Category: History || By Jason Togyer
Today we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a story about one of the many local battles fought for civil rights.
. . .
Twenty-six hundred people crammed the gymnasium at McKeesport Vocational High School on Dec. 23, 1946 to see the Duquesne University Dukes men's basketball team play the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
It promised to be a good contest, and the fans from the city's many Catholic neighborhoods --- already in a Christmas mood --- were always ready to cheer for the red-and-blue.
The Dukes, who had just won five games in a row, used the gym at the "Voc" (pronounced "voke") as their home court for many games in the 1940s because the bleachers in their own field house had been donated to a scrap drive during World War II.
But 2,600 people went back out into the cold December night without seeing a single shot.
Instead, for two hours Duquesne Coach Chick Davies and Tennessee Coach John Mauer argued in the locker room over the Dukes' insistence on playing their first-year center, Charles Cooper, wearing the Number 15 jersey.
Cooper was African-American.
. . .
Mauer told reporters his team was made up of "Southern boys, and they said they wouldn't play." (In fact, however, some of the Volunteers that year were from Western Pennsylvania --- proving prejudice knows no regional boundaries.)
After a while, the reason for the delay reached the people in the stands, and McKeesporters started taunting the Tennessee players.
Finally, Allegheny County Judge Samuel Weiss, a graduate of the Duquesne University Law School and chairman of the university's Athletic Council, walked out onto the court.
. . .
"I insist that no player be barred from this game by reason of race, color or creed," Weiss, a Glassport resident and former football referee, told the crowd. "The principle of the entire matter means more to us than a mere basketball game."
As a result, he said, "there will be no game." Tennessee was forfeiting the contest. Refunds would be available at the exits.
The crowd gave Weiss a standing ovation. Then, reported the Pittsburgh Courier a few days later, "the Southerners went sulking off the spacious court while the big crowd hooted and booed and shamed them as no athletic team has ever been in the history of sports in Pennsylvania."
McKeesport police stood guard outside outside the Voc (now part of Founders' Hall Middle School), prepared for a possible confrontation that never came. Instead, the Volunteers silently boarded a bus back to Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin for a flight home and into ignominy.
. . .
It may have been more than racial animus that motivated Tennessee's stubborn stand. The six-foot-four Cooper, who played briefly for West Virginia State College before joining the U.S. Navy, had been responsible for the winning baskets in three of Duquesne's past five games.
Before Weiss' announcement, Cooper tried to defuse the situation, telling other players in the locker room they should play without him if necessary. "I don't want to be the cause of any trouble," Cooper said.
Bull, said the other players. You're a member of our team, and as long as you're a member of our team, you play.
. . .
"A couple of them told me they didn't want to play if Cooper wouldn't be permitted to get into the game," Davies said afterward. "They didn't want to compromise on a thing like this."
The coach added that his team "wouldn't have had any more respect for me" if he buckled.
Cooper himself told reporters that he "appreciated" the stand taken by Davies and Weiss. "I'm glad and proud that I am a student at Duquesne and a member of the basketball team," he said.
. . .
The incident in McKeesport made national headlines --- and led the University of Miami to wire Duquesne and warn them not to bring Cooper to Florida for their upcoming game on Jan. 15.
Local ordinances did not permit "whites and negroes" to compete against one another in athletic events, the University of Miami said.
That was fine, replied the Very Rev. Francis P. Smith, Duquesne president. If that was the case, his team would just as soon not play in Miami.
A survey of Pittsburghers commissioned by KQV radio found nearly 92 percent of residents supported the university's position.
. . .
Tennessee's forfeit and the cancellation of the Miami game hurt Duquesne not at all. They finished the 1946-47 season 21-and-2 and were invited to both the National Invitational Tournament and the NCAA tournament. Choosing the then-more prestigious NIT, the Dukes lost in the quarterfinals to eventual national champion Utah.
During Cooper's four years as a starter, the Dukes were 78-19. Number 15 would play in two NITs, amassing a school-record total 990 points and being named an All-American in 1950. His teammates called him "Silk" --- because, they said, he was so smooth.
As he completed his bachelor's degree in education, Cooper became the first African-American player to be drafted by a National Basketball Association team. The Boston Celtics selected him with their second pick on April 25, 1950.
. . .
Cooper's pro career was less remarkable than his college tenure. In six seasons (four with Boston, one each with Milwaukee and Fort Wayne) he played 409 games, averaging 6.66 points and 1.79 assists.
It also wasn't without additional incidents of prejudice and hatred. Some hotels and restaurants refused to serve Cooper when he traveled with the Celtics to road games.
And like Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who had broken baseball's "color line" a few years earlier, players from opposing teams taunted Cooper with racial slurs, trying to throw him off his game.
"I got that n----r!" one yelled during a game at Madison Square Garden as he tried to guard Cooper.
"I got your mother," Cooper shot back.
. . .
After suffering a broken back and other injuries in a severe car crash, Cooper retired from pro sports and returned to Pittsburgh.
There, he became director of the community services department for the Urban League of Pittsburgh, then the city's director of parks and recreation --- the first African-American department head in Pittsburgh municipal history.
Eventually, he joined Pittsburgh National Bank, working as personnel director and community development officer before his death of cancer in 1984 at age 61.
. . .
Cooper lived long enough to see Duquesne retire his jersey and create the Chuck Cooper Award for the university's most outstanding freshman or sophomore basketball player. Last month, the university and PNC Bank --- Pittsburgh National's successor --- inaugurated the Chuck Cooper Classic to honor his legacy.
"Beyond athletics, Chuck made a difference at PNC and in his community," Bank President Joseph Guyaux said, while in athletics, Cooper's legacy was "defined by his blazing a trail for other NBA players to follow."
And that trail passed through McKeesport --- making national history --- one eventful night at the "Voc" in 1946.
I went to “Voc” for 3 years
(pronounced with a long “o”).
It was V-o-c as in McKeesport V-o-c-ational High School.
terry - January 18, 2010
Does anal-retentive get a hyphen?
OK, Terry. :D
Webmaster - January 18, 2010
By the way, I just want to say — as a writer — how gratifying it is to work really hard on something and then get one comment.
And that comment’s a spelling flame.
It makes me seriously consider why I do this, and wonder if I should get on with my life’s work. (Whatever the hell that is.)
Webmaster - January 18, 2010
Thanks for a great piece of history Jason, kudos for promoting the Tube City and preserving some amazing history.
Marc Gergely - January 18, 2010
Jeff - January 18, 2010
Your site and contributions are greatly appreciated by many people, please understand that with the web, some people don’t know how to appreciate the talents of others. They only think of themselves, and they have a need to correct others. Most likely they never see the forests for the trees. Your work and the site stands head and shoulders above the available sites. Terry volunteer to the youth of McKeesport and surrounding area and help others who really can appreciate knowledge. The webmaster on this site is doing just a fine job and doesn’t have the need for a proofreader, only people interested in reading some informative articles about our hometown.
silvblk12 - January 19, 2010
You can tell you went to CERA.
terry - January 20, 2010
Very interesting story Jason.
Certainly better than anything in the “Snooze” for topicality on the holiday!
BarryG - January 20, 2010
Jason: Excellent historical story. Again, you increased my level of historical awareness.
Thanks for sharing the results of your energy and research expertise with the public.
Ray Malinchak - January 20, 2010
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