As a teen in the 1950s, Arthur Ashe was never allowed to test his formidable tennis skills against the best white high school players in his hometown of Richmond, Va. Bennie McRae, of Newport News, Va., never dazzled white opponents at the high school level with his blazing speed on the gridiron or in track meets. And because it was a time in history when Virginia and other southern states were composed of two societies – one black, the other white – Bobby Dandridge, another Richmond native, couldn’t unveil his preternatural gifts on a fully integrated basketball court until he joined the National Basketball Association. Dandridge played college basketball for Norfolk State University. Ashe, the 1975 Wimbledon champion, was a tennis standout at UCLA and McRae was a running back at the University of Michigan.
When American society was still segregated, scores of gifted black athletes from Virginia received nurturing and interscholastic competition thanks to the Virginia Interscholastic Association (VIA).
Despite the racial barriers of that era, Ashe (Maggie Walker), McRae (Huntington), Dandridge (Maggie Walker) and scores of other gifted black athletes from Virginia received the nurturing and interscholastic competition needed thanks to the Virginia Interscholastic Association (VIA). From 1954 through 1969 the VIA coordinated, not just sports activities, but all extracurricular activities in black secondary schools, including band, music, art and science and math competitions.
The VIA not only helped produced superstar athletes, but prominent coaches, as well. Thad Madden, Huntington High’s legendary coach, arguably was the state’s best high school coach of any color. Madden, who guided the early careers of nine future pros, including McRae (Chicago Bears) and Earl Faison (San Diego Chargers), had 28 consecutive winning seasons in football compiling a 251-114-16 record. His Huntington teams won 16 VIA eastern District titles and 7 VIA state championships. Madden’s track and field squads won 19 VIA state championships and were declared 7 times runner-ups when black schools integrated with the previously all-white Virginia High School League.
Before segregation, there were 115 black high schools in Virginia; desegregation was responsible for VIA member loss.
With little or no hope of landing mainstream white collar jobs in business, banking, local government, etc., many of the best and brightest blacks of the previous generation focused on education. They became teachers, principals or school administrators. They sacrificed much, but gave so much more to their students. Before his death in 1993, Ashe paid tribute to the thousands of unsung black heroes of the era of racial segregation in his autobiography, Days of Grace, with this observation: “A pall of sadness hangs over my life and the lives of almost all African Americans because of what we as a people have experienced historically in America, and what we as individuals experience each and every day. Whether one is a welfare recipient trapped in some blighted “housing project” in the inner city or a former Wimbledon champion who is easily recognized on the streets and whose home is a luxurious apartment in one of the wealthiest districts of Manhattan, the sadness is still there.”
During the VIA era, many of Ashe’s ‘unsung heroes’ helped him and other black students of that generation, wrestle with the realities of an unfair world by encouraging them to set high goals and then strive to surpass them. The goal of the VIA Heritage Association, which is composed of individuals who attended several of the 115 high schools that existed before integration, is to preserve and promote the history of the organization through a Hall of Fame and a museum at its birthplace, Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA.