In 1971, Starkville High School won the high school football championship. While that was certainly a remarkable achievement, it wasn’t the most historic event that year.
Starkville schools officially integrated in 1971, when Black students from Henderson High School joined the Yellow Jackets of SHS.
Although representing two sides of Starkville, the newly merged football team joined together to continue the championship legacies of both schools.
Henderson football players Henry Vaughn and John Young joined SHS players Ronnie Braswell and Bill Wilkerson for spring training prior to fall integration. Because two former championship teams were blending, conflict was not at the minds of the students but rather respect, unison and the desire to win.
“We were the alpha males, a lot of us on both sides, but we knew how to work together,” Wilkerson said. “I think that played a big part in why the year went well. We played as a team. I think that just set the tone for the year.”
Pride proved to be at the forefront of every player’s mind. Vaughn said although he was representing a new school, he was still honored to wear black and gold and proud to be a running back for another winning team.
Even though positions were more competitive due to an increase in players on the team, everyone learned how to work together, Vaughn said, inspiring the fans to unite as well.
“The stands were always full,” Vaughn said. “They weren’t looking at color. They were just coming to watch people play football.”
It has been 50 years since that inaugural integrated year, and SHS will host a 50th anniversary celebrating its integration at Friday’s football game.
Nearly 225 students, Black and white, represented that first blended class.
Dorothy Fox Carson, a cheerleader who transferred from Henderson, said being a part of the cheerleading team made her transition into a new school peaceful. She said her first day of school was just like any other school day, filled with new experiences and friendships.
“It was a smooth transition for me,” Carson said. “When I came here, I was a cheerleader, so the transition was great for me. I fit in just like the white girls… My transition was just smooth sailing.”
White SHS graduate Mary Grace Moore, who was a part of the biracial committee, said one good thing about the schools merging was getting to share common experiences despite skin color. She said she felt everybody tried to make integration as simple as possible for the Black students and was never aware of pockets of resistance or people complaining about the change.
“Everybody was bought into the process,” Moore said. “At the time that it happened, I just got the impression everyone was bought in from the administration all the way down. Everyone for that reason seemed to be working for a common goal which was to make it smooth and make it a success.”
As several of these SHS 1971 alumni met Thursday to reminisce about their experiences, they realized that Starkville was different from other Mississippi towns regarding integration, citing that the entire community wanted integration to be a success.
In preparation for integration, a committee met to ensure the Black students were treated fairly and had an easy shift. Young said the progressive leadership in Starkville helped create a positive atmosphere for all involved.
“We met every Sunday evening during the summer leading up to the first day of school at the University Christian Student Center with community leaders and students that would be there and students already there,” Young said. “We wanted to make sure we had a smooth transition because the entire community was involved in it.”
As SHS was integrating, Starkville, along with the rest of the country, saw several protests arise due to various issues such as apprehension of the Vietnam War. Specifically, students of Henderson joined together for protests due to discussion of potential demolition of their school. Young said this cause pulled the community — Black and white — together, something that many Mississippi towns did not experience, which gave Starkville a sense of unity.
Carson said she believes their class paved the way for students in Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District. Because everybody strove to create an inclusive atmosphere, she said she has seen how the school district has always valued diversity, and when her two children attended SOCSD schools, she knew they were taken care of.
“We set an example,” Carson said. “We let people know it could be done, and it could be done without fighting. I was happy.”
Baseball player Tommy Tomlinson said it was a blessing his class made it through senior year without any negative events or experiences because one bad instance could have messed up everything they had built. While he was friends with his classmates during his senior year, as the years have gone, his friendships have grown stronger due to the bond of being a part of the first integrated class at SHS.
“Even though me and Henry didn’t know each other well while we were in school, as we became men we got closer,” Tomlinson said. “We had that common bond. We finished in the same class, and we finished that experience together, and now we’re friends.”