Legacies of Lincoln: Part I

The lights shone bright at Lions Park when the Mighty Tigers played.

Spectators surged into Carrboro from all corners of Chapel Hill. The towns’ Black neighborhoods of Pottersfield and Sunset, Windy Hill, and Tin Top all emptied. People flooded in from Durham and Pittsboro and farther out.

They congregated as several thousand, as many white onlookers as Black ones, to see the segregated Black football team from Lincoln High. 

As kids in the 1950s, before donning Tigers uniforms themselves, Fred Baldwin and Jimmy Weaver couldn’t afford tickets to the games at Lions Park. So they’d slip under the tin fence that encircled the field. As they brushed themselves off and looked out on the enormous standing-room-only crowd, they’d spot some of the white players from UNC’s segregated football squad, who had chosen to spend their Friday night watching one of the great teams in North Carolina history.

But this was no colorblind age.

On those same evenings that Baldwin and Weaver squeezed under the fence, a kid named Thomas Bell tiptoed through Carrboro toward Lions Park on Fidelity Street. 

Decades later, he remembered how so many of the old mill houses crowded right up against the street. As dusk fell, the silhouettes of white residents would appear in doorways, and sudden racist abuse would come shrieking off porches like bottle rockets aimed right at his chest. Thomas Bell would get into the middle of the street and run as fast as he could.

On his way to the game, alone or in a small group, he might be overcome with fear. But on the way home, it didn’t matter. Instead of fear there was power.

 “… after the game, it wouldn’t be no problem because there’d be so many of us coming, coming through, and they’d be gone…” Bell recalled 50 years later in an interview archived at the Marian Cheek Jackson Center.

Walter Durham, another Lincoln High student, remembered this, too. “It would be a line of people a mile long coming back into Chapel Hill that just left the football game,” he said in another oral history.

Durham wasn’t exaggerating. While in 1960 the population of Carrboro was only 2,000, the Chapel Hill Weekly estimated the homecoming crowd in 1958 as 6,000 strong.

That October night, a young man named Braxton Foushee recovered a fumble late in the first quarter, setting up the Tigers’ second trip to the end zone. Another young man named Harold Foster scored the game’s final touchdown on a 67-yard punt return.

 The Tigers won 34-0, and their opponent, Monroe Avenue High School of Hamlet, N.C., never got past its own 40 yard line.

A few years later, in September, 1961, Lincoln began arguably its greatest season. They were undefeated, and to this day many who look back swear no opponent ever scored on the ‘61 Tigers. 

That year in late November, on the eve of the segregated AA Division State Championship against Hickory’s Ridgeview High School,  student Laura Burnett’s words in the school newspaper, the Lincoln Echo, captured the excitement of “strolling through the bright lights towards Lions Park:” 

 “Perhaps it is the youth, optimism, and delight of the students which makes this game so thrilling or possibly it is the sound of the band’s music and hundreds of voices sounding through the pines. Maybe it is merely the spirit of a group of people with a single purpose that catches you up and floats you along like a cloud.”

Excerpt from the Coach Peerman Scrapbook from the Lincoln High School alumni photo archives PHOTO COURTESY OF LINCOLN HIGH SCHOOL ALUMNI

Burnett illuminates the energy of the Mighty Tigers, perhaps the greatest galvanizing force of the Black community in Chapel Hill and Carrboro in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Yet her words conjure something else, too:

… the spirit of a group of people with a single purpose…

Another such group, ingenious and rebellious, was growing at Lincoln. As one of its leaders, Harold Foster—the punt-returner on Homecoming Night in 1958—said, they were “disobedient to those who told [them] to be obedient, but obedient to [their] own consciences.”

This group’s militancy, courage, and strength all rivaled the football team’s. In many ways, that’s because the group and movement arose from it.

Each member, young men and also many young women, played a role in the force that rattled the town’s status quo, reverberated through the state, and echoed out across the country.

And as their struggle resonates today, like voices sounding through the pines, a new generation is organizing to take on the forces responsible for the backlashes and backslides that have clawed at progress.

Lincoln’s Legacy:

The First Wave – 1960-61

A year and a half after his homecoming heroics in 1958, Harold Foster—now a senior and starting quarterback at Lincoln—met a group of his peers near the Morehead Planetarium on UNC’s campus. They walked westward in the cold night, through the frozen gaze of the Confederate statue, Silent Sam, toward the Colonial Drug Store on West Franklin Street, discussing their plan.

That night, in the wake of the Greensboro Four’s sit-in less than a month earlier, this group of Lincoln students ignited the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill with their own sit-in at a segregated drugstore. They became known as the Chapel Hill Nine. Most played for, or had other roles with, the Mighty Tigers football team.

