Contests this week and last matching teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association garnered scant notice beyond routine game accounts. These were mere exhibitions, after all, tune-ups for ACC schools from Division I hosting CIAA opponents from Division II, a level where athletics commands fewer resources and a lower profile. The results won’t count when the regular season begins and the schools enter separate orbits in pursuit of their respective divisions’ NCAA championships.

Still, the fact these teams officially ran the same basketball floors, shared the same officials and basked in the same big-time aura in Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh and Winston-Salem was a first, marking a minor historical footnote in the racial history of our state. Not long ago, merely seeing players from these leagues together on those courts, any courts, could scarcely be imagined.

When sport’s racial barriers did fall, more often than not it was an unintended consequence of individual action. Certainly Billy Packer, a guard at Wake Forest University and the son of a coach, had no grand plan to advance integration in Winston-Salem. Packer simply obeyed an insatiable curiosity about the game he played, later parlayed into a long career as a television commentator.

Packer came south from Pennsylvania to play for Horace “Bones” McKinney and soon grew accustomed to seeing prominent write-ups about his Demon Deacon squad, a power in the ACC. Occasionally there were also modest stories in the Winston-Salem newspapers about another team in town–and about a player named Cleo Hill.

“I didn’t even know where Winston-Salem State was,” said Packer, whose given name is Anthony William Paczkowski. “So I’m reading the box scores, and one time I picked up the paper, it was a Friday night, and I see Winston-Salem State’s going to be playing against, I think it was Tennessee State. I said, I think I’ll hitchhike over there and watch the game. It wasn’t to me like some breakthrough of racial relations between Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State.”

Packer was naive. Six years after the U.S. Supreme Court rendered segregation a mortal blow in Brown v. Board of Education, whites and blacks throughout the South still largely populated separate universes. That was true even in North Carolina, with its reputation for racial moderation.

“North Carolina’s progressivism consisted primarily of its shrewdness in opposing racial change,” William H. Chafe, currently chair of Duke’s history department, wrote in his 1980 book Civilities and Civil Rights. “The idea of ‘excellent race relations’ revealed much about the psychological needs of white people … Most contact between whites and blacks occurred in situations shaped by a gross power imbalance that made impossible any forthright exchange of views.”

Packer’s innocent visit to a historically African-American campus defied that equation, much to the surprise of Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines, the Hall of Fame coach at Winston-Salem State (then known as Winston-Salem Teachers College). “I looked up, there’s Billy,” said Gaines, who won a national small-college championship in 1967 with another great player, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. “We didn’t even have white dogs to come to watch us play. I know the first time I saw him, I said, ‘Here, boy, you come sit beside me here.’”

The oddity of being the only white person in Winston-Salem State’s packed gym did strike Packer as he sat on the bench that night in 1960. Yet his more lasting memory was what he saw on the court.

“Cleo Hill was better than anybody in the ACC,” said Packer, who played on teams that won consecutive ACC titles in 1961 and 1962. “There was nobody close to him. As a matter of fact, of the guys I’ve seen in this state, Cleo Hill was the forerunner of David Thompson and Michael Jordan. The whole league had guys like that. Out of that, Cleo and I became buddies and we used to scrimmage against them.”

Typical of a stunning number of white ACC players from his era deep into the 1960s, Packer simply had not registered the fact there were no African-American players within the ACC. “I never really thought about it,” he said. “I just accepted that in the South, that’s the way it was.”

Players from Duke had engaged in at least one unpublicized contest with North Carolina Central players in the 1940s. The bond between players from Winston-Salem State and Wake was apparently more enduring. “I went there all the time,” Packer said of WSSU. “We’d go over and practice against them and I’d bring them over. Bones had no problem with that. We all played. We liked it. They were good competition.”

There was no trouble playing unofficially at Winston-Salem State. The same could not be said for Wake Forest, a private school then several years removed from integrating its student body. “There were incidents,” Packer said. “You’ve got to think of the times. That’s where people were coming from in those days–not only not giving somebody a chance, but, shit, you’ve got no business here.”

That message was similarly communicated when John McLendon, the Hall of Fame coach from N.C. Central, sought to attend a game at Duke in the days when it was still lily-white. McLendon was told he could enter the arena if he dressed as a waiter.

Today the preponderence of ACC players are African American. For instance, of 10 likely starters on the men’s squads at Duke and Wake, seven are black. So are four of 11 head coaches in the expanded league.

Race is rarely cause for comment anymore, although it remains in people’s consciousness. That fact was brought to Paul Hewitt’s attention shortly after he became head coach at Georgia Tech in 2000-2001. “Going through the Raleigh-Durham airport, people came over to me,” Hewitt recalled. Many were older African Americans. “A lot of people said, ‘I’m a Duke fan, but I’m rooting for you next.’ Or, ‘I’m a Carolina fan, but I’m rooting for you next. You’re my second-favorite team.’”

Meanwhile, drained of the top talent that once infused their teams, the proud programs of the CIAA are far removed from an equal competitive footing with their ACC neighbors. No wonder Winston-Salem State plans to follow former CIAA members Hampton and Morgan State into Division I, where the NCAA’s financial pie is richer, the spotlight brighter, and the pool of ambitious young athletes, black and white, is far, far deeper.

Barry Jacobs, author and ACC seer
In addition to being a freelance writer and Orange County commissioner, Barry Jacobs is the author of the ACC Basketball Handbook 2005 and is at work on the forthcoming Across the Line, stories of the first African-American basketball players in the ACC and the SEC. He also writes a monthly sports column for the Independent and was the newspaper’s first sports editor.