Desegregating DC Basketball

Celebrating American University's Role in Integrating Collegiate Basketball in the District of Columbia

From left to right: David Bierwirth, AU Interim Deputy AD for Strategic Initiatives; AUWCL Professor Jeremi Duru; Ed Tapscott, former NBA head coach and general manager; David Aldridge, SOC/BA ’87, senior columnist for The Athletic; Duane Simpkins, AU men’s basketball head coach; Harvard Professor David Carrasco; AUWCL Dean Roger A. Fairfax Jr.

In a powerful event held in honor of Black History Month, American University (AU) paid homage to a pivotal moment in its history by commemorating Coach David Carrasco's groundbreaking decision in 1956 to integrate AU men's basketball during an era of heavy segregation in Washington, D.C. The panel discussion, titled "Desegregating DC Basketball," was moderated by David Aldridge, SOC/BA ’87, senior columnist for The Athletic, and featured Harvard Professor David Carrasco; former NBA head coach and general manager Ed Tapscott, WCL/JD ’80, also a former AU head coach - the first Black head coach in the school's history; and AU's current men’s basketball head coach Duane Simpkins.

Drawing more than 120 attendees, the event, sponsored by American University Washington College of Law's Sport and Society Initiative, in partnership with AU Athletics and the Kogod School of Business, delved into the significance of Coach Carrasco's courageous decision during an era marked by deep-seated racial segregation. The discussion provided insight into the challenges and triumphs that defined this transformative period in AU's basketball history while recognizing the enduring significance of Coach Carrasco's decision on AU's legacy and the broader Washington, D.C., community.

Team picture AU Men's Basketball 1957-58

In 1956, American University appointed David Carrasco as the first Mexican-American head coach for a major U.S. university’s men’s basketball program. Coach Carrasco's historic move involved assembling the first integrated team in Washington, D.C., and the Mason-Dixon Conference, challenging the pervasive segregation that permeated society. The panel celebrated the audacity of Coach Carrasco and the indomitable spirit of three black scholastic players – Dickie Wells, Will Jones, and Jim Howell – who joined the team from Spingarn, Dunbar, and Archbishop Carroll High Schools.

David Aldridge, the event moderator and renowned basketball journalist, reflected on the historical context, stating, "It was just two years after Brown v. Board of Education when most public school systems were not honoring the Supreme Court's decision. This was nine years after Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball, seven years before the march on Washington. Understanding the timeframe and what was going on – Coach Carrasco was going to a school that played in a Conference called the 'Mason-Dixon Conference.' We want to celebrate not only the players' achievements but also their significant contributions beyond the basketball court."

The discussion underscored the profound impact of Coach Carrasco's visionary leadership, emphasizing the immense courage and character required to defy societal norms during an era marked by racial tension and discrimination. The integrated teams, led by Coach Carrasco, went on to achieve significant milestones, including two College Division NCAA Final Four appearances, symbolizing a triumph over adversity and breaking down racial barriers.

Harvard Professor David Carrasco
Harvard Professor David Carrasco (son of Coach David Carrasco)

Adding a poignant perspective to the discussion, Professor Carrasco, the son of Coach Carrasco, shared insights into his father's journey. He explained that with World War II escalating, his father decided to join the U.S. Navy, serving for about three years during the war where he worked in Special Services, playing competitive sports and coaching, and even became the heavyweight boxing champion at Naval Base San Diego.

Professor Carrasco shared that his father's connection with African Americans was profound. Wanting to attend naval officer training, Coach Carrasco ended up at the United States Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland, where he was tasked with training African American servicemen. "He liked the African Americans, he was comfortable with them," Professor Carrasco said. "He understood them and they liked him. He then became the basketball coach at Montgomery Blair High School, and while still teaching at Blair, he became the coach at AU. That is why, in a sense, Dickie Wells and his family, Willie Jones and his family, Jim Howell and his family – they all saw that this man shared their world. That's what you needed at the time for this to take place at AU."

Duane Simpkins, AU men’s basketball head coach, acknowledged the historical significance of recruiting players during a time of intense racial segregation, saying, "I don't know if I would have had the courage to go into a Black family's living room and say, 'hey, I know this is not being done anywhere else in the entire country, but I want you to send your Black son to play basketball on an integrated team.'"

Former NBA head coach and general manager Ed Tapscott
Former NBA head coach and general manager Ed Tapscott

Panelist Ed Tapscott, a former NBA head coach and general manager, emphasized the importance of the story.

"This is an essential narrative for this institution and the District of Columbia," he said. "I'm delighted, Professor Carrasco, that you would come back and share your father's story, and I'm delighted to see all these people associated with this university here to commemorate this unique and singular story in Washington DC basketball history."

"This significant event not only celebrated AU's historic decision but also highlighted the extraordinary courage and resilience displayed during an era of heavy segregation," said AUWCL Professor Jeremi Duru, who led the event. "It stands as a powerful testament to Coach Carrasco's commitment to diversity and serves as an inspiration for ongoing conversations about equity and inclusion in the world of basketball and beyond, even in the face of formidable societal challenges."

Story by Keith Pierce, APR Learn more here.

See the full photo gallery here.