Connie Crowley

Vicki Yirsa, Dale Martin, and Ken Zacher pictured in the Nowata High School yearbook

If these were ordinary times for high school athletics, audiences would be watching multiracial teams and considering it an ordinary sight.

There was a time when interracial teams were far from ordinary. I’m thinking of my own hometown, Nowata, and how integration came to the school and how, a few years later, it tore the town apart.

Oklahoma school integration began sputtering into existence with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954. Four years later, seven black students joined my Nowata High School class of almost 100 with barely a ripple. It was another story in junior high where my sister was a student and fights broke out almost every day. One of those Black students remembers starting the seventh grade. “It was the first time anyone had called me the ‘n’ word,” she told me. 

A decade later, an issue at Nowata High School exploded into a racial conflagration that split the community. 

Nowata was a typical rural small town with a predominately white (about 70%) population of about 3,300. As in most small towns, successful football and basketball teams walked like gods among us. Here, as elsewhere, athletics were influential in school integration. Into this scenario in 1967 came a fiery young head basketball coach named Ken Zacher. His dream was becoming a college coach. At Nowata, he won games and integrated his team with equal amounts of passion.

In five seasons his teams had a 91-46 win-loss record and won 12 tournaments. He was progressive about integration, and on the road, he had white and Black players room together and sit side by side on the bus. He was competitive, focused on basketball, butted heads with school administration, but overall everybody was happy.

And then ...

Traditionally, at basketball and football homecoming ceremonies, the team captain crowned the homecoming queen at halftime and capped it with a kiss. In the 1971-72 season, the team elected a Black team captain, Dale Martin, and the homecoming queen was white. See the crisis coming? The shocking idea that a Black student might kiss a white student.

Not one but two white homecoming queens refused the crown. School administrators urged the coach to choose a white captain. He said no. Forget the kiss, but he insisted the Black captain have the traditional right to escort the queen. School officials said the coach was insubordinate. The team stuck together solidly behind him. The community took sides, some supporting the coach and others denouncing him. Local newspaper coverage was relentless, and Tulsa television crews arrived frequently. A cross was burned on the coach’s lawn. The basketball captain’s family got death threats. 

A third queen was crowned without a kiss. Martin wrote under his yearbook senior picture that his idea of success was getting out of Nowata. He and other basketball players, Black and white alike, were successful. They went on to college and careers. Some made lives in their hometown; others left and never returned.

A Nowata basketball star strongly influenced by Zacher is Robert Sprague, who became one of the most successful high school coaches in the state. After stints at Webster and Hale, he retired a few years ago as Tulsa Memorial High School’s championship coach and athletic director. He remembers that Nowata coronation event vividly, “a tragic time, really.” He was a college student when he testified on behalf of his coach and mentor at an intense school board meeting. The high school gym was packed with several hundred from the community, one side supporting Zacher, the other opposing him. The opposition booed 19-year-old Sprague as he walked to the stage to speak.

They booed the coach and his legal team from Tulsa: Waldo E. Jones II (nephew of John Hope Franklin and grandson of B.C. Franklin), Don Gassaway and Michael J. Beard, who was a law school intern in Jones’ office. “It was an eye-

opening experience,” Beard says. “My first experience with prejudice in action. Very sad.” Jones and Gassaway are deceased; Beard is a practicing attorney in Tulsa.

Zacher was fired. His successful federal appeal was led by Jones and the Tulsa branch of the NAACP. He was honored at the annual NAACP convention in 1972 in Detroit. But he never coached in Oklahoma again. He accepted a high school coaching job in Leavenworth, Kansas, a much bigger school, where his winning streak continued. 

But then his life fell apart.

He clashed with school administration, had his first losing season and his marriage collapsed. One Sunday, he dressed in his lucky suit, the one he wore during his winning streaks, and died by suicide. He was buried a few days later in his hometown of Alva on his 36th birthday.

What an extraordinary event, almost half a century ago, to remember in these racially incendiary times.

 

Connie Cronley is the author of four books, commentator for public radio 89.5 FM and a columnist for TulsaPeople.

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