Gary Roosevelt 1968 state championship: pure gold in the heart of the rust belt

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Gary Roosevelt 1968 State Champions

By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader

You cannot guarantee that twins growing up in the same household all their lives will have identical perspectives. I have always been wary of those who espouse what it was like growing up in “the hood,” or childhood in the lap of luxury, for that matter. Everything depends on the individual.

As a general proposition, the further we get away from the past, the better those reflections in the mirrors of our minds. Nostalgia compels us to base our reality on our hearts rather than our heads.

So I know there were times when Blacks couldn’t live in Glen Park, enjoy the waters of Lake Michigan splashing against the sands of Marquette Beach, work in the A&P supermarket down on 15th and Massachusetts, swim in the pools of newly-integrated Froebel High School, or become patients or physicians at Gary Methodist Hospital.

When I was a student at Garnett Elementary School, the Gary Post-Tribune was still running a page titled: “News of Our Colored Folk” and nobody blinked an eye. There was a “colored” fire station at 22nd and Broadway – four blocks parallel with my house on 22nd and Madison Street – and Negro police officers could only arrest Negroes.

It was that incredible era when segregation actually forced myriad positives in the Black community. For example, the lack of access to white accommodations facilitated the urgency of successful African American entrepreneurship. A practice called “redlining” restricted where Blacks could live, forcing African American business executives and lawyers and doctors and educators and skilled craftsmen to reside in the same neighborhood as service industry employees and steel workers.

The latter dominated Gary, Indiana. In 1968, the mills were thriving. Jobs were so plentiful that it became an admonition of grown-ups that children study hard so “They won’t wind up in the mills.” Of course, that was when jobs paid 50 cents an hour. Later, mill jobs would be at a premium and a first choice of those opting not to follow the college route.

Romantics believe everyone relished the days when downtown was bustling, Village Shopping Center business was robust, first-run movies filled lower levels and the balcony at the Palace and State theaters, families filled Gleason Park on holidays, and high school basketball rivalries were played out at Memorial Auditorium.

All of my classmates growing up were Black. All of my teachers were Black. By the time I arrived at Gary Roosevelt, educators frequently reminded us how all that we did reflected on our race; that to succeed, we would have to run twice as fast and far as our white counterparts; that our deportment at all times should project a sense of somebody capable of accomplishing anything that we put our minds to.

There were two glaring exceptions – being elected president (because these white folks will never elect a Black man to the White House) and all-Black Roosevelt winning a state championship in basketball, because no matter how great the Panthers were year after year, they still had to escape the regionals and then travel south through a palpably racist “downstate” environment.

It seemed impossible to win against white teams with seven players on the court (including the referees) against your five. True to form, we repeatedly witnessed the demise of our best young hardwood warriors.

Things seemed to be changing by the time I became a junior in high school. By 1968, Gary became the first United States municipality to elect an African American Mayor – former City Councilman Richard Gordon Hatcher. His prophetic campaign colors were Black and Gold – the same as Roosevelt. A sense of possibilities filled the atmosphere.

Like a Hollywood script, the sequel to Hatcher’s monumental ascent was the historic first Gary high school basketball state championship, won by the Roosevelt Panthers who similarly overcame insurmountable odds to beat Indianapolis Shortridge 68-60 on the floor of Hinkle Fieldhouse. I was at that game. The unbridled euphoria was palpable.

It was more than just a game. It was a game changer. Exactly 50 years later, it remains a defining moment in Gary annals and a lasting source of pride. A few thoughts shared:

Blaine Smith:  The entire city was electric. I was 14 years old. NIPSCO downtown had the lifesize picture of all the players, coaches, managers, and principals in the 10 foot display window. It was one of the moments that propelled me to want to overachieve as a teen, and in life. Sixty eight was a great year in Gary!

Terrie D. Sowell: I was a freshman. To watch us overcome the adversity of that time, representing as an all-Black High School – well, it was like the feeling of “Wakanda Forever.” Pride, Love, being the best and being recognized as the best!

Greg Weaver: The 1968 State Basketball Championship gave me a feeling of pride that we had finally been successful in completing our goal. After a few failed attempts, we finally finished in the number one spot!

Columnist Charlene Crowell: For me, it was a long-awaited victory that had so many times been denied when East Chicago hosted the regionals. The ‘Velt had a string of talented teams; but big bets on the game outcomes always favored EC. Anytime the Panthers got to the Sweet 16, Gary was ecstatic. But to win state – a sweet, sweet victory!

Danny Means: I had and still have a great sense of pride that we were the best in all athletics in the state, and our academics and achievements outweighed all expectations. PANTHER PRIDE continues today and forever.

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City.  Send comments or questions to: vernonawilliams@yahoo.com.

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