a tolerance on campus, and I think that’s important”.
Said Scott about his time at North Carolina: “My four years at North Carolina I cherish very much. I had no problem at the University. I was well accepted by the student body. I was well accepted by the alumni. I was well accepted by my teammates”.
Although Chapel Hill might be somewhat welcoming of a black athlete, others were not so welcoming or kind.
Explains Scott: “The problems were never within the confines of the University of North Carolina. The problem was with the outside world. I ran into racial taunts at other schools. I ran into racial taunts sometimes on the streets. I had to deal with the fact that, being the only black on the team, maybe a lot of the other people didn’t feel comfortable with me being there. So those problems I dealt with”.
Charlie Scott, during his four years at the University of North Carolina, didn’t just survive, he thrived.
He was a 2-time consensus All-American on the court. He led his team to back-to-back ACC Championships and back-to-back Final Four appearances. He was named the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Athlete-of-the-Year in 1970, the first person of African-American decent to be so honored by the ACC.
He also remained an outstanding student.
His accomplishments both on the court and in the classroom helped pave the way for the acceptance of black athletes not only at the University of North Carolina, but throughout the South.
Charlie Scott may not be the name that first comes to mind when discussions of integration come to the forefront.
But make no mistake about it, Charlie Scott’s decision to remain in the South and battle bigotry, racism and segregation, is a story of bravery.
Said Scott of his decision to attend North Carolina and remain in the South: “I understood the circumstances when I signed to play for North Carolina. It was during the 60’s. It was during the time of race riots. It was the time when change was happening in America”.
Charlie Scott had other options, options which would present an easier path forward, but chose to remain in a place where he knew challenges would exist, and never hesitated.
It is within this context that Charlie Scott should be remembered and honored. Many flee the fire for safety. Charlie Scott fought the fire from within.
A gallant act of true bravery.