Athletics aided in area’s integration

WEIRTON – The 1950s were a time of societal transformation as America saw the end of segregation.

According to two Ohio Valley natives, athletics played a big part locally in moving integration along.

Former Weirton Madonna teacher and coach Mel Coleman and Weir High athletic standout Bob Kelley were at the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center Thursday, discussing their own experiences as segregation came to an end.

The presentation, titled “The Bridge from Segregated Sports to Desegregated Sports in Weirton,” is part of the “Hometown Teams – How Sports Shape America” exhibit currently on display at the museum.

Kelley discussed much of the athletic history of Dunbar School in Weirton, which he said, at that time, was prevented from earning football titles because of its status as a school for African Americans.

“Back in those days, I think they voted,” he said, noting one year the football team had an undefeated season but was given second place.

Kelley noted integration unofficially occurred in Weirton much earlier than other locations in the country, explaining there was an integrated semi-professional football team in the city in the 1920s, and an integrated elementary school as early as 1917.

While much of that changed with the opening of Dunbar School in the 1930s – and segregated schools lasting until 1955 – community athletics continued to find ways to break down the barriers.

“Weirton decided to integrate Little League Baseball,” Kelley said. “The education system had nothing to do with it, so they could do it.”

Coleman, who grew up in Wheeling, said segregation is a topic he doesn’t like to talk about, noting it took several years to see any real results.

“They tell you the good parts,” he said. “There were a whole lot of nasty parts.”

He noted he attended Wheeling Central, and was the only black member of the school’s basketball team, relaying tales of notes left on his locker and remarks made toward him by fellow students and players from other schools.

He recalled trips to Huntington for state tournaments, where restaurant owners and hotel staff refused to serve him, and when he was not allowed to play pool.

But his team and coach stood with him, and would go elsewhere if they were prevented from doing activities together.

“That’s where I learned my concept of unity,” Coleman said.