The following day, as many as 100 Lincoln students took to the streets, protesting. The day after that, the Chapel-Hill Carrboro Committee for Racial Equality formed, with Foster, still a high-school senior, as chair of the Executive Committee.

“Where we had been the leaders in football… so were we in the Civil Rights Movement,” Foster later said in an oral history.

His teammate, Braxton Foushee, agrees. “The same guys that played football were the same guys that you would see in the street protesting,” he said in an interview with me at Weaver Street Market in late June.

The students’ militancy gained attention. In April, 1960, Ella Baker was so impressed with the movement in Chapel Hill that she invited Harold Foster and his fellow Lincoln classmate William Cureton—another of the Chapel Hill Nine—to be part of the foundation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh.

By May, the Lincoln students’ movement had brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Chapel Hill.

Despite the attention, change was coming too slowly for Foster and his peers. In late July, the Chapel Hill Nine and two others sat in again at Colonial Drug. Arrest warrants were issued for 11 of them the following day.

The other two young men, only 15 years old, had their charges dropped. The Nine were found guilty of trespassing.

The struggle for desegregation was feeling the weight of its opposition, but Mighty Tigers football certainly was not.

In the late autumn following the Lincoln students’ sit-ins, the Tigers faced Hickory’s undefeated Ridgeview High in the state championship. One of the Chapel Hill Nine, fullback Albert Williams, who was arrested the previous July for trespassing, battled his way into the end zone to give Lincoln its first touchdown. The Tigers never looked back and flattened the formidable Panthers, 38-8.

The following year, in their famous undefeated season of 1961, two quarterbacks led the Mighty Tigers team. One was James Brittian, a sophomore and one of the 15-year-olds cited for the sit-in at Colonial Drug.

The other quarterback was freshman Fred Baldwin, who now held court within the tin fence.

In the ’61 championship game on a Wednesday night at Lions Park, Lincoln once again demolished the undefeated Ridgeview Panthers, shutting them out, 22-0. Baldwin’s quarterback sneak brought the Tigers their first touchdown. A young man named Fred Battle would score the game’s final points.

Sixty years after the Tigers’ 1961 championship, on an early July afternoon in the basement of St. Joseph C.M.E. Church, right on the border of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, Fred Baldwin and Jimmy Weaver spent more than two hours with me, chronicling the Mighty Tigers’ heroics of the 1950s and ’60s. Their recollections were precise, recounting game-winning drives, final scores and opponents’ names (not to mention sneaking under fences) as if it were yesterday.

“Remember, Baldwin?” Weaver asked again and again.

Fred Baldwin always remembered.

They recalled those on-field glories (and the occasional tragedy) flawlessly, but the struggles off the field in those same years were clear as well.

“When we’d get out of church,” Baldwin explained, referencing this church, St. Joseph C.M.E., “we’d march all the way down Rosemary [Street], hook back over to come down Franklin. We did this for a long time, man. For a long time. Then we’d be sitting down there at John’s [Colonial Drugstore] on our knees, and people would throw water on you and that kind of stuff. You put up with a lot of abuse.”

Neither Baldwin nor Weaver were leaders in the movement. But as proud Mighty Tigers of Lincoln, their participation in one way or another was without question.

“Jimmy and I were three or four years younger than [Foster and Braxton Foushee] were, so we came along later,” Baldwin explained. “But when they said ‘march,’ we marched. When they said ‘go,’ we went!”

They both agreed that the movement’s leadership came from Lincoln, and for them, from Mighty Tigers football in particular.

“Fred Battle, Harold Foster, all those guys were key people,” Baldwin ensured. “Dave [Mason Jr.] didn’t play football but he was the statistician. And I knew that whatever those guys stood for, it was the right thing. And not just for me but for everybody. And it was due. It was due way before that, but it was due then.”

“Those people stepped out way ahead of their time,” he finished. “But somebody had to do it. Somebody had to do it.”

Baldwin explained that it was football that helped him take defeat in a way in which he could still exist and express himself—and still have courage to show up against Jim Crow racism, violence, and abuse. When the Mighty Tigers team rode home on the bus, win or lose (as rare as a loss was), they said the same prayers. Either way, they sang the same songs.

So it was, too, in the larger struggle. 

In this three-part series, Joel Sronce documents the role that the Mighty Tigers football team from Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s segregated Lincoln High School played in the movement for civil rights. Their struggle still resonates today as systemic racism endures. Sixty years later, a youth-led movement grows anew, and is once again shouldered by stars of a Carrboro gridiron.

In Part II next week: In the fall of 1963, as the Mighty Tigers return to the state championship game, arrests and violence in Chapel Hill reach their peak. Movement leadersMighty Tigers among themare hospitalized or thrown in jail. When the doors to Lincoln are closed to high school students three years later, the difference between desegregation and integration becomes increasingly clear.

